The Arabs of Palestine

MARTHA GELLHORN, novelist, journalist, and former war correspondent, has recently returned from a journey to the Middle East, where she went to see the "Palestinian Refugee Problem" in terms of real life, real people. Here she reports how the Arab refugees and the Arab Israelis live, and what they say about themselves, their past and their future.

WITH my suitcases packed, and my mind over-packed with "treasonous" doubts, I set off for Israel, across the street. I had not dared tell anyone, including the Western UNRWA officials, of this intention: to have been in Israel, to go to Israel, is enough to brand you as an enemy and, more possibly, a spy. The Arab psychosis (an ornate word but not too strong) about Israel is official, and infectious. There may be many reasonable people in the Arab countries who are able to think calmly about Israel and about Arab-Israel relations; if so, they choose safety and keep their mouths shut.

When it comes to moving from one side of Jerusalem, which is Jordan, to the other side of Jerusalem, which is Israel, the world of dream sets in. You take a taxi, through normal streets, and suddenly you arrive at a small Jordanian frontier post, also in a city street. You wait, in this little shack, while your passport is checked against the exit list. After this formality, a charming courteous young porter carries your suitcases half a block. You tip him, and he deposits them on the porch of a house which is no longer there. Artillery fire removed it, years ago. Around you are shelled houses; one side of the street is Jordan, with laughing soldiers in the shelled houses; one side of the street is Israel, with washing hung out on lines. You walk a half block further, leaving your bags behind. You are now at the Israel frontier post, another shack. Like crossing the river Styx, this is a one-way journey. When you have left Jordan for Israel, you cannot return by this road. The Arab blockade of Israel thus extends to foreign visitors. You would have to fly from Israel to neutral territory and start all over, provided the Arabs still like you, after a visit to Israel.

Since you will not be admitted to any Arab country if you have an Israeli visa on your passport, you carry your Israeli visa on a separate sheet of paper. Other nations than ours present their traveling citizens with two passports. After the Israeli border police have checked your visa, an equally charming courteous young porter, an Israeli, collects your bags from the porch of the nonexistent house in no man's land. You tip him and put the luggage in a taxi and drive a few blocks to your hotel. From your hotel in Israel you have a fine view of the beautiful wall and the Old City of Jerusalem, where you were residing three quarters of an hour ago.

There is not a war on, not by any terms we know. The object of this non-peace-non-war exercise is to destroy Israel, which remains undestroyed. I cannot see how it helps the Arab countries, but perhaps it does. Perhaps they need one enemy they can agree on, as a unifying force, as cement for their nationalism.

I wanted to visit Palestinian Arabs in Israel, the ones who stayed behind, the non-refugees. Seeing them at home, I thought I might better understand the mentality of their brothers in exile. Some important clue was lacking, but I could not name it or define it.

The driver of my car, on the journey in Israel, was an Israeli Jew, born there, who speaks Arabic as his second mother tongue and looks so like Nasser that it is a joke. I said I wanted to visit the village of Meron, on a mountaintop in Galilee. He said that at Meron there was an ancient, temple of the Jews, the grave of a famous rabbi, a synagogue, a Yeshiva (the Orthodox Jewish equivalent of a Catholic seminary), but nothing else to his knowledge. Let us go and find out, I said. So we drove north through this country,' which is a monument to the obstinate, tireless will of man. In 1949, the new immigrants, like ants on the hillsides, were planting trees: their first job. It looked as if they were planting blades of grass and seemed a pitiful act of faith. Now the trees have grown.

There are countless changes in Israel, but the Arab villages along the road to Nazareth have not changed. The old adobe or field-stone houses cling to and grow from each other. They are charming, picturesque, primitive, and wretched; but not to Arab peasants. This is the way it always was; this is the way they like it and want to keep it.

We drove up the mountain. Between the synagogue and the heroic ruins of the two-thousand-year-old temple, we did indeed find Meron, the home of the aristocrat who had offered me a rose on a mountaintop in Lebanon. There were not more than twelve houses in the village. The Muktar's palace is a long narrow stone shed, with an ugly narrow porch along the front. Instead of beams, bits of rusted railway track hold up the porch. The other small houses were built of the honey-colored, rough field stone, with traditional graceful doors and windows. Inside, the houses were like stables unfit for decent animals. The rich fields and groves the Meron refugees had described were the steep slopes of the mountain behind, where the villagers cultivated tobacco and some fruit and fig trees. In their day, the village had no electric light or water; the women carried water on their heads from 'the wadi at the foot of the mountain. The view is a dream of beauty. Hardship for hardship, Meron is no better than their refugee camp, Mia Mia, perhaps not as good; but memory is magical, and Meron was home.

Beside these pretty stone hovels tower the remains of a great temple. The blocks of granite in the fragmented, wall are as massive as those' in the wall of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. The broken pillars are enormous, unadorned, and suddenly Samson is real and pulled down real, pillars as heavy as these. Here, two thousand years ago, the Jews were praying in a new temple, for two thousand years is not all that much in the history of the Jews or of this land. And here, with weeds around their low walls, stand the abandoned houses of the descendants of warrior strangers, the Arabs who came to this country and conquered it when the temple was some six hundred years old, doubtless already a ruin. Were the villagers of Meron happy when they lived on this mountain; did they think it Eden then? And why did they run away? The war never touched this place.

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