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.

ON January 1, 1960, according to Israeli statistics, 159,236 Muslims, 48,277 Christian Arabs, and 22,351 Druses lived in Israel. These people will have increased, but that is a good enough basis to work on; roughly a quarter of a million Arabs by now. The Jewish population, coming together here from the four corners of the earth, was 1,858,841. These dissimilar people live on eight thousand square miles of quite beautiful, laboriously and lovingly reclaimed rock heap and sand dune-of which one third is irreducible desert. The Druses, a separate and secret sect, are a phenomenon; they are content. They trust and approve of the Jews; they are loyal citizens of Israel. The remaining Arabs are something else again.

On this tour, I visited a Christian Arab village near the Lebanese frontier; a Muslim Arab village on the coastal plain near Acre; two Muslim villages near the Jordanian frontier; a new Muslim settlement near Tel Aviv -the exact copy of a new Jewish settlement, built by the government; and a Roman Catholic priest, in the beautiful Crusader city of Acre.

My idea was to search out Arab schoolteachers, on the grounds that they would probably speak English, were educated men, would know the feelings of their communities, and would have thought about Arab problems. Arabs, living in their own communities, have their own schools, by their own wish, where the children are taught in Arabic, according to Arab principles. Nissim, my driver, was to serve as translator until I had found someone I could talk to; he was then to disappear. I did not want anyone to feel hampered by his alien presence. I might have spared myself anxiety. The candor of the Arabs is proof of their freedom inside the state of Israel; they are not in the least cowed.

In the Christian Arab village, the schoolteacher was an attractive lean young man, with prematurely gray hair, working in his garden in the cool of the evening. He had a good modern house, a young modern wife, and after six years of marriage, a first baby, a six-months-old girl named Mary, whom he and his wife so adored that neither of them took their eyes off the child at the same moment. He was healthy, prosperous, respected, freely doing his chosen work, loved and loving; by any standards, a fortunate man. After hours of listening to him, I had grasped the lacking clue, and felt hopeless.

"Great Britain helped the Jews," he said. "The English gave weapons to the Arab countries, and they gave weapons to us. In this village we were all armed; we all fired at the Jews, every one of us. But our bullets were no good; the English gave bad bullets to the Arabs. Four out of five of the bullets were no good. When we saw this, we ran away to Lebanon for two weeks and then we came back."

"Were any of you killed in these battles?"

"No, no one. Yes, we refused Partition. We did not want the Jews here; we wanted the whole country for ourselves, as is right. We only lost because of the United Nations and the Western powers.

"The Ottoman Empire crushed the pride of the Arabs. The Western powers divided the Arabs into many nations, after the First World War, to keep them weak. In the 1948 war, the next village was bombed by the Jews; when we saw that, we knew we had no hope."

(Pause for breath: the Jewish Air Force at the time consisted of nineteen Piper Cubs, a nice little plane, not a bomber; the next village was a good seven or eight miles away.)

"Now we have military zones, all along the frontiers. We must ask for permission to travel or work in different places. They have taken our land which is in the military zones. Yes, they pay for it, but very cheaply."

"At the price it used to be worth in the Mandate? Before it was improved by the Jews?"

"Something like that. No, even cheaper. Just now two boys from this village were caught on the Lebanese frontier; the Lebanese police sent them back. The Israelis are holding them for interrogation. How could such boys be spies?"

"I don't know. But you do remember that the Arab countries are at war with Israel? I should think it might be hard for the Jews to know what Arabs they could trust."

"They are right not to trust 50 per cent of the Arabs in this country."

"How can they know which 50 per cent?"

"Oh, they know everything. They have a C.I.D. agent in every Arab village. He is a Jew, and everyone knows him."

"What's the use of having a secret policeman if everyone knows he's a secret policeman?"

"There are plenty of informers. I don't know what it is that has taught all Arabs to be spies." He said this with real despair.

"There is compulsory education in this country up to the age of fourteen. That is a very good thing. We did not have such a thing before. But the Muslims do not send their girls to school half the time and do not send the boys if they can earn. Then what? The fine for the father is only five pounds. What is five pounds to the father?"

"Do you really mean that you want the Jews to supply the schools and the law which makes education compulsory, and also to force the Arabs and Druses to send their children to school and take advantage of this education? Wouldn't that make the Jews even more unpopular?"

He admitted, with a smile, that this might be the case and went on: "Nasser buys arms from Russia because he could not get them from the West. Egypt has twenty-two million people, so it needs many more arms than the Israelis, who are only two million. But Nasser is not crazy; he will not make war. He spends as much on social reform as on arms. All children now go to school in the Arab countries."

"Have you ever visited the Arab countries? Have you been to Egypt?"

We drank more coffee; we lit more cigarettes. I braced myself for further enlightenment.

"The Arab Kings were not the true representatives of the Arab peoples when they made war against Israel. Now all the refugees should come back and we should have Partition."

At this point, I decided to make one long, determined stand to see whether there was any meeting ground of minds on a basis of mutually accepted facts and reasoning.

"Please bear with me and help me," said I. "I am a simple American, and I am trying to understand how the Arab mind works, and I am finding it very difficult. I want to put some things in order; if I have everything wrong, you will correct me. In 1947, the United Nations recommended the Partition of Palestine. I have seen the Partition map and studied it. I cannot tell, but it does not look to me as if the Arabs were being cheated of their share of good land. The idea was that this division would work, if both Jews and Arabs accepted it and lived under an Economic Union. And, of course, the Arab countries around the borders would have to be peaceful and cooperative or else nothing would work at all. The Jews accepted this Partition plan; I suppose because they felt they had to. They were outnumbered about two to one inside the country, and there were the neighboring Arab states with five regular armies and forty million or more citizens, not feeling friendly. Are we agreed so far?"

"It is right."

"The Arab governments and the Palestinian Arabs rejected Partition absolutely. You wanted the whole country. There is no secret about this. The statements of the Arab representatives, in the UN are on record. The Arab governments never hid the fact that they started the war against Israel. But you, the Palestinian Arabs, agreed to this, you wanted it. And you thought, it seems to me very reasonably, that you would win and win quickly. It hardly seemed a gamble; it seemed a sure bet. You took the gamble and you lost. I can understand why you have all been searching for explanations of that defeat ever since, because it does seem incredible. I don't happen to accept your explanations, but that is beside the point. The point is that you lost."

"Yes." It was too astonishing; at long last, East and West were in accord on the meaning of words.

"Now you say that you want to return to the past; you want Partition. So, in fact you say, let us forget that war we started, and the defeat, and, after all, we think Partition is a good, sensible idea. Please answer me this, which is what I must, know. If the position were reversed, if the Jews had started the war and lost it, if you had won the war, would you now accept Partition? Would you give up part of the country and allow the 650,000 Jewish residents of Palestine -who had fled from the war--to come back?"

"Certainly not," he said, without an instant's hesitation. "But there would have been no Jewish refugees. They had no place to go. They would all be dead or in the sea."

He had given me the missing clue. The fancy word we use nowadays is "empathy"--entering into the emotions of others. I had appreciated and admired individual refugees but realized I had felt no blanket empathy for the Palestinian refugees, and finally I knew why--owing to this nice, gray-haired schoolteacher. It is hard to sorrow for those who only sorrow over themselves. It is difficult to pity the pitiless. To wring the heart past all doubt, those who cry aloud for justice must be innocent. They cannot have wished for a victorious rewarding war, blame everyone else for their defeat, and remain guiltless. Some of them may be unfortunate human beings, and civilization would collapse (as it notoriously did in Nazi Germany) if most people did not naturally move to help their hurt fellow men. But a profound difference exists between victims of misfortune (there, but for the grace of God, go I) and victims of injustice. My empathy knew where it stood, thanks to the schoolteacher.

"Do you follow the Eichmann trial?" I asked. An Arabic daily paper, weeklies, and radio station thrive in Israel.

"Yes. Every day." He wrinkled his nose with disgust.

"Do you not imagine that all the Jews in Israel believe this massacre of their people could have been prevented if the Jews had had a homeland to escape to? Don't you think that they knew,, also, what you just said: there would have been no Jewish refugees from here--they would be dead or in the sea? Doesn't that perhaps explain them to you a little?"

He shrugged, he smiled; with these gestures h tacitly admitted the point, but it was of minor importance. "In 1948, the Arabs were not united; that is why we lost. In 1956 the Jews beat Nasser. He will never make war. But when there are five million Jews here in Israel, the Jews will make war, because they will need more land."

"Israel is about the size of New Jersey, a state in America. Some six million people live quite comfortably in New Jersey. Israel could become an industrial state, a very useful one."

"No, it cannot. The Arab nations will not allow it. They will not trade with Israel. They will not let Israeli ships go through the Canal. They do not wish Israel to do these things. They will not accept Israel."

"It is hopeless," I said. "In my lifetime, those who threatened war sooner or later produced it. If Arab-Israel politics keep up like this, my friend, perhaps all of us, everywhere -you and your wife and Mary, and my child and my husband and I--will have the privilege of dying in the same stupid final war."

He thought I was making a rich foreign joke. He has never seen even a corner of a real big war; he cannot imagine it. He thinks war is something that lasts a few weeks, during which you shoot off bad bullets at a remote enemy, no one is killed, you run away for a bit and then come home to your undamaged houses and lead a good life, indeed a better material life than before. None of these Arabs has suffered anything comparable to what survivors of modern war know; none can imagine such catastrophe.

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