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.

THE Christian schoolteacher sent me on to a friend of his, a Muslim schoolteacher, in a village called Masra on the plain near Acre. The Muslim schoolteacher was a young black-eyed beauty, who received me in a bleak cement-walled room, scantily furnished with an ugly desk, wardrobe, straight chairs, and day bed. He wore striped pajamas, traces of shaving cream, and a' princely ease of manner. We got right down to business.

Before 1948, the population of Masra was 350; now it is 200. They owned little land, they had worked on neighboring kibbutzim and in Acre factories. They always had good relations with the Jews. "No one here shot at Jews; and no Jews shot at us." (Note the order of the sentence.) But now Masra had grown and swollen; 900 refugees lived here.


"Yes, people from those villages."

He gestured out the door, across the fields.

"What? From villages nearby?"

"Yes, yes. Those villages. They are maybe seven kilometers away."

"And you consider them refugees?"

"Of course. There was no fighting near here, but the people are frightened, so they fled to the Druse villages, where they know they will be safe, because the Druses were always friendly with the Jews, and after, they came here. The Israeli government will not let them go back to their villages. The government offered them other land, but they will not take it. Before the war, only my father sent his sons to school from this village. Now we have a school and 240 children in it, 100 girls and 140 boys. We have a water tap at every house and electric light; never such things before. No one owned a radio; now there are 100 radios and frigidaires too. The people earn good wages."

"Then everyone must be happy."

"No. The people are not glad. They want to go back to their old houses, even if there is no light or water or money."

They knew the refugees were "living under good conditions"; he had brothers in Lebanon and Syria who were doing well. How did he know? They wrote messages to the Israel radio, which broadcast them, and the Lebanon radio sent messages back; that way they heard news of their families.

But all the refugees should return and Israel should be partitioned. I put the same proposition to him as to his Christian colleague; if the Arabs had won the war, would they accept Partition?

"No, never, of course not. We would let some few Jews live here as immigrants but not be masters, not in any part of Palestine."

"Why do you think the refugees left in the first place?"

Well, there was much fear. Then, they all knew about Dir Yassin and expected the same to happen to them. Inside Israel, the Arabs do not need or use the refugees' stories of massacres; they do not have to account for flight, since they are still at home. They know what happened around them, and their neighbors know, and such stories would be pointless. But they do speak of Dir Yassin, which was a genuine massacre and took place in the village of that name, near Jerusalem, on April 9, 1948.

Before the official Arab-Israel war started (on May 15, 1948) there had been months and months of "incidents." ("From the first week of December 1947, disorder in Palestine had begun to mount. The Arabs repeatedly asserted that they would resist partition by force. They seemed to be determined to drive that point home by assaults upon the Jewish community in Palestine."--Trygve Lie, In the Cause of Peace, Macmillan, 1954.) By February, 1948, aside from scattered Arab attacks on scattered Jews, and reprisals for same, the "Arab Liberation Army" had moved into Palestine from the north, and Jerusalem was bombarded, besieged, and cut off. The Jews were trying to run food to the beleaguered Jewish population of Jerusalem. A lot of Jews were getting killed in that effort, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and in the eyes of some Jews not enough was being done to prevent or avenge this. The state of Israel did not exist; no functioning Jewish government could control this anarchic, deadly phase of undeclared war.

Two famous illegal groups of militant Jews, the Stern Gang and the Irgun Zvai Leumi, had their own ideas on how to fight fire with fire. The British regarded them both as terrorists. The Jewish Agency and their underground army, the Haganah, which were the official Jewish authorities in Palestine, also rejected the Stern Gang and the Irgun Zvai Leumi, because of their ruthlessness. Under the circumstances that created them, these two outlawed bands do not seem very different from Resistance groups, Partisans, or Commandos, all of whom were admired as patriots, and none of whom obeyed the Queensberry rules.

The Irgun Zvai Leumi, in any case, behaved like desperate men at war, not like the millennial inheritors of a high moral code. The village of Dir Yassin lay close to besieged Jerusalem and its life-line road. According to the Irgun, Dir Yassin was a nest of snipers and armed Arabs; an effective enemy concentration. On their own, the Irgun decided to attack Dir Yassin. Their leader was killed by Arab fire from the village; the Irgun fighters then went brutally mad and shot everyone in sight. Two hundred and fifty Arabs were killed.

To this day, Israelis cannot get over their shame for Dir Yassin while failing to remind themselves, the Arabs, and the world that murder, horribly, begets murder; and they could present a longer casualty list of Jews killed by Arabs, before and after Dir Yassin, during the twilight period of terror that preceded open war.

The news of Dir Yassin spread like the tolling of a funeral bell throughout Arab Palestine. According to their own ethical code and practice of war, Dir Yassin must have seemed a natural portent of the future to the Arabs. They intended to massacre the Jews; if the Jews were victorious, obviously they would massacre the Arabs. As the beautiful schoolteacher pointed out, Dir Yassin threw the fear of death into vast numbers of the Arab population. In panic, they fled from Palestine.

Since we were talking about war, we came easily to the subject of Nasser.

"Here they love Nasser. All love him. He is Arab person. They do not believe what he says on the radio--kill the Jews, kick them into the sea. So long he says it, and nothing happens. It will not be war. Something else will arrange, but not soon."

The Christian Arab schoolteacher had told me of a priest in Acre whom I should see, but I could not find him. Instead, I directed myself toward the nearest church steeple, rang a doorbell beneath, and was admitted by an enormous, rotund priest in a brown cassock. He looked like an Arab but was an Italian. He had lived in this country for nearly thirty years and had learned how to survive: by laughter. He laughed at everything, and it was an awesome sight, as if a hippopotamus broke into silent mirth.

We settled on his stiff upholstered visitors' chairs, and he ruminated on the problem of the refugees. If there was the choice between a big financial compensation or return, only 50 per cent of the refugees would wish to return, and most of those who came back would not stay. "They could not endure how this country is run. The discipline. The work." The refugees are kept thinking of Palestine by the Arab leaders, by propaganda. Why not build factories and arrange land resettlement in the Arab countries? (The Arab governments do not wish this, Father.) Give the money to the Arab governments and tell them to get on with the job and control it. (How?) By force. (But what force, Father?)

He often told Arab priests about the thirteen million refugees who came from East Germany to West Germany; they were all absorbed into West Germany and enriched the country. Why would 'not 800,000 Arab refugees enrich the Arab countries, which were big and underpopulated? But it is no use; Arabs have never heard of any other refugees or any other problem than their own, and they cannot think about that, in a practical way.

The whole problem is between the East and the West; the Arabs are very happy in the middle, using blackmail. This would stop if the East and the West came to terms, or if the West was united and strong and could impose its will. (But how, Father?)

Ah well, the Jews might as well let the refugees come back; the Arabs here are loyal to the state. ("The ones I've seen detest the Jews and the state, Father, and you know it." I expected his laughter to make a sound, it was so violent.) Yes, yes, that is true, but they do nothing. There is no resistance, no underground. Think what they could do if they really wanted to, with the Arab. countries all around as a base. (Some Arabs did for a long time, Father--until 1956, in fact; look at the countless incidents with the UN police force called out to investigate murders, thefts, sabotage.) Oh, that was nothing, nothing to what they could do if they really wanted to.

With another mute roar, he told me that the Arabs said, First we will finish with the Shabbaths, and then with the Sundays. They never changed their ideas. They went around looking at the women and the houses they would take when they managed to get rid of the Jews and the Christians. He laughed himself into a good shake over this one.

I asked about the Eichmann trial and the reaction of his Roman Catholic parishioners. Well, his Christian Arabs thought Eichmann was right, because the Jews were the enemy of the German state. They were always the enemy of the state; the Pharaohs had to drive them out of Egypt, the Persian King tried to clear them out, Ferdinand and Isabella kicked them out of Spain. No one could live on good terms with them, so Eichmann was right. (Horrified, really horrified, I said, "Surely. that is not a Christian attitude to the most appalling murders we know about?" He found it terribly funny that I should expect a Christian attitude from Arabs.)

"I do not like either Arabs or Jews," the priest announced with great good humor, "but I serve them with my whole heart, as I must."

He asked me at the door whether there are any Christian Arabs in refugee camps. Yes, I had seen a camp of Christians in Lebanon.

"I am surprised. There must be very few. I would have expected them to manage better. They do not dream all the time. They have more contact with reality than the Muslims."

By now I could foretell one local Arab account of reality. First they explain that they did not lose the war against the Jews; various others are responsible for the defeat. Then they boast cheerfully of their present material well-being, as if they had invented prosperity. At this stage, the Israeli Jews might be wisps of smoke; they had nothing to do with building the country. However, Arabs are miserable; although they never had it so good, it is not good enough, owing, of course, to the Jews. Usually these Arabs say how much they love Nasser and in their devotion are curiously -remindful of Nazi Austrians, twenty-five years ago, when they praised the handsome distant leader, Adolf, from whose hand all blessings would flow. What they believe they now want is to bring the refugees home and partition the' state. They have not considered this as a practical matter, nor imagined its effects on their new-found prosperity.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In