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.

I VISITED a school in a village where prosperity had broken out like a rash--new houses, shops, hospital, high school, bigger elementary schools and the teachers harangued me as foreseen. After telling me how well off everyone was, and bragging of their growth, they told me they were all unhappy and poor because they had owned 40,000 dunams of land (10,000 acres) and now only owned 10,000 dunams. But another Arab, who had not overheard this conversation and was employed as an agricultural inspector, explained that the 10,000 dunams were irrigated, which was new, and also they were scientifically farmed, and therefore produced far more than the 40,000 dunams had. To listen to these conversations is work for a psychiatrist, not a journalist.

I yearned for my silent hotel room in Jerusalem, but Nissim had two heart's-desires, and Nissim was such a nice man that I could not refuse him. There was a "great lady" he wanted me to meet, a Muslim. "She began a Muslim women's club all alone, she," Nissim said. "Such a thing has never been. What a brave woman. The Muslims go to a place and learn together, and hear lectures, the women. Is it not wonderful?" I could see that Nissim was by nature a suffragette. He also wanted me to visit a new village of government-built houses, which the Arab citizens buy on the installment plan by paying a low rent. Not everyone has a chance to own such fine, inexpensive houses, and Nissim--like all Jewish Israelis--is ardently proud of every improvement in his country.

First we called on the lady, who lived in a modern villa, luxurious by middle-class standards anywhere and palatial by Middle Eastern standards, very shiny and tasteless. Nissim thought it wonderful; so did she, with well-bred restraint. She was young, charming, just returned from her schoolteacher's job, bathed and dressed for the afternoon in a sleeveless red dress. She spoke of her Muslim women's club, whose members ranged in age from fifteen to sixty, and learned sewing, cooking, child care, listened to lectures, and were enthusiastic over their new venture. I am a suffragette like Nissim and was delighted. Then the predictable complaints began. The peasants, she said, have work and money and don't care about anything else. But the educated people suffer; they have all this education, and after they finish their studies, what can they do? Only the professions, and business, and a few are elected to Parliament; but they cannot get positions in the army. Her husband, a pharmacist, has to take four buses to reach his place of work, but here is this village of eight thousand people without a pharmacy; why don't the Jews open a pharmacy?

"If there is such a crying need for a pharmacy here, why doesn't your husband start one himself? This is not a Communist state; there are no laws against private enterprise. You are well-known people, full and free citizens. You could certainly raise a loan, if you need it."

You are not supposed to argue about complaints; it is abominable manners. Her face closed like a lovely olive-colored trap.

"The Israelis say that they do not conscript Arabs--except the Druses, who insisted on it themselves--because the only people the Israeli Army would ever have to fight are Arabs. It seems decent to me, and it seems like reasonable military security. How would your men feel if called upon to fight fellow Arabs, who might be their blood relatives and intended to be their liberators? Do you think it is a good job for a man to join an army he cannot serve with his heart, and would sell out if the time came? That may be excellent work for spies, but not for soldiers."

She opened her closed face to say, "Yes, I see. But it is our country."

It was too hot, and too futile. Besides, I was tired of the convention which apparently requires non-Arabs to treat Arabs as if they were neurotic children, subject either to tantrums or to internal bleeding from spiritual wounds. This girl did not strike me as a pathetic weakling.

"Only by right of conquest," I said. "In the seventh century. The Jews got here first, about two thousand years ahead of you. You haven't lived as masters in your own house for a long time. Aside from the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks bossed you for a steady four hundred years, before the British took over. Now the Jews have won back their land by right of conquest. Turn and turn about," I said, feeling as beastly minded as an Arab myself. "Fair's fair."

"How was it?" asked Nissim, who had been waiting in the car. "She is fine, isn't she? Think that she starts to teach the Muslim women. No other one did."

Israelis are the first to explain (and who can know better?) that it is painful to be a minority: the Arabs in Palestine became a minority suddenly. It is grievous (as who knows better than Israelis?) to be separated from the numerous, needed members of your family. Israelis will also explain that the Arabs in Israel are torn in two: their racial loyalty belongs to the enemies of Israel, and they are afraid; if the Arab nations make war against Israel, as is regularly promised on the radio from Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, what will be their fate? Would the outside Arabs regard them, the Arabs inside Israel, as collaborators, traitors?

The emotional position of the Israeli Arabs is tormenting (and is held in that torment by the Arab radio stations), though they are materially secure, protected by equal justice under law, and by an almost exaggerated respect for their feelings. If the Arab nations made peace with Israel, it is possible that all Israeli Arabs would relax, be happy, and wholehearted supporters of Israel. If not, not. No one, after listening to Israeli Arabs, could believe that Palestinian refugees would be either contented or loyal citizens of Israel.

The new village, that so pleased Nissim, was rows of small plastered houses painted in pastel shades, or white with pastel-colored woodwork. They have a porch-veranda, two fairly large rooms, a kitchen, a shower-washroom, and small gardens. No working-class Arabs I saw anywhere in the Middle East possess houses like these, but the owners were not satisfied, as I knew they would not be. One boy of about fourteen could speak English; boys of this age are valuable informants--they parrot their elders without reflection.

"We are very poor," he said.

"How can you be very poor and live in these houses? You have to pay for them."

"We must to work very hard. More harder than before. Terrible work. We have no land."

"Wasn't farming hard work?"

"No. That was easy. Not like now."

"How does your family manage?"

"My brother works. In Tel Aviv. In a gasoline station. That is terrible hard work."

When we left, the pretty, healthy children ran beside the car, shouting. I waved. Nissim looked queer, something was wrong; that chronic optimist seemed sad.

"What's the matter, Nissim?"

"Nothing. What the children say."

"You mean just now, shouting?"

"Yes. They say: 'Where you going, bastard? I spit on you.'"

What for, I thought, what for, and will it never stop?

"Do you hate the Arabs, Nissim?"

"No. Of course no."

"Why not?"

"What is the good of hate?"

What indeed? Arabs gorge on hate, they roll in it, they breathe it. Jews top the hate list, but any foreigners are hateful enough. Arabs also hate each other, separately and, en masse. Their politicians change the direction of their hate as they would change their shirts. Their press is vulgarly base with hate-filled cartoons; their reporting describes whatever hate is now uppermost and convenient. Their radio is a long scream of hate, a call to hate. They teach their children hate in school. They must love the taste of hate; it is their daily bread. And what good has it done them?

Presented by

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

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

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In