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.
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THERE is no future in spending UN money to breed hate. There is no future in nagging or bullying Israel to commit suicide by the admission of a fatal locust swarm of enemies. There is no future in Nasser's solution, the Holy War against Israel; and we had better make this very clear, very quickly. Long bleak memories will recall the Sudetendeutsch and Czechoslovakia. In a new setting, Palestinian refugees assume the role of the Sudetendeutsch. Israel becomes Czechoslovakia. Propaganda prepares the war for liberation of "our brothers." Victory over- a minor near enemy is planned as the essential first step on a long triumphant road of conquest. A thousand-year Muslim Reich, the African continent ruled by Egypt, may be a mad dream, but we have experience of mad dreams and mad dreamers. We cannot be too careful. The echo of Hitler's voice is heard again in the land, now speaking Arabic.

Unfortunately for us all, including the Arabs, the Middle Eastern Arab nations have been hit by independence and the twentieth century at the same time. It is a lot to handle, and they are not handling it safely or sanely. The Cold War does not help them; it encourages folly. East and West both treat the Arabs with nervous anxiety; placatory and bribing, East and West keep their eyes fixed on the geographical location of the Arab states and the immense amount of oil under their deserts. No one does or can talk practical facts about Israel to the Arabs; it would be useless. Even the soundest Arab leaders have tied their own hands tight in an official hate policy. At present, any Arab government which urged a quick, peaceful, advantageous settlement of the Palestine Refugee Problem would be mobbed. The mobs have been indoctrinated for thirteen years, as have the Arab refugees.

The Palestinian refugees could have been absorbed into the economic life of the Arab countries long ago, despite the remark of UNRWA's Director--in his 1960 report--that jobs do not exist for the refugees in the Arab countries. Of course they do not exist; if they did, the Arab standard of life would be a finer and a better thing than it is now. The jobs must be made; but the Arab countries need to have the jobs done as much as the refugees need to do them. The Director of UNRWA states, in the same report, that the majority of Palestinian refugees are unskilled peasants and there are enough or too many of those in the Arab countries already. No doubt. But unskilled peasants, all over the world, have learned to become skilled factory workers or scientific farmers, at very short notice; that ability to learn is what makes our modern industrial civilization tick. The Yemenite Jews who moved in a week from the Middle Ages to Israel, the unskilled Polish peasants operating the Nova Huta steel mills are obvious examples of this transformation. Neighboring Arabs regard the Palestinian Arabs as outstandingly intelligent. I would think this reputation deserved. There is no reason to believe that they cannot learn as others have.

Where there's a will--and as much unused land and wasted water, mineral and oil resources, underpopulation and undeveloped industries as in the vast Arab territories--there's a way. "Western Imperialists" would have to contribute most of the cash for the way, and it would be cheap at the price. It is more expensive to maintain paupers forever than to establish free, self-supporting citizens. One outlay of capital is futile and never ends; the other is a capital investment, humane and profitable, and pays for itself. It pays in buying peace, and we don't have to argue which is the better bargain, peace or war. "Western Imperialists" should provide the way; the Arab governments would have to provide the will.

Economics are not all, and the tragedy of most refugees is not that they starve in their countries of adoption, but that their hearts and minds and souls starve. They are lonely strangers who do not speak the language of the new land, or know its customs; they are aliens. But the Palestinian refugees look, think, feel, and organize themselves socially as the Arabs of the "host countries" do. They speak the same language, they practice the same religion. The Christian minority would find fellow minority Christians in every Arab country except Lebanon, where they are on top. The Palestinian Arabs are not foreigners in the Arab world; they are members of their own family.

According to Arab politicians and apologists, the Palestinian refugees refuse to become integrated in the Arab world; it is Palestine or nothing for them. Everyone shouts for the Palestinian refugees, and at them, and about them, but no one has ever asked the refugees what they themselves want: where do you want to live; what do you want to do? My tiny personal Gallup poll unearthed plenty of refugees who were happy where they were and had no desire to return to Palestine, no matter what; and plenty of refugees who longed to emigrate to the richer Arab countries, where the future looks brighter, or out into the great non-Arab world. Except for one Christian Arab from Jaffa, who thinks Jews more honest than Arab Muslims and better people to do business with, none of them wanted to return to Israel, as Israeli citizens, and dwell in peace with their Jewish neighbors. We need a secret poll of both sexes, from the age of twelve onward, to discover the refugees' own wishes for their own lives. The poll would have to be secret because it is impossible, even perilous, for an Arab refugee openly to disclaim interest in Palestine. Such a freethinker would be marked as a traitor to the Arab cause. Man is a political animal, but he also wants to live. Politics have offered a very dry crust to these refugees for a very long time.

Yet the Arab governments insist that the Palestinian refugees are a political problem. Once a year, formally, they brandish these waiting lives at the UN Assembly. The rest of the year, with different degrees of intensity, depending on their domestic politics, they wield these waiting lives to stir up Arab hate at home. The Arab governments say they will not accept the existence of the state of Israel, now or ever. The logical conclusion is that, when ready, they intend to burst from their cold belligerent status into hot armed conflict and terminate Israel's existence. We cannot force the Arab nations to make peace with Israel, but we have to prevent them from making actual war for the sake of all human life, their own included. A vital preventive act would be to remove the Palestinian refugees as a justification of war.

Is it fruitless to offer terms to the Arab governments? We cannot hurry them, or threaten them. Their pride has been scarred; they are uncertain noisy adolescents in a tricky clever adult world; their nationalism is new, and they suspect insults or attacks on it, from every side; they do not live easily with themselves or with each other; and they have not yet understood that a nation is only as strong as its people--arms laid on top of disease, illiteracy, and poverty are a useless burden. But if we know our own minds, are patient, firm, and generous, in time the Arab governments might allow us to enrich their countries.

Our Western offer should be clear: UNRWA is to continue as a bridge to the future; we will pay for the bridge and the future--Palestinian refugees are gradually to become Arab citizens, earning their own livelihood on land, in industries, which our money and technical help will make available. All of this, but not another penny for a political problem. The Palestinian refugees must be taken out of politics forever and given the same chance that millions of refugees have had before them: a chance for work, private peace, and private life.

Would the Arab governments reject such an offer flatly, in pique, and turn UNRWA over to the Russians? The Arab leaders do not care for Communism at home. Russia, as parent and teacher of hundreds of thousands of young Arab refugees, would not charm them. In the ugly East-West rivalry for Arab affection (and oil and geography), we might for once risk taking a reasonable, compassionate line. We are not likely to be outbid in this field. The Arab governments do not love us, but they fear the proselytizing Communists more.

UNRWA has been a splendid mother-and-father and can serve the refugees as a guide to the future. UNRWA's greatest gift to the refugees, to the Arab world, and, indirectly, to us all is the education and health of its charges. UNRWA should receive more money and be considered primarily an educational institution. In my opinion, UNRWA will be with us for some time, an admirable training school for young Palestinians and a kindly old folks' home for aged Palestinians. But UNRWA too must be taken out of politics. Its work should not be subject to Arab political supervision; none of its activities should be used for Arab propaganda purposes; and its Western personnel must keep themselves rigorously detached from the Arab-Israel controversy.

THE Palestinian refugees are a chain reaction. Arab politicians and apologists would have us believe that the explosion began with the Balfour Declaration to "view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a home for the Jewish people." More likely, the explosion started in the depths of time when the Romans drove the Jews from their one and only homeland, the soil that grew their history, the Bible. Nearly two thousand years later, Hitler and his followers committed such barbarous crimes against the Jews as all Christendom and all Islam, barbarous too, had never inflicted in the centuries of the Jewish dispersion. The Nazis and the gas chambers made the state of Israel inevitable: the Palestinian Arabs and the five invading Arab armies determined the boundaries of Israel.

The Palestinian refugees are unfortunate victims of a brief moment in history. It is forgotten that Jews are also victims in the same manner, of the same moment. The Arab-Israel war and its continuous aftermath produced a two-way flight of peoples. Nearly half a million Jews, leaving behind everything they owned, escaped from the Arab countries where they lived to start life again as refugees in Israel. Within one generation, if civilization lasts, Palestinian refugees will merge into the Arab nations, because the young will insist on real lives instead of endless waiting. If we can keep the peace, however troubled, the children of Palestinian refugees will make themselves at home among their own kind, in their ancestral lands. For the Jews there is no other ancestral land than Israel.

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