Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble

A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples/Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble

Betts, Robert Brenton

A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, by Ilan Pappé. Cambridge University Press, 2004. xxi and 333 pages, 6 maps and 8 figures (photographs). $60.00, hardcover; $22.00, paperback.

Bethlehem Besieged: Stories of Hope in Times of Trouble, by Mitri Raheb. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004. 157 pages. $11.00, paperback.

This is a remarkable book by a Jewish-Israeli professor of politics at the University of Haifa. For the first time, Palestine is treated as the one geographical entity it is, and its history as an interlocking of the two ethnic groups that inhabit it in roughly equal numbers but with vastly different degrees of authority. For the same reason that it appeals to me and will, I am sure, to many readers of Middle East Policy – its refreshing candor, absence of a political agenda, and hope against hope for the future – it will doubtless infuriate the ultra-Zionists in Israel and especially the Zionist lobby in the United States and its right-wing, “Christian fundamentalist” allies. As the author himself admits, “the subtitle of the book may raise a few eyebrows” (p. 11). Fortunately, as a Jewish-Israeli citizen, Pappé is free to express himself without fear of academic censorship or worse, denunciation as an anti-Semite (in his case, a self-hating Jew), which would certainly be his lot if he were a professor of politics at any university in America. The First Amendment doesn’t protect you any more when it comes to expressing views contrary to the AIPAC party line in the United States, but in Israel there really is free speech and academic freedom, which the Israelis exercise vigorously and without intimidation. If anyone doubts this, I suggest following the debate in any given session of the Knesset or reading opposition newspapers.

Pappé states his perspectives and principles very clearly in his introduction, “A New Look at Modern Palestine & Israel”:

The reader of this book will find instances and descriptions that fit many of the claims of one national narrative, the Palestinian one, but few of the Israeli one . . . . This book is written by one who admits compassion for the colonized, not the colonizer; who sympathizes with the occupied, not the occupiers; and sides with the workers, not the bosses. He feels for women in distress and has little admiration for men in command . . . . To sum up, I suggest that the history of modern Palestine/Israel should be a history of both its subaltern society and its elite groups; of those wishing to change and those happy with what they have; and of external as well as internal dynamics of change (pp. 11-12).

He continues in the ensuing seven chapters and conclusion to provide the reader with a veritable litany of every one of the many criticisms that non-Zionist observers have levelled against Israel over the years, employing such politically loaded terms as “brutal occupation” and “expulsion policy” (p. 196), “ethnic cleansing” (used in two of chapter four’s subtitles), “colonization” (p. 42), “massacre” (pp. 137-8 and four other index citations), “economic injustice” (pp. 227-8) and “memoricide” (p. 147), a word he appears to have coined. It means the eradication of Arab names along with the physical sites formerly attached to them and their replacement by new Jewish settlements with Hebrew names. To his credit, Meron Benvenisti in his book Sacred Landscape (reviewed in Vol. 8, No. 1, 2001, of Middle East Policy], treats this evil practice with considerable personal remorse. His father, David, was the author of Our Land, the standard textbook used by Israeli schoolchildren after 1948, which ignores or denigrates the Palestinian Arab presence. Fortunately the Palestinian past has been preserved by such works as Walid Khalidi’s comprehensive All That Remains (reviewed in Vol. 3, No. 2, 1994, of Middle East Policy), which chronicles, village by village, the insidious attempt by the Israelis to wipe out a nation’s cultural memory. Certainly, the term “memoricide” encapsulates this contemptable practice very neatly. I hope it catches on. Finally, there is the matter of “The Role of the U.S. as a (“the” would be more appropriate) facilitator of Israeli intransigence” (p. 207). Without this, there would have been peace long ago – but not, it must be admitted, along the lines Ariel Sharon or Benjamin Netanyahu would have preferred.

Taking each of these terms in sequence, Pappé refers to what the Israeli leaders spoke of as “an enlightened occupation” after 1967 as in fact “harsh and brutal” (p. 196). As for expulsion, “Jerusalem not only saw the beginning of the Israeli expulsion policy, it was the site of the first ‘pilot project’ of Jewish settlement on occupied territory. In early 1968, the Israeli authorities appropriated vast areas of East Jerusalem, a third of which were private property, and re-zoned them as new Jewish neighbourhoods” (pp. 196-7). They are still doing it, or at least trying to. The latest attempt to grab hundreds of Arab-owned acres in Jerusalem from “absentee” landlords – who are prevented from traveling to their property from neighboring Bethlehem and Beit Jala – was so outrageous that even the American “facilitator” was forced to speak out against it. Despite protests, this blatant act of thievery may yet go through.

The are two sections in the book on “Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” (March-May 1948, and May 1948-January 1949); the first covers the period during which the infamous Deir Yassin massacre was perpetrated (April 20, 1948). “Most villages were destined to be destroyed [by Hagana brigades], and only in very exceptional cases were the soldiers ordered to leave them intact” (p. 130). By the end of the second period, 90 percent of the Arab population living in what was designated as the Jewish state had become refugees. “Palestine, the land as we have described it in this book – reconstructing a period stretching over 250 years – had changed beyond recognition. The countryside, the rural heart of Palestine, with its colourful and picturesque villages, was ruined. Half of the villages had been destroyed, flattened by Israeli bulldozers which had been at work since August 1948.” (pp. 138-9).

Examples of massacre and torture were, and are still, legion. At Tantura, a village of 1,500 inhabitants near Haifa, the women and children were expelled, but “two hundred men between the ages of thirteen and thirty were massacred by Alexandroni and other Jewish forces. Both revenge and a calculated wish to kill men of fighting age motivated this bloodshed.” What is even more ominous is that, according to Pappé, “there were similar incidents in many other locations, the details of which still await the research of future scholars” (p. 137). Such horrific measures at Deir Yassin and Tantura were clearly state policy. “These atrocities were not randomly committed; they were part of a master plan to rid the future Jewish state of as many Palestinians as possible” (p. 131).

Zionism, for Pappé, may not equal racism, but it certainly equaled colonialism. The early Zionist settlement in Ottoman Palestine, according to the author, was “a colonizing emigration.” Like colonialism elsewhere at the time, “it was a European movement, with people entering Palestine for the sake of European interests, not local ones” (p. 42). Once the British Mandate was established in 1920, the new authority discovered very quicikly that “the Jews were not a typical group of ‘natives,’ but rather acted as a competing colonial movement” (p. 94). And, while the British effort failed, the Zionist movement steamrollered all opposition and continues to do so, thanks to its American “facilitator.”

The desperate economic state of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank is well-known. What is not as often recognized is the great disparity that exists between Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens to the extent that, when attempts were being made to colonize Galilee (which has the largest concentration of Arab villages in pre-1967 Israel) with Jewish settlements in the 1970s and ’80s, “the poorest Jewish town, Yeruham, still had a much higher standard of living, by any known criteria, than Meilya [a small town of 1,500 Greek Catholics], the richest Arab community in Israel.” As for its Arab citizens, “The state excluded them as full citizens, occupied their nation-state, and refused to recognize the Nakbah [catastrophe] and its own share in it” (p. 228). The list goes on and on. At times I had to rub my eyes to believe what I was reading, such was the power of the author’s narrative and the myriad examples he cited in support of his argument.

There is little to criticize or correct. I was gratified to see due attention was given to the Greater Syria movement of the 1930s and ’40s. The author reminds us that the King-Crane Comission sent by President Wilson at the end of World War I to determine the nationalist wishes of the Arabs of the Fertile Crescent found that those in Palestine “wanted to be part of Greater Syria, opposed the Balfour Declaration vehemently, and if they had to consider foreign guardianship at all would prefer it to be American” (pp. 81-82). I was somewhat surprised that the author, when discussing why Herzl chose Britain as a European supporter for his fledging Zionist idea (pp. 50-52), did not say anything about the “British Israelite” movement that was very strong in Victorian England. The adherents argued that the English were one of the ten Lost Tribes of Israel and that part of their imperial mission was to bring the Jews back to the Holy Land. The movement’s influence in high circles, like that of the Masons, has often been overlooked or understated. Pappé’s book deserves wide readership, especially among Americans, most of whom still don’t understand the roots of the Arab-Israeli problem. For many, I predict, it will be an epiphany.

Bethlehem Besieged is a collection of essays, written with an amazing tolerance and acceptance of daily humiliation, harrassment and inhuman behavior on the part of Israel’s armed forces. They illustrate with painful clarity the “harsh and brutal occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, exposed by Ilan Pappé. Mitri Raheb, a native of Bethlehem and pastor of its small Evangelical Lutheran community, has never known anything else. “Everything and the only thing I have known in my life, and still do, is living under the Israeli occupation” (p. 54). In many ways he enjoys a privileged position. As a Christian clergyman with a Vatican passport (his wife has a U.S. green card) and contacts at the highest level of the Lutheran communities in the United States, Germany and Scandinavia, he has been able to gain outside assistance and even intervention on the many occasions he has been subjected to deliberate mistreatment by Israeli officialdom. It beggars the imagination, therefore, what the average Palestinian without such protection must suffer on a daily basis. Small wonder that some, under the constant pressure of acts intended to dehumanize, embarrass and humiliate them, have run amok with knives or suicide bombs in an attempt to strike back at their oppressors. “Every Palestinian is familiar with the stories about Israeli soldiers who ordered people caught violating the curfew to take off their clothes and go back home naked” (p. 47).

The worst that Pastor Raheb suffered was in early January 2000, when his father-inlaw, an American citizen, was taken ill and needed medical treatment at a hospital in Jerusalem. Eventually they got him there, but not before being turned back at several checkpoints for no reason other than malicious hatred and the desire to humiliate on the part of Israeli soldiers. At one point his father-in-law was not allowed through because his valid “Entry Permit to Israel” was refused on the ludicrous grounds that it stated he was a businessman and on this occasion he was, according to the border guard, not going on business. At another, his mother-in-law, “becoming more and more worried,” told the guard, “But we are American citizens. Here are our American Passports. As such we cannot be prevented from entering Jerusalem.” To which the guard replied: “Your American citizenship doesn’t count if you are Palestinians. Go back , get a permit, and come back. Turn around quickly!” (p. 67). I wonder if the U.S. State Department issued a complaint about such treatment of American citizens by their strongest ally in the Middle East. By the time they reached the hospital, the father-in-law, aged 74, had suffered a heart attack. Twelve days later he died. “His only son had not been allowed to enter Jerusalem to visit him” (p. 68).

The siege of Bethlehem began during Holy Week of 2002 at the Church of the Nativity, where Muslim Palestinian resistance fighters had fled for refuge, and lasted through the feast of the Ascension six weeks later, during which time Bethlehem’s citizens were confined to their houses, and Pastor Raheb’s church and community center suffered major physical damage. His office, its equipment and files were utterly destroyed. When he ventured out to confront the Israeli officers in charge, he was initially treated with some respect – until they heard him speaking to his bishop on the phone in Arabic. After that, things turned partiuclarly nasty. The ensuing conversation displayed the “arrogance and racism” that Palestinians, even Christian pastors, must endure on a daily basis (p. 22). Despite such incidents of unspeakable inhumanity, Pastor Raheb remains remarkably upbeat, even hopeful. To do anything else, he believes, is to sink to the level of your oppressor and become inhuman yourself. My favorite story of hope, as a life-long church organist and choirmaster, is that of the restoration of the nineteenth-century German organ in the author’s Christmas Lutheran Church by an American Lutheran pastor and his congregation in Minneapolis, who raised the necessary $135,000. The rebuilt instrument arrived seven days before Christmas 2000 and, despite a last-minute power failure, was able to lead the congregation in its Christmas Eve worship service. I hope it survived the Israeli desecration and destruction of Manger Square two years later.

Such stories of hope are, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. “Many Palestinians, especially Christians, choose the option of emigration . . . . Others are radicalized by such treatment. The constant inhumane treatment eliminates their imagination of a better life here and now” (p. 83). I can think of no better required reading for U.S. senators and congressmen, especially those who loudly proclaim their so-called Christian family values, for the next time they are asked to continue funding Israeli persecution of their fellow Protestant Christians in Palestine, not to mention the larger communities of Catholics and Orthodox, and, of course Muslims as well. Pastor Raheb is a beacon of the true Christian values of tolerance, hope and forgiveness. The title of Chapter 9 asks us: “What Would You Do If You Were in My Shoes?” (p. 79). I am afraid my answer would have to be heavily edited for publication.

Robert Brenton Belts

Professor, The University of Balamand, Al-Kurah, Lebanon

Copyright Middle East Policy Council Summer 2005

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