Palestine by John Pilger

Palestine


written by

John Pilger



from Heroes, 1986.









Exodus

Jerusalem: Easter 1968

The last waves of the devout were arriving and to the accredited sceptic like myself, and to those toothless vendors of Pontius Pilate underarm deodorant ("Judge It For Yourself!") and Holy Sepulchre egg-timers, they were welcome relief from the upheavals of the past ten months. By legions of Jewish buses they came, knowing full well that if this was Easter, it must be Jerusalem.

"Oh yes, it is true: they are coming back to us," said an Italian friar upon viewing the throng from the balcony of the Franciscan monastery deep in the Old City. "You know, I am sending telex messages around the world saying, 'No danger for Christians. Come please.' But, alas, many choose to go instead to Lourdes."

The Franciscans are the governors of what is surely the world's least known "neutral state." As Holy property millionaires, they have control over the Terra Sancta, the Holy Land, which extends into Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Syria and Cyprus; and it is they who carry the authority of the Vatican in negotiations with "whomever may be in charge at the time," as they say. It so happened the Jews were now in charge of their capital and public relations were good. In return for water that was drinkable and lavatories that flushed, the friars had placed Hebrew on the curriculum of the monastery's small orphanage. Before June 1967, when the Arabs were in charge, the Arab Legion had used a loft in the orphanage as a sniper's nest.

So having been reassured by the Holy telex, though their numbers were less than half those of before the war, the pilgrims trudged up the Via Dolorosa, led by the friars bearing a mighty cross, past all fourteen stations. And when they reached the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an asphyxiating smog of incense, sweat and drains descended upon those who could elbow their way inside. It had not cleared when the countdown of anguish was completed and ritual bells were fired like artillery at heaven and the word was wailed forth that God was dead and had not yet risen.

It was generally agreed that Arabs lived here, although they preferred to call themselves Palestinians; and it was even said that they had lived here longer than anyone. But this fact, however obscure, should be whispered, especially by the Palestinians themselves, lest they are roused in the middle of the night and expelled from the city of their birth and their house is bulldozed or taken over by the Custodian of Properties and given to an American who has converted to Judaism. Today, those who remain in "united" Jerusalem must go quietly, for they are known as the "demographic problem": they won't, that is, simply fade away.

Ten miles away, in Kalandia camp, Ahmed Harnzeh said, "I was a street entertainer, first in Haifa, then in the Old City of Jerusalem. I would play all kinds of musical instruments; I would sing in Arabic, English and Hebrew; I am told I am gifted. I had a monkey, and because I was rather poor, my small son would sell chewing gum while the monkey did its tricks. One day a rich Kuwaiti stopped his car in front of us. He was one of those who came to Ramallah for the summer. He shouted at my son, "Show us how a Palestinian picks up his food rations!" I made the monkey appear to scavenge on the ground...in the gutter...and my son did the same. The Kuwaiti threw coins and my son crawled on his knees to pick them up. He was a kind boy, but hardened to street life, like me. When the Arab had gone, I could not suppress an outburst of tears, and my son came to me and cried too. What had happened seemed to be all our world...a world suspended there in the gutter, and we were too weak, too alone to hit back at it. So we wept."

I had not seen a Palestinian refugee camp until then. The camps had been fixtures on the horizons of two generations, and yet how many of those who had been horrified by the hijackings since the Six Day War and then dulled by their regularity on the TV news had seen one? How many tourists and pilgrims to the Holy Land had seen one? How many foreign politicians, pro-Israel or Arabist or pragmatist or Communist, not to mention those who persistently called on the "international community," whatever that was, to take action against terrorism, had seen one? Of if they had, like Margaret Thatcher, what purpose did it serve apart from an exercise in patronage? Most Israelis lived a Sunday drive away from a camp, but only a tiny few had ever glimpsed one. Most simply excluded the inhabitants of the camps from any context, and this applied especially to the Israeli young, who did not remember the European pogroms against the Jews, in which no Arabs were involved, but nevertheless remained prisoners of their parents' fears.

One evening in Tel Aviv, in the pleasant garden of my friends Teddy and Shura Levite--Teddy, a journalist, was born in Warsaw and Shura was born in Vilna which was then in Polan--I set out to film for television a cross-section of young Israelis talking about how the camps could be emptied and the Palestinians could be satisfied. Instead I listened to the film turn in the camera as each struggled painfully to articulate the previously unthinkable.

Yuri, aged seventeen, had said, "First, I think you can't turn history back. What has happened, happened...we are here now. They are in the camps...I mean you can't throw us out...history won't let you...I don't know..."

The aloneness which Ahmed Harnzeh, the street entertainer, had felt as a boy and the anger that frustrated his manhood were of course shored up not only by Jews but by his brother Arabs, from Kuwait to the Lebanon, and by Christians, whose charity came at Christmas and occasionally at Easter. Of the thousands besieging Jerusalem just two, a Lutheran and his wife, had driven across the valley to Kalandia with a Land Rover laden with blankets.

It was a bitterly cold and wet Easter. I had not worn a coat and the wind spun off the large rocks on the bare side of the valley and carried the stench of the sewer that had overflowed and merged with the mud. Some 3,000 people lived here, in sight of their homeland and in dwellings of mud, sacking and corrugated iron. Water trickled brown, if at all, from communal taps, and there were communal lavatories and communal illnesses, such as madness, blindness and gastro-enteritis. Each person was issued 2,300 calories of rations per day, which would drop to 1,500 in the summer: figures calculated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) as precisely the amount a human being needed to survive, no more and no less, and precisely the amount the agency could afford on its minuscule handout from the "international community," with the notable exception of the Palestinians' shrill friend, the Soviet Union, which gave nothing.

The main meal at Kalandia was a tin plate of gruel in which a variety of nutrients were said to be expertly balanced, a brick of bread and a vitamin pill. Children under fifteen were supposed to receive a supplement of protein--rice, powdered egg, a vegetable--but this seldom reached all of them as UNRWA's money frequently ran out; and those who managed to get the food hurried back to the huts with it, where it was shared or put up for sale as the only defence against destitution. A quarter of the children were malnourished.

Two-thirds of Kalandia's men were unemployed; a generation had grown up who had never known work. They went nowhere. They walked up and down the camp's one undulating street. They huddled outside the administration block, listening to the broadcasts from Amman in which Palestinians throughout their Diaspora--in America, Europe, Latin America and the Arab world--sent messages to their families. These were followed by the melancholy songs of Oum Kalthoum, the beloved "Star of the Orient," and the men hummed the refrains they knew well. Then they walked some more as they sat on small promontories jutting above the mud, which also served as places to scrub clothes and, when the weather allowed, to dry them. All of them exhuded a listless humiliation, as if waiting for some deity to come to their aid while they watched their women suckle the next generation.

"I have seen only two children in shoes," I said to Mohammed Jarella, a gentle, sardonic Jerusalemite who had come with me to Kalandia and who, like most of the UNRWA people, was himself a Palestinian.

"1 have seen the same two," he said. "

But it is very cold."

"Yes, I can feel it."

"Well, what are you doing about it?"

"Well, my friend John, I have our budget in my briefcase...here it is...you see, in this column, is the money we have. In this next column is our expenditure...food for everybody and blankets for almost everybody. The two columns balance, you see. Three years ago we spent on food and roofs. In another three years...maybe we shall spend on shoes. That is our progress after twenty years."

The highest hill above Kalandia rises in a mass of eroded limestone. Ahmed Hamzeh, the street entertainer, walked down the slope towards us, with his son holding the tail of his coat.

"He has sold the monkey," said Mohammed Jarella. "He doesn't go to Jerusalem any more. He broods; he reads. He is trying to perform a miracle and grow something on that hill."

He arrived and gripped my hand and did not let go. His son stood very still at his side. "You will forgive me," he said in good English, after these years...twenty years I have been here...if I look like peasant. Never mind. I could sing very well and even on the street I thought I was an artist, not a beggar...maybe I am not even a peasant now. Never mind."

"After all this time," I said to him, "what do you feel? Do you feel hatred?"

"Hatred! What is that to a Palestinian? If you mean, did I hate the Jews? Well, I don't remember them much in Haifa. But after the war, when we came to Jordan, I remember the Arabs...the Arabs with jokes about Palestinians...the Arabs at the Aliens' Office who shouted and made you wait for weeks for a work permit.... Yes, I hate the Jews, or maybe I pity them for their stupidity. They can't win, because we Palestinians are the Jews now and, like the Jews, we will never allow them or the Arabs or you to forget. The youth will guarantee us that...is that not truth, Jarella?"

"My friend," said Mohammed Jarella, "I am here for the United Nations. I am meant to be neutral."

"Neutral!" said Ahmed Hamzeh. "What is neutral? Are you a Palestinian?"

"Yes, I am," said Jarella.

"Then do or don't I speak the truth?"

"You speak it."

When he walked away, I noticed he was leading his son, and that the son stumbled.

"It is trachoma," said Jarella. "In the early days it blinded hundreds of children in the camps. We have it under control now."

In Kalandia's one substantial building, a group of teenage girls was learning to sew. The faces were bored and they ignored us, except for one girl who stood up behind her ancient machine and began to shout. The girl beside her pulled at her apron and admonished her, but still she shouted.

Mohammed Jarella put his voluminous overcoat around her shoulders, as if to protect her from the cold. " Ah, this is difficult," he said, embarrassed. "She is asking you why can't she go to her home. She is saying, 'Why? Why?' She is sixteen and was born here. You know, this is the only place she has known; I doubt if she has even been to Jerusalem. But she still believes this is not her home. In her imagination she knows she has a home elsewhere."

I drove on to Ramallah, a few miles away. With Jerusalem, Jericho, Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron, Ramallah, with its Christian majority, was at the matrix of the Holy Land on the West Bank of the Jordan taken from King Hussein the previous June; and already, there were voices in Israel claiming it as Israeli territory. To its 600,000 inhabitants, this was Palestine, adapted from Falastin, the Arabic corruption of the Roman name Palaestina, although Israeli historians insisted the Romans only used this name to wipe Judah from the map. Whatever the recent claims of territory and the biblical claims of convenience, the Palestinian Arabs had been the continuous majority here, living in flinty valleys terraced with olive and orange groves over which minarets rose and people moved about like butterflies in the fields; only the oak forests were missing and, Jew and Arab were agreed, it was the Turks who cut them down.

In Ramallah, the big clock in Mukhtaribine Square was stopped at seven minutes past ten. It had stopped on June 6, 1967. It had been one of the first targets hit by Israeli shells a few hours before Israeli troops occupied the town as the prelude to their lightning conquest of the West Bank. Ramallah and its sister town of El Bireh, 3,000 feet above sea level, were Jordan's holiday resorts. Money would start coming in at Easter in preparation for "the season" and for the influx of thousands of wealthy middle-class tourists from the Gulf, on whom the towns' economies depended.

The streets were almost empty now. In a side street a distraught family picked over the ruins of their house blown up by the Israelis two nights before. Details were difficult to come by, but it seemed that a "suspect" had slept there. This was now a common sight in the towns and villages of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians could become suspects if they were previously members of a political party, a trade union, a student society, a cultural association--all of which were banned. If they uttered a word of protest against the occupation, they could be arrested; striking, or even closing their own shops during normal business hours, was forbidden. And before they were tried or even charged, their families and often their neighbours--people they might have barely known and all of them innocent even in the eyes of the authorities--would be collectively punished. Indeed, they would be bundled out into the street regardless of the hour or the weather--women, children, the old, the sick--and marshalled to watch the destruction of their homes. This was to be their "lesson." It is not known if the Jewish soldiers who planted the explosives reflected upon the irony of their actions; for few peoples had known more collective punishment than the Jews.

Beneath the stopped clock in the square and outside the travel agent's, where "Israel" on the globe in the window had been carefully with Plasticine, a long queue extended into the street. They were going to America, where there was already a Palestinian community some 5,000. The Israeli's allowed them to take out their money in foreign currency, on condition that they signed a form declaring that their departure was voluntary and that they would never return. Most the faces turned away when I approached them; their bitterness touchable. They at least could arrange their own exodus.

Almost overnight Ramallah had been denuded of its teachers, journalists, engineers and politicians. All but one of those to whom I had introductions had been deported from the land of his birth, the mayor and the leader of the Evangelical Episcopal Community. Those left behind were the old puffing on their hookahs and listening to Al Fatah radio acclaim guerrilla victories no one believed, and women and the young, of whom the street entertainer had spoken.

I drove south to Jericho where a mile beyond the walls of the world's first city, now swept into a neat neolithic pile, sprawled the world's largest ghost town: Aqabat Jabr, formerly a camp of 25,000 refugees from Jerusalem, Nazareth and Haifa, all of whom had fled in a terrible stampede on the night of June 12, 1967.

"Kill the Jews wherever you find them," said King Hussein in his last broadcast before the ceasefire on the sixth day of the war. "Kill them with your hands, your nails and teeth." Now the Jews had won, they would come and kill them all at Aqabat Jabr: that was the people's conviction. By the dawn of the 13th they had gone, all 25,000 of them, across the Allenby Bridge to what was left of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. All but one had gone. He was the mayor of the camp and he approached me, marching stiff-backed and with a broom on his shoulder as if it was a rifle. For ten months he had marched the empty streets, guarding the empty houses with his broom, shouting orders to himself. The convulsion of that night, caused by blind, contagious fear, had apparendy left him in this state. He had stayed to face the blood-thirsty Jews, who came and were delighted by what they saw; they wanted not blood, only the land.

"You, sir, are welcome!" bellowed the mayor. "I, sir, am ready to receive you...with all my people here!"

Inside the mud-walled houses there had been no alteration since the night of June 12. The Israelis had left the camp exacdy as they found it, returning only to sweep the streets for mines. In one house was a crib, unfinished basketwork, a table laid for breakfast. In another, a wedding album lay open on the floor and two shy, out of focus faces peered up, smiling, and beside it a carpenter's diploma bore the footprint of its owner, left perhaps as he fled; a tattered copy of First Steps in English Grammar flapped its pages; doors opened and shut in the breeze; flies vibrated over cans of yeast which, said the label, were "a gift of the American people, not to be sold or exchanged."

I picked up the wedding album and the carpenter's diploma and drove away. Before I turned out of the valley I glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw the solitary figure of the mayor. He was standing to attention, presenting arms with his broom.



Unspeakables

Maoz Haim, Israel: February 1970

The children were inexplicably different: their eyes had a bland, almost adult look; and when at night the incessant noise began, like a great door slamming in the wind, they lay still in the chambers and they did not giggle. They were good children.

The chambers were their homes. They were underground and hermetically sealed against gas and lit by a soft violet light. The children were born here and would be preserved here until they were old enough to fight: such as the cycle of life at the front line of a war in the very heartland of Israel, the world's David, as Israelis would wish to describe their country, a nation in arms more than any nation in modern history, though others would describe her as Sparta.

Maoz Haim was a kibbutz that dribbled dangerously over the lip of the Jordan valley, half a mile from an electrified fence, beyond which was the River Jordan and the black basalt hills where, the Bible says, Jesus Christ multiplied the bread and fish. Maoz Haim had 350 members; the eldest was born in 1890 on the Russian steppes and the youngest was born the night before I arrived, during the eleven o'clock shelling, and given the name Shalom, which means, in literal Hebrew, peace and, in practice, ceasefire.

Maoz Haim was settled on July 7, 1936 by a dozen ragged Poles who came in a truck from Haifa and pitched their tents beside a malarial swamp, purchased from a sheik by the Jewish Fund. The Poles came at speed because the following day, July 8, the British Mandate authorities were to enact a law which proclaimed this Arab land and prohibited Jews from settling it.

"So what did we do?" said Itshah Carmel, one of the twelve. "We created the fact that this was Jewish land!" He laughed from his belly, knowing that "created facts" belong to his people's jargon.

Maoz Haim is the perfect image of Israel as many American Jews like to portray it, though without a notion of settling there themselves. The swamp and the brown folds of earth that surrounded it have long been converted to a lush profusion of datepalm, mango, olive, orange, jasmine and pomegranate; and were it not for another fact created long ago, the fact of Arab Palestine, the kibbutz might appear peacefully suburban, with its shade trees and rows of dolls houses and people cycling to the small plastics factory, which makes drinking straws and shower caps, and to the cotton fields and cow pasture. And were it not for the war, the cow pasture would not contain the mashed outline of a calf, which the day before had stepped on a mine meant for a man.

I arrived at the kibbutz at night, having driven the hundred miles from Tel Aviv, the breadth of Israel, past signs that read, "If attacked leave your car and take shelter here." At the last stop before the frontier, a town called Beit Sheam where, until 1948, Arabs had lived for at least a thousand years, I had a coffee and enquired where the original inhabitants had gone and what the town used to be called. No one knew. "Shhh," said the cafe owner, who was listening to the news with a worried expression; he had a boy on the Golan.

As I approached the kibbutz a spotlight picked up my car and guided me along the barbed-wire fence to the gate. Suddenly, the ground shook as explosions walloped it in firecracker succession. The spotlight left the car and swept out to the east; a siren sounded; a man came running with a torch. "Get out of there!" he shouted. "Get down here...Katyushas!"

A Katyusha is a 130 millimetre Russian cannon, which the Fedayeen fired usually every other night from the Gilead mountains. The shells smashed into the perimeter fence and one skidded through an orange grove, neatly laying it aside, and the rest merely furrowed the fields, as they usually did; they had a dependable inaccuracy.

Underground, in the chambers, the children were in a state of absurd calm, listening not to the explosions that shook their bunks but to a mounting argument among the adults as to whether they ought to watch Bonanza or Mission Impossible on a television recently donated by students in Salt Lake City. The adults were either parents or young women known as metapelet, which means roughly surrogate mother. At Maoz Haim, the rules regarding children are unwritten but strict. A mother may keep her newborn child with her only for the first four days. On the fifth day it is removed to a "children's house" and given into the care of a metapelet. The mother is allowed to breast-feed her child for six months, and to play with him or her as long as she wishes, but only after she has worked the compulsory eight-hour day.

When the shelling had ended, I was taken to my hut, whose usual occupant, a single man called Yermiashu, was down at the electrified fence on patrol; after the Katyushas had furrowed the fields half a dozen Fedayeen would sometimes cross the Jordan and attempt to lay mines or ambush a patrol. Yermiashu had killed a guerrilla the week before and was regarded as a hero; to sleep in his bed, I was told, was a privilege.

I had often heard it said that whilst the kibbutzim enshrined the early ideals of the nation they no longer reflected the urban realities of Israel. There was much truth in this argument; the kibbutzniks were less than 4 per cent of the population. But they provided a quarter of all the Israeli casualties of the Six Day War (the proportion was even greater in the previous wars), and with their all-consuming self-belief, courage, discipline and isolation from the world around them, they remained an almost perfect microcosm of what Israel might become if she failed to sue for peace. Moaz Haim means fortress of life; most Israelis would accept this as a description of their country.

One morning at four o'clock I set out with a patrol almost to the edge of the River Jordan. The patrol was looking for two Fedayeen, who were the survivors of a raiding party that had come across in a rubber dinghy. Directly ahead was an Arab village called Zemaliah, surrounded by reputedly the richest soil in the Middle East. The original kibbutzniks, like Itshah Carmel, used to cross the river to hear the Arab farmers of Zemaliah sing in the fields; but only a goat coughed there now; everyone had gone. The heady smell of jasmine hung in the pre-dawn mist.

As the patrol's mounted machine-gun swept this emptiness, the young man in charge, whose name I was not permitted to know, said, "It's like fighting mosquitoes: you never really see them." He used the term "them" a great deal; "them" is how most Israelis refer to the Palestinians, terrorist or otherwise. "The only one of them I ever knew to talk to," he said, "was a boy I used to play with when my father took me into the fields."

I asked all the young men on the patrol if they had ever known the enemy, "them," as individual people. Each answered no.

When I returned to Tel Aviv, Dan Hadarni, an old friend who had photographed Kalandia, Akabat Jabr and Maoz Haim for me, said, "1 am full of confusion. I wish I had not seen the camps or the kibbutz. It is better for an Israeli like me not to be confused, because then we are at our weakest. At the refugee camp, I looked in a mirror; they were us, once again in the Diaspora; their bitterness was expressed with the words we used; their determination was our determination, which we grew up with in the ghetto. In my heart, I want them to be free, to go home, but I am afraid, and I know I have to stop them!"

Dan, with whom I have worked on other assignments, is a Pole, one of the "human dust" as Ben-Gurion called the Jews of the Diaspora. He remembers, as a boy in Poland, the "long black vans" of the Gestapo cruising the streets, and men in long overcoats getting out of them, enticing children to come for "a joyride." The rear compartments of the cars were sealed and the windows were opaque, and when each joyride began gas would pour from nozzles under the seat; it would take no more than a block or two of slow driving for half a dozen Jewish children to die. He had heard about the cars, so he ran when they came. Most of his family were gassed in Nazi camps.

Dan said, "We do not want to live together with the Arabs because we don't trust them. I don't think the Jews trust anybody any more. That is a fact and a tragedy. I know we have passed this distrust, which I am afraid is essential for us, to the younger generation, so that they feel it even stronger than their parents."

It was at this time that the fear and distrust was changing to a dependence on the Arabs as a captive labour force. Israelis were beginning to exhibit an anti-Semitism of their own; the Arabs, after all, were Semites, too. Sounding like a voice from out of the Jewish past, and using a familiar euphemism, Golda Meir had described the Palestinians as the communal problem. A few Israelis recognised the first signs of this racism and its dangers. While I was in Tel Aviv, a farmer's wife caused a minor commotion when she addressed the following anguished open letter to Moshe Dayan:

I am alarmed at the fact that with five Arab labourers, none of my family will mow the lawn or drive a tractor, on the grounds that "Mohammed will do it." Our treatment of the Arabs, right down to our personal dealings with workmen and others, sends shivers up my spine. ..because it reminds me of our past.l

Dayan replied, "I agree this situation holds nothing good for Jews." He made no mention of it holding nothing good for Arabs.2

"Unspeakables," such as compromise, were and are uttered in Israel by some of the most remarkable people I have met. Compromise has a very different meaning in Israel from that understood in much of Europe, because it dares to question Jewish exclusiveness. Israel Shahak is Professor of Organic Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, chairman of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights and an unofficial leader of the peace movement. Oded Pilavsky, a member of Matzpen, had said of him, "Dr Shahak has seen true suffering. He was in the Warsaw ghetto and Bergen-Belsen and somehow managed to survive. Unlike most people who have suffered, his attitude is not "I've suffered enough, now it's their [the Palestinians'] turn". Rather, he decided that he himself would never be responsible for the type of suffering he underwent."

I had several meetings with Israel Shahak in the clutter of his small flat in Tel Aviv. I sat on a chair; he sat on a pile of books. His face was terribly scarred by Nazi tortures. When his emotions rose I was transfixed by his eloquence. "Peace," he said, rolling it around his tongue, "peace will come only when Jewish rights are no longer placed above human rights. Jewish culture has never been touched by the Enlightenment and is still ethically primitive. We never had a Martin Luther or a Calvin who said, "Wait a minute, we've been wrong about some basic principles for thousands of years." If Israel is a democracy...why are we so afraid to reform? Has Britain crumbled because it is no longer run by people beholden to the Church of England? France, until the Revolution, was built on the principle that only those who took the Catholic sacrament could be admitted to positions of power. This has changed. Has France left the map of Europe? The paradox of Israel is that her greatest weakness is the blinding force of Judaism, which has never been able to hear other opinions, criticisms. When people speak out for Jewish interests, they are regarded as people who have seen the light. When Zola defended Dreyfus he was not regarded by Jews as a man who loved justice but as a Jew-lover! Today, you only have to look in the Yearbook of Israeli Statistics, and you can see that everything in Israel is classified in Jewish and non-Jewish categories...vegetables! melons! babies! ...and this means that non-Jews who now happen to be the majority here, the Palestinians, are not regarded in this country as human beings."

I asked Israel Shahak if he believed Jews and Arabs would ever live together again in peace. "Yes!" he replied. "But only if there is security for both of us. I am working in Jerusalem. Two miles away a Palestinian lawyer was taken the other night and expelled, exactly like Solzhenitsyn from Moscow. It is not inconceivable that his house will be given to a Dutchman who has converted to Judaism, who will have all the rights the Palestinian never had in his homeland. We will never have security while we think only about Jews."3



Diaspora

Amman, Jordon: March 1970

A month later I was on the other side of the River Jordan. Israel, which occupied the horizon, was a world away. The hill above us merged into a zinc sky; night had almost come when we reached the top and the bearers put his box down on the rubble, and lifted him out and held him up, dead and still bloodied, to look at "occupied Palestine."

He was nineteen, a martyr now, or a fool, depending from which side of the Jordan you viewed his silhouette. I shall remember his bravery. His hearse, on which I had travelled to his funeral, was the same jeep, fitted with a machine gun, which had taken us down to the river the night before. The mourners included the four who had come back across the river with me, having achieved nothing, except his death. Our faces were still blacked up with a watery tar, and the mud which had almost consumed our ridiculous adventure still clung to our clothes; but my sorrow for him, his father and brother was eclipsed by my relief at having come back.

His name was Ahmed Jabit, son of Mohammed Jabit, a carpenter; and he was held up like a hanged man while automatic weapons spat into the air and his brother, Salah, shouted across the valley:

Out of his crucified growth!
Out of his stolen smile!
Life will emerge!
When he goes home...to Palestine!

At this, he was laid in the box, which was then sealed and covered with stones; and when I asked why the body had not been buried in the Muslim way, in a shroud, his brother said, "Because when we go home, each box will be reclaimed and carried ahead of us. No one will remain behind."

I had met Ahmed Jabit in a tent in the Baqa'a UNRWA camp a week before his death. Baqa'a was one of ten camps hurriedly erected in the days following the Six Day War to accommodate the thousands who fled across the Jordan, many of them from camps to which they had fled after the 1948 war. When I arrived it had not rained for some days but the earth was still a slick of orange brown. The nylon beach tents, sent from abroad, were blue, yellow, orange and green: bright consolations, perhaps, for the winter snowstorms and the unrelenting sun that followed. Baqa'a camp contained 60,000 people and 6,000 tents, 3,000 fewer tents than were needed! Bathing sheds were not yet built; trench latrines provided the only sanitation. All the children, it seemed, had running noses and eyes. They included most of the 25,000 people who had fled Aqabat Jabr, the camp in the valley now guarded by a madman with a broom.

I had brought with me the wedding album and the carpenter's diploma, with its footprint still recognisable, which I had picked up two years before in a deserted mud house in Aqabat Jabr. The diploma belonged to Mohammed Jabit; and there were eight of that name at Baqa'a. After several days of inviting myself into tent after tent and showing the diploma and the wedding album, I found the owner.

He had sent his wife to live with a relative in Egypt. He lived on rations and was sometimes asked to do repairs in the camp, but there were hundreds of carpenters like him. He said proudly that his sons, Salah and Ahmed, counted themselves, like every young male in the camp over the age of eight, as members of the "resistance," and that Salah had learned to lay explosives and wield a knife and to snipe with a long-barrelled Polish rifle, which was kept in a corner of the tent beneath an old sepia photograph of the house in Jaffa he had not seen since he and his bride of a few weeks had fled in 1948.

Both his sons were born at Aqabat Jabr and in recent months they had undergone training with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which emerged after the Six Day War as one of the most politicised of the guerrilla groups, Marxist-Leninist in ideology and considerably less conciliatory in tone than Al Fatah, the largest group. Two evenings later I met Salah and AhmedJabit in a house in suburban Amman and prepared to join them and three others of the PFLP in a raid across the Jordan.

Unlike many reporters who have covered conflict, I have had consciously to leap out of character and abandon an ingrained sense of caution or simple cowardice. My friend George Jesse Turner, Granada Television's admirable and apparently dauntless World in Action cameraman, with whom I worked in Vietnam, has a similar lack of personal mission in war, which was reaffirmed when he preceded me across the Jordan and returned with an Israeli bullet in his bum. My own unease increased sharply during the briefing before the raid when Ahmed Jabit blew away the leg of a table in an attempt to load his automatic weapon. By the time we set out under darkness and painted liberally with tar, I knew I was on the wrong side in one important respect.

A jeep dropped us a few hundred yards from the river shortly before one o'clock in the morning. Burdened with the inner tubes of lorry and tractor tyres, all of them ancient and inexpertly patched, the six of us stumbled to the riverbank. The tubes were roped together and we splashed on to them in pairs: me with Salah, whom I had assumed was the leader, though I was never sure. When he ordered the others, who were talking as if we were going on a picnic, to shut up, they obeyed.

Our goal was also unclear. "If you see an Israeli outpost," the portly PFLP briefer had said, "you are to get through the wire and attack with grenades. If the track on the other side is clear, and there are no signs of patrols, you are to mine it." I gathered that they had no advance intelligence and only the faintest idea of what to expect.

The tubes drifted erratically in the current; only Salah, in the lead, had a paddle, and after much inept and noisy splashing we reached the reeds on the other side, where we disembarked and all but disappeared in the mud. It now seemed a more than even bet that we would remain packed in the mud until daybreak when an Israeli patrol--one was expected then--would see us. Almost an hour passed before we extricated ourselves, only to hear a resounding splash as Ahmed fell backwards into the river. When I managed to drag him out, he was consumed by fear; and so, it occurred to me, was I. Ahmed, who spoke no English, was small and tubby and the opposite of his brother, who had build and instinctive bravado. When I first met Ahmed, he struck me as an intensely sensitive and shy young man; his watercolours of Jaffa, his father's birthplace which he had never seen, were proudly displayed in the family's tent.

There was no moon. But the floor of that part of the Jordan valley is flat and swept and, thus exposed, we walked for half a mile to a crop of rocks where the explosives were prepared. The Israeli kibbutzniks patrolling the perimeter of Maoz Haim had laughed about the guerrillas' attempts at mine-laying; one in five went off, they said, and usually killed Arabs and not Jews. The track was just ahead, and Salah and two others crept forward with the explosives.

Then there was a metallic chatter, the revving of a motor and a spotlight. Our file broke as we ran in all directions. The spotlight spread ahead of the man running in front of me who tripped as he jettisoned his bandolier of ammunition. I fell face first into the sand as automatic fire lifted it in little fountains; I drenched my pants. Salah fell back, swivelled on his belly and returned the fire, a brave and stupid act as he was blinded by the spotlight and had declared himself a target.

1 found our marker at the riverbank and catapulted myself on to one of the tubes. There was a volley of grenade explosions, the roaring of the motor, then silence. The Israeli patrol had driven away at speed. They had been as surprised as we were; and perhaps their panic had matched ours, with the exception of Salah, whose furious detonations had doubtless given the impression of a force of formidable numbers. He stumbled towards us and into the mud, carrying his brother who was drenched in blood and crying.

We spreadeagled the tubby Ahmed across a tube and when I said, "Where the fuck is the first aid?" there was no response; they had carried none. His right arm was in shreds; his left hand was a sponge. Salah and I set out to swim with him in the tube, but one leg dragged in the water and caused us to go round in circles. He had stopped crying when we got to the other side and hauled him out, and he was dead when we found the jeep. Salah nursed his brother's head until we reached a field hospital half-way to Amman and, after stretcher bearers had taken the body from him, he waved us on. It was dawn when I was dropped at the UNRWA office at Baqa'a camp and walked through the lines of tents to the home of Mohammed Jabit, the carpenter from Jaffa, and woke him and told him.



Going Home

Allenby Bridge, Jordan: September 1973

In the three years since I had last seen him, on the morning Ahmed had died in the raid across the Jordan, the life of the carpenter Mohammed Jabit had stood still in time. Salah, his surviving son, had grown disillusioned with the PFLP's attrition, which he had never understood, and had defected to Al Fatah when it moved its operations to the Lebanon immediately following Hussein's rout of the guerrilla groups in September 1970, now known as Black September. The last the carpenter had heard of his son was that he was married, had twin boys and was training refugee children in Al Assifa, The Storm, Fatah's youth wing.

Mohammed Jabit himself had barely survived the assault on the camp by Hussein's Bedouin Army. Jordanian artillery had pummelled the camp in order to drive home Hussein's edict that the Palestinians could remain in his kingdom (of which Palestinians made up more than half the population) only if they eschewed the guerrilla groups, which since the Six Day War had flaunted their autonomous power in Amman. To the Palestinians, Black September was Hussein, who had long kept his end of a deal with Washington to expel the guerrillas in return for arms and dollars and a tacit peace with Israel.

Mohammed Jabit's tent was only one of a dozen left standing on the eastern perimeter of the camp after the Jordanians had opened fire shortly after dawn. When he ran for his life it was the start of his third flight since the day he left his small flat-roofed ochre-coloured house, with its workshop and market garden, in Jaffa.

We had lunch and I said to him, "I am going to Jerusalem tomorrow, across the Allenby Bridge. Would you like to come with me? We can go to Jaffa and see your house. There's a bus before daybreak. We can be at your home before lunch." His expression was incredulous.

I attempted to explain Israel's "summer visits" scheme, which he had heard something about on the radio. The scheme was the idea of Moshe Dayan, now Israel's defence minister. Although on the surface it seemed a humanitarian gesture, allowing former residents of the West Bank to return for a limited period, the real purpose of the visits was to accelerate the expulsion of more and more Palestinians from their homeland. When brother was reunited with brother and father with child, their overwhelming desire was for permanent reunion. However, when they approached the Israeli authorities, they were told, "Yes, of course, you can all be together again...on the other side of the Jordan!"

Although Mohammed Jabit came originally from Jaffa, as a former resident of Aqabat Jabr on the West Bank, he qualified as a "visitor."

"I can't go into Israel!" he said.

"Why?" I said. "Thousands of West Bankers go there every day to work."

"But I am afraid to go. What if my house is no longer there?"

He produced his wallet and took from it a key.

"This is the key to my home," he said. "I locked the door when I left in 1948."

Early the next morning we boarded a vintage bus for the two-hour journey to the Allenby Bridge. On the other side, at the wired maze that is the Israeli checkpoint, we parted temporarily, as Arabs are scrutinised separately. Though I was not an Arab, the heels of my shoes were examined, my toothpaste was squeezed, my small cigars each ceremoniously broken in half and most of my papers read.

We hitched a ride in a fruit lorry to Ramallah, then gave a taxi-driver the address in Jaffa. The carpenter had sat in silence for most of the journey but now, as he directed the driver through a labyrinth of streets, past the boarded-up mosque where his family used to worship, he wiped his eyes.

"Yes, this is it...." he said. Then for a moment he was not sure. "Yes, yes, this is it!"

He got out of the taxi, walked to the front gate and kissed the ground. An old man, who had been pottering among the lettuces in the front yard, came over to us and I attempted to explain. But he was transfixed by the sight of the carpenter gazing upon the house which he had not seen for a quarter of a century. When Mohammed Jabit and his family had fled, the present owner was in a Russian labour camp, having lost four of his family in the war with Germany. He had acquired the house from the Custodian of Properties, the Israeli department which expropriates Arab homes and businesses.

"I have not made many changes," he said to Mohammed Jabit. "I have had to pull down the workshop...it was full of worm. But I have kept something...please wait a minute."

He hurried inside and returned with a long wooden box. "Here are tools I found," he said. "I have not disturbed them. They are as you left them. I cleaned them once."

Mohammed Jabit sought to control his emotions and said nothing.

"I am so very sorry," said the present owner, whose name he gave only as Ze'ev. "Please, will you come inside for a cup of coffee?"

"No," said Mohammed Jabit. "Please...I have nothing against you, but I cannot accept an invitation to enter my own home."

"I am so very sorry," repeated Ze'ev. "Please, what can I do?" And as if to redeem something, he added, "You know I understand. Before the cease fire I lost a son...."

He waved at us to wait, went inside and returned with a package of cake and fruit, which he asked Mohammed Jabit to accept; and he did. As we talked a woman held the screen door ajar but did not come out; her face was filled with concern and bafflement and was not without fear.

"There is no reason why we should not live together," Ze'ev said. "I am sorry. I cannot think ofwhat else I should say."

"There is no reason," said the carpenter, whom I last saw when our taxi dropped me in Jerusalem and took him on back to the bridge. There he would wait through half the night for a bus back to the camp.




back to top




Notes

1. Letter and response from Dayan originally published in the Jerusalem Post and cited in "Palestine is still the Issue," Associated Television documentary, broadcast July 1974.

2. Ibid.

3. Interview filmed for "Palestine is still the Issue," Associated Television documentary, broadcast July 1974.







About the Author

John Pilger, an Australian, has twice won British journalism's highest award, that of Journalist of the Year, for his work all over the world, especially as a war correspondent. For his documentary film-making, he has won France's Reporter sans Frontières, an American television Academy Award, an "Emmy," and the Richard Dimbleby Award, given by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, for a lifetime's factual broadcasting. He lives in London.







Contents


1. Exodus

2. Unspeakables

3. Diaspora

4. Going Home







Web Editor's Note
This document has been edited slightly to conform to American stylistic, punctuation and hypertext conventions. No other changes to the text have been made.

Clicking title and section headings will display the table of contents.

Reprinted in accordance with U.S. copyright law.




Alabaster's Archive
Alabaster's Archive