Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians,
edited by Staughton Lynd, Sam Bahour and Alice Lynd.
Olive Branch Press, New York, 1994, 14.95, 310 pp.
Get the book here.
A review by Ronald BleierThis review was published in Middle East Policy, March 1996, pp.180-184.
In the introduction to this unprecedented collection of Palestinian oral histories, the editors quote Dr. Haidar Abd al-Shafi, a leader of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Conference in 1991: "It is time for us to narrate our own story." Behind Dr. Shafi's words is the devastating failure of the Palestinians for most of the last 47 years to gain a favorable hearing compared to the extraordinary sympathy the Zionists have achieved. Homeland's great achievement is that it takes an important step towards filling a lamentable vacuum.
Worldwide sympathy for the Palestinians was generated in late 1987 by the outbreak of the intifada which put into question the view of Israelis as victims and Arabs as aggressors. As the editors explain in their introduction, the intifada was the underlying force behind a special program at a March 1991 Ramadan celebration in Youngstown, Ohio, where Palestinians recounted their histories. The success of this event led the editors to seek out more Palestinians in the Youngstown area and in turn led to two trips to Occupied Palestine and Israel in 1991 and 1992 where the bulk of the interviews that appear in the book were conducted.
Homeland organizes the testimonies of more than 40 Palestinians into 10 chapters which cover many of their important issues and historical moments: 1948, 1967, The [Refugee] Camp, Women, Prisoners, W orkers and Farmers, Families, Jordan and Lebanon, Resistance in the Occupied Territories and Behind the Green Line. The editors provide helpful maps, a list of each of the contributors, an historical overview, and brief opening notes for each chapter. The text is also supplemented by useful footnotes which often comprise citations of U.S. State Department and Amnesty International reports on human rights violations, as well as references to the Geneva conventions and other appropriate protocols.
Since this is a collection of the personal histories of Palestinians, it is perforce a recitation of endless dispossession and expulsion. On page after page we read the testimony of people who lost their homes, their lands, their heritage. In one memorable example, we get a picture of the fear and loss experienced by Mohammed Ibrahim Harb who reports that in the course of the 1948 fighting he fled to Gaza with his family from north of Ashkelon (formerly Majdal) leaving his father to watch the house. When he returned, he found his parent dead from a bayonet wound in the right side. Harb speculates that his old, blind father didn't answer when the Israelis knocked on the door. He says that he buried him in a shallow grave and departed so quickly into the night that he "took nothing from our home, not even our land certificates."
EXPULSION AND DISPOSSESSION
In another example, Riyad, a Palestinian born into exile in 1961 in a refugee camp in Lebanon, speaks of how his family lost the 700 acres they used to farm in Palestine. Like the other refugees in L ebanon, he condemns the countless Israeli bombing raids; he speaks of the shelling of the camp which wounded him and the grinding poverty in which his family still lives. He concludes with his longing for the homeland he never saw. "I used to stand in southern Lebanon and at night I could see the lights in northern Palestine."
Homeland is notable for the evidence it offers about a little known aspect of the '48 fighting: the Israeli bombing campaign in Palestine. While Israeli use of air power in 1948 is no secret, Homeland presents testimony that aerial bombing was used as a means to drive out the civilian Arab population. For example, Um Khalil, a refugee currently living on the West Bank, reports that during the '48 fighting, she begged a man with a cart to take her family to their home in Majdal from Gaza. "Are you mad?" the man asked her. "All the people are living under trees. Nobody is living in Majdal , nobody. Every five minutes there are airplanes that come to kill the people. I will not take you. You should search for a place in Gaza."
Information presented in Homeland also raises questions about King Hussein's role in the 1967 War. The received wisdom is that Jordan put up stiff resistance before losing East Jerusalem and the West Bank to the Israelis. Homeland provides testimony, mostly from Husam Rafeedie, a former West Bank resident, that King Hussein ordered his troops to withdraw from the West Bank and East Jerusalem as early as five days before the war began on June 5, 1967. According to Rafeedie, the only opposition to the Israelis in East Jerusalem came from Palestinians serving in Jordanian units who disobeyed orders to leave their posts. Rafeedie claims that the same was true where there was fighting elsewhere on the West Bank. "Two or three of the lieutenants, who were Palestinians, decided not to withdraw and put up a good battle. Until now, if you go towards Nablus or Tulkarem, you'll see some remaining parts of tanks that were burned and are sitting on the side of the road. There were a few pockets that resisted the [Jordanian] order to [retreat] to the [Jordan] River."
NEW QUESTIONS ABOUT 1967
Furthermore, Hikmat Deeb Ali, of Emwas, a town on the West Bank near the Israeli border, reports that the captain of the Jordanian forces in the area announced that he was pulling out his troops on the evening before the arrival of the Israeli military. Hikmat Deeb Ali goes on to give a striking eyewitness account of the unopposed occupation of Emwas and the subsequent expulsion of all its residents.
It's not clear why King Hussein might have cooperated with the Israelis in a matter of such importance to all Arabs. Until documentation or further testimony surfaces, we can only speculate that the Israelis may have made clear that Jordanian resistance would lead to harsh retribution.
There can not be much of a silver lining to the story of the dispossession of the Palestinian people. However, adversity of this kind, involving the military occupation and the oppression of a nation , breeds exceptional people: heroes and heroines of Palestine who have survived to tell their tale. The narratives in Homeland spare the reader little of the horrendous details of their ordeals. Nevertheless, the stories of the victims tend to be softened by the extraordinary courage and dignity they displayed under the most extreme circumstances.
TORTURE AND HEROISM
Surely one of the most remarkable and heroic among the pantheon of heroes and heroines in the book must be Lawahez Burgal who was a 15 1/2 year old schoolgirl when she was first arrested by the Israelis when they identified her as a political activist. She underwent weeks of unspeakable torture before she finally admitted her crime: that she was "a member of a certain political organization." After serving four years of prison she eventually married and had two children before she was rearrested and once again underwent terrible tortures during interrogation.
She speaks of the academic and spiritual education she obtained in prison. She says she finished her high school proficiency test there and she learned Hebrew, French and English; and even a little Dutch from a woman who was suspected of working for the PLO. She explains how in the beginning she was "psychologically and spiritually weak" and how she used to curse her jailers. But her comrades upbraided her: "'Don't say 'the Jewish.' Say 'soldiers.' The Jewish are people and there are good and bad Jews.' ... That was the first time in my life that I started thinking like that."
She comes to realize that even though some of her colleagues suffered as much or more than she, they did not deny the humanity of the Israelis. In the case of one fellow prisoner who was raped, Lawahez recognized that "she was teaching me what it meant to be a human being. After that I was ashamed."
It's not surprising that Palestinians should live and breathe politics -- since it's the ongoing struggle over the land that defines their past and determines their present and future. Nor is it surprising that many of their spokespeople should be without illusion about what is being done to them by whom.
PALESTINIAN POLITICAL UNDERSTANDING
A typical example of such political clarity in Homeland comes from a farmer named Mamdouh from Marjen Naja in the Jordan Valley. He explains that when the Israelis came to his area as a consequence o f their victory in the 1967 War, "they took two-thirds of the land...and they created a buffer zone with barbed wire. ...There was no recognition of the legal arrangements between the Palestinians living here and the Jordanian government."
"We are struggling for land. ...The future looks bleak if the situation does not change quickly. The current peace efforts [the Madrid negotiations which began in October 1991] are morphine, to keep us quiet for a little bit longer. Today, thousands upon thousands of foreigners are coming into this country and taking the land from under our feet." Mahmdouh complains that the "water resources have been drained by the Israelis and the water that is left here is salty. ...Settlers have solved their problem of salt in the water by...installing water purifiers. ...We are not allowed to ins tall water purifiers."
Riyad Malki, a professor of engineering at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, highlights Israeli interference with Palestinian education among other forms of Israeli oppression. In his interview for Homeland, he argued that Israelis used the pretext of "security" for closing Palestinian educational institutions from kindergarten through higher education. According to Professor Malki, the Israelis propose to "create a generation of ignorance" in order to "kill the mind of Palestinian society" so as to strip Palestinians of their future.
Professor Malki quotes Rhavam Ze'evi, a far-right member of the Israeli Knesset who "says very clearly that his objective is to force the Palestinians to leave. According to him, "We are not going to force them to transfer but we are going to make them leave voluntarily."
"The Israelis are implementing this policy but without saying so clearly. Their strategy is to do it little by little. When you close academic institutions, when you confiscate land, when you build settlements, when you uproot trees, when you demolish houses, when you detain and deport Palestinian people, etc., etc., you want the population to leave. They are creating a situation such that the Palestinians can no longer tolerate life. They want Palestinians to become convinced that their future has ended and that leaving is the only way to survive. In essence, they are forcing Palestinians to take a decision that has already been predetermined by the Israelis."
Readers will have to decide for themselves whether or not the Oslo process, which began in the fall of 1993, will lead to peace or to more conflict. The strength of Homeland is that it provides the reader with sufficient background and perspective to ask some of the key questions which will determine the Palestinian future. Is there any prospect of slowing or stopping Jewish settlement? Will land confiscation continue and will there ever be a return of the land that has been confiscated? Will Palestinians regain control over their water resources? Will they continue to be at the mercy of Jewish courts, and Jewish settler harassment and violence? Will their industry continue to be throttled? Will they continue to be barred from moving in and out of East Jerusalem -- their cultural, rel igious, economic, educational, medical and political capital? Will they continue to be barred from building on their own land there? Will the Israeli policy of allowing only Jewish immigration into the country continue?
Readers of Homeland will be in a better position to understand the importance representative Palestinians place on these issues.
Get the book here.