Once Upon A Country by Sari Nusseibeh

With admirable candor, Lord Balfour confided to fellow politicians back in London what the Arabs could expect from the agreement:
In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.
He didn’t say this to the Arabs.  The official line, duly echoed by the Zionists, was that the rights of the Arabs would be safeguarded. (Page 27)

Father ended up supporting the rebellion because he had come to the conclusion that the Eastern European Zionists arriving by the boatload had no interest in fitting themselves into Arab culture and society.  In the Russians he saw ideologues with no understanding of the country, and without the slightest intention of respecting the culture or rights of the Arabs living there.  Most of all he saw very determined men and women with scientific, industrial, and political ambitions to create a Jewish state.  The attitude that frightened him the most can be summed up in Chaim Weizmann’s words: “Palestine shall be as Jewish as England is English, or America is American.” These were public words.  In private, Zionist leaders spelled out their plans.  In 1936, in a letter to his son, David Ben-Gurion wrote nakedly, “We will expel the Arabs and take their place.” It would be hard to think of something more antithetical to Pan-Arabism. (Page 36)

Local Arabs were far more united in their opposition.  “Why should we pay for what the Europeans did against the Jews,” ran the argument.  Father also rejected the plan, though for a different reason.  Partition wasn’t just about a piece of real estate to be haggled over at the UN; what was at stake was his heritage, stretching back well over a millennium.
Another reason for his opposition was his belief, widespread at the time, that the Zionist leadership had no intention of fully complying with the terms of the partition requiring them to respect the legal rights of Arabs living in the Jewish state.  He believed that they were paying lip service to the proposal only because they wanted legal recognition by the world at large of an independent Jewish state.  However, they knew that the state as proposed was unviable, and feared more than anything that the Arabs would accept it.  So while on the one hand the Zionists backed the plan, on the other they did all they could to whip up Arab opposition to it.  “When Arab resistance to the partition plan seemed to be flagging, the Jews stirred it,” Father wrote.  They did this by using the same instrument that had proved so affective against the British: terror. (Page 43)

“Religion, being essentially universal and one, should be made to serve the end of uniting the world rather than separating it.” (Page 65)

I concluded from all this that ignorance, rather than some undefined evil intent, had to be at the core of our conflict. (Page 115)

No matter how hopelessly entrenched two parties seem, their feud can be solved through an act of human will. (Page 128)

When a journalist asked Begin if he was prepared to negotiate on the future of the Occupied Territories, he snapped, “What occupied territories?  If you mean Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, they are liberated territories.  They are part, an integral part, of the Land of Israel.” (Page 153)

In Golda Meir’s unforgettable words, “It is not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came in and threw them out and took their country away from them.  They did not exist.” (Page 172)

The more the Arab “body” became immersed in the Israeli system, the more the Palestinian “soul” struggled to transcend it.
I was pondering all these shifts and dialectical conundrums in my mind one day when it hit me like a bolt from heaven: the solution to our conflict with Israel was not more economic integration or a better elementary curriculum, or nicer military governors, or a more humane form of torture.  Nor was it to make bad Israelis better.  The occupation simply had to end – lock, stock, and barrel. (Page 173)

If might makes right, as the Athenians/Israelis obviously assume, isn’t it only nature all to resort to armed rebellion, instead of coming out with useless moral arguments that will only e scorned by the masters?  If international law is a sop, and the real world is created on the battlefield, as the masters believe, shouldn’t we fight them using their own instruments of power and force? (Page 179)

… the Israeli authorities often feared men of peace far more than they feared the terrorists. (Page 180)

Political action is “leaving one’s private hiding place and showing who one is by disclosing and exposing oneself.”  Hannah Arendt (Page 184)

I imagine an eighteen-year-old from a refugee camp sitting opposite his interrogator.  The prisoner hasn’t slept for days.  Hungry and cold, frightened and alone, he has no lawyer, no legal system behind him, and no one to speak up for him.  No one really knows where he is or why he was arrested.  Parents and friends are as far away as the moon.  And the interrogator, twice his age and trained to break the will of those under his control, goes to work.  He wants information, and from one direction and then another he probes the prisoner’s defenses.  His logical tools, more effective than the medieval rack, hammer away at the prisoner’s mind.
But the teenager refuses to submit to the will of the interrogator.  By overcoming his natural biological instinct for survival, he becomes aware of his own freedom – because he is no longer a slave to his physical needs.  Somehow he finds the inner strength to say no.  His body wants food and warmth and sleep; he wants to be back with his family and friends; he wants to live.  Still, he refuses. (Page 214)

At the opening of a new settlement in October 1982, Begin’s minister of energy, Mordechai Zippori, explained the logic of settlement construction as “the backbone of the Zionist movement in the West Bank” and as the “only means to defeat any peace initiative which is intended to bring foreign rule to Judea and Samaria.” (Page 217)

“This campus always gives us a lot of trouble,” the officer told [Hanan Ashrawi].  “[Students] invite trouble.  They go out and demonstrate and disturb the peace.  They force us to shoot them. (Page 268)

Less than eight months into the intifada, Israel hunted down the man more responsible than anyone for keeping the uprising surprisingly unsullied by terrorist outrages.
My admiration for Abu Jihad had grown steadily over the years.  It spoke in his favor that he was free from the taint of corruption and thuggery infesting the ranks of other PLO apparatchiks.  He was also capable of changing with the times.  The man who was once considered the Che Guevara of the movement – he had been in charge of the commando units – had realized after the PLO’s expulsion from Lebanon that liberation would never come about through a military victory beyond Israeli borders, but through a mass movement in the territories themselves.  The effectiveness of his new belief was now proven daily.
Terrorism, in other words, had nothing to do with the Israeli government’s decision to eliminate him.  On the contrary, what much have driven the military planners out of their wits was that the enemy’s most potent weapon was no bombs or hate-filled bombast – easy things to counter – but assertive nonviolence and a well orchestrated “white and unarmed revolution.”  And having failed to snuff out the source of trouble in the territories, they decided to go after the “mastermind.” (Page 285)

For this reason we told the Israeli man on the street that we didn’t seek to destroy the Jewish state but only wanted to establish ours alongside Israel.  The leaflets were unambiguous: the Unified Command accepted UN Resolution 242 and as such the moral and political right of Israel to exist within the 1967 borders.
One leaflet stated: The intifada, the latest form of the Palestinian struggle, voices the Palestinian cry for peace … Our fight is not to cause pain to others but to deliver ourselves from pain.  It is not to destroy another states, but to create our own.  It is not to bring death to others, but to give life and hope to ourselves and to our children. (Page 288)

One day I asked an activist friend, Salah, who’d joined us in the talks with Amirav, if he was worried about his own young children.  He had just been released from administrative detention.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, don’t you miss them when you get thrown into jail?  Don’t you ever ask yourself if it’s worth it, I mean to be away from them?”
The smile Salah nearly permanently affixed to his face disappeared.  He looked at me with uncharacteristic gravity.  “It’s all for our children,” he exclaimed lowering his voice to a hush as if telling me a secret.  “I go to jail so one day they don’t have to.”
Salah’s answer summed up to me what we were all doing.  We were all struggling to achieve for our children a future without roadblocks, tanks, tear gas, or administrative detention.  A future not shadowed by a pervasive sense of our being wronged. (Page 292-293)

“The national psychological readiness for a two-state solution is not a permanent fixture of the Palestinian psychology.  It is in the Palestinian heart now, but it can quickly fade if there is no response to this feeling of opening up.  It’s like a star or a comet that comes close by and then goes away.  One has to catch it when it’s close.”  If they didn’t watch it, I implied, reissuing my old argument, instead of a peaceful movement for independence Israelis might have an antiapartheid campaign on their hands. (Page 298)

The average man on the street introduced elsewhere in this story was just as exhilarated as the revelers at the Orient House that evening.  For him it meant that the long occupation was coming to an end.  Arafat, a leader who in his mind embodied his own hopes, was being treated like a head of state, which meant that the state couldn’t be far behind.  No more harassment by soldiers, no more road blocks, no more random arrests, no more land confiscation, no more settlements, no more settlers with their Uzis playing feudal masters.  There would be jobs and open schools and hope for his children to live as the Israeli children did: in a free world full of opportunities, respected by the world and looked up as an equal, not a handout case, not a dog. (Page 374)

Meanwhile, Sharon told West Bank settlers, “Everyone living there should move, should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory.  Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands, everything that we don’t grab will be in their hands.” (Page 399)

I could have chiseled onto stone a motto for [“On Thinking”], it would have been: if people use their minds and wills they can accomplish whatever they choose, including political liberty. (Page 407)

I told [my staff] to go out and see the movie The Matrix.  Life is really all a game, I mused, and it’s up to our creative imaginations to set the borders between imagination and reality.  What people think about us, and we about them, depends on us.  No matter how many powerful enemies we have, they can’t break our will. (Page 412)

Dostoyevsky … directed his novel The Possessed against the so-called “nihilists,” those who wanted to destroy the old social order, lock, stock, and barrel.  “We shall proclaim destruction,” one character exclaims, “because – because … the idea is so attractive for some reason!” (Page 428)

Was Robert Fisk of The Independent right in tracing it back to an entire society being “pressure-cooked to the point of explosion”? (Page 436)

“The idea of making peace with the Palestinians is absurd,” [Sharon] stated on the campaign stump. (Page 440)

The Palestinians were once again falling into that perennial trap Father knew so well: they thought somehow that the “world” would step in like a dues ex machine and set things right.  And a Sharon-led government would only speed up the process: with more disaster and more blood, the international hand of Justice was bound to intervene.  Except it never had and never will. (Page 441)

The Christian Science Monitor got it right with its report: To some Israelis, a burly Palestinian police commander named Jibril Rajoub represents their best hope for a peaceful future.  Long committed to peace negotiations, he has worked for years to prevent militant Palestinians from attacking Israel.  Late Sunday afternoon, Israeli forces fired shells at his house from a tank and a helicopter if Mr. Rajoub hadn’t been walking between rooms to get better reception on this cell phone, he later said, he might have been killed.
Coming on top of other actions that Israeli leaders have come publicly to regret, Palestinians are wondering what is going on. Either the most sophisticated military in the Middle East is mistakenly striking at the very Palestinian leaders who have eschewed violence and maintained a willingness to negotiate with Israel – or there is no mistake at all. (Page 441)

The power in need of addressing was the man on the street, both the Arab and the Jew.  With all the havoc and devastation, Manichean dualities of “us” and “them,” Arab and Jewish, Palestinian and Israeli, had ceased being useful.  Both societies were sinking together.  Either we team up as allies to end the mad tango, or we all lose.  Simple. (Page 445)

Israelis needed to know that for them to keep their Jewish state required a free Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.  Palestinians needed to know that to get their state required acknowledging the moral right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.  There could be no blanket right of return into Israel for the refugees: We have two rights.  We have the right of return, in my opinion.  But we also have the right to live in freedom and independence.  And very often in life one has to forgo the implementation of one right in order to implement other rights.
If both sides failed I this out of expediency or weakness, we’d find ourselves one day in a hybrid state that fulfilled neither the Israeli quest for a Jewish stare, nor the national Palestinian quest for an Arab state. (Page 446)

Next I came out with an idea supported by common sense, and it was a measure of the mood that summer that my piece of common sense was the most startling announcement my audience could have imagined – because in our era of suicide bombings it had become unthinkable: “Israelis and Palestinians,” I told them, “are not enemies at all.”  A disbelieving hush spread over my listeners.  “If anything, we are strategic allies.” (Page 450)

Israelis went back to the old strategy of hitting the moderates while leaving the fanatics alone.  They did this not because our feuding tribes were so far from peace, but because peace was so near, like a ripe plum ready for the picking.  Polls on both sides showed that the desire for peace was far stronger than the thirst for blood.  This scared Sharon as much as it did Sheikh Yassin.  If the Israeli and Palestinian people were allies in peace, some of our leaders were allies in stroking the conflict. (Page 457)

Jibril’s staff at what was left of his Preventive Security Academy interrogated a number of people who had tried unsuccessfully to become human bombs.  The stated determined that 80 percent were motivated not by religion a la Al Qaeda but by anger, depression, and a thirst for revenge.
One woman was a thirty-five-year-old mother of five.  She was arrested by one of Jibril’s men after she asked someone to give her a bomb.  In the interrogation, she cited shame as her motivation.  Soldiers had tried to strip her naked at a checkpoint and danced around her as if she were an inflatable sex toy, and in front of a long line of cars and busses full of fellow Arabs.  She preferred death, she explained, over having to face her own people after this, especially if she could take a few Israelis with her.
Another was a twenty-four-year-old woman studying media and communications.  She wasn’t religious and evidently harbored no hopes of Paradise as payback.  She volunteered as a human kamikaze because Israeli soldiers had forced her at gunpoint to kiss a group of Arab men stopped at a checkpoint. (Pages 460-461)

In the December 2001 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique [Ami Ayalon] had been dismissive of the Camp David legend that “Israelis had been generous and [the Palestinians] refused,” and of the even bigger fable that the so-called second intifada had been planned.  He knew that is had been a spontaneous revolt fed by hopelessness. “We [Israelis] say the Palestinians behave like ‘madmen,’ but it is not madness but a bottomless despair.” (Page 470)

Jawad ended their brief conversation with a hypothesis that still rings true today: “You’re afraid of Sari and people like him because you don’t like seeing moderates bravely speaking out against the right of return and violence.  You’d rather deal with Arafat or Sheikh Yassin because they give you the excuse to do whatever you want.” (Page 475)

“I am not a terrorist,” [Marwan] said after his arrest, his fists shackled together, “but neither am I a pacifist.  I am simply a regular guy from the Palestinian street advocating only what every other oppressed person has advocated – the right to help myself in the absence of help from anywhere else.” (Page 480)

For a lecture I gave during the worst of the fighting I came up with a childlike parable to illustrate the curious strength of the weak: Suppose two people suddenly find themselves in a brawl.  Neither is sure how it started, but each suspects the other of having maliciously provoked it.  One manages to throw the other to the ground, and at once sits on top of him, holding him down by the arms.  The one underneath kicks back, biting where he can, and whenever he manages to get one of his hands lose, he claws at his foe with all his might.
it seems like a stalemate.  The one on top is afraid, yes, afraid, of loosening his grip or letting go of the man underneath him.  The one wriggling underneath cannot for the life of him allow this bully to have the slightest chance of rest.  Clearly, a gentlemanly exchange of ideas is out of the question.
A third man comes along, pleading with the man on top to let go and the man underneath to lie quiet.  Each of them now is in a quandary.  The man underneath is afraid that if he were to lie quiet then the man on top would not have any incentive t let go, while the man on top is worried that if he were to let go then the man underneath would quickly move to strangle him.  Existentially locked into a stalemate, each begins to suspect that the other is looking for salvation through his total elimination.
I made this scenario even worse by imagining that the two men are not on solid ground but in a pool of quicksand, and that with each blow or bite or bash on the head they sink deeper into the mud.  Theirs is no zero-sum games: it is a lose-lose situation.
The reason I came up with the yarn was t show the respective strengths of the two fighters.  In terms of raw physical power, the one on top obviously has the leg up.  But psychologically it is actually more difficult for him to let go than for the man underneath to lie quiet.  Paradoxically, being on top he has more to lose by deciding to act differently.  He has a lesser margin of choice, or less power.
The man underneath, on the other hand, has less to lose, and less to fear by restraining his opposition.  He has, therefore, more power, for he can afford to change his act.  If he were to let go, the man on top might lose his advantage altogether.  By stopping his physical resistance, the man underneath can always revert to wriggling and biting.  He has no advantage to lose.
The upshot is that the man underneath holds the key to unlocking the puzzle, even without the intervention of a third man.  Of course, it is not enough for him to stop wriggling.  He has to consciously reach out to the other man’s mind.  He can’t defeat him, but with some intelligence he may be albe to win him over. (Pages 483-484)

“It is untenable to Israeli citizens to live in terror.  It is untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation.  And the current situation offers no prospect that life will improve.  Israeli citizens will continue to be victimized by terrorists, and so Israel will continue to defend herself … My vision is two states, living side by side in peace and security … The Israeli occupation that began in 1967 will be ended through a settlement negotiated between the parties, based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, with Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognized borders.” –G.W. Bush (Page 486)

The wall is the perfect crime because it crates the violence it was ostensibly built to prevent.  It’s like sticking someone in a cage and then when he starts screaming, as any normal person would, using his violent temper as justification for putting him in the cage in the first place. (Page 511)

One day the Israelis may realize that the reason for the never-ending turmoil disrupting their lives has nothing to do with our opposition to the Jewish state but is rooted in the more mundane fact that human beings are not constituted to accept injustice. (Page 524)

Lucy’s wise words may be a good way to wrap up a chronicle of a life lived in a broken and violated land.  Dualities of good and evil, black and white, right and wrong, “us” and “them,” our “rights” and their “usurpation” have cut the Holy Land into ribbons.  The only hope comes when we listen to the wisdom of tradition, and acknowledge that Jerusalem cannot be conquered or kept through violence.  It is a city of three faiths and it is open to the world.  Even after the erection of Sharon’s wall and the ensuing Hamas victory, the way my fairy tale ends still seems right to me: three characters, each from a sister religion, join hands to plant a honeysuckle bush.  Meanwhile, Mr. Seems stands off in the distance as a reminder that things are never what they seem to be.  In Jerusalem’s tangle, ancient alleys, wonder and surprise are always lurking around the corner ready to remind you that this is not an ordinary palce you can map out with a surveyor’s rod.  It is sacred. (Page 534)

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