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Personal Reflections On Palestine


Since completing this memoir in 1995 I’ve returned to Palestine every year.  In fact, apart from traveling abroad to lecture, Palestine is the only place I’ve been since I first journeyed there 15 years ago.  I sometimes fantasize vacationing in Greece or Italy but never do.  If I have time and cost isn’t prohibitive, I always return to Palestine.  I do so mostly from a sense of duty – do I have a right to be elsewhere? – relieved by the authentic affection I’ve developed for friends.  I cannot say I enjoy going back.  From the moment I arrive, even before arriving, I count the minutes left before I depart.  The eminent Hebrew University sociologist Baruch Kimmerling has described Gaza as “the largest concentration camp ever to exist.”  The West Bank ranks only a mite less awful.  Once the Israeli wall currently under construction is finished, the West Bank will replace Gaza with top honors.  Bordered on both sides by four meter deep trenches, fortified with guard towers at regular intervals, and topped with barbed wire, this massive barricade will stretch across fully 347 kilometers – twice the size of the Berlin Wall.  (One-third has already been completed.)  Cutting deep into the West Bank and causing massive disruption for the Palestinians wedged between it and the “Green Line” (Israel’s pre-June 1967 border), the wall will probably lead to the de facto annexation of 10% of the West Bank and the expulsion of the Palestinians living there, while also isolating as many as 300,000 Palestinians (14% of the West Bank population) living in East Jerusalem.  To judge by recent Israeli pronouncements, it could eventually completely enclose Palestinians and herd them into less than half the West Bank, which Prime Minister Sharon (with U.S. blessing) will then christen a Palestinian “state.”  There is no reference in the Bush administration’s current initiative, the “Roadmap,” to the wall, let alone a demand that its construction be suspended.  In fact, the Roadmap is simply a warmed-over version of the Oslo accord.  Just as the “peace process” culminating in Oslo commenced after the first U.S. destruction of Iraq, so the Roadmap was issued after the second destruction.  In both cases, the U.S.-Israeli calculation has been that Palestinians, feeling sufficiently overwhelmed, demoralized and isolated (“shocked and awed”), will acquiesce in a South African-style Bantustan.  This gamble failed the first time round when Arafat refused in July 2000 at Camp David to bow to U.S.-Israeli diktat.  He was accordingly ousted from power and a new Palestinian “leader,” Abu Mazen, installed.   (Polls show that Mazen would be lucky to get 5% of the Palestinian vote in a free election – by U.S. standards, a perfect “democratic” leader.)  Whether Mazen will prove more compliant and sign on to Sharon’s vision of a Palestinian “state” remains to be seen.  My instant reaction when everyone I met in the West Bank started referring to “the wall” was to recall the first book my late mother (a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto) recommended I read about the Nazi holocaust, John Hersey’s historical novel about the Warsaw Ghetto entitled The Wall.

I return to Palestine out of a sense of duty yet guiltily feel as if I’m mocking Palestinians: I go in and out as I please but you’re stuck here.  Why can I enter and leave but they can’t?  I constantly strain for an answer that will mitigate the injustice and assuage my conscience, but can never find one.  Worse, I’m always the bearer of bad news.  It’s political candor without personal consequence.  What price do I pay for telling Palestinians that things will only get worse (as they invariably do)?  It’s not exactly heroic for an outsider to inform Palestinians of the terrible truth.  What are my Palestinian friends thinking?  ”Norman’s back to tell us yet again that it’s hopeless.  Easy for him to say…”  What would my parents have thought if a healthy and fit German kept returning to tell them that things will only get worse?  Nowadays, rather than make my usual dire predictions I change the subject.  Not that this helps. Everyone knows what I’m thinking. I’ve noticed that several friends seem much less eager to see me.  I suppose they’re tired of my gloomy forecasts, always confidently argued, at their expense.  Do they really need to hear from this “expert” that they’ve lost?  Everything around them reeks of misery and despair.  Their youths have passed and their lives have been squandered; they can no longer even dream of a brighter future.  I’m the annual reminder, the taunting mirror, of this wreckage.  In the past I would, alternately, argue vehemently and laugh heartily with Moussa’s closest friends, Esmail and Caid.  This past trip they sneaked out of Fawwar camp, sat with me on Moussa’s balcony, silently, for 15 minutes and left.  If I don’t return I fear Palestinians will think that I’ve abandoned the struggle; if I do return, I fear they will think that I’ve turned Palestine into my pet project.  In fact, I myself worry about this.  I write books about Palestine, I’m invited to lecture on Palestine.  Am I prospering from their martyrdom?  Recently an independent filmmaker asked me to “star” in a documentary on Palestine based on this memoir.  So now I sail into my Palestinian friends’ homes with a film crew, cameras and sound equipment in tow.  

Often those who introduce me at lectures pay tribute to my “courage.”  I recoil in shame at this praise.  What courage?  Integrity, perhaps; but courage, emphatically no.  I fear for every step when I’m in Palestine.  Among those I travel with I’m invariably the most terrified.  I duck behind every building, tremble at every gunshot, perspire at the sight of every soldier or settler.  So many times I’ve been embarrassed at my cowardice.  I vividly recall these episodes in my mind’s eye but pride prevents me from setting them in print.  I used to blame this poltroonery on my parents: after all they endured, it would be unforgivable if I inflicted my death on them.  Now that they’ve passed away, I can no longer resort to this alibi.  I desperately cling to life, just like my parents desperately clung to life.  (Is it another moral evasion to say that I inherited their “survival” gene?)  For courage one should look to the wonderfully inspiring young people from the International Solidarity Movement who voluntarily put themselves in the line of Israeli fire protecting Palestinians.  Rachel Corrie from Olympia, Washington was killed by an Israeli bulldozer as she sought to prevent a Palestinian’s home from being demolished.  Tom Hurndall from Manchester, England was shot from behind in the skull by an Israeli sniper as he sought to rescue stray Palestinian girls amid a hail of Israeli fire (he’s now brain dead).  One should look to Moussa, who daily documents Israeli human rights abuses as bullets fly in every direction.  One should look to the tiny Palestinian children in Gaza who confront Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) with stones.  But, for heaven’s sake, don’t look to me.  

I’ve no sympathy for the settlers; indeed, I consider them legitimate targets of armed resistance (apart, of course, from the children).  If, backed by armed might, they choose to steal the ground (and water) from under the feet of Palestinians, then let them reap what they have sown.  However, I still struggle for the “correct” attitude toward Israeli soldiers.  Leaving Gaza I see three Israeli young people stationed at the checkpoint: a shapely woman straight from the set of a James Bond film wearing close-fitting green fatigues and leather stiletto-heeled shoes, a young fellow sitting on a stoop singing and strumming on his guitar a haunting Hebrew melody, and a second youth wearing horn-rimmed glasses with very thick lenses.  Each incongruously brandishes an assault weapon half his or her size.  For God’s sake, what are they doing here?  But wait: Gaza is the “largest concentration camp ever to exist.”  Why am I pitying these concentration camp guards?  Although unable to condone Palestinian suicide bombers I can nevertheless understand them.  Were members of my family imprisoned, beaten, tortured, killed, our home demolished, our land stolen, our lives destroyed, marking time until death, half wishing it would come sooner rather than later – I would certainly hope I would retain my humanity but in all honesty cannot predict how I would react.  Unlike myself, many Palestinians who once dissented on principle from targeting Israeli civilians no longer do.  In fact, of my many friends there, only Moussa and Afaf, and Samira and Stephan are still categorically opposed.  Some believe this is the only tactic that will make Israel budge, while others just want revenge – for a change let them suffer. However, every Palestinian I meet draws the line at the Hamas bombing of Hebrew University.  Moussa asks his 6-year-old son what he thinks: “It’s wrong.  They were just studying.”  When I meet Dr. Rantisi, political spokesman for Hamas, I argue with him about the Hebrew University attack.  I repeat to him what Moussa’s son said.  Visibly frustrated with my interrogation, he struggles with all manner of justification: they might be studying now but later they will serve the occupation.  I point out that the Nazis similarly argued that it was right to kill Jewish children because one day they will seek revenge for their parents’ murder.  With evident satisfaction Rantisi reports that the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed at the outset of the new intifada was 10-1 but now it’s only 3-1.  I would be lying if I denied that this argument resonates.  Palestinian life won’t be taken on the cheap: if you kill one of ours you must pay a price.  It’s brutal, it’s primitive, but still I can relate to this arithmetic.  In fact, I too secretly calculate the ratio.   If Israeli death squads execute a Palestinian, part of me cries out for revenge.  If Palestinians don’t react, I’m disappointed.  Where is the dignity, the self-respect?  In the face of Israel’s merciless brutality, like many Palestinians I too have grown hard-hearted. But comprehensible as his satisfaction may be, I keep repeating to Rantisi, it’s plainly immoral.  Now I begin to feel uncomfortable.  My responsibility isn’t to lecture Rantisi but to oppose the occupation.  Aren’t I being arrogant?  He was in an Israeli prison for 10 years; now he’s an inmate in an Israeli concentration camp.  Who am I to instruct him on the finer points of morality from the comfort and safety of my tourist visa?   He’s probably thinking that all Jews are alike.  So arrogant, so self-righteous.  On taking leave I can’t decide whether to shake his hand.  I certainly wouldn’t shake Sharon’s.  In the end I do.  When I later ask Moussa his opinion, he strongly disagrees.  By applauding the Hebrew University attack on television, Moussa angrily recalls, Rantisi turned world opinion against Palestinians.  Now I begin to doubt the wisdom of my decision.  But isn’t this arrogance again: why do I fixate on my handshake?  It’s the prerogative of Palestinians to show magnanimity, not American Jews.

I have no more compunction as a Jew about Israeli soldiers (and settlers) suffering setbacks in the Occupied Territories than I have as an American about G.I.s suffering setbacks in Iraq.  I celebrate every victory over foreign occupiers.  Just as I rejoice in the blows partisans inflicted on the Nazi occupiers in Europe, so I rejoice in the blows Hezbollah inflicted on the Israeli occupiers in Lebanon, Palestinians inflict on the Israeli occupiers, and Iraqis inflict on the American occupiers.  This solidarity doesn’t spring from intellectual or political artifice.  I don’t struggle against my tribal or patriotic impulses to be morally consistent.  Rather the contrary, it’s constitutional – I viscerally loathe occupiers, all occupiers.  (Another family gene?)  It makes not a whit of difference whether they’re Jewish or American.  If I have compunction – and I do – it’s for the combatants whose blood is shed.  They are young, in the springtime of their lives.  They could easily be my students.  (Several of those shipped to Iraq were.)  Most don’t want to be where they are; they want to be home.  If anyone has to be in the line of fire, how much I would prefer that they be the wretched politicians who sent them or the blow-dried, gym-fit pundits, academics and journalists who beat the drums of war, from afar.  Nonetheless, I won’t defend cocky marauders and conquering vandals, lawless ubermenschen riding roughshod over the lives of innocents.  Nazi soldiers were also youths in the springtime of their lives….

Whereas Palestinians have every right to violently resist Israeli soldiers and settlers, I don’t believe this strategy is a prudent one.  It’s the arena in which Israel is strongest and Palestinians weakest: brute force.  On a related note, the suicide bombings are not only morally indefensible but probably counter-productive as well.  They alienate world opinion and provide Israel with the pretext for armed repression – which is why Israel desperately provokes them whenever there is a lull.   The bombings have undoubtedly affected Israeli society, weakening the popular élan and hurting the economy.  But it’s unlikely they will force an Israeli withdrawal.  Callous and cynical, Israeli leaders reckon civilian deaths a regrettable but nonetheless tolerable price for maintaining power.  Their repeated incitement of Palestinian terrorism suggests that these leaders aren’t unduly worried about its detrimental impact on Israeli society.  The bombings probably won’t induce ordinary Israelis to oppose the occupation either.  Rather the contrary: targeting soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza signals opposition to the Israeli occupation, but targeting civilians in Tel Aviv and Haifa signals opposition to the whole of Israeli society.  If their very existence appears to be at stake, then Israelis will fight without quarter to the bitter end.  Regrettably, Israel’s intransigence has begun to convince many Palestinians that they really can’t peacefully coexist together: it is us or them.  There’s a fair chance that the strategy of massive non-violent civil disobedience can force an Israeli withdrawal.  During the first intifada it galvanized world opinion behind the Palestinians and isolated Israel.  It both neutralized the Israeli army and bogged it down in policing operations – which did distress Israeli elites.   The strategy might have originally succeeded if (as I suggested in chapter two) the Palestinian leadership had invested in the popular struggle rather than subordinating it to the dead end of negotiations.   Nonetheless, it’s utterly hypocritical for Israelis to wonder aloud why Palestinians don’t pursue a non-violent strategy.  One obvious reason is that, whenever they have, Israel brutally represses it.  The British philosopher Bertrand Russell, although a committed pacifist, doubted the efficacy of non-violent resistance in Nazi Germany: “It depends on the existence of certain virtues in those against whom it is employed.   When Indians lay down on railways, and challenged the authorities to crush them under trains, the British found such cruelty intolerable.  But the Nazis had no scruples in analogous situations.”   The burden is not only – or even mainly – on Palestinians to practice non-violence but also on Israelis to prove that they will react positively to it.  Judging by the fates of Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall – not anonymous Palestinians but citizens of Israel’s two closest allies – it would seem that Israel’s response is closer to Nazi Germany’s than Great Britain’s.  It must be said, however, that the suicide bombing attacks haven’t helped – another reason to question their wisdom, although it must also be said that (as shown in chapter four) Israelis didn’t display any mercy during the first, overwhelmingly non-violent, intifada either.  Finally, even if terrorism did manage to effect an Israeli withdrawal, its very success would redeem a morally reprehensible weapon.  The Palestinian state to which it gave birth might well become a place few Palestinians would want to live in.  

Samira continues to teach English at Talitha Kumi, but has also taken on many new professional burdens to make financial ends meet.  Her husband, Stephan, a construction foreman in Jerusalem, only manages to work irregularly due to Israel’s closure policy.  Their eldest daughter, Rana, left Beit Sahour to marry a Palestinian studying in London.  After spending a couple of years in England they relocated in Jordan to be nearer home.  Samira recently became a grandmother when Rana gave birth to a baby boy.  On the eve of Operation Defensive Shield, in March 2002, Samira and Stephan, justly fearful that young Palestinian males would be targeted, sent their only son, Basil, to Jordan, where he now attends college.  Their middle child, Rita, nursed the Palestinian wounded in a Jerusalem hospital during the March-April Israeli rampage.  Many young people from Beit Sahour have gone.  I used to kid Nadim Issa that he would leap at the first opportunity to get out.  The first couple of years he vehemently denied it, but later reluctantly admitted to the possibility.  This past year I learned that he married into a Palestinian family with relatives in Michigan and left.  I sometimes think of looking him up but never follow through: it’s one “I told you so” I would prefer to pass up.  Mufid Hanna, who couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to kill this Jew when we first met, is now a successful filmmaker.  When we last spoke he mentioned that his Israeli Jewish business partner is also his closest confidant.  George Hanna, the physicist from Bir Zeit University, currently coordinates the International Solidarity Movement.  A few weeks ago I received an email that Israeli soldiers ransacked his ISM office in Beit Sahour.  While some ISM volunteers are currently barred from entering Israel on the grounds that they pose a “security threat,” others must sign a statement exonerating Israel of all responsibility for what happens to them.  Who can gainsay the ingenuity of forcing those targeted for murder to sign their death warrants?  Moussa is currently a field worker for B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, documenting first-hand Israeli human rights abuses in the Hebron area.  His wife, Afaf, who just barely tolerated Moussa’s politics when we first met, now serves on the Central Committee of the People’s Party.  Their three eldest children, Marwa, Urwa and Arwa, have grown into teenagers.  Urwa hopes eventually to come live with me, while Arwa, a born leader (as well as an impressive chess player), spends most of her time on the telephone counseling friends.  In the meantime Moussa and Afaf have brought two more boys into the world, Suhail and Ayham.  While the older children have more important things to do than entertain guests, the little ones treat veterans and newcomers to multiple hugs and kisses.  Moussa lives atop a mountain overlooking Fawwar refugee camp, where he was born.  It’s an arduous trek climbing the makeshift footpath to his home.  I often joke with Moussa that soon I will need a cane to assist me, then a wheelchair, until, finally, notice arrives that Norman won’t be climbing the mountain anymore.  If the struggle for justice in Palestine sometimes resembles a Sisyphean labor, it’s not because the futility of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict was preordained.  What impedes a settlement is not “ancient enmities,” “religious hatreds,” or “clashing civilizations.”  These are ideological confections designed to shroud and mystify a not-so-complicated reality.  Rather, it’s Israel’s refusal, crucially backed by the U.S., to end the occupation and allow for the creation of a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state alongside it or live in peace as two peoples within a single entity.


Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate from the Department of Politics, Princeton University, for a thesis on the theory of Zionism. He is the author of four books: Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995), The Rise and Fall of Palestine (University of Minnesota, 1996), with Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (Henry Holt,1998) and The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso, 2000). His writings have appeared in prestigous journals such as the London Review of Books, Index on Censorship, Journal of Palestine Studies, New Left Review, Middle East Report, Christian Science Monitor and Al Ahram Weekly.  Currently he teaches political science at DePaul University in Chicago
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