Palestinians sleep while Israelis systematically steal their homeland


For reasons that elude me, there continues to be some hope on the part of Arab governments that US impatience with Israel will soon reach breaking point, perhaps provoking a dramatic new initiative, perhaps finally galvanising American power into actively opposing Netanyahu's tactics.

This, alas, is seriously to misunderstand what is currently taking place both in Israel and the US, where the likelihood of any qualitative change of the sort dreamed of by Arab leaders is very small indeed.

Clinton is opposed by a Congress that is solidly pro-Likud for many domestic reasons. Yes, there is an Israeli lobby, but the fact is that the Republican Party in alliance with the Christian right wing, plus conservative foundations and business groups, and an uneducated, brainwashed public see in Israel not only a stubborn ally forcing its intransigence on the entire world but also an international partner which the US should emulate, doing what Israel does in thumbing its nose at the very notion of an international community.

All of this has the advantage of being a slap in the face of Bill Clinton whose corrupt, problem-ridden administration is seen by many Americans as too enmeshed in the schemes of the UN and the international community, thereby curtailing American sovereignty and its capacity for using its power unilaterally.

The negative Clinton response to the recent meeting on war crimes in Rome was, I believe, designed to convince his domestic opponents that, at the right time and for the right cause, he was capable of acting like Israel, defying world opinion in showing that his country's perceived interests overrode even the Nuremberg principles first articulated by the US after the second World War.

At the present moment the Palestinian question has receded so dramatically in the public mind as to be non-existent. There are occasional references to the 13 per cent of West Bank territory proposed by the US and accepted by the Palestinian leadership.

But that is always hedged with discussions of Palestinian terrorism and the PLO covenant, thereby denuding the issue of land of any serious content. To make matters worse, the almost total absence of any Palestinian information effort in the US or in western Europe is stark.

Gone are the academics, the students, the organisations that used to bear a message about dispossession and injustice: an immense void swallows what little is said or done on behalf of a people that has suffered the loss of its land and identity over the past century.

To an outsider like myself, what is going inside the Arab world is no less discouraging. Leaders visit each other, talk about change and important meetings, more meetings are held, more trips taken - and nothing much changes.

The fact is that the Arab world is totally immobilised, particularly inside Palestine, where the tragic losses are the greatest, the offences against ordinary everyday people the most egregious, and the Israeli plan most close to final realisation.

I understand that in countries like Egypt and Lebanon, for example, there is a serious intellectual attempt to confront the tragedy of the Palestinian people in discussions about positions that ought to be taken, petitions that should be signed, and so forth, but very little of this has any bearing at all on what Israeli troops and settlers do, which is nothing less than a concerted attempt at ethnic cleansing.

The main difference between Bosnia and Palestine is that ethnic cleansing in the former took place in the form of dramatic massacres and slaughters which caught the world's attention, whereas in Palestine what is taking place is a drop-by-drop tactic in which one or two houses are demolished daily, a few acres are taken here and there every day, a few people are forced to leave.

No one pays much attention, least of all other Palestinians who live, say, in Ramallah, for whom the destruction of the main road out of Husan (a tiny village just west of Bethlehem) by the settlers of Efrat is scarcely perceptible or noticed.

In the meantime, the prosperous Palestinian communities in London and Amman go about their daily business oblivious to what is happening to the dwindling remains of their homeland. Huge weddings take place everyday in the luxury hotels of those capitals, young people drive their BMWs and Honda motorcycles noisily up and down the hills of Abdoun and the leafy boulevards of Holland Park, and the impression is that of a long day-dream, with not much thought given either to the past or the future.

Filled with pleasant interludes, school years in Harvard or Georgetown, vacations in Gstaad and Cannes, careers in advertising, marketing, investment, or construction, the privileged generation of Palestinian - and indeed Arab - youth, whose parents made their fortunes in the easy days of the Gulf oil and construction boom, go about their lives in a never-never land of tax-free spending that has made of it a class unique in the history of the 20th century for its wastefulness and unproductivity.

It is this class that is theoretically entrusted with the future of our struggle against a ruthless and single-minded foe.

I recall that about 25 years ago in reviewing a book about pre-1948 Zionist settlement and colonisation in Palestine, I drew attention to a remark made by Chaim Weizmann to the effect that this movement was beginning small, acquiring bits of land here and there, "another acre, another goat". The idea was that such a concentrated project, however modest, never lost sight of the final goal, which was to gain all of Palestine as a Jewish state.

Until 1948, Zionists controlled a little less than 7 per cent of the land of Palestine. After 1948, they took everything but the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After 1967 they conquered the rest of historic Palestine.

With the Oslo agreements, they consolidated their hold on the land by ceding approximately 3 per cent of the West Bank (which itself constitutes only 22 per cent of the whole of Palestine) to the Palestine Authority, in return for which the Authority won the right to administer Palestinian life without territorial sovereignty. Nor is this all.

With a goal of eliminating the Palestinian presence on most of the West Bank not covered by Oslo, Israel is doing two things: it is expropriating land for use by Israeli settlers and the military, and it is destroying houses.

An article that appeared in the Palestine Report of July 15th by Muna HamzaMuhaisen is quite stark in its findings. I quote her: "Since the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, between September 1993 and March 1998, 629 Palestinian homes were demolished by Israeli bulldozers; 535 in the West Bank and 94 in Jerusalem. Of the 629 destroyed homes, 268 were demolished by the Labour government and the remaining 361 were demolished by the Likud. Under the Netanyahu government and in 1997 alone, some 233 homes were demolished.

"In the first quarter of 1998, a total of 57 Palestinian homes and, in the week of June 21st, 1998, alone a total of 30 homes were demolished. Today more than 1,800 house demolition orders still remain to be carried out, threatening to leave another 10,000 people homeless."

The absolute, relentless continuity between Weizmann's simple remark about the acre and the goat, made more than 75 years ago, and what is taking place today is chilling. There has been no modification in the essential Zionist vision which - day by day - condemns the Palestinian to a more precarious, less perceptible existence. It is plainly there for everyone, Arab and Jew alike, to witness. No secret is made of this plan, no palliative or sugarcoating seems to be required: We are taking the land detail by detail, inch by inch, house by house.

Hamza-Muhaisen concludes: "By achieving all this, Israel will succeed in isolating the Palestinian population in three or four disconnected Bantustans, a plan known in Israel as `Allon Plus'. This way, even if Palestinian President Yasser Arafat declares a Palestinian state in May 1999, as he is expected to, Israel would have created a new reality on the ground that would make it impossible for such a state to be territorially connected."

Unintentionally perhaps, HamzaMuhaisen dramatises the differences between Israeli action and Palestinian reaction: they take the land, we declare a state. As Haidar Abdel-Shafi put it in a recent interview: what is the point of declaring a state yet again, since we already declared one in Algeria in 1988? How many times does one declare a non-existent state, and what is achieved by such repetitions?

Like Dr Abdel-Shafi, I am mystified by this odd, not to say irrelevant, response to a moment of the most far-reaching emergency. Israel is taking the land systematically and we are more or less looking on, doing no more than saying "They haven't really taken it, we consider it our state".

The crying shame is that this has been our strategy from the beginning. Faced with a clear, concrete, practical, systematic activity - land expropriation - for 100 years we have been unable, or powerless, or unwilling to do anything that might reverse the process.

I have seen this dialectic in action all of my life, first when I was a boy in Palestine, then most recently a few weeks ago, as I watched Israeli troops destroy the tents of Jahhalin Bedu and the village lands of farmers outside Hebron and Bethlehem.

I stood and argued with the soldiers. I tried to dissuade them. I challenged them. I reminded them that 60 years ago their land as Jews was taken from them by a "superior" people, the Germans. But the fact was that I was powerless, and could only watch and record what I saw on film. They had the bulldozers and the machineguns. I had the words and pictures, and nothing else.

We are an immobilised people. We are unled. We are unmotivated.

We have not been able to concentrate our minds and hearts on the problem, which is nothing less than the robbery of our land. In the past few weeks a number of Israeli organisations against house demolitions have been formed. They have demonstrations. They protest.

But there seems to be very little on the Palestinian side. It is as if we have been anaesthetised as a people, unable to move, unable to act. They take the land, and we watch or, more probably, we don't even watch. We assume it is happening to someone else; we can look away, and go about our business.

What is missing is a sense of public urgency embodied in mobilised Palestinians inside Palestine, in Europe, North America, in the Arab world, who decide that the time has come to face the Israeli threat where it is occurring, on the land of Palestine.

Even the figures of demolitions and land expropriation come from Israelis. The best report on Israeli settlement activity is not by Palestinians: it comes from an American group headed by Geoffrey Aronson, who is Jewish.

I appeal to my readers for help. Why is it that when it concerns the open theft of our last remaining territorial possessions we seem utterly confounded by what is taking place? Why cannot we mobilise to stand in front of Israeli troops?

Why cannot we organise the Palestinian workers who are actually building the settlements to deter them from doing that work that so harms their people, why cannot our leadership get itself out from its offices and VIP cars and on to the fields and orchards of Palestine, protecting homes with their bodies, resisting Israeli soldiers as they confiscate our land?

Why this mania for bureaucracy, for bodyguards, for cellular phones, for expensive shopping expeditions, for fruitless, stupid negotiations that sap our strength and our will and leave us utterly impotent as we witness our land disappearing before us?

I cannot understand our inaction and the spineless cowardice of our leaders who prefer to engage in the harassment and abuse of their own people rather than in safeguarding their nation and its territory.

I cannot understand the paralysis of Palestinian and other Arab intellectuals for whom theorising about the best strategy is a higher priority than going to Palestine (this is easily done by Egyptians and Jordanians whose countries are at peace with Israel) to stand with a Palestinian family or village defying the Israeli robbers.

I cannot understand why after 100 years we cannot seem to focus on what is important and drop all the other nonsense. I appeal to better-informed readers for assistance. I can neither guess at the answers nor can I provide explanations.

I only know that very little will be left of the land of Palestine by the time we wake up. Then we will probably ask ourselves, what happened? Why did we let the land be taken before our eyes for one century, and why did we do nothing? This is the final, terminal stage, and it is here. Where are we?

Edward W. Said was born in Jerusalem and is professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, New York. This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly

(Copyright Edward W. Said, 1998)