Friday, January 14, 2011

Gaza,1961 (Martha Gellhorn)

I had forgotten much of the 1961 Martha Gellhorn article, where she visited Palestinian Arab refugees, that I had excerpted on a tiny portion of a couple of years back.

Look at her description of Gaza in 1961:

TO ENTER the Gaza Strip you require a military visa from the Egyptian government in Cairo. I had arrived in Cairo expecting to proceed like the wind directly from there to Gaza but was informed, by the local UNRWA press officer, that this permit took two or three weeks to get, and sometimes you never got it. Besides, there was only one UNEF army plane to Gaza each Saturday, and they didn't like carrying anyone except their own personnel; besides, it was now Thursday, and tomorrow was the Muslim Sunday, and indeed all looked hopeless. I foresaw bumming a jeep ride over the sand-storming desert and infiltrating into the Strip somehow; but meantime I called on the Egyptian authorities.

Because of the Muslim holy day, and the number of passport photos I needed and the number of offices I had to run between, it took about four days to get the visa, and every minute was enjoyable. ...

THE Gaza Strip, from all accounts, would be a real hell hole. It is a roughly rectangular slice of land, on the southernmost Mediterranean frontier of Israel, some forty kilometers long by five to ten kilometers wide, and 365,000 people, refugees and residents, live on it. I imagined it as a sand dune, packed solid with human flesh, blazing hot, hideous, and filthy. It is none of these. The weather was so idyllic—a china-blue sky and a constant cool breeze—that I assumed this was special luck and at once asked my charming landlady about it. No, the weather in Gaza was always delightful. She had lived here for thirty years; there were two "sticky" weeks in the summer, otherwise you could not find a more benign climate. Flying over the Strip, I had noted plenty of sand, but also plenty of green. There were always citrus groves in Gaza, my landlady reported, Gaza was famous for them, but since the refugees came these had greatly increased, as had the general cultivation. Anything grows here, she said, exhibiting her blossoming garden.

Then I remarked that Gaza town was a beehive of activity, with all the UNEF soldiers, Danes, Norwegians, Indians, Canadians, Yugoslavs, who patrol the Israeli-Gaza border and spend money in the town in their free time, and the Egyptian upper crust which oversees the Palestinian officials, and UNRWA and visitors and the local residents and, indeed, the refugees. The refugees seemed to bring prosperity with them; it was most mysterious.

Not at all, said my landlady, we do not know why we are not completely bankrupt; but she was adding a third floor to her already roomy house, so great is the demand for lodgings. Sizable villas are being built in what must be the fashionable section of Gaza. The main square boasts an array of parked Mercedes, finned pastel American cars, and humbler Volkswagens. The taxis in Gaza are new. There is an imposing movie theater, in the ugly world-wide chromium-and-junk style; there are abundant cafés and numerous ill-lit dingy shops, typical of the region. An economist could surely answer this riddle: if no one has any money, what are these eccentric merchants and purveyors of services doing?

The refugee camps are much larger than those in Lebanon, small towns by Middle Eastern standards. They are by no means luxury establishments, but many people live in a nastier state in American and European slums. The poor villagers of Gaza are not as well housed or cared for as the refugees. The Gaza Strip is not ,a hell hole, not a visible disaster. It is worse; it is a jail--with a magical long white sand beach, and a breeze, and devoted welfare workers (UNRWA) to look after the prisoners.

The Egyptian government is the jailer. For reasons of its own, it does not allow the refugees to move from this narrow strip of land. The refugees might not want to leave at all, or they, might not want to leave for good; but anyone would become claustrophobic if penned, for thirteen years, inside 248 square kilometers. A trickle of refugees, who can prove they have jobs elsewhere, are granted exit visas. The only official number of the departed is less than three hundred, out of 255,000 registered refugees. It seems incredible. Rumor says that more refugees do manage to go away illegally, by unknown methods.

These locked-in people--far too many in far too little space--cannot find adequate work. Naturally, there is less chance of employment than in the other "host countries." Meantime, they are exposed to the full and constant blast of Egyptian propaganda. No wonder that Gaza was the home base of the trained paramilitary bands called commandos by the Egyptians and Palestinians, and gangsters by the Israelis--the fedayin, whose job was to cross unnoticed into Israel and commit acts of patriotic sabotage and murder. And having been so devastatingly beaten by Israel again, in 1956, has not improved the trapped, bitter Gaza mentality; it only makes the orators more bloodthirsty.

ANOTHER Mad Hatter conversation, practically a public meeting, took place in the office of the leader of two adjacent camps, a man in charge of some 29,000 people. The camp leader, the self-appointed orator, sat behind his desk. The Secret Service youth, mentioned earlier, the quiet UNRWA Palestinian, my regular chaperone, and the three uniformed cops of highish rank completed the company.

First the camp leader told me how rich they had all been in Palestine and how miserable they were now and how much land they had all owned. I do not doubt for one minute how much land some of them owned, nor how rich some of them were, and I did not point out this subtle distinction: if everyone owned the land claimed, Palestine would be the size of Texas; if everyone had been so rich, it would have been largely populated by millionaires. To gild the past is only human, we all do it; and to gild it with solid gold is even more human if you are a refugee.

This part of his address was already so familiar that I could have recited it for him.

Then he spoke of Jaffa, his native town. The Jews surrounded the city, firing on all sides; they left one little way out, by the sea, so the Arabs would go away. Only the very old and the very poor stayed, and they were killed. Arab refugees tell many dissimilar versions of the Jaffa story, but the puzzler is: where are the relatives of those who must have perished in the fury of high explosive the infallible witnesses? No one says he was loaded on a truck (or a boat) at gun point; no one describes being forced from his home by armed Jews; no one recalls the extra menace of enemy attacks, while in flight. The sight of the dead, the horrors of escape are exact, detailed memories never forgotten by those who had them. Surely Arabs would not forget or suppress such memories, if they, too, had them.

As for those Arabs who remained behind, they are still in Jaffa--3000 of them--living in peace, prosperity, and discontent, with their heirs and descendants.

"The Jews are criminals," the camp leader continued in a rising voice. "Murderers! They are the worst criminals in the whole world."

Had he ever heard of Hitler?

He banged his table and said, "Hitler was far better than the Jews!"

"Far better murderer? He killed six million Jews as a start," I observed.

"Oh, that is all exaggerated. He did not. Besides, the Jews bluffed Hitler. They arranged in secret that he should kill a few of them--old ones, weak ones--to make the others emigrate to Palestine."

"Thirty-six thousand of them," said the Secret Service man, proving the point, "came here, before the war, from Central Europe."

"It's amazing," I said. "I have never before heard anywhere that the Jews arranged with Hitler for him to kill them."

"It was a secret!" the camp leader shouted. "The documents have been found. Everyone knows. It was published. The Jews arranged it all with Hitler."

There is a limit to the amount of Mad Hattery one can endure, so I suggested that we visit the camp. I knocked on a door at random, before the camp leader had a chance to steer me anywhere. Two young married couples lived here. In a corner by the courtyard wall stood a group of visitors, silent Arab women, in their graceful long blue dresses, slightly hiding their faces behind their white head veils. The older women wore silver coins on chains across their foreheads; this is very pretty and is also guaranteed to prevent sickness of the eyes. It was useless to try to lure the women into talk, but one of the husbands talked freely. The Secret Service youth translated.

"It is the blame of America that this happened, because they help the Jews. We only want America to help us to get back to our land."

"How?" I asked. "By war?"

"When the Arabs are united, we will make the war."

"What do you want from us then? Arms to make this war with?"

"No, we want you to stop giving arms and money to Israel. Just now Kennedy has given Israel $25 million for arms"

"I do not believe that the U.S. government has ever given or sold arms to Israel. What about the arms Nasser gets from Russia and Czechoslovakia?"

"That is all right. That is different. They are peace-loving nations. They only want to help the undeveloped countries."

The Secret Service man put in: "America offered us arms, but with conditions. We will not accept conditions. So we take from the Eastern countries, who give without conditions."

"What do you do?" I asked the fat young husband.


"What would you like to do?"

"Be a soldier and fight Jews."

This oratory pleased the public very much.

"Do you all like Nasser?" I asked, politely.

Wide smiles. General joy.

"We do. Certainly. Oh, of course. He will unite us and make us strong. He is our leader."