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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Martha Gellhorn on her June, 1967 visit to WB camps

I had once excerpted the Martha Gellhorn article in The Nation, October 23, 1967, about her visit to a Palestinian Arab refugee camps immediately after the Six Day War in 1967. In the wake of the article I posted yesterday from German magazine Cicero on a similar theme, I decided to post the entire article, since it is not available online.

We were drinking Nescafe in the cool, over-furnished parlor  of an elderly refugee schoolteacher. A horde of charming,  bouncing small children had been pushed out to make  room for serious grown-up talk. The children all seemed to be the same age and were, oddly, the teacher's own  sons and daughters and his grandchildren. His wife vanished,  as is correct. His bright 22-year-old daughter, already  the mother of four, crouched outside the door like  a beggar, holding a bit of white cloth over her face, and  listened.   
In 1961, I had made a long tour of the UNRWA (United  Nations Relief and Works Agency) Palestinian refugee camps m Lebanon, West Jordan and the Gaza Strip,  and I had been at this camp near Jericho before. It is disheartening.  The world believes, because it is constantly  told, that the Palestinian refugees have lived in physical  misery for nineteen years. Middle-class refugees will confide,  in private, that their poorer compatriots, those who  remain in the camps. owned nothing at home and are no  worse off now than before. The majority of refugees, educated,  skilled, semi-skilled, live outside the camps and  manage like any other Arabs. 
The refugees' misery is in the head. They are sick in  their minds from a diet of propaganda, official Arab dogma  and homemade fantasy, which they have gobbled for nineteen years. Schooled in self-pity, encouraged to believe  they are the worlds unique victims of injustice, they have  never been allowed to forget the daydream past or to settle  for the real future. Since the third Arab-Israel war hardly  touched them, they learned nothing from it. 
The schoolteacher was tired of fire eating and disabused  with Nasser. But the rest of the company, three husky  chicken farmers, men In their late 20s, a tall, pale, elegantly  put together student from Amman University, and  a cocky grammar schoolboy, were as devoted to Nasser  as ever. Though all except the schoolboy (we took a vote)  thought a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel would  be a good thing, the young men felt that Nasser must decide. 
They had personal problems from the war. The chicken  farmers lacked transport. The schoolteacher said his wife  was running out of kerosene for cooking, The grammar  schoolboy's matriculation exams at Ramallah had been Interrupted;  when would the Israelis arrange for him to  finish? The university student was worried that the Israelis  would compel him to repeat his second year instead of  continuing straight Into his third year, as was fair, at  Hebrew University In Jerusalem. He was stunned to hear  , that Hebrew University teaches In Hebrew. I kept pointing  out, in the face of these complaints, that the shooting had  ended only ten days earlier .
Then, as on remembered cue, we went into the fantasy  phase of conversation It consists of recounting how many  acres of fine fields and orchards, what splendid houses,  were left behind in Palestine and stolen by the Jews. There  is competition In fantasy ownership: if you add up the lost  acreage claimed by the inhabitants of any camp you usually  arrive at a total larger than the whole recovered arable  land of Israel. One very nice man in another camp told  me that he had owned 11,000 acres of citrus groves: legend  has it that once the Sultan of Turkey owned that much land  in Palestine and sold it to the Rothschilds. But I think  this ownership fantasy is the real human core of the Palestinian  refugee problem, as opposed to the unreal Arab  propaganda problem. 
Half the refugees are under 18 years of age; Palestine  is a myth taught in school and at home. I do not think  that any of these people truly want to return to Israel - not  unless the Israelis would give them the country, improved  by decades of labor, and obligingly jump in the sea. What  the refugees really want is money for their imagined lost  possessions. They don't seem to know that, repeatedly  since 1949, the Israeli Government has offered compensation,  sometimes with conditions, such as a peace treaty,  sometimes for nothing. Nor, apparently, do they know  that these offers have always been angrily rejected on their  behalf by the Arab governments. To accept compensation  would be to end the Palestine Refugee Problem. The compensation  is there and waiting, but it will never satisfy  these people because it is based on fact, not fantasy. If  your father owned a recorded 5 acres of land, and you  believe he owned 500 acres, you are bound to feel bitter  and cheated by an exact repayment. 
"Why can't we go on a bus to see Israel?" the schoolboy  asked. He was the best linguist. "What is it like?" How to  put it quickly, m our limited mutual supply of words?  "Everyone works very hard," I said. That is the basic description  of Israel. 
"Works very hard?" he repeated with horror, and was  annoyed when I laughed. 
"What do you think about the English and American  planes for Israel?" he asked, black eyes gleaming. 
"A lie. There were none." 
"Every Arab believes it. There were. The planes helped  the Israelis. What about the oil blockade?"
Translations  into Arabic for the chicken farmers and the teacher, who  understood no English. 
"I think it will hurt the Arabs most. How will they live  if they don't sell oil?" 
"Russians will buy the oil," the boy said proudly, "and  India and Vietnam. Arabs will not suffer." 
"What would have happened to the Jews if the Arabs  had won?" I was taking a little Gallup poll on that one.  The university student translated and the six men muttered  together for some time. 
"Very terrible," the boy summed up. "All dead."
 Out of the blue, remarks of the schoolteacher were  translated. "Eshkol and Dayan are very good."
"Why does he say that?" 
"Because all is peaceful," the university student said.  "We must live in peace with the Jews." 
"King Hussein is very good," the boy interrupted. "We  like him very much now he went to Cairo to see Nasser "  Repeated In Arabic; general nodding agreement. The  schoolteacher looked weary and offered more coffee and  cigarettes. 
"Educated refugees make money and have a good life,"  the university student observed suddenly. "In Amman we  go to our classes with girls. That is very good. Can I go back to Amman University because I cannot speak  Hebrew?" 
The visiting males filed out, thus freeing the bright 22- year-old daughter from veiled exile by the door. She spoke  passionately; I feared that I had offended some mysterious  female code. "What does she say?" I asked the boy, a  friend of the family and too young to require a woman's  hidden face and silence. He grinned, embarrassed by her  outburst. 
"She says: Finish Nasser. Finish Shukairy.  Finish Hussein.  Enough. Enough. Peace. Peace."
 It is a great pity that Arab women have no voice in  Arab politics.