The Lemon Tree: friendship and debate across the Arab-Israeli divide

The Lemon Tree: friendship and debate across the Arab-Israeli divide

Remains in Imwas, al-Ramle today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

Remains of Palestinian homes in al-Ramle today (photo by James Morris, That Still Remains)

They fettered his mouth with chains,
And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You’re a murderer.
They took his food, his clothes and his banners,
And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You’re a thief.
They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You’re a refugee.

– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Refugee’

I was ten years old when a small branch library opened in the Cheshire village where I grew up.  Week after week I devoured novels, many of them beyond my childish comprehension.  One of the books that did made a powerful impression on me that year was Exodus by Leon Uris.

Published in 1958, Exodus was a hugely influential book, and  I was one of those who were deeply affected by the romance of its story of Jews fleeing from post-Holocaust Europe and struggling to establish a new homeland against tremendous odds. However, as I learned more about the origins of the state of  Israel and watched as the Arab-Israeli conflict intensified I discovered that Exodus was little more than duplicitous propaganda.

In Exodus, the story of 1948 is exclusively one of the heroic establishment of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. There is no sense of the corresponding catastrophe of uprooting and exile that Palestinian Arabs came to call the Nakba. Writing last year in Jewish Journal, Alan Elsner found re-reading Exodus a disquieting experience:

When I first read the book at age 16, I responded to it mainly with my heart — whereas now I read it mostly with my head. Then, I fell in love with Uris’ Israel, which was populated by healthy, strong, lusty young men and women, the latter invariably described as ‘high-breasted’, which was thrilling in itself at that point in my development. They spent their days wearing blue shirts and short pants, working the land and fighting off Arab marauders, and their nights dancing the hora and making love while murmuring verses from the Song of Songs.

‘There was an aggressiveness and pride about them … and they were always filled with the songs and dances and ideals of the redemption of the homeland … These were the ancient Hebrews! These were the faces of Dan and Reuben and Judah and Ehphraim. These were Samsons and Deborahs and Joabs and Sauls,’ Uris breathlessly tells us.

Uris’ Israel is very much the Israel of Labour Zionism and the kibbutz and moshav (agricultural co-op) movements. He buys into the concept of the ‘new Jew’ – the independent fighter so unlike the weak Jews of the Diaspora who had been left defenceless against the Nazis. Ari Ben Canaan himself is a ‘strapping six-footer with black hair and ice blue eyes who could be mistaken for a movie leading man. He doesn’t act like any Jew I’ve ever met. You don’t particularly think of them as fighters,’ one British character says.

The most disturbing facet of the book is Uris’ depiction of Arabs. In fact, the word ‘Arab’ rarely appears without the adjective ‘dirty’ or ‘stinking’ appended. Two examples: ‘Nazareth stank. The streets were littered with dung and blind beggars … filthy children were underfoot. Flies were everywhere.’ ‘How pathetic the dirty little Arab children were beside the robust youngsters of Gan Dafna. How futile their lives seemed in contrast to the spirit of the Youth Aliya village. There seemed to be no laughter or songs or games or purpose among the Arab children.’

Like many others, I have made a long journey from Leon Uris’s racist fairytale in my understanding of the Israel – Palestinian question, a journey whose way-stations have been events on the ground such as the occupation and illegal settlement of the West Bank and the indiscriminate slaughter in Gaza, but also films and books which have documented the origins of the state of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and land.

Palestinian Walks, Raja ShehadehI recall 5 Broken Cameras, a superb documentary shot entirely in and around a Palestinian village near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank and Palestinian WalksRaja Shehadeh’s brilliant amalgam of a walker’s lyrical account of the landscape he loves and of the unfolding political tragedy of occupation that has transformed the landscape, making him and many other Palestinians exiles in their own country. Both film and book share a similar approach to the subject of the Israeli occupation but approach the issue at a tangent. Raja Shehadeh comes at it by way of seven walks through the landscape he loves; for Emad Burnat in the film it’s watching how his youngest son Gibreel, born in 2005, is shaped by growing up in a village in the occupied territories while the Israeli Army builds a section of the Security Wall between their village and a nearby Jewish settlement. In both book and film, Palestinians reveal their profound emotions for the land that has sustained them for generations.

Perhaps the most remarkable novel published after the 1948 ‘War of Independence’ aka Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, was written by an Israeli. Khirbet Khizeh (The Ruins of Hizeh), published in 1949, tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land in 1948. The book was published under the nom-de-plume S. Yizhar, who was actually Yizhar Smilansky, an an intelligence officer in the Israeli army.

Sabbagh Palestine coverTwo more books have made a deep impression on me. In Palestine: A Personal History, Karl Sabbagh combined his own family story with a historical outline of the Palestinian case against the Zionist project. While Sabbagh’s mother was English, his father was Palestinian, the descendent of a long line of Christian Arabs whose history he traces in the book as far back as the 18th century, when Palestine was an Ottoman province and his ancestor Ibrahim served at the Ottoman provincial court. Sabbagh wants to demonstrate the continuity and richness of the Palestinian Arab presence, both Christian and Muslim, in the region, and reject the Zionist assertion of  title to ‘a land without people for a people without land’.

The book is humane, compelling and meticulously written using both Jewish and Israeli sources. At the outset, Sabbagh writes ironically, ‘I am the son of a Palestinian father, but… I am not poor, unshaven or a speaker of broken English. I do not know how to use a gun or manufacture a bomb. I have little to do with camels, sand or palm trees. But I both sympathise and identify with the Palestinian people.’

 

City of Oranges cover

Adam LeBor’s City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa covers similar ground. Through the stories of six families – three Arab and three Jewish – LeBor tells the story of the ancient city of Jaffa, for centuries the main port of the eastern Mediterranean, home to Muslims, Christians and Jews, famed for the produce of its orange groves.

LeBor begins his narrative in 1920, when the British took over the administration of the city under the Mandate. He traces Jaffa’s transformation from the second city of Palestine to a crumbling, semi-derelict and neglected suburb of the Israeli capital, and then its revival during the last two decades as an artist’s colony and a possible model of Arab-Jewish co-existence. LeBor draws upon hours of interviews with several generations of Jaffa families, on memoirs, letters and personal archives to tell the story of six families, three Arab, three Jewish.  In the process he illuminates the underlying complexity of the makeup of modern Israel, by telling the story from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic perspectives, as well as from Christian Arab and Muslim points of view. Through the eyes of these families LeBor builds as picture how the founding of the state of Israel was simultaneously a moment of jubilation for the Jews, and a disaster for the 100,000 Arabs who fled Jaffa in 1948, most of them never to return.

Reviewing City of Oranges for the Guardian, Mark Cocker noted why, apart from common humanity, British citizens should have a particular interest in supporting progress towards a just settlement of the Palestinian question:

It is salutary to reflect that the 75 years of political strife, civil conflict and outright war that LeBor covers in his book were the result of a promise made by a British politician, Arthur Balfour, former Conservative prime minister, to the then leader of the Jews in London, Lord Rothschild. Known as the Balfour declaration, these 69 words of contradictory obfuscation offered the same land to two different peoples, and was the very moment that the dark genie of Arab-Jewish conflict was released from its bottle. A British administration then presided over the ensuing troubles for 30 years until they abandoned it, exhausted and baffled that the peoples of Palestine had not thanked them for the confusion and injustice. Not least for these reasons it is important that Britons remain morally engaged with the fate of the region. A good place to start would be to read Adam LeBor’s excellent and courageous book.

Lemon Tree coverThis brings me to the most recent book that I have read about this seemingly intractable conflict.  Highly recommended by several friends, Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree was published in 2006. Tolan is an experienced American journalist and his book is a meticulously-researched work of intelligent journalism. What he has attempted in The Lemon Tree – and has largely succeeded in achieving – is to  present an accurate history of the Palestine-Israel conflict through the true story of a Palestinian family driven from their ancestral home in the town of al-Ramla in 1948 by the Palmach, the elite Israeli fighting force, following an order from Yitzhak Rabin, (decades later to be awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his  role in the signing of the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian National Authority and granted it partial control over parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank before being assassinated a year later by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords).

Tolan’s good fortune was not only to find a dispossessed Palestinian family, but also to discover the story of how, in 1967 following the Six-Day War which had overnight made him a citizen of the newly-occupied territory on the West Bank, Bashir Al-Khairi returned with two cousins to his childhood home, lived in since 1948 by the Eshkenazis, Jewish refugees from Bulgaria. There they were met by Dalia Eshkenazi who welcomed them into the old family home, an encounter that is the starting point for Tolan’s story of a relationship forged against the odds between two families, one Arab, one Jewish, and specifically between Dalia and Bashir, two individuals with very different perspectives on the conflict.

Refugees being removed from Ramla in 1948

Refugees being removed from al-Ramla in 1948

I would recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand the origins and course of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In a balanced, even-handed narrative Sandy Tolan weaves the stories of Israeli Dalia Eshkenazi and Palestinian Bashir Khariri into a readable history of the conflict. Bashir’s father, Ahmad, was the scion of a prominent Arab family.  In 1936 he had built a home from cream ‘Jerusalem stone’ in the ancient town of al-Ramla:

Before long, Ahmad would turn his attention to the garden.  In the corner of the yard behind the house, he had chosen a spot for a lemon tree.  Once the tree was in the soil, Ahmad knew it would be at least seven years, and probably more, before the strong Palestinian sun and sweet waters of the al-Ramla aquifer would nurture the tree to maturity. The act of planting was thus an act of faith and patience.

But, in July 1948, when Bashir was six years old, the Khariri family were amongst the thousands of Palestinians forced to flee from their homes in al-Ramla as war erupted between the Arab and Jewish populations  of Palestine in response to the UN Partition Plan to divide Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. On 15 May 1948 the civil war transformed into a regional conflict between Israel and the Arab states when a combined invasion by Egypt, Jordan and Syria entered Palestine and took control of over half of the area allocated for the proposed Arab state,  including the Jaffa, Lydda and the al-Ramla area:

At home the Khairis … and the rest of the people of al-Ramla had left behind their couches and tables, rugs, libraries, framed family pictures, and their blankets, dishes and cups.  They left their fezzes and gallabiyas, balloon pants, spare keffiyehs, sashes, and belts.  They left their spices for maklouheh, grape leaves in brine, and the flour for the dough of their date pastries.  They left their fields of wild peas and jasmine, passiflora and dried scarlet anemone, mountain lilies that grew between the barley and the wheat.  They left their olives and oranges, lemons and apricots, spinach and okra and peppers.  They left their silk and linen, silver bracelets and chokers, amber, coral, and necklaces with Austrian coins.  They left their pottery and soaps, leather and oils, Swedish ovens and copper pots, and drinking goblets from Bohemia.  They left their silver trays filled with sugared almonds and sweet dried chickpeas; their dolls, made with glued-together wood chips; their sumac; their indigo.

The people of al-Ramla were among around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who were expelled from the area that became Israel and became Palestinian refugees. On 15 July 1948, notes Tolan, while the families from al-Ramla and Lydda were trudging through the hills in blazing heat, David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish leader, wrote in his diary:

The Arab Legion has wired that there are 30,000 refugees moving along the road between Lydda and Ramla, who are infuriated with the Legion.  They’re demanding bread.  They should be taken across the Jordan River’.

In other words, removed from Palestine to the Kingdom of Jordan – ethnically cleansed if you will. In mid-July, the Khairis arrived in Ramallah, along with thousands of other refugees.  Ramallah ‘had been transformed from a quiet Christian hill town in northern Palestine to a depository of misery and trauma’, writes Tolan.  This was where the family would remain, and where Bashir would grow up, eventually training to be a lawyer.

Dalia Landau Eshkenazi

Dalia Landau Eshkenazi

Meanwhile, in the three years following the war, about 700,000 Jews immigrated to Israel – one third of them having fled, or having been expelled, from countries in the Middle East, while others came from the countries of Europe ravaged by the Holocaust.  Moshe and Solia Eshkenazi were Bulgarian Jews who moved to Israel in the autumn of 1948 – beneficiaries of an emigration scheme agreed between the Bulgarian government and the Jewish Agency. (The story Tolan tells of how the Bulgarian Jews survived the war in a country allied to Nazi Germany only because of the decency of a handful of Gentiles forms one of the most interesting chapters of his book, and was certainly a revelation to me.)

On 14 November 1948, Moshe and Solia were among a busload of immigrants (mostly Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians and Poles) who arrived in al-Ramla:

They were greeted by a representative of the Jewish Agency. … It was a simple procedure, immigrants would recall; they were free to enter a house, inspect it, and claim it.  The paperwork would come later.  Moshe and Solia came upon a house to their liking.  It was in good shape and virtually empty, though not brand-new.  Clearly, someone had lived there before.  It was a stone house with an open layout and plenty of space. … In the yard in back there was a lemon tree.

So the empty Khariri house became the Eshkenazi ‘s new home, and the house where Dalia grew up:

In a black and white photograph taken in the backyard of the stone house in Ramla, Dalia stands beside a lemon tree, looking into the camera with tears in her eyes.  The image was taken in the summer, perhaps of 1950; Dalia would have been two and a half.  She’d been crying briefly, offended by the sparrows who had chosen to fly away rather than stay and eat bread crumbs out of her hand.  ‘Why should they fly?’ she cried to her aunt. ‘Why? I love them.’ It is her earliest memory.

In another passage we get a glimpse of the settlers from eastern Europe easing into their new life:

In the evenings, Moshe and Solia would invite Bulgarian friends for gatherings in the backyard.  They laid out plates of black olives, watermelon and Bulgarian chees, pouring glasses of boza, a sweet Balkan drink made from wheat.  They’d talk of news from Bulgaria, and Dalia would hear them telling off-colour jokes in Ladino, the fading language of earlier generations that she could understand only slightly.

It is important to note, when reading passages such as these, with their fictionalised tone, that Tolan has been meticulous in ensuring that everything in the book, down to the smallest detail, is fact, gained from the journalist’s tools – interviews, archival documents, published and unpublished memoirs and diaries, newspaper clippings, and primary historical accounts.  ‘I have not taken liberties with the history, no matter how minor’, he writes.  ‘At no point do I imagine what probably happened, for example at a family event in 1936 and state it as fact; nor at any moment do I describe what someone was thinking unless those thoughts are based on a specific recounting in a memoir or interview’.

So, when we read a passage such as this, in which Tolan describes Dalia’s growing awareness – and confusion – about the place where she has been born, we can sense the truth of how a generation of young Israeli’s came to see their place in the world:

Growing up, Dalia would frequently ask her parents and teachers: ‘What are these houses we are living in?’

‘These are Arab houses,’ she was told. ‘What are these Arab houses that everyone talks about?’ she would reply.

Dalia’s school was in an Arab house, and there she would learn Israel’s history. She learned about the creation of the state of Israel as a safe haven for the Jews. She studied the War of Independence as the story of the few against the many. The Arabs had invaded, Dalia would read, in order to destroy the new state and throw the Jews into the sea. Most nations confronted with such hostilities would have been paralyzed, but tiny Israel had withstood five Arab armies. Little David had defeated Goliath. As for the Arabs, Dalia’s text-books would report that they ran away, deserting their lands and abandoning their homes, fleeing before the conquering Israeli army. The Arabs, one textbook of the day declared, ‘preferred to leave’ once  the Jews had taken their towns. Dalia accepted the history she was taught. Still, she was confused. Why, she wondered, would anyone leave so willingly?

One afternoon when she was about seven or eight years old, Dalia climbed up the black metal gate that Ahmad Khairi had placed at the end of the stone path in the front yard. Atop the gate perched a delicate piece of wrought iron in the shape of a star and crescent: the symbol of Islam. It bothered Dalia. ‘This is not an Arab house,’ she said to herself, and she grasped the delicate crescent and began wrenching it back and forth, back and forth, until it came loose in her hands. She clambered down and threw the crescent away.

Tolan sets the story of his two families against the background of the history of the conflict, told in the clearest way. Every statement is supported by references, not in footnotes in the text itself, but in a 70-page appendix and extensive bibliography which together constitute a quarter of the book.  Tolan skilfully shows how Dalia and Bashir are both swept up in the fates of their people, and reveals their lives as a personal microcosm of more than half a century of Israeli-Palestinian history.

Iyad Rafidi, left, principal of the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah, West Bank, talks with Bashir Khairi, 2011

Iyad Rafidi, left, principal of the Arab Evangelical Episcopal School in Ramallah, West Bank, talks with Bashir Khairi in 2011

Meanwhile, the Khairis had lived as exiles in their own land – first in Ramallah, then in Gaza, and finally returning to Ramallah when Bashir was fifteen years old.  In the early 1960s, in Cairo studying law, Bashir had become deeply involved in activist politics, and particularly with the Arab Nationalist Movement led by George Habash, himself a refugee from Lydda who had been among the refugees who had walked in the heat through the hills to Ramallah in July 1948.

In  June 1967, Bashir was practising law in Ramallah when news came of  Israel’s surprise attack on Egyptian airfields following a period of rising tension between Israel and its Arab neighbours.  When the Six Day War was over, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank meant, paradoxically, that it was now easier for Palestinians exiled in 1948 to visit their old homeland.  That is how Bashir and his cousins found themselves in al-Ramla in the summer of 1967, ringing the doorbell of the house where Bashir had lived as a child. ‘Come in, feel at home,’ said Dalia:

It was a universal welcome – Make yourself at home; Mi casa es su casa; Ahlan wa-sahlan; Baruch habah – yet these particular words seemed especially strange to Bashir as he approached the front door: Feel at home.

Life cover 23 June 1967

As the cousins are shown around the house they see the bedroom that is now Dalia’s but was once Bashir’s. On the wall above her bed Dalia has tacked a poster of an Israeli soldier celebrating in the Suez Canal after the overwhelming Israeli victory in the Six Days War of 1967. For Israelis the image stood for liberation and survival, but standing with Bashir in the doorway to the bedroom, Dalia suddenly realises, for the first time, that Bashir might see the poster differently. In his childhood home, in the lemon tree his father planted in the backyard, Bashir sees dispossession and exile; Dalia, who arrived as an infant in 1948 with her family from Bulgaria, sees hope for a people devastated by the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, from this unpromising encounter a long friendship develops, even though Bashir becomes a senior member of the politburo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and is charged with being  involved in the bombing of a supermarket in Jerusalem  in 1969.  Bashir spends two decades in a total of 17 Israeli prisons, detained after hearings in closed Israeli military courts on suspicion of links to acts of terror carried out by the PFLP, and for helping to organize the first intifada. Bashir remains committed to a programme of resistance to gain for dispossessed Palestinians the right to return to their homeland.

Despite Bashir’s circumstances and politics, Dalia maintains a friendship with the Palestinian, and begins to understand Bashir’s grievances about his family’s lost home. In 1991, she donates the house as a kindergarten for Arab children in al-Ramla and as a peace and educational centre called Open House which is still operating today.

Writing in the Huffington Post in 2008, following publication of The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan commented on the central place of 1948 in both Israeli and Palestinian narratives. ‘In Exodus,’ he wrote, ‘ the story of 1948 is exclusively about the heroic birth of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. Arabs are alternately portrayed as malicious or pathetic’.  But for Palestinians, 1948 was the Nakba, or Catastrophe, a story not of survival and re-birth, but dispossession and loss:

The Nakba remains little known in the West, despite the rivers of ink and forests of newsprint that have chronicled the last six decades of struggle between the two peoples. Yet it is as central to Palestinian identity as the Holocaust is to the identity of Israel.

Seen through a Palestinian lens, the creation of Israel, sanctioned by the United Nations vote, in November 1947, to partition Palestine into two states – one for the Arabs, and one for the Jews – was not ‘western civilization’s gesture of repentance for the Holocaust,’ as the historian Michael J. Cohen has written. Rather, Palestinians saw themselves as ‘the indigenous majority on its ancestral soil,’ as the Harvard scholar Walid Khalidi has noted, and therefore ‘failed understand why they should be made to pay for the Holocaust.’ Neither did they grasp why the Jewish side, with one third the population, should be awarded 54 percent of Palestine and more than 80 percent of its cultivated citrus and grain plantations. This helps explain why the Arabs of Palestine, in peace talks five and six decades later, would fail to see Israeli concessions as ‘generous’: From their perspective, they lost 78 percent of their land to Israel in the 1948 war, and are ill-inclined to make further compromise on the 22 percent that remains.

Curiously, although Tolan’s book takes as its focus 1948 and the story of one house that changed hands in that year, I gained a greater sense from his historical account of the greater significance, not of the Holocaust, but of Zionism as being fundamental to understanding Israeli justifications for policies of territorial conquest and occupation.  A liberal delicacy often surrounds the question of Israel, rooted quite naturally in the idea of the state as a refuge for Jews who had survived the Holocaust in Europe. But the historical background sketched in by Tolan (or contained in many other histories) confirms the origins of the problem: the Zionist dream of Jewish homeland, a religious state in which Jews would be a majority in their own nation in a territory closely approximating the historical Eretz Yisrael.  With its roots in 19th century Europe, and gathering pace following the British acceptance of ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ in the  1917 Balfour Declaration, the Zionist project clearly pre-dates the Holocaust.  The Zionist belief that the settlers were returning to a ‘land without people for a people without land’ soon provoked the first stirrings of nationalism among the Palestinian Arab population.

Remains of Palestinian buildings in al-Ramle today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

Remains of Palestinian buildings in al-Ramla today (photo James Morris, That Still Remains)

The house and the lemon tree.  However the history is interpreted, the evidence is plain: in 1948 some 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes.  Although they maintain their friendship and shared commitment to the Open House, Bashir and Dalia cannot come to any kind of agreement about the ‘right of return’: in other words, the right for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel and have access to their stolen property. Dalia can understand the right to return as a recognition of a past injustice, but for her it can never be, practically speaking, put into place because of the suffering it would cause Israelis and its implication for the state of Israel. For Bashir, return is simply everything he has believed in and worked towards.

In the most recent encounter between Bashir and Dalia that Tolan records in his book, in 2006 Dalia travels the short distance from Jerusalem to Ramallah, through military checkpoints and in the shadow of the Wall – the ‘security barrier’ that in the previous four years has been constructed to separate the West Bank from the rest of Israel. When the pair meet their differences are revealed in a passage in which Dalia urges Bashir to recognise the value of negotiation and compromise, exemplified by the peace process established under the Oslo Accords of 1993-5:

Bashir leaned forward.  ‘For Palestinians it didn’t change the daily life.  It went from bad to worse.  I didn’t go back to al-Ramla.  We don’t have our independent state, and we don’t have our freedom. We are still refugees moving from one place to another place to another place to another place, and every day Israel is committing crimes.  I can’t even be on the board of Open House.  Because I’m Palestinian, not Israeli.  If somebody comes yesterday from Ethiopia but he’s Jewish, he will have all the rights, when I’m the one who has the history in al-Ramla.  But for them I’m a stranger.’

Dalia’s arms were folded tightly across her chest.  She unfolded them and took a breath.

‘Bashir.  Maybe I have no right to say what I’m going to say.  We need to make sacrifices if both of us are to live here. We need to make sacrifices.  And I know it’s not fair for me to say that.  I know. I mean, you cannot live in your house in Ramla.  I know it’s not fair.  But I think we need to strengthen these people who are willing to make some compromise. Like Rabin, who paid with his life. … By not accepting the state of Israel or by not accepting the state of Palestine, I think none of us has a real life here.  Israelis don’t have a real life here, either.  But if you’re not okay, we’re not okay.  And if we’re not okay, you’re not okay.

Now in his seventies, Bashir Khairi continues to live in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, barred from the country of his birth.  Jerusalem is only 10 miles from Ramallah  but given Bashir’s circumstances it might as well be Timbuktu.  I tried to find how the relationship between Bashir and Dalia has evolved since the publication of The Lemon Tree, but there isn’t much to go on.  This is Dalia, quoted in ‘Enemy at the door‘, an article on the Sofia Echo website, in 2011:

The last time I saw Bashir was with Sandy Tolan in about 2006. He can’t come to Israel; he doesn’t have a permit because he was allegedly involved in an act of terror (a supermarket bombing) in 1969.

Has he ever admitted his crime?

I don’t know what he admitted or didn’t admit in court because it was behind closed doors. I have confronted him with this and he has never said that he did NOT do this. He just said ‘why do you call these people terrorists? They are freedom fighters’, so what do you understand from this?

But he’s still your friend and that’s how you see him?

I see him as something that grows from the same earth, from the same hole, in a way somehow part of my fate, shall we say, like family. It’s a very strong connection, to know that you’ve been living in someone else’s house.

That same year, Bashir Khairi was quoted by Noozhawk columnist Karen Telleen-Lawton in ‘Sustainable Peace and The Lemon Tree’:

She has an extraordinary conscience. She offered me back the house because it released her conscience from having a house belonging to someone else.

‘Dalia was willing to sell and give me money, or rent and give me rent,’ he said. ‘My reaction was that the house represented Palestine and Palestine was not for sale or rent. I suggested this house go for Arab children and be called ‘Dalia Kindergarten for Arab Children’ to appreciate and mark her high-class humanitarian position.’

Dalia supports a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. This is the official U.S. position despite the Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza that put to question its feasibility. Khairi disagrees.

‘I still back a one-state democracy for both, with everyone having the same rights and duties,’ he told us. ‘I believe this is the best guarantee for future peace living together. Palestinian land is available for all — Christians, Muslims, Jews — all can live here. We have previously. Thoughts that we can’t live together on one land — this is a short-sighted vision that doesn’t serve peace.’

For me, too, one state seems the solution. Though it might appear as much pie in the sky as a democratic South Africa with a black president would have seemed 40 or 50 years ago, I have believed it to be the only outcome that guarantees any justice and security since reading the late Tony Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century.  This week  the House of Commons voted overwhelming in favour of recognition for the state of Palestine.  But how can there be a viable Palestinian state when Israel refuses to relinquish control of the occupied territories where illegal Jewish settlements continue to spread?  Surely there is a matter of principle here?  When the world demanded the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, there was no suggestion that a just outcome would be white control of the greater part of the territory while granting black South Africans independence in the bantustans or homelands. Like Bashir, I believe that only a single secular, democratic state will guarantee peace and justice for all.

Remains of the tomb of Ali imam, Ramla (httpborisfenus.blogspot.com)

Remains of the tomb of Ali imam, al-Ramla (photo: borisfenus.blogspot.com)

Write down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth…will come after a summer
Will you be angry?

Write down!
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks..
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

Write down!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew
My father.. descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house is like a watchman’s hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title!

Write down!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Therefore!
Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Beware ! Beware ! Beware !
Of my hunger
And my anger!

– Mahmoud Darwish, ‘Identity Card’ (1964)

See also

The Palestinian Nakba: an Israeli perspective

This year Nakba Day, the Palestinian commemoration of the Nakba, or catastrophe, of the 1948 war in which an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled, and hundreds of Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed, has been particularly marked by violence, reflecting the current unrest in the Middle East.

During the Nakba, the vast majority of Palestinian refugees, both those outside the 1949 armistice lines at the end of the war and those internally displaced, were barred by the newly declared state of Israel from returning to their homes or reclaiming their property. Today they number several million people, divided between Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with another at least quarter of million internally displaced Palestinians in Israel.   It was this loss of Palestine and the dispossession and dispersal of the Palestinian people that came to be known as al-Nakba.

All of this has been in my mind as well because I’ve just read Khirbet Khizeh, the novel of which Ian McEwan spoke in his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speechKhirbet Khizeh (The Ruins of Hizeh) was published in 1949 and tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land during the 1948 war that immediately followed the founding of the Israeli state: the war of independence for Israelis, the nakba for Palestinians.  The book was published under the nom-de-plume S. Yizhar, who was actually Yizhar Smilansky, an intelligence officer in the Israeli army in 1948.  Yizhar was, as David Shulman writes in an afterword to the new Granta edition, ‘the first major writer to describe in credible, unforgettable detail one emblematic example of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their homes by Israeli soldiers’.

Yizhar was a Zionist: he believed in the right of the Jews to the land. But the greatness of his book is that in Khirbet, he is a man at war with himself. The young Israeli soldier who is his main protaganist attempts to reconcile the rights of his people with the rights of the Palestinian villagers.  Troubling thoughts and moral dilemma is ever-present in the thoughts of Yizhar’s central character.  Near the beginning of Khirbet Khizeh, he speaks of the risks for a soldier of thinking about the actions on which he is engaged: ‘we knew that when the thoughts came, troubles began; better not to start thinking’.

In the story, a squad is detailed to clear a Palestinian village on the Israeli side of the ceasefire line and pack its residents off in trucks with only the clothes on their backs (emblematic of the 41 villages that were forcibly evacuated and at least 228 more where the residents fled under attack by Zionist forces).  When the narrator, mindful of how Jews were exiled by their persecutors, blurts out a protest, one of his comrades retorts:

Are we killing them? We’re taking them to their side. Let them sit there and wait. It’s very decent of us. There’s no other place in the world where they’d have been treated as well as this.

Reading Khirbet Khizeh, I felt I was in the presence of a classic of 20th century humanist, anti-war literature – to be ranked alongside Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Barbusse’s Under Fire. It is a work of parallels, as Yizhar uses the language of exile to describe the fate of the Palestinian villagers.  The narrator realises that his people, who had lived in exile for two thousand years, were now sending others into exile:

This was exile. This was what exile was like. This was what exile looked like . . .I have never been in the Diaspora – I said to myself – I had never known what it was like . . . but people had spoken to me, told me, taught me, and repeatedly recited to me, from every direction, in books and newspapers, everywhere: exile. Our nation’s protest to the world: exile! It had entered me, apparently, with my mother’s milk. What, in fact, had we perpetrated here today?

The narrator is filled with deep foreboding.  Watching a mother and her boy in the procession of refugees being led to the lorries that will transport them from their land, he thinks:

We could also see how something was happening in the heart of the boy, something that, when he grew up, could only become a viper inside him, the same thing that was now the weeping of a helpless child.”

In the powerful conclusion, the narrator reflects:

When they reached their place of exile night would already have fallen. Their clothing would be their only bedding. Fine. What could be done? The third truck began to rumble. Had some astrologer already seen in the conjuncture of the stars in the sky over the village or in some horoscope how things would turn out here? And what indifference there was in us, as if we had never been anything but peddlers of exile, and our hearts had coarsened in the process. But this was not the point either.

And how does it end?

The valley was calm. Somebody started talking about supper. Far away on this dirt track, close to what appeared to be its end, a distant, darkening swaying truck, in the manner of heavy trucks laden with fruit or produce or something, was gradually being swallowed up. Tomorrow, both painful humiliation and helpless rage would turn into a kind of casual irritation, shameful, but fading fast. Everything was suddenly so open. So big, so very big. And we had all become so small and insignificant. Soon a time would arise in the world when it would be good to come home from work, to return exhausted, to meet someone, or walk alone, to walk saying nothing. All around silence was falling, and very soon it would close upon the last circle. And when silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness, which yearned noiselessly for what was beyond stillness – then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.

Yizhar Smilansky was born in Ottoman Palestine of Jewish settler parents, and was later a left-wing Zionist member of the Knesset. His writings under the pen name S. Yizhar contained some of the earliest and most powerful criticisms of Israel’s foundation from an Israeli Jewish perspective. The book was first published in Israel just after the end of the 1948-49 war, despite attempts by the military censor to ban it.  Khirbet Khizeh remains an optional text on the Israeli school curriculum, the significance of which is debated by David Shulman in his afterword to the Granta edition.

In the aftermath of the 1967 war that led to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Yizhar wrote in an essay, ‘If there is indeed a ‘Jewish consciousness’, it must pause here to ponder our own selves …. What does victory by armed force actually bestow upon the victors? . . . Because you don’t get a country by means of weapons. Any such acquisition is unjust’.

In a lengthy review of Khirbet Khizeh in The Guardian, Jacqueline Rose wrote:

It is the abiding importance of Khirbet Khizeh … that it returns the issue of justice squarely to the heart of the nation, and then leaves it hovering – like the cry of the villages, or like the question that trails the narrator of the story as he wanders through the landscape: ‘some kind of question that posed itself of its own accord, or a kind of aside, that must be said’.