Who are the Palestinians?

New Books Explore a People Through Their Own Eyes

A Student from Ramallah: Arthur Neslen uses an interview format to allow Palestinians to speak in their own voices about their lives.
Courtesy of University of California Press
A Student from Ramallah: Arthur Neslen uses an interview format to allow Palestinians to speak in their own voices about their lives.

By Joel Schalit

Published September 23, 2011, issue of September 30, 2011.
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The Forgotten Palestinians
By Ilan Pappé
Yale University Press, 336 pages, $30

Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza
By Sara Roy
Princeton University Press, 319 pages, $35

In Your Eyes a Sandstorm: Ways of Being Palestinian
By Arthur Neslen
University of California Press, 328 pages, $34.95

‘I can’t believe Bibi [Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu], is forced to listen to that,” my wife said as the muezzins began their evening call to prayer. Less than half a mile from Caesarea, in the village Jisr az-Zarqa, their sound is inescapable. Five times a day. “It’s divine justice,” a family friend remarked. “Even at his vacation home, he still can’t escape the Palestinians.” “Palestinians,” a general snorted. “There is no such thing. These people are Arabs.”

Predictably, the officer’s statement set the crowd alight. Though not exactly a politically correct group, my largely liberal family members and their close friends were nonetheless taken aback by our guest’s dismissive remark. A relative quickly placed his hand on my knee, cautioning me to hold my tongue. Noting everyone’s discomfort, the general threw up his hands and said, “Bibi hears the same thing in Jerusalem. He’s used to it.”

A lifelong Likudnik with a newfound love for Yisrael Beiteinu, the general made remarks that were not unexpected. Still, I puzzled over the distinction he drew between “Arabs” and “Palestinians.” Though not new, it was an extremely clever formulation that neatly disposed of a Palestinian national identity in ways that are frequently criticized by progressive scholars and journalists who cover the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“Politicide,” is what sociologist Baruch Kimmerling would have called such a statement. Like the automatic response of the soldier, such comments abnegate the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. The more we ignore their national identity, the more we delegitimize their struggle for independence. As “Arabs,” Palestinians could be absorbed by any other Arab nation.

The logic is obvious. As Palestinians will tell you, the need to counter it is certainly not, if one takes seriously the recent spate of book-length investigations of Palestinian life by Jewish pundits. As though to answer such dismissals, this year alone no less than three such volumes have appeared. Written by an Israeli historian, a British journalist and a Harvard political economist, they are also standout works in their genre.

Appropriately enough, it is the Israeli, Ilan Pappé, who takes the responsibility of writing a history of his own countrymen. To be precise, they are not merely Arabs, but exactly the sort of people whose particularity resists being reduced to that of outsiders: Palestinian citizens of Israel. In one of the most comprehensive book-length treatments of the subject, “The Forgotten Palestinians,” Pappé has produced perhaps the most accessible and probing account of Palestinians in Israel to date.

Moving to the new from the familiar, Pappé’s book leaves no stone unturned. From the 1956 Kafr Kassem massacre, in which Israeli border police killed 48 Palestinian civilians, to the revelation of correspondence from Israeli judges complaining of such things as the “Nazi-like” mistreatment of Israeli Palestinians in the first decade of the state’s existence, Pappé’s book is a classic, New Historian-style narrative, exposing a less than heroic account of Israel’s founding years.

The Israeli Palestinians that emerge from Pappé’s portrait are pragmatists, believing in the promise of parliamentary politics and Israeli democracy — particularly at Israel’s birth, which, despite the losses they suffered, many believed would allow them eventual enfranchisement. Yet, according to Pappé, the “benefits” of Israeli democracy are not universally experienced. Israeli Palestinians are discriminated against. Their social deprivation helps underwrite the persistence of retrograde, patriarchal social structures in return, such as the clan, or the hammula.

For those already predisposed toward Pappé’s work, such as anti-Occupation activists, such disclosures and conclusions are to be expected from the scholar. For Pappé’s critics, the thoroughness of his research and the lengths he goes to explain it will undoubtedly encourage reconsideration of his partisanship, especially with such concerns about Israeli-Palestinian society. That is, if they take the time to read the book.

The idea of writing such a history has its own political value, especially if you disagree with the idea that Israeli Palestinians ought to have the exact same rights as Israeli Jews. Pappé’s critics will undoubtedly point to this and conclude that the historian has just found another way to advance a pro-Palestinian position.

Roy is considered the world’s foremost authority on Gaza, and her last collection of essays, “Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” (Pluto Press, 2006), remains a tremendous resource and useful overview of her writing, showcasing the scholar’s considerable strengths as a political analyst with a strong interest in Islam.

Having spent the entirety of her academic career working on Israeli-Palestinian issues (Roy’s 1988 dissertation was on America’s economic assistance to the Palestinians under Israeli occupation), her work shows a fluency in her subject matter that’s rare among American Middle East scholars. A child of Holocaust survivors, she has stated that the Shoah exerts enormous influence on her chosen area of research and on her politics.

Roy’s “Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza” is a natural follow-up to “Failing Peace.” A focused study of how the Islamist organization turned itself into the most powerful political entity in the southern Palestinian territory, Roy’s portrait of Hamas is every bit the multifaceted portrait it ought to be. Emphasizing the organization’s civic activities, Hamas comes off sounding far more secular than it is generally portrayed in the media, characterized, as it often is, as an Iranian-style agent of religious coercion. If you want to understand why its base of support became so broad, Roy has the answer.

Unlike many of its critics, Roy demonstrates that Hamas is an immensely complex organization that deserves to be engaged. Nonetheless, she issues repeated notes of caution, explaining how the continually declining situation in Gaza has had the effect of hardening the organization’s politics, alienating its political and military wings from one another, and radicalizing its membership. Though it is not the only Palestinian organization to be worked with, it must be dealt with as part of any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sooner rather than later.

Whereas Pappé and Roy choose to focus on regional Palestinian communities, journalist Arthur Neslen’s poetically titled “In Your Eyes a Sandstorm” takes in the entire Palestinian community. Consisting of thematically woven interviews with Palestinians from every conceivable walk of life, Neslen’s book could easily be mistaken for a Middle Eastern variation on Studs Terkel’s groundbreaking oral history, “Working.”

“Sandstorm” is all about narrative. As in his critically acclaimed first book, “Occupied Minds: A Journey Through the Israeli Psyche” (Pluto Press, 2006), the interview format allows Neslen’s subjects to speak for themselves. As straightforward as this may seem, the interviews are only as good as the questions that are asked. Neslen’s queries are significant and probing, and the answers he gets are nuanced and, at times, heart-wrenching. The end result is a highly structured series of conversations between Palestinian Arabs and a European-Jewish journalist.

That, in itself, is its own metaphor, one of which the author is clearly aware. Like Pappé and Roy, Neslen understands that details matter. The more they can be discussed, the more difficult it is to fall back on charged stereotypes that equate, for example, Palestinians with Arabs, or Jews and kafirs, unbelievers. Hence his willingness to make conversation even with the most predictable of interlocutors, such as Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

In Neslen’s portrait, Barhoum’s militancy is flawed, yet understandable. He is a victim of his experiences, though the journalist puts a careful distance between his recognition of this and his personal feelings for the spokesman. In striking such balances, Neslen’s book displays the kind of discrimination lacking in contexts such as the one my family and I found ourselves contending with in Caesarea. The kind that can insist on “Palestinian” over “Arab,” even from an exhausted soldier’s perspective.

Joel Schalit is the editor of the magazine souciant.com. He is currently writing a book about Jews and Muslims in contemporary Europe.

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