A Great War Correspondent on the Palestinian Refugees From a Half-Century Ago: Part II Martha Gellhorn

Editor’s Note: This month we offer an excerpt from famous war correspondent and journalist Martha Gellhorn’s ground-breaking 1961 report on the “Palestinian refugee problem” that focuses on a Moslem refugee camp. (Last month’s excerpt was on a Christian camp.) Appallingly, little has changed in the last fifty years. Gellhorn’s report can be read in its entirely online in Mosaic Magazine (October 2015).

The Gaza Strip, from all accounts, would be a real hell hole. 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.
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.

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.

These locked-in people–far too many in far too little space–cannot find adequate work. 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, 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. 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.
“Nothing.”
“What would you like to do?”
“Be a soldier and fight Jews.”

Arabs gorge on hate, they roll in it, they breathe it. Jews top the hate list, but any foreigners are hateful enough. Arabs also hate each other, separately and, en masse. Their politicians change the direction of their hate as they would change their shirts. Their press is vulgarly base with hate-filled cartoons; their reporting describes whatever hate is now uppermost and convenient. Their radio is a long scream of hate, a call to hate. They teach their children hate in school. They must love the taste of hate; it is their daily bread. And what good has it done them?

There is no future in spending UN money to breed hate. There is no future in nagging or bullying Israel to commit suicide by the admission of a fatal locust swarm of enemies….We cannot be too careful. The echo of Hitler’s voice is heard again in the land, now speaking Arabic.

Economics are not all, and the tragedy of most refugees is not that they starve in their countries of adoption, but that their hearts and minds and souls starve. They are lonely strangers who do not speak the language of the new land, or know its customs; they are aliens. But the Palestinian refugees look, think, feel, and organize themselves socially as the Arabs of the “host countries” do. They speak the same language, they practice the same religion. The Palestinian Arabs are not foreigners in the Arab world; they are members of their own family.

According to Arab politicians and apologists, the Palestinian refugees refuse to become integrated in the Arab world; it is Palestine or nothing for them. Everyone shouts for the Palestinian refugees, and at them, and about them, but no one has ever asked the refugees what they themselves want: where do you want to live; what do you want to do? My tiny personal Gallup poll unearthed plenty of refugees who were happy where they were and had no desire to return to Palestine, no matter what; and plenty of refugees who longed to emigrate to the richer Arab countries, where the future looks brighter, or out into the great non-Arab world. Except for one Christian Arab from Jaffa, who thinks Jews more honest than Arab Muslims and better people to do business with, none of them wanted to return to Israel, as Israeli citizens, and dwell in peace with their Jewish neighbors.

The Arab governments say they will not accept the existence of the state of Israel, now or ever. The logical conclusion is that, when ready, they intend to burst from their cold belligerent status into hot armed conflict and terminate Israel’s existence. We cannot force the Arab nations to make peace with Israel, but we have to prevent them from making actual war for the sake of all human life, their own included. A vital preventive act would be to remove the Palestinian refugees as a justification of war.
Our Western offer should be clear: UNRWA is to continue as a bridge to the future; we will pay for the bridge and the future–Palestinian refugees are gradually to become Arab citizens, earning their own livelihood on land, in industries, which our money and technical help will make available. All of this, but not another penny for a political problem. The Palestinian refugees must be taken out of politics forever and given the same chance that millions of refugees have had before them: a chance for work, private peace, and private life.

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Article by Ruth King

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Editor: Rael Jean Isaac
Editorial Board: Herbert Zweibon, Ruth King

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