MAXWELL:  Fresh Mideast perspectives

7/25/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege

By Amira Hass


Israel and the Arabs at the End of the Century

By Itamar Rabinovich

SEPARATE AND UNEQUAL: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem

By Amir S. Cheshin, Bill Hutman and Avi Melamed

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

If you spend a few weeks in Israel, sooner or later you will hear an Israeli tell another, half jokingly, to “go to Gaza.” Translation: “Go to hell.” Amira Hass, born in Jerusalem in 1957, often heard the expression, and, like most other Israeli Jews, she also feared and despised the Palestinians of Gaza.

In 1993, as a reporter for the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz, Hass traveled to Gaza to cover a story. What she found were not reasons to fear and despise Gazans but reasons to respect and care about them _ so much so, in fact, that she remained in Gaza for four years. She became the first Israeli Jewish journalist to live in this Palestinian-controlled colony.

Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege, a 352-page book, is the wonderful result of Hass’ experience among the Palestinians. It is one of three recently published books, written by Israeli Jews, that explore the Israeli-Palestinian question. One of the exceptional qualities of these books is that they lack the usual defensiveness, rationalization and recrimination found in so many books that Jews write about their Arab neighbors.

The publication of these books could not have been more fortuitous. Israel’s new prime minister, Ehud Barak, has just completed a week’s stay in Washington, where he and President Clinton spent several sessions mapping strategy for restarting the long-stalled Middle East peace process. Like the authors of the books under review, Barak seems to have a mature understanding of what peace in the region requires.

In Drinking the Sea at Gaza, Hass lets Palestinians of all stripes _ Islamic leaders, farmers, doctors, taxi drivers, housewives _ tell their own tales of grief and humiliation. Each testimonial, framed against generations of brutal treatment at the hands of Jews, and Arab leaders as well, is a poignant vignette of eloquence and spiritual resilence.

Readers get a rare glimpse into Gaza’s shadow world, the quiet nights when refugees break harsh curfews by sneaking across sealed borders right under the noses of Israel’s tough security forces. Many of the scenes are funny and are filled with pathos at the same time. Hass’ greatest gift is that she paints one of the most hated groups in the Middle East as an extended family of courageous human beings whose will to survive makes their saga a living morality play.

The author writes easily about her cast of characters, showing, for example, their short-lived joy over the Oslo accords and their deep despair when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stonewalled and refused to keep the promises his nation had signed. Each page of the book offers a revelation, an insight into the nobility of a people who have known nothing but hardship during modern times.

Drinking the Sea at Gaza is an appeal to the reader’s humanity, a call to see Gaza’s Palestinians as a dispossessed people deserving of international attention and justice.

In Waging Peace: Israel and the Arabs at the End of the Century, Itamar Rabinovich dissects the more-than-50-year struggle between Arabs and Jews and outlines some novel ways to bring about a bloodless co-existence, if not not normalized relations between them. As former head of the Israeli delegation at the peace talks with Syria (1992-95), Israel’s ambassador to the United States (1993-96) and a history professor at Tel Aviv University, Rabinovich writes with the authority of the insider-scholar.

In an easy style, he introduces the major players in the conflicts, pointing out the core differences among their views, while synthesizing the major points of commonality that present realistic possibilities for peace. Jews and Palestinians are shown battling for possession of the same land, with each side gaining and losing according to its willingness to compromise. The various sides _ Israelis, Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians _ are presented as complex warriors, their nationalistic goals, political desires and religious devotion making peace illusive.

“In planning for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, policy-makers should be guided by a concept of a comprehensive settlement, but they should be ready to implement it in phases, and despite crises and reversals,” Rabinovich writes, as if anticipating the pragmatic, multitracked approach that Barak touted last week in Washington. “It is easy to be intimidated by the host of domestic and regional problems that are certain to clutter the path. Seeing through these obstacles to the peace ahead is, indeed, a task not for policy-planners and analysts but for leaders and statesmen.”

This single paragraph is a sampling of Rabinovich’s insight. It is a bold vision, one that cuts through the wonkish language that often seems to obscure rather than clarify the possibility of permanently breaking the half-century Israeli-Arab stalemate. Waging Peace belongs in the personal library of anyone concerned about seeing peace come to the complicated, amorphous landscape that is the Middle East.

Amir S. Cheshin, a retired Israeli army colonel, was senior adviser on Arab community affairs and assistant to former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. Bill Hutman was a journalist with the Jerusalem Post. Avi Melamed was deputy adviser on Arab affairs to Kollek and adviser on Arab affairs to the mayor’s successor, Ehud Olmert. Their book, Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story on Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem, published by Harvard University Press, is significant because the authors “literally lived many of the events described, in some instances as observers, in others as participants,” as they write in the prologue.

Most Israelis will hate Separate and Unequal for its candor and will question why this book about Jerusalem was written at all. “Reams have been written about Jerusalem since it was reunited in 1967,” the authors write. “But we believe we are justified in saying that what has been written has not really arrived at the root of the central issue: the failure of Israeli rule in the city. Today, more than three decades after Israel first took control of all Jerusalem, and at a time when the conflict over the city’s future appears to be reaching a climax, it has never been more important to understand Israeli policy toward the city.”

Yes, the authors, themselves Jerusalemites, dare to claim that Israeli rule of the Holy City, especially in Arab East Jerusalem, has been a failure. The book details Israel’s unfair policies toward the city’s Arabs and reveals how officials flubbed everything from sanitation services, to housing and schools, to security. Through these missteps, leaders hurt not only Palestinians but also Israel’s agenda for itself.

Doubtless, Separate and Unequal is a chronicle of the failure to unite all Jerusalemites. Mayor Kollek is not portrayed as a paragon of virtue or of competent leadership. For more than 25 years, Kollek enjoyed a sympathetic press. No more. This book, presenting a cavalcade of other participants in the Jerusalem drama, explodes many of the myths surrounding the city’s most celebrated mayor, while uncovering ulterior motives.

Criticism of Separate and Unequal will be harsh and quick both in Israel and in the United States. And the loyalty of the writers to the Jewish state will be questioned. “Thus, some may accuse us of hanging out Israel’s dirty laundry at just the time when it could be the most embarrassing and detrimental to the Jewish state and to the man who came to symbolize the city, Teddy Kollek,” the authors write.

“To those people we can only say that damaging Israel’s claim to Jerusalem is far from our intention. In making public, for the first time, this record of Israeli rule in East Jerusalem, we believe that lessons learned from past mistakes can help build a better future.”

The authors hope that theirs is a message that is not lost on Prime Minister Barak, who has a grand opportunity to forge a new future for all residents of Jerusalem.

Bill Maxwell is a Times staff writer.