Scenes from Palestine: Edward Said homecoming

Edward Said , Monday 15 May 2023

Edward Said, returning to Palestine for a BBC documentary to be shown in England to coincide with Israel's 50th anniversary, finds the once small, compact city -- Jerusalem -- in which he grew up overwhelmed by continuing, unrelenting Judaisation

"Jerusalem is overwhelming in its continuing, unrelenting Judaisation” Photo: AP


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998

Issue: 19 March 1998


I have just returned from two separate trips to Jerusalem and the West Bank where I have been making a film for the BBC to be shown in England on May 3, and then later in the month on the World Service. The occasion for my film is Israel's 50th anniversary which I am examining from a personal and obviously Palestinian point of view. For our shooting in Palestine we have had an excellent crew: an English director, a young Anglo-Indian woman (whose idea it was to approach me for the film in the first place),a Palestinian cameraman, and an Israeli sound man.

We concluded work on the film in New York a few days ago; all that remains is cutting, editing, and assembling the many hours of interviews, scenes from Palestinian life, etc. into a one-hour film. This is obviously the most difficult part of the job since we already have far too much material to be conveniently stuffed into a meagre 55 minutes. But so powerful for me was the experience of going around Palestine and recording what I saw that it seemed to me worthwhile here to reflect a little on the experience itself.

I should say also that director and crew were immensely cooperative and helpful; even the Israeli sound engineer, who is employed by the BBC in Jerusalem, found the actual business of talking to Palestinians and a few Israelis very rewarding and, given his conventional Zionist upbringing (he is a liberal, by no means a dogmatic Zionist), enlightening and a definitive challenge to long-held and unexamined views about Israel's history. "It is hard to be an Israeli again," he said at the end of the show.

Two completely contradictory impressions override all the others. First, that Palestine and Palestinians remain, despite Israel's concerted efforts from the beginning, either to get rid of them, or to circumscribe them so much as to make them ineffective.

In this, I am confident in saying, we have proved the utter folly of Israel's policy: there is no getting away from the fact that as an idea, a memory, and as an often buried or invisible reality, Palestine and its people have simply not disappeared. No matter the sustained and unbroken hostility of the Zionist establishment to anything that Palestine represents, the sheer fact of our existence has foiled, where it has not defeated, the Israeli effort to be rid of us completely.

The more Israel wraps itself in exclusivity and xenophobia towards the Arabs, the more it assists them in staying on, in fighting its injustices and cruel measures. This is specially true in the case of Israeli Palestinians, whose main representative in the Knesset is the remarkable Azmi Bishara: I interviewed him at length for the film and was impressed with the courage and intelligence of his stand, which is invigorating a new generation of young Palestinians, whom I also interviewed.

For them, as for an increasing number of Israelis (Professor Israel Shahak in the forefront) the real battle is for equality and rights of citizenship, given that Israel is explicitly a state for Jews and not for its non-Jewish citizens. Contrary to its expressed and implemented intention, therefore, Israel has strengthened the Palestinian presence, even among Israeli Jewish citizens who have simply lost patience with the unendingly shortsighted policy of trying to beat down and exclude Palestinians.

No matter where you turn, we are there, often only as humble, silent workers and compliant restaurant waiters, cooks, and the like, but often also as large numbers of people -- in Hebron, for example -- who continuously resist Israeli encroachments on their lives.

The second overriding impression is that minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day, we are losing more and more Palestinian land to the Israelis. There wasn't a road, or a bypassing highway, or a small village that we passed in our travel for three weeks that wasn't witness to the daily tragedy of land expropriated, fields bulldozed, trees, plants, and crops uprooted, houses destroyed, while the Palestinian owners stood by, helpless to do much to stop the onslaught, unassisted by Mr Arafat's Authority, uncared for by more fortunate Palestinians.

 It is important not to underestimate the damage that is being done, the violence to our lives that will ensue, the distortions and misery that result. There is nothing quite like the feeling of sorrowful helplessness that one feels listening to a young man who has spent fifteen years working as an illegal day laborer in Israel in order to save up money to build a little house for his family, only to discover one day upon returning from work that the house has been reduced to a pile of rubble, flattened by an Israeli bulldozer with everything still inside the house.

When you ask why this was done -- the land, after all, was his -- you are told that there was no warning, only a paper given to him the next day by an Israeli soldier stating that he had built the structure without a license. Where in the world, except under Israeli authority, are people required to have a license (which is always denied them) before they can build on their own property? Jews can build, but never Palestinians. This is racist apartheid in its purest form.

I once stopped on the main road from Jerusalem to Hebron to record on film an Israeli bulldozer, surrounded and protected by soldiers, plowing through some fertile land just alongside the road. About a hundred meters away stood four Palestinian men, looking both miserable and angry. It was their land, I was told, which they had worked for generations, now being destroyed on the pretext that it was needed to widen an already wide road built for the settlements.

"Why do they need a road that will be 120 meters wide; why can't they let me go on farming my land?" asked one of them plaintively. "How am I going to feed my children?" I asked the men whether they received any warning that this was going to be done. No, they said, we just heard today and when we got here it was too late.

What about the Authority? I asked, has it helped? No of course not, was the answer. They're never here when we need them. I went over to the Israeli soldiers who at first refused to talk to me in the presence of cameras and microphones. But I kept insisting, and was lucky to find one who clearly seemed troubled by the whole business, even though he said he was merely following orders.

"But don't you see how unjust it is to take land from farmers who have no defense against you?" I said, to which he replied, "it's not their land really. It belongs to the state of Israel." I recall saying to him that sixty years ago the same arguments were made against Jews in Germany, and now here were Jews using it against their victims, the Palestinians. He moved away, unwilling to respond.

And so it is throughout the territories and Jerusalem, with Palestinians powerless to help each other. I gave a lecture at the University of Bethlehem in which I spoke about the continuous dispossession that was taking place, and wondered why those 50,000 security people employed by the Authority, plus the thousands more who sit behind desks, pushing paper from one side of their desks to the other, cashing handsome checks at the end of each month, why they were not out there on the land helping to prevent the expropriations, helping the people whose livelihood was being taken from them before their eyes?

Why, I asked, don't villagers go out to their fields and simply stand in front of the bulldozers, and why don't all our great leaders give support and moral help to the poor people who are losing the battle? One night I came back from filming all day and discovered that the hotel restaurant was sponsoring a Valentine's Day dinner at $38 (yes, $38) per person. I was told that since I didn't have a reservation I couldn't be served, but I insisted that as a guest in the hotel I was at least entitled to a sandwich or something equally simple.

I was shown a table in the corner and duly served a plate of rice and vegetables. A moment or two later I saw a Palestinian minister enter the room with seven guests, and sit at a prominent table weighted down with the seven-course Valentine's Day menu, plus wine, and drinks for all. I was so sickened by the sight of this large, fat, smiling man who spends so much time negotiating" with donor countries and with the Israelis, eating away happily while his people were losing their livelihood a few meters away, that I left the room in disgust and shame.

He had arrived in a gigantic Mercedes; his bodyguards and driver -- three of them -- were sitting in the hotel lobby eating bananas, while their great leader stuffed himself inside. This is one reason why wherever I went, whoever I talked to, whatever the question, there was never a good word for the Authority or its officer. It is perceived basically as guaranteeing security for Israel and its settlers, furnishing them with protection, not at all as a legitimate, or concerned, or helpful governmental body vis-à-vis its own people.

That at the same time so many of these leaders should think it appropriate to build gigantically ostentatious villas during a period of such widespread penury and misery fairly boggles the mind. If it is to be anything today, leadership for the Palestinian people must demonstrate service and sacrifice, precisely those two things so lacking in the Authority. What I found staggering is the absence of care, that is, the sense that each Palestinian is alone in his or her misery, with no one so much as concerned to offer food, blankets, or a kind word. Truly one feels that Palestinians are an orphaned people.

Jerusalem is overwhelming in its continuing, unrelenting Judaisation. The small, compact city in which I grew up over fifty years ago, has become an enormously spread-out metropolis, surrounded on the north, south, east and west by immense building projects that testify to Israeli power and its ability, unchecked, to change the character of Jerusalem.

Here too there is a manifest sense of Palestinian powerlessness, as if the battle is over and the future settled. Most people I spoke to said that after the tunnel episode of last September they no longer felt the need to demonstrate against Israeli practices, nor to expose themselves to more sacrifice.

"After all," one of them told me, "sixty of us were killed, and yet the tunnel remained open, and Arafat went to Washington, despite having said that he would not meet with Netanyahu unless the tunnel was closed. What is the point of struggling now?" It is not only the Palestinian leadership that has failed in Jerusalem: it is also the Arabs, the Islamic states, and Christianity itself, which bows before Israeli aggression. Few Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank (i.e. from cities like Ramallah, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jenine and Nablus) can enter Jerusalem, which is cordoned off by Israeli soldiers. Apartheid once again.

On the Israeli side the situation is not as bleak as one would have expected. I conducted a long interview with Professor Ilan Pappe of Haifa University. He is one of the new Israeli historians whose work on 1948 has challenged Zionist orthodoxy on the refugee problem, and on Ben Gurion's role in making the Palestinians leave.

In this, of course, the new historians have confirmed what Palestinian historians and witnesses have said all along -- that there was a deliberate military campaign to rid the country of as many Arabs as possible. But what Pappe also said is that he is very much in demand for lectures in high schools all over Israel, even though the latest textbook for classes on Israel's history simply make no mention of the Palestinians at all. This blindness coexisting with a new openness regarding the past, characterizes the present mood, but deserves our attention as a contradiction to be deepened and analysed further.

I spent a day filming in Hebron, which strikes me as embodying all the worst aspects of Oslo. A small handful of settlers, numbering no more than about 200 people, virtually control the heart of an Arab city whose population of over l00,000 is left on the margins, unable to visit the city center, constantly under threat from militants and soldiers alike. I visited the house of a Palestinian in the old Ottoman quarter.

He is now surrounded by settler bastions, including three new buildings that have gone up around him, plus three enormous water tanks that steal most of the city's water for the settlers, plus several rooftop nests of soldiers. He was very bitter about the Palestinian leadership's willingness to accept the town's partition on the entirely specious grounds that it had once contained 14 Jewish buildings dating back to Old Testament times but no longer in evidence.

"How did these Palestinian negotiators accept such a grotesque distortion of the reality," he asked me angrily, "especially given that at the time of the negotiations not one of them had ever set foot in Hebron when they negotiated the deal?" The day after I was in Hebron three young men were killed at the barricade by Israeli soldiers, and many more injured in the fighting that ensued. Hebron and Jerusalem are victories for Israeli extremism, not for coexistence, or for any sort of hopeful future.

Perhaps the most unexpected highpoint of experiences with Israelis was an interview I held with Daniel Barenboim, the brilliant conductor and pianist who was in Jerusalem for a recital at the same time I was there for the film. Born and raised in Argentina, Barenboim came to Israel in 1950 at the age of nine, lived there for about eight years, and has been conducting the Berlin State Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra -- two of the world's greatest musical institutions -- for the last ten years.

I should also say that over the past few years he and I have become close personal friends. He was very open in our interview and regretted that 50 years of Israel should also be the occasion of 50 years of suffering for the Palestinian people; during our discussion he openly advocated a Palestinian state, and after his Jerusalem recital to a packed audience, he dedicated his first encore to the Palestinian woman -- present at the recital -- who had invited him to dinner the night before.

I was surprised that the entire audience of Israeli Jews (she and I were the only Palestinians present) received his views and the noble dedication with enthusiastic applause. Clearly a new constituency of conscience is beginning to emerge, partly as a result of Netanyahu's excesses, partly as a result of Palestinian resistance. What I found extremely heartening is that Barenboim, one of the world's greatest musicians, has offered his services as a pianist to Palestinian audiences, a gesture of reconciliation that is truly worth more than dozens of Oslo accords.

So I conclude these brief scenes from Palestinian life today. I regret not having spent time among refugees in Lebanon and Syria, and I also regret not having many hours of film at my disposal. But at this moment it seems important that we testify to the resilience and continued potency of the Palestinian cause, which clearly has influenced more people in Israel and elsewhere than we have hitherto supposed. Despite the gloom of the present moment, there are rays of hope indicating that the future may not be as bad as many of us have supposed.


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

Short link: