To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin’s sensitive and otherwise excellent article, “Whose Palestine?—An Open Letter to Edward Said” [May], is marred by his erroneous reference to “the land area of mandated Palestine” as comprising only the territory west of the Jordan River. As Eugene Rostow has pointed out, there is no meaningful legal or historic definition of Palestine other than that contained in the Mandate. In fact, mandatory Palestine encompassed Jordan (formerly known as Transjordan) as well as Judea, Samaria, Gaza, and pre-1967 Israel.
Present-day Jordan, which formed a portion of mandatory Palestine until 1946 when it achieved its independence from British rule, consists of 78 percent of Palestine, and the portion of Palestine west of the Jordan River consists of only 22 percent of mandatory Palestine. Accordingly, pre-1967 Israel comprises only 17 percent of Palestine and the areas known as the West Bank and Gaza are under 5 percent of Palestine.
The confusion arises from the fact that in 1922 Britain suspended the Jewish National Home Provision of the Mandate in “the province of Transjordan,” although British rule continued in that province until 1946. Western Palestine, containing approximately 10,000 square miles, is now often considered erroneously to be historic Palestine. The PLO is under no such misconception. Article 2 of its National Covenant states, “Palestine with its boundaries that existed at the time of the British Mandate is an integral regional unit.” Thus, two states now exist in historic Palestine: Jordan, a majority of whose population is composed of Palestinian Arabs, and Israel, which now controls less than one-quarter of historic Palestine. Mr. Halkin’s thesis is even more compelling when viewed within the context of the above facts.
Whether a third successor state should be created in mandatory Palestine is now a contentious issue, but its resolution must be anchored in historical and geographical realities.
Roger A. Gerber
New York City
To the Editor:
Whose Palestine? Why, the Arabs’ of course. Bits of historic Israel have been absorbed by the surrounding nations and almost 80 percent of mandated Palestine, most of the proposed Jewish homeland, is now Jordan. But UN pamphlets on Palestine do not even mention Jordan as having been part of the Mandate. . . . These pamphlets discuss the 20 percent of mandated Palestine allotted to the Jews as though it were all of mandated Palestine. . . . Thus almost 80 percent of ancient Israel is lost in the shuffle, and now out of the 20 percent left to the Jews, the UN would take another part, for another Arab homeland. . . .
Zvi Asher Feinstein
New Haven, Connecticut
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin should not be surprised at Edward Said’s insensitivity to Jews as people. My family’s experience in Tripolitania from the advent of Islam to the early 20th century has led me to conclude that the Arabs are nothing but bigots. Edward Said has written nothing to persuade me otherwise.
In January 1977 Eldridge Cleaver reported in the Boston Herald American that “having lived intimately for several years among the Arabs I know them to be among the most racist people on earth. This is particularly true of their attitude toward black people. . . . Many Arab families that can afford to keep one or two black slaves to do their menial labor. Sometimes they own an entire family. I have seen such slaves with my own eyes.”
It is a measure of left-wing silliness and anti-Semitism that a bigoted, slave-holding Arab religious fanatic who refuses to live in peace with Oriental Jews can be a freedom fighter while a Polish Zionist, who is willing to live with Oriental Jews, and was willing, to live with the Arabs until they started shooting at him, is called a racist.
New Haven, Connecticut
To the Editor:
I am sure many readers will praise Hillel Halkin’s perceptive and sensitive article. Though such praise is fully deserved, I am disturbed by some of his expressions which, regrettably, have become common among Israelis.
The use of such expressions constitutes an acceptance of Arab distortions as facts, and ranges in Mr. Halkin’s case from seemingly marginal matters such as the implication that residents of Talbieh and Katamon were “driven out as refugees” to his referring to Israeli forces as “conquering troops.” I realize that these expressions are employed to show that even if one accepts Arab distortions and terminologies, one still finds that the Arabs hold completely unacceptable positions. Nevertheless, the cumulative effect of such expressions leads to a distorted picture of the nature of the conflict, one that serves the anti-Israel forces. The impression created is that the core of the problem is a conflict of interests between Israel and the “Palestinian nation.” In Mr. Halkin’s words, there are “two claims,” each being “predicated upon a denial of the other.”
But Zionism was never predicated on the denial of Arab rights. In fact, by accepting the partition plan, the Zionist movement recognized . . . the right of the Arabs to a part of Palestine, in addition to that part they had already gotten when Transjordan was created out of the area of mandated Palestine. The Arab rejection of that partition plan demonstrated two very important points: (1) The Arabs denied the right of the Jews to any part of Palestine, and (2) they denied the existence of a Palestinian Arab nation distinct from other Arab nations. Subsequently, Transjordan conquered Judea and Samaria, which later became known as the West Bank when the name of the country was changed to Jordan, and Egypt conquered the Gaza Strip. Yet neither country made any attempt to establish Palestinian self-rule in these areas.
Mr. Halkin’s “Open Letter,” on the other hand, is full of expressions which assume that there is a Palestinian Arab nation that lives in a dispersion similar to the Jewish Diaspora; that the PLO is the undisputed leader of this nation; and that the PLO has done for the Palestinians what Zionism had done for the Jews. I take off my hat to the Arab propagandists who have succeeded in making most of the world, including very intelligent Israelis, use their terminology.
How does the above fiction jibe with the Palestinians being the majority in the population and in the government of Jordan? Are these Palestinians a part of the dispersion? Are their interests pursued by the PLO? What about the Israeli Arabs? Mr. Halkin appears to think that they are all part of the “Palestinian” (not just the Arab) nation. If only their leadership, namely the PLO, would become more reasonable and understand Jewish sensibilities, and agree to settle for an “unequal share of Palestine as a part of a final and irrevocable settlement between us,” then Mr. Halkin would be “inclined to take the risk,” and accept them. But surely Mr. Halkin should know that the PLO is not interested in negotiating with Israel, let alone under the above conditions. Its strategy is to let the Egyptians and Americans (and the West Europeans) wrest as many concessions as they can from the Israelis without the PLO having to make any concessions or change its covenant or even imply acceptance of Israel within any borders. Since this strategy has been working well, I doubt they care how Mr. Halkin or other Israelis “relate” to them.
At no time was the Arab struggle against the effort to reestablish Jewish sovereignty in Israel a purely “Palestinian” one. In fact, before the Balfour Declaration the concept of the “Palestinians” as a distinct Arab group, let alone as a “nation,” did not exist and it is debatable to what extent it exists even today. There were always many non-Palestinian Arabs and other Muslims in the forces attacking Jewish villages and among those who were devoting their time and effort to destroy Israel. It is not surprising to me that one of the attackers of the children’s home in Misgav-Am was a Pakistani.
If the Palestinians have become distinct from other Arabs it is because of the Zionist development of Palestine. The Palestinian Arabs are often characterized (e.g., in UN reports) as the most highly skilled and educated group among the Arabs. This is a direct result of the Zionist effort in Palestine through serving as a model, through providing employment, through the payment of taxes which financed the school system established by the British Mandate, etc. (The British had a Mandate in Iraq as well, but there the educational levels were abysmal; the same was true of Transjordan.) Therefore, Mr. Hal-kin’s gratuitous aside that no one argues any more that Zionism has been a boon to the Palestinian Arabs is not justified.
From its very beginning, Palestinian “nationalism” in general, and the PLO in particular, has been a negative movement. It is an anti-Israel movement composed of a variety of Arabs and other Muslims exploiting the plight of some of the Palestinian Arabs for the purpose of undermining Israel. They do not want a Palestinian state, big or small. What they want now, as they have wanted all along, is to get rid of Israel. What kind of Arab state they hope to establish in its place is quite secondary—for example, making the area a part of Syria would be quite acceptable to many of them.
What Mr. Halkin’s article fails to make clear is that these attitudes were prevalent long before there were any “occupied territories.” In that light, it is really pathetic to observe the surprise of many Israelis that in spite of the tremendous concessions they have made to Egypt (in this day and age, who would give up precious oil fields?) they are still scorned as “intransigent” by one and all, including the beneficiary of these unbelievable concessions, President Sadat. The only concession that will be acceptable is the liquidation of Israel. In view of this, for the Israelis to talk about the possibility of an “irrevocable settlement,” willingly agreed to by the Arabs, is to engage in a dangerous pipe-dream.
Hillel Halkin writes:
Roger A. Gerber and Zvi Asher Feinstein are right to point out that between 1918 and 1922 the 35,000 square miles of territory formerly known as Transjordan were a part of mandatory Palestine. Certainly it makes sense to contend that in the present kingdom of Jordan, over half of whose population is of Cisjordanian origin, Palestinian Arabs already have the framework for a state of their own. To speak of the country east of the Jordan as “historic Palestine” or “ancient Israel,” however, is rather fanciful. Though much of this country may have been assigned by biblical tradition to the Twelve Tribes, the Bible also tells us that the Tribes east of the Jordan dropped out of the Israelite confederacy at an early stage, and apart from several chapters in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, the area hardly figures in biblical narrative at all. No historical Jewish sites of any importance are located in it and even in Second Temple and Mishnaic times, let alone later, its Jewish population was sparse. At the time of its separation from mandatory Palestine in 1922 not a single Jewish settlement, indeed not a single permanent Jewish resident, existed in it. The idea of a historical Jewish claim to it can thus hardly be taken seriously, and to lump such a claim together with the Jewish claim to the land west of the Jordan is anything but a service to the latter.
I agree with Joachim Martillo that Arab Muslims have generally behaved toward non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities in their midst in less than exemplary fashion. Yet saying that “Arabs are nothing but bigots” is every bit as silly as saying that “All whites are racists” or “All Jews dislike Gentiles.” Surely there must be a sensible middle ground between a naive belief in the propagandistic myth of traditional Arab tolerance for others and an equally naive belief in the opposed myth of unregenerate Arab xenophobia—and it is on such ground that any rational Israeli policy toward the Arab world must be formed.
I can assure Elie Hershler that I have not been the dupe of Arab propagandists. I have no more faith than he does in the good intentions of the PLO or the Arab world as a whole toward Israel, and I am far from optimistic about the long-range prospects for peace between Israel and its neighbors. I also know that there is little ethnically to distinguish Palestinian Arabs from the Arabs of Syria and Transjordan, and that a sense of Palestinian national identity is a recent historical development that might never have taken place were it not for Zionism and Israel. But such an identity has now been formed, and I am puzzled why Mr. Hershler thinks that its considerable success in presenting its case to the world is a reason for Israel to go on insisting that it does not exist or hoping that it will one day disappear as a factor from the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The problem with so many pro-Israel “hawks” like Mr. Hershler does not lie in understanding the logic of why they are against what they are against; it lies in understanding what they are for. Would Mr. Hershler have Israel make a deal with the Jordanians over the Palestinians’ heads? There is nothing to indicate that such a deal is possible, or why in terms of Mr. Hershler’s argument he should prefer it to a deal with the PLO. Does he want Israel to annex the occupied territories or to go on ruling them by military fiat forever against the will of their inhabitants? I should like to hear from him how he proposes that this be done in the face of the unanimous opposition of the countries of the world and the demographic inability of Israel itself to digest a million or more hostile Arabs living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip while remaining both a Jewish and a democratic state. (An inability partly caused, of course, by the fact that Jews like Mr. Hershler choose to go on living in the Diaspora and to give Israel the benefit of their militant advice from there.) In the end, I am afraid, Israel will have to attempt negotiating a settlement directly with the Palestinians not so much because abstract considerations of justice demand this of it as because practical political realities leave it no other alternative.
This does not mean that a settlement can be negotiated with them, or if negotiated it will hold up. It does mean, however, that before Israel resigns itself to the mel ancholy prospect of living permanently as a beleaguered garrison state fighting for survival against increasingly unfavorable odds, the Palestinian option must be seriously tried.
I regret Edward Said’s failure to respond to my letter to him. His silence speaks eloquently for itself.