Bogeymen in the Mid-East
(Yehudy Lindeman is a teaching fellow in General Education.)
SINCE the end of the June war, Arabs and Israelis have had a chance to meet each other. In Jerusalem, for instance, the dead end streets with their signs, "Stop! Frontier ahead," suddenly turn out to lead somewhere. Across those streets and across the roads of both Israel and the occupied territories, Arabs and Jews have been walking and driving to explore the other side and each other.
Yet very little mutual contact has been established. "Relations between Arabs and Jews aren't bad--they are just non-existent," a cynical inhabitant of Jerusalem told me during my visit two months ago.
On the other hand, Teddy Kollek, mayor of the united Jerusalem, says that the present offers both Jews and Arabs "a great opportunity for dialogues and cooperation." But it is clear that Mr. Kollok was somewhat over-optimistic when he called the newly united Jerusalem a "feast of peace," last July. There is no peace between Arabs and Jews and I did not see much feasting going on on either side, let alone together.
Before the war the Arab view of the Israeli was that of a bogeyman, savage and inhuman. Radio and press promoted this view and few Arabs ever had a chance to test it.
The Israeli view of the Arabs was also a stereotype. They looked on the Arabs as misled by their leaders. Their picture of them was often that of an uneducated, lazy, somewhat backward mass of people. These people, many Israelis believed, would act differently towards Israel if only they knew better and were told the "truth." Now reality has caught up with both sides. The new encounter has blotted out many of the stereoypes. A visit to the West Bank confirms this.
In Tel Aviv I was told that I would find the occupied West Bank of Jordan poor. One Israeli told me that agriculture was largely unmechanized and therefore backward; that the roads were narrow and bad. He added that the Israelis had now started to improve and widen them. At the Government Tourist Bureau in Tel Aviv I asked how I could get to Nablus, the most prosperous city of the West Bank, some 50 miles from Tel Aviv. I was informed that there was no bus, unless I wanted to travel via Jerusalem. So I went by car.
On such a trip, many of the Israeli stereotypes of Arab laziness or incompetence are invalidated. It is true that the Arabs of the West Bank reap only half as many tons of wheat per dunam as the Jews in Israel, for instance, and that their yield in grapes or tomatoes is only one-third of the Israeli produce. But this is because much Arab labor is unskilled and there is a scarcity of capital investment in the predominantly agricultural economy of the West Bank. If one keeps that in mind one must conclude that the Arabs are doing well.
It starts with the Arab policeman to whom we ask directions in the border town of Kalkilya. He helps us on our way in fluent Hebrew. Later I find out that Arab policemen have had brief but tough coursse in Hebrew.
The fruit trees that we see on both sides of the road are tall. I am not much of an expert but it seems to me that they are just as full of oranges, lemons or grapefruit as their Israeli counterparts. The road is narrow but well paved.
A good deal of the hilly land is not being used for agriculture, but where it is, cultivation is intensive. At one village we stop to watch the many women who are weeding on the hill-slope. Down in the valley an Arab is ploughing with two oxen. A little further along the road we see a man ploughing with an ox and a donkey brought under one yoke.
The fields themselves are neatly terraced. Terraces are an excellent protection against erosion of the soil, my Israeli companion explains. On the whole, the Israelis do not have this kind of terraces because they are inaccessible to their tractors.
The care and love which the Arabs display for their land is also reflected in their towns. Before the war the Israelis knew only the rather sleepy Arab tourist towns of Acco and Nazareth. By comparison Nablus strikes any visitor as thriving. On our descent into the city we pass two-and three-story villas with expensive cars parked in the driveways. These are obviously the home sof the wealthy. But most of the houses in the city and on the hills around are well kept. Both by European and Israeli standards Nablus is a bustling, hard working, largely middle class town. Its inhabitants are no more likely to willingly accept any foreign occupation or loss of autonomy than the inhabitants of Haifa would be. They are just as proud of their achievements and their culture as the Israelis are. Perhaps they are more proud: as Palestinians they feel superior to other Arabs, particularly to those of Trans-Jordan, with whom they became united in 1948 in a rather uncomfortable merger. The Palestinians often refer to the Trans-Jordans, some-what condescendingly, as "nomads."
In front of the city hall of Nablus there is a large mob. It turns out that everybody wants to see the mayor. As I enter the mayor's office another stereotype vanishes. People in Israel had told me about hand-carved mahogany chairs and tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl. On the contrary, the office is simple, nearly austere. Mayor Hamdi Kan'an is seated in front of a desk with his coat on; the room is under-heated on this unusually cold winter day. In a corner there is one electric heater. Mr. Kan'an tells me that the building trade in his city has been hit hard by the outcome of the June war. No construction work goes on, because nobody feels sure about the future. There is a general regression in trade; one of the problems is that the Arab businessman can no longer import freely from Amman. He is compelled to buy Israeli products at a much higher wholesale price. Therefore prices are up and sales are down.
In Tel Aviv I had been told the story of an Arab merchant in Nablus who had preferred to close shop rather than cooperate with the Israeli authorities and do business with Jews. He was afraid of revenge by the local population after the return of Arab control. He had a piece of land which he planned to cultivate as soon as his stock ran out. It turns out to be a very uncharacteristic case. There has been general cooperation on the part of the people. Most teachers and civil servants have remained at work. Many of the police have stayed on.
At the same time there is unemployment. Mayor Kan'an emphasizes this. He admits that there is always a job shortage in Nablus. But previously a man would travel to Amman, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia to find employment, often sending money to his family which remained on the West Bank. Now the frontiers are closed. Naturally the Arabs hold the Jews responsible for this economic hardship.
Mayor Kan'an doubts that the new borders, however temporary, have improved Israeli-Arab relations. He stresses that business contact with the Israelis is a necessity for the West Bank. But he believes that the political climate excludes any contact on a human level: "We Arabs are living under an occupation and are just waiting for the Israeli army to withdraw." According to him the Jews are not helping the cause of peace either: "They are enjoying their victory; they are living on the territory they always dreamt about having." I ask the mayor what will help the cause of peace. He replies that the only solution is the total withdrawal of the Israeli forces.
But will that bring peace, I ask. He says that it will prove the goodwill of Israel and also, that it means that Israel is not thinking of annexation. But how does this help the peace, I say, and remind him of the common Arab position--unwillingness to accept Israel's existence even if she with-draws her forces. "Everyoe is affected by goodwill," Mr. Kan'an answers, though he admits that Nasser will not accept Israel's existence until the rights of every single Palestinian Arab are given back.
Mayor Kan'an emphasizes towards the end of our conversation that he feels no personal hatred towards the Jews of Israel. Another inhabitant of Nablus, a prominent businessman, assures me that the Jordanians had always been brought up to hate the Jews. As a result of the war, he finds a general change of opinion about Israel and the Israelis among the people of Nablus. "We knew nothing about Israel before and know everything now," he says. He himself has been to Tel Aviv, Yaffo, Natanya and Haifa and finds the cities "nice." He calls Israel a really European country.
He likes the fact that little or no distinction is made between soldiers and officers in the Israeli army. The people he calls "kind and gentle, not bad at all compared to what we used to hear on the radio." Yet he has just published a book which is not at all pro-Israeli. He emphasizes that Israel has to go back to the old borders. Is that a condition for peace, I want to know. "No, the Palestinian question has to be solved as a condition for peace."
Later he introduces me to a friend who was born in Lydda, near Tel Aviv, and who wants his house back. He lost it when he and his family left because of the war of '48. Would he be content with a reasonable financal settlement, I ask. "No, he wants his house and his land. No money."
Just before I leave he quickly adds: "And remember, we can't shake hands with Israel either as long as the gun is still in their hands."
It is clear that the removal of the physical barrier between Arabs and Israelis is bound to bring about the gradual disappearance of many stereotupes and prejudices. The existing trade between Israel and the West Bank is actually causing some kind of dialogue. The parties now understand better where they stand--diametrically opposed to one another.
Arabs and Israelis continue to live side by side. But there is little love lost and little softening of positions