We were invited to a wedding in Jerusalem. It’s impossible for me to go to the Middle East without a stop in Lebanon, my mother’s homeland, for which I have a real fascination and emotional bond. So, with a friend, I left the beautiful, verdant, and conflict-free environment of East Hampton for Beirut, en route for Israel.
Arriving in Beirut never fails to stir the soul. Approaching Hariri Airport, one can see the mountains rising from the coast speckled with villages and towns, and then the city, with its jumble of buildings — and the strongholds of Hezbollah just to the south. The resilience and resourcefulness of the Lebanese have enabled the city to be built and rebuilt time and again, and it now exhibits some outstanding architecture, yet it is still dotted with shelled buildings to remind its citizens of the terrible years of the civil war in the 1970s and ’80s.
The latest development is Zaitunay Bay, designed with a handsome boardwalk and an abundance of charming restaurants overlooking the Mediterranean. It is not hard to imagine the number of fleets and civilizations that came across this part of the world and wanted to settle there — the Phoenicians, Hittites, Romans, Arabs, and Ottomans, to mention but a few. The Levant is a term that covers the eastern Mediterranean port cities. As Philip Mansel points out in his book “Levant,” diversity and flexibility were the essence of Levantine cities. And much of this cosmopolitan, democratic element still remains in Beirut, albeit imperfectly.
On this visit, I was determined to see the conditions of the Palestinians in Lebanon, whose situation represents one of the world’s longest ongoing unresolved problems. It is easy to forget that there are still four million in camps in the region, over 60 years since they had to leave Palestine in 1948. The Lebanese have “played host” to approximately 400,000 refugees for over 60 years.
The camps are run by UNRWA (a United Nations organization), but a number of other organizations try to help the refugees. We visited one called INAASH (the Association for the Development of Palestinian Camps), which helps Palestinian women economically through the sale of their exquisite embroidered work. The quality and design of this work are exceptionally good, and we bought several pieces.
Another organization is the Unite Lebanon Youth Project, which is run by the dynamic Melek el Nimer, a Turkish woman married to a wealthy Palestinian. They have opened their beautiful home in the hills to young Palestinians from the camps who have never had an opportunity to see the countryside before. Melek, with a group of dedicated volunteers, works on helping promising students with their English, their studies, and taking the SAT exams, with a view to getting scholarships to the American University of Beirut and colleges in the States and elsewhere. They also work on a number of programs and activities in the camps. Through the youth project, we were able to visit the Bourj al-Barajneh camp in the southern suburb of Beirut.
It was a shock. Previously, I had briefly driven through the Sabra and Shatila camps (where Ariel Sharon had reached with the Israeli Army in 1982 and had enabled a rebel Phalange militia to massacre more than 4,000 Palestinians), which were teeming, messy slums bustling with activity. Bourj has approximately 25,000 people living in one square kilometer. The mud and cement houses are tiny, tightly packed, with floors ingeniously and randomly built one on top of the other, but it seemed quieter and cleaner. Recently, however, more Palestinian families have arrived, pushed out of the Syrian camps during the current conflict.
The Palestinians have been so demonized that many people are scared to go to the camps, or are advised not to. Others fear seeming voyeuristic. To me, that is just a way of avoiding the whole issue. The only potential danger one faces is that of electric shock since the narrow alleyways are woven with electricity cables interspersed with water pipes.
We saw the tragic hopelessness and helplessness in the eyes of the people. It was heartbreaking. We visited a playground, about 20 yards square, where groups of delightful, innocent preschool children in smart blue smocks take turns playing on meager toys for half an hour a day. These were third-generation refugees. We saw disaffected youths sitting about idly, with nothing to do. We saw an old people’s center, where the elderly, with gentle, toothless smiles, play Patience endlessly. There is not much to chat about. Waiting, waiting. How long has it been since they saw even a blade of grass, or a leafy tree? When we asked our young guide whether they had television, he retorted, “We are civilized, you know!”
People often blame the countries surrounding Israel for not absorbing the refugees. But how can they? Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt — they all have their own economic problems, diasporas, delicate political situations. Lebanon itself is tiny; it has the invasive (and now fleeing) Syrians to the east, Hezbollah and the Israelis to the south. At long last, Lebanon has permitted refugees to take low-level jobs, but not in the professions. There has always been the hope that at least some of the Palestinians would be able to go back. Other countries in the Persian Gulf region have hired and absorbed a certain number of Palestinians, who are known to be among the most industrious and least aggressive people in the Arab world.
While the Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories have now adopted nonviolent protests, the fundamental question we have to ask ourselves is why four million Palestinians are still suffering so greatly today. We have to try to see their condition as they see it. We have to imagine how we would feel if we were driven out of our homes where our families had lived for centuries. It was not an empty land. In an attempt to understand the Palestinian side, I read three books: “Mornings in Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa, “Sharon and My Mother-in-Law” by Suad Amiry, and “A World I Loved” by Wadad Cortas. It is extraordinary what these people have been through and continue to suffer.
From Lebanon on to another perspective in Israel. In visiting Jerusalem, one is visiting one of the most beautiful, fascinating places on earth. It is like living in history. Even a nonbeliever could not fail to be moved by the aura. It means so much to so many. It is inherently an international city, central to three of the world’s major religions. We visited an archaeological dig being conducted to find the palace of King David. This site alone demonstrates the layers of civilizations both pre and post the Israelite period 3,000 years ago. It may or may not be David’s palace; there is no concrete evidence. The Jebusites, for instance, who immediately preceded the Israelites, are the ones credited with inventing the amazing water supply tunnels.
We were there only five days but that was long enough to see the high wall around Jerusalem, the numerous Israeli settlements on the West Bank — from huge suburban, fully landscaped complexes to barbed-wire encampments in the desert. It is not a comfortable feeling at any level. In Arab East Jerusalem, lovely old stone buildings taken over by extremists brazenly sport Star of David flags: Just recently the Knesset enacted a law whereby Jewish buyers have the right of first refusal at the lowest price on Arab property up for sale.
Inch by inch, in the name of security and ideology, the Israelis seem to be taking over Arab territories. Aside from Israeli Arabs — 1.6 million of them — who have Israeli citizenship yet are treated very much as second-class citizens, there are still Palestinians in camps on their own land, e.g., Jenin on the West Bank. Recently the Israeli government stated that it plans to take over several Palestinian villages to “make room for military installations.” If we as Western visitors experienced the abrasive treatment of young Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, how must it feel to the Arab community trying to move around?
We did not see much of the West Bank, but we did visit Bethlehem, which is almost like a ghost town at this point since it is so difficult for Arabs to get to their jobs. We also visited the Shorouq Society for Women run by the redoubtable Fatima Faroun in the Jerusalem suburb of Al-Eizariya. Getting there was tortuous, the route being so circuitous. Fatima, heavily veiled and accented, is working to empower those women who suffer the double blow of being abused by their husbands and living in occupied territory, where starting up microfinance businesses is quite challenging. “If I don’t help them, who will?” she said.
As women’s organizations the world over point out, when women who marry at 12 or 14 have nothing to do but produce babies, the populations will continue to grow. And until there is a political solution, all the education and empowerment in the world cannot be fully effective.
We read much about the potential demographic problem that Israel faces. I asked an Arab and a Jew what they felt the future held. “I guess we will have to learn to live together,” said the Arab. “Never,” said the Jew, “that will never happen.” It is tragic because these people have more in common than they care to admit and once lived peacefully together.
At present you do not get the impression that the Israeli government really wants peace or a two-state solution, regardless of whether the Palestinian leadership of Fatah and Hamas acknowledges Israel’s right to exist. The government is currently preoccupied with the Iranian problem. So the stalling continues.
Over the years it has become increasingly apparent that the solution to the Palestinian problem will have to be a global one. Many countries had a hand in what happened in 1917, 1948, 1967, and 1973, not least the other Arab countries. Certainly mistakes made by the Palestinian political leadership leave it far from blameless. Yet it seems nothing will be settled until there is genuine acknowledgement of what the Palestinians gave up and continue to suffer. Their grievance needs to be addressed.
Leila Maw Straus lives in Manhattan and East Hampton.