Yoram Binur, 34, an Israeli journalist fluent in Arabic, went underground for six months to document the abuses suffered by Palestinians living in Israel`s occupied territories. He surfaced with a book predicting grave trouble for his country, but events moved ahead of his publication schedule.
The intifada, the Palestinian uprising that has left hundreds dead and threatened Israel`s ability to govern the occupied territories, erupted while Binur was still writing My Enemy, My Self, his harrowing tale of how the Israeli establishment humiliates the Palestinians.
Unlike political essays, his book is uncomfortably personal. The reader suffers with Binur, a former lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces, as he is beaten solely for “being” a Palestinian at a right-wing Jewish rally.
The reader experiences his fear at roadblocks and comes to admire the Palestinians who protest with dignity against their second-class status. Perhaps most painful, the reader experiences the hatred he feels for his Jewish employers, who give him backbreaking tasks, filthy accommodations and pitiful wages.
He takes readers into the sweatshops where self-respect is the first casualty and into the camps where sanitation is unfit for humans and there is constant fear of police raids.
The impact is undeniable and offers a clear explanation for the Palestinian revolt, a development so serious that classified Israeli intelligence reports suggest it will force Israel to negotiate with the hated Palestine Liberation Organization.
A talk with Binur is even more sobering. He holds that the future of Israeli democracy is at stake – as a natural outgrowth of the decision to hold the territories seized in 1967.
“I don`t believe Israelis are racist or hateful to Arabs, they just ran into a situation dictated by the occupation and they behave accordingly,” said Binur, who concedes that he, too, considers Arabs as Israel`s enemies.
“If you respect them and their rights to freedom and independence, you have a problem, but if you just ignore it, you fall into a greater risk and this is the reason I wrote the book, because I feel the biggest risk is just around the corner and no one paid attention. Israel will not be a democracy anymore. You cannot apply a dictatorship to Palestinian camps five minutes from Jerusalem, as we do now, and keep a democracy,” Binur said.
The constant switching back and forth between his real identity and his adopted persona took its toll on Binur. It was hard for a Jew to feel hatred for his own people – but he did.
“My whole emotional situation was very complicated,” he said, citing a rally where he was roughed up by Israeli soldiers.
“I felt very much like a Palestinian at the time and I was very frightened and filled with hate, as anyone harassed by police for no reason would be. But I had commanded troops like that. They were just kids. I knew what they were feeling. I was a pain in their neck and I knew they just wanted to finish their shift and get away from the demonstration and get to Jerusalem and chase some girls. I could feel that, too. I could feel both sides, and it`s much easier to simply hate than to feel the whole picture.”
His transformation from Jew to Arab was risky. He changed his appearance, smoked a brand of cigarettes favored by Arabs and scorned by Jews, and wore the traditional red keffiyeh headdress, but he still had reason to think he would be killed if his ruse were discovered – because the Palestinians would not believe that he was a journalist and would assume he was a police infiltrator.
There was a special risk too; Binur talks in his sleep when he is tense, and he feared he would talk in Hebrew while dozing in a squalid dormitory with other Palestinian workers.
“First I spoke Arabic all day long, then I started to think in Arabic, then I started to dream in Arabic,” he said.
“I forced myself. It was hard because I was scared all the time, both from the Israelis and from the Palestinians. When it was over, I felt very bad. I was in bed surrounded by bottles of cheap brandy and a lot of cigarettes. I didn`t want to talk to people for about a month and I felt no one could understand what I was going through, and very, very slowly I recovered. It`s very hard for you to feel this guilt – for me it was the guilt of being Israeli and being responsible for a lot of evil and at the same time knowing these are your enemies.”
After experiencing the problem first-hand, Binur has come out in favor of the creation of a separate Palestinian state, a position sharply rejected by the Israeli government. Binur conceded that there are risks to this proposition.
A few months ago, I tried to analyze an encroaching feeling of dislocation in my Palestinian identity.
My long-held conception of what makes a homeland and what it felt like to have one was suddenly interrupted over dinner in Turkey. Ever since, I have been trying to explain how this sense of dislocation was formed and molded over the years.
What strikes me most as I trace my family’s past is the degree to which my sense of myself has been shaped primarily by colonial encounters.
A marriage of its time
For years, my grandmother’s stories offered a cocoon within which I could enjoy a Palestine that is now so distant in time and physically unknown to me. I would feel anxious and somewhat galled each time she mentioned a village or place I had never heard of before.
In her living room, a large photo frame of her grandfather in a tarbush – a fez – and enormous arched mustache, hangs on the wall.
Her grandfather, Daoud affendi (the Turkish term used for a gentleman of social standing), was a Turk who served as an officer in the Ottoman army in Syria and Palestine, a “pious” man as she often describes him. His son, Yusuf, looked after the family’s property until 1948.
Having been a man of wealth and status himself, Yusuf married a well-off Damascene woman, Ruqaya al-Naamani. This explains something I always felt intrigued by but, for some reason, never asked my grandmother about; my grandmother’s Arabic dialect was never totally Palestinian – it was Syrian – and she always cited proverbs in Turkish.
What fascinates me at this stage is precisely the power structure that made marriage lineages between natives and colonizers possible. An answer to this, I think, lies in the relatively narrow cultural differences between the Ottomans and Arabs.
For one, both peoples were predominately Muslim, and even linguistically, many common phrases between Arabic and Turkish can still be found today. Another answer could be the higher social class from which my great-grandmother came. Historically, the wealthy have been more willing to compromise questions of national concern for social or financial gain.
This marriage, which in 1936 produced my half-Turkish, half-Syrian grandmother, Nadra, was given a Palestinian chapter when Yusuf decided to join the Palestinian guerilla groups in their resistance against the Zionist colonization of Palestine. It was 1948 when, in Gaza, Yusuf was finally killed.
My grandmother’s personal memories
My grandmother’s memories of the period before 1947 are largely personal, characterized by social events such as the istiqbal – the women-only reception that a woman of a certain class might hold at her house every week.
She recalls certain individuals with whom she visited and socialized. Her reminiscences also include movements between Gaza, Jerusalem, and Jaffa, and tools for bread-making such as the babour, an ancient portable stove that was common across Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.
Amid all the violence and rage that swept Palestine in those years, an intimate bond between one man and one woman was being woven. My grandfather, Akram, a refugee from al-Majdal – now called Ashkelon in present-day Israel – doted on a pretty young woman who lived nearby: Nadra. Soon, Akram and Nadra decided to get married.
Erasing our history
These intimate details that took place in the aftermath of 1948 are damning evidence of the existence of an entire people whose lives, their very marriages, have been shaped by yet another colonial event in Palestine, this time it was the Zionist ethnic cleansing of more than 500 Palestinian villages and towns, known as the Nakba.
The May 1948 declaration of the “State of Israel” and the fledgling image of Israel as “young” and “powerful” impressed the West which was quite jubilant to have finally rid itself of the Holocaust burden. Israelis, meanwhile, were very keen on moving away from victimhood to “heroism.”
As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe reminds us in his excellent book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, the Irgun – a Zionist militia – used posters that featured what he refers to as the “new Jews.” As Pappe notes, these posters depicted “muscular” men aiming their rifles at “Arab invaders,” beside slogans such as “Brothers in Arms” and “The Fist of Steel.”
“Did you say Pakistan?”
The net result of all this was the appalling disappearance of Palestine and Palestinians as a country and a people. “In any case,” writes Palestinian author Ghada Karmi from her exile in the UK, “no one in England seemed to remember Palestine either. It is remarkable how quickly the word went out of general use.”
In her breathtaking memoir In Search of Fatima, Karmi also reflects on her personal experiences in England. She remembers that while sometimes she had to hide her origins, when she did not have to Palestine was often mistaken for other countries. “Did you say Pakistan?” Karmi quotes someone as saying when she named “Palestine” as her country.
If a history as complex and incredibly rich as that of Palestine can vanish from people’s consciousness, then this is a brutal reminder that unless the Palestinian narrative is recognized and fully acknowledged, nothing, especially the discredited “peace process,” can stop Israel’s continued ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
To Israel’s chagrin, the September 1970 hijacking of planes made it inevitable that the existence of such people as the Palestinians would have to be acknowledged. Israel, therefore, had to find a way to address the Palestinians without compromising its official narrative.
All of a sudden, the Palestinians emerged as terrorists, barbarians and anti-Semites bent on the destruction of Israel. That these Palestinians were forced out of their lands by this Israel did not seem to hold any truth. Palestinians were reduced into static Arabs frozen in time and space unable to move on and develop.
The only way to deal with these barbarians, therefore, according to the orientalist discourse adopted by Israel, is force. The kind of logic that Israel continues to fully employ explains why the Palestinian point of view is deliberately belittled if not completely ignored.
Narrative is existence
Narrative forms my sense of belonging to the Palestine I am unacquainted with. My grandmother’s memories are in stark contrast to Golda Meir’s notorious claim that the Palestinians, as a people, did not exist.
Nadra’s recollections empower my imagination to transcend borders, checkpoints, barbed wire and allow me to roam the olive groves, attend weddings and get a glimpse of people who are my ancestors.
This time a new dimension has been added to my identity; somehow, I too am the product of a marriage, perhaps a love story, between a colonizer and colonized: Ruqaya and Yusuf. Yet, this past, continues to be systematically denied.
Rediscovering Palestine through narrative and writing it down is, I believe, crucial to ensuring that Palestine is not erased.