Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Resistant People

"Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." Article 13(2) Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In his explicitly racist apologia for Israel's running amok in Gaza last December-January, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan trotted out one of the classic tropes of Zionist propaganda: "Because the existence of Israel radiates an affront to the Muslim world, only Palestinians have been sequestered from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to a special agency. That agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency [UNWRA] for Palestine Refugees, has warehoused displaced Palestinians for decades because it has been in the interests of the Arab world for this problem not to be solved. Gaza has become a giant warehouse of misery. It has no economic growth, no prospects, almost no civil order, yet about half the population is under the age of 17. The population has exploded amid economic privation. Women, living under Sharia law, are used primarily as breeding stock." (It's too easy just to blame Jews*, 12/1/09). [*See my 13/1/09 post Oriana Fallaci Meets Israeli PR at the SMH.]

I was reminded of Sheehan's little stinker when I came across a 1973 interview with American Harry N. Howard, UN adviser, Bureau of Near Eastern, South Asian & African Affairs, 1949-1956. Howard's testimony not only refutes the hoary Zionist canard of Palestinians as pawns of the Arab states, but provides a fascinating insight into US cluelessness in the Middle East in general and the grip of the nascent Israel lobby on the US Congress in particular. Best of all, through Howard's recollections, comes a real sense of the stubborn resistance of the Palestinian people, well before the rise of the armed Palestinian liberation movement, to all attempts to deflect them from the path of return to their homes and lands in 1948 Palestine.

Tellingly, Palestinian refugees (1948 -) are referred to throughout the interview simply as 'Arabs', surely a major impediment to a simple understanding that all the Palestinian refugees ever wanted (and still want) was (is) to return to their Palestinian homeland, rather than be fobbed off on one or other of the surrounding Arab states. Zionists, of course, routinely refer to Palestinians, either in or outside Israel improper, as Arabs, a linguistic circumlocution designed to perpetuate the idea that Palestinians qua Arabs can comfortably be accomodated in any of up to 25 Arab states and territories. A convenient untruth indeed. The complete interview can be found at

Richard D McKinzie: "You were an adviser to the UN delegation at the time when a lot of relief activities were being sponsored by the United Nations. I speak specifically of the Arab refugee problem. Do you recall particular problems in getting... Department of State acceptance for that? There was some talk against some of these projects as being 'international WPA'. [Works Progress Administration - the largest of President Roosevelt's New Deal agencies. The WPA employed millions of unemployed Americans on public works projects in 30s America.]

Howard: Yes, and that the money was all wasted, and the Arab refugees were living high and so on... I served as the Acting US representative... on the UNRWA Advisory Commission. I got around to practically all of the refugee centers during the 7-year period that I was there. Generally speaking, I think even Americans who have dealt with the problem - even Department of State officers - have not understood what has happened. This is certainly true of many Senators and Congressmen who visited the area. We have put into UNRWA more than $500 million. [Firstly,] we have assumed that the Arab states have done nothing at all except raise hell about the [refugee] problem. As a matter of fact, by my own calculations, which are based on UN documentation, the Arab host governments and other Arab governments, directly and indirectly, have probably contributed... at least $200 million in goods, services and cash. The assumption here is that they do nothing constructive at all. Secondly, there is also an assumption that these people, who are poor, are not worth the candle. Thirdly, there is a misconception that all the refugees have done is to lie [around] rotting in camps, being too lazy to work in the earlier years, and are now [1973] guerillas fighting in their frustration. It is assumed that all UNRWA has done is to spend money on food and shelter and keep the problem from being 'solved'. [However,] UNRWA also has an educational program which meets some of the educational needs of close to half a million people, from first grade through to secondary school. It issues scholarships of about $550 per year which send qualified Arab refugee students to the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, Damascus University, and the new Jordan National University. [UNRWA] also has one of the best vocational training programs. As a matter of fact, the largest percentage of UNRWA funds now go into education and training, not into relief, ie food and shelter. One of my friends, who used to direct it, tells me that the UNRWA Health Service, run on the basis of some 4 cents per day per refugee, is probably the best public health service in any developing area. As a matter of fact, the entire budget for UNRWA represents about 10 cents per capita per day. Once, when the US representative at the UN General Assembly was raising hell about the UNRWA budget, charging that UNRWA was supporting guerillas who were attacking Israel, and urging various cuts in expenditure, the UNRWA Commissioner General, Lawrence Michelmore, replied: 'Let's be clear about what we're talking about. We are talking about 10 cents a day for people... not $50, or $100, or $200 a month, which we have here in this country, but 10 cents a day'. I, frankly, was very much impressed with what I saw and what was done, and, as I say, I went all around.

McKinzie: All that was assumed to be quite temporary?

Howard: We assumed in the beginning it would be very, very temporary, and it is very interesting to read the records on this point. Back in 1949 and 1950, it was assumed that the problem was going to be solved within roughly a year or so. This was a basic assumption, I would say, clear down to 1956 - that any day now it was going to be ended. Well, it wasn't. People like Gordon Clapp, who used to head the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and who headed a UN Economic Survey Mission in the Middle East in 1949, had a much clearer view of the long-range, complex character of the refugee problem. Gordon Clapp made one basic point about some of the things which were then being contemplated as a solution. He said that to engage in large scale economic development projects as a solution to [the refugee] problem was only to invite frustration and failure. The Arab refugees were not ready for this approach. Neither were the Arabs generally, nor the Arab governments. Three years later, in January 1953, we went in for a big $150 million program. We tied all that up with refugee resettlement. That ruined it immediately. President Eisenhower sent out Eric Johnston as his personal representative to examine the situation and push the project. Ralph Bunche [UN's Chief Palestine Mediator following the Stern Gang's assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte] told me once that Eric Johnston was the worst qualified person he had ever known going out to the area to work on that problem. Among other things, he was a member of the American Christian Palestine Committee, a strongly pro-Zionist group. Well, every time Johnston went out to the Middle East, he would come back here and make a statement. One such statement, for example, said: 'We are now at the one-inch line'. He did not say which goal post it was. He added that as soon as the project, largely covering the Jordan Valley, was completed, some 250,000 refugees could be resettled. He had no idea, of course, that he was killing the project with the remark about resettlement. The average Arab response to that kind of statement was: 'The hell you say, you are not going to resettle anybody'. That did not mean that the Arabs did not believe in economic development. It did, however, mean that they were not going to support economic development if we were going to tie it up with refugee resettlement. I'll give you another example. In 1961, Senator W Stuart Symington was in the Middle East. He is a very able Senator and, among other things, wanted to look into the refuggee problem. We took him down to UNRWA Headquarters for a briefing session. He had just read a truly dreadful article by Martha Gellhorn, also from St Louis, on the refugee problem in the October 1961 Atlantic Monthly.* It was one of the worst articles I've ever read on the subject, although he obviously believed it. We got together other items for him to read, including Don Peretz's book Israel & the Palestine Arabs, one of the very best books on the subject. Both Don and Martha Gellhorn happen to be Jewish, although Don is a scholar and knew something about the subject, while Martha Gellhorn knew nothing about it. After the briefing session with UNRWA officers, we took Senator Symington, with John Newhouse, his assistant, down to the new vocational training centre for refugees near Sidon, and also took him through the Ein Hilweh refugee center nearby, which is not a bad place. John Newhouse and I were determined that we would also get Senator Symington, if he had time, to see the worst, since, like Martha Gellhorn, he had the impression that the Arab refugees were living high off the lamb - if not the hog. As it turned out, Senator Symington did have an extra day or two in Lebanon. So we took him over to a refugee center named Gouraud, named after the French Field Marshal, just around the corner from the ancient ruins of Ba'albek. This was an old Ottoman army barracks used after World War I for some 300 French soldiers. Some 3,000 Arab refugees were now housed there. It was about the dirtiest, filthiest place one could imagine. As we went through the refugee center, Senator Symington kept repeating: 'This is very sad, this is very sad', and I will never forget it. I think he did forget it, but we'll let that pass. I told the UNRWA area officer, Khalil Ja'abari, a Palestinian Arab from Nablus - something of an extremist - that Senator Symington was very pro-Zionist, but very able as a senator, and should be completely free, in view of the character of the place, to go wherever he wanted to. Senator Symington kept repeating that this was all 'very sad', and my friend Khalil remarked: 'Well, Senator, I guess you have seen another side of this problem'. Senator Symington asked me to ride back into the mountains with him when we had finished the tour. On the way I offered to take him through another dreadful refugee center, named after the British Field Marshal Wavell but he protested that he would become ill if we did. Then he asked the usual silly question - the fundamental question - 'What do you think is the solution of this problem?' I replied: 'Well, if you are thinking of a political solution, I don't even think in those terms at all'. Senator Symington remarked: 'Don't you think that it is primarily because of [Israeli] Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's intransigence?' Symington would never have said this publicly. I remarked that, in my opinion, as long as Ben-Gurion lived, and as long as his spirit dominated the political scene in Israel, there would be no hope of a political settlement, and that I would not now want to wager that the Arabs would make an adjustment if Israel did move in the direction of compromise and peace. Then we talked about projects for economic development. I told Senator Symington that Eric Johnston used to come out to the Middle East on the matter of the development of the Jordan Valley and the sweet waters of the Nile Valley. But he made the same fatal mistake, every time he returned to the US, of saying: 'When we finish the project, some 250,000 people will be resettled'. I added: 'That ended the project'. 'But', Senator Symington added: 'If I didn't say that, I'd never get the money out of the US Congress'. I replied: 'This is precisely the case. If Mr Johnston did not say it, he wouldn't get the money out of the US Congress; if he did say it, he wouldn't get the project'. And that was that. There are nuances in this kind of development which, I am afraid, Americans have never really understood or appreciated. Harry Labouisse left his post as director of UNRWA in the spring of 1958... When he paid his farewell call on [Jordanian] Prime Minister Samir Rifai, the latter begged him to ask the US Government not to force him to make a public statement of his own conviction that the Arab refugees would be staying right where they were, not returning to their former homes. He would be murdered, he thought, if he said so publicly. Well, there was much in that sort of thing, and I think we have never appreciated this nuance in this country - not at all. When Norman Burns was head of the AID program (USOM) in Jordan in 1959, he negotiated an agreement with the Jordanian government on the construction of the East Ghor irrigation canal, which included land reform. The project involved only the US and Jordan, not Israel. You will read the agreement in vain to find any reference to the fact that there were some 100,000 refugees in the East Ghor of the Jordan Valley who would benefit both from the irrigation and the land reform. The Jordanian and US governments knew this. Both knew that to put it down on paper would be disastrous for the project, so there was no mention of it in the agreement."

[*The Arabs of Palestine. More on Martha in a later post.]


Anonymous said...

RE the whole 'naming' issue over Palestinians as Arabs, Shlomo Sand argues that the creation of Israel resulted in the creation of two new "peoples" - the Palestinian "people" and the Jewish "people". Before the Zionist project, neither one existed. Specifically re the latter, he argues that it was Zionists who had to invent the idea - and even an imaginary history - of a Jewish "people" in order to make sense of and give psychological legitimacy to the notion of an ethnically specific "nation state in waiting". Ironically, a side-effect of this was that in the act of ethnically cleansing the land to manifest this state in the imagination, the Zionists created something called the Palestinian "people" - named after the area from which they were displaced.

MERC said...

Sand is right about the artificiality of the "Jewish people" concept and its supposed eternal link with the land of Palestine. There is nothing artificial, however, about the Palestinians' link with their land, prior to the Nakba or after. The Palestinians' rootedness in, and connectedness to, his Palestinian homeland precedes any identity he has as a generic Arab. See, for example, my 16/5/09 post Give No Ground.