God wills it! The bitter fruits of fundamentalism
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 7: The Lure of Fundamentalism
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Murray Sayle (dec.)
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Murray Sayle's biography and other articles by this writer
In any case history, insofar as it keeps alive the
memory of past wrongs, is not helpful for the future.
– Antony Black, Muslim Political Thought, 2001
Painful to look at, impossible to look away – the Holy Land of half humanity holds us all in an agonising grip. The distraction of Iraq has barely slowed our daily dose of torn-up roadmaps, bombs, bullets and bulldozers, shrill charge and countercharge. What is the curse on that small corner of the world, where three closely related faiths endlessly invoke peace? Was there a fork in the road, and if so, where was it and when? The stakes go far beyond the Middle East – threatening us all with militant fundamentalism, an end to the toleration that has long kept religion and reason away from each other's throats and has thus preserved our fragile civilisation. In five wars there, months of travel and a mountain of reading, I have wrestled with these questions, hoping at least to glimpse a way forward. This is an account of that long search.
I first set foot in Israel at Lod Airport, the former Arab village of Lydda, and long before that, a centre of Jewish learning, just outside Tel Aviv on June 6, 1967, more than half a biblical lifetime ago, when I came to report my first war in the Middle East. Officially, Lod had closed the day before while Israeli fighter-bombers methodically destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground. Unofficially, a few El Al strays, stranded by the sudden outbreak of a long-threatened war, were still braving the interception that never came. Some journalists talked their way onto the last flight from Cyprus; among them two reporters, Colin Simpson and myself, and two photographers, Don McCullin and Neil Libbert, then all of The Sunday Times, London. In the deserted arrival hall we split up, Simpson and McCullin to Jerusalem, the newsworthiest of the likely battlefields, Libbert and I to the Gaza Strip and Sinai, both held by Israel's strongest enemy, Egypt. We were to see the prototype of many wars to come – a fast high-tech victory over an inept Third-World enemy, a hated occupation, a spiral of violence with no end in sight. So long ago, so quickly won, the Six-Day War still goes on.
Libbert and I went to war in style, by taxi. Glad of any fare, our driver, Gershon Gari, dropped by his home to pick up his revolver, and we sped south. The Israeli Army we overtook was an amazing sight. I wrote in The Sunday Times of June 11, 1967: "Some of them wear uniforms and steel helmets, while others have odds and ends of civilian clothing and Jewish skullcaps. Half the transport is improvised. Officers drive their private cars, smeared with mud to make crude but effective desert camouflage.
"The men arrive in Tel Aviv buses with signs like ‘The Cairo Express' – and the same buses bring the prisoners back. The officers appear to be European Jews, no doubt because of their superior education. Orders are given in Hebrew, but the troops talk together in German, Yiddish, French, Romanian, Polish and just about every language of Europe. The International Brigades in Spain, 1936, must have been the nearest thing to this." Or, I reflected, perhaps the biblical Children of Israel, once again on the move.
The next two days are a blur. We persuaded officers and men – and a few women – to tell us where we were, drawing arrows on crude maps. A colonel gave me some kind of permit scrawled in Hebrew that got us a lot of cheerful lifts. We slept, dozed rather, on rocky hillsides. We entered the refugee-choked Gaza Strip near Gaza City though a passage cut through the Egyptian minefield the day before by an Israeli frontal assault. Zahal – the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) – did not, I noted, go in for sophisticated tactics, preferring the approach of the US Marine Corps: "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle." Beside the cleared track we saw the burnt-out car of Ben Oyzerman of CBC, the first journalist to die in that war. At the northern end of the Strip a defiant remnant of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) was still trading ragged fire with the Israelis. A mortar shell burst ahead of our taxi and we hit the ditch. Moments later, five men and a girl in jeans and sandals and carrying assault rifles and hand grenades plopped into the ditch beside us. They were from the kibbutz Yad Mordechai, just over the border, on a souvenir hunt. Their kibbutz, they said, had lost 28 dead in the previous decade to PLA attacks. Over the border was a sign, "Nasser brings Victory", put up by the Egyptians after the irrelevant United Nations peacekeepers had been ordered out of the Strip. The Israelis dashed over under ragged fire and lugged it back.
Time for lunch. We headed for the nondescript Israeli town of Ashkelon, 10 kilometres away. A sweet grey-haired old lady with a German accent welcomed us to her cafe and served the house special, apfelstrudel. We had come through a nostalgic grove of eucalyptus brought from Australia when the British, up to 1948, were the government in these parts. Through it ran the remains of the railway that once ran from Kantara on the Suez Canal along the seacoast to Haifa, built by conscripted Egyptian labourers for the campaign of Sir Edmund Allenby which took Jerusalem from the Turks in December 1917. Nearby were the ruins of a Crusader fortress. Millennia of war had left marks hereabouts, and everyone brings, acknowledged or not, personal baggage to the Holy Land. Mine was a tepid Anglican childhood, good Muslim friends in London, fond memories of Jewish teachers and fellow students at school and university in Sydney, all floating on Hebrew poetry in King James's magical English version. With coffee, David's lament for Saul and Jonathan sprang to mind:
Tell it not in Gath,
Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice
Lest the daughters of the uncircumcisèd triumph.
The ancient land of the intact Philistines is now the fought-over Gaza Strip, after whom the Romans, yet another of its occupiers, named the corridor between the desert and the sea Palestine.
BACK AT THE DESERTED DAN HOTEL IN TEL AVIV I TYPED MY REPORT. Israel's astonishing victory had followed well-attested military principles, I wrote. No army can ever be all-purpose, and that of Israel, behind its make-do-and-mend nonchalance of those years, was, and is, designed for a specific, very short and sharp war. Once the IDF's reserves – basically every male Jew between 18 and 50 – are fully mobilised, Israel itself slows to bare, unsustainable essentials. The Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies were poised close to Israel's borders while Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser breathed verbal fire, but made no move. Sending the IDF home would have put Israel in even deadlier danger. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his new defence minister, Moshe Dayan, had no realistic choice but to pre-empt whatever Nasser may have had in his bombastic mind. The Arab armies were deployed for threat, not defence. Short internal lines and fast military roads had let Israel's armoured spearhead switch from front to front, doubling the power of successive blows, two days for each. Hard training, unity of purpose, no reliable ally – a genuine case of en brera, "no alternative" – met muddle, indecision and apathy among the Arabs. A dazzling victory, but not a supernatural one. As Dayan's daughter, Yael, orderly to an already controversial general named Ariel Sharon, noted in A Soldier's Diary (1967), it was more a hunt than a fight. I wrote, sustained by self-service orange juice, through a long Friday night and telephoned section by section to the copy desk in London. An Israeli military censor occasionally came on the line, but asked for no changes. As dawn broke over the blue Judean hills I asked the elderly switchboard operator, the only male left in the hotel, why he had kept weary vigil so patiently with a foreign reporter on a tight deadline. "For the country," he said, unforgettably.
I caught some sleep and then walked to the Press Centre in the Beit Shokaloff for formal accreditation. Tel Aviv, tense and terrified when I arrived a few days earlier, was euphoric, dizzy with relief. Dusty reservists were suddenly everywhere, luxuriating in kisses, flowers and cheers bordering on idolatry. I was ushered into a theatre where a jovial Moshe Dayan – the first successful general to be called into politics in Israel's hour of peril – was giving an excited press conference. In eye patch and khaki shirt he looked just like his photographs. The questions were random, the answers cheerful, until a reporter asked: "General, what peace will you offer the Arabs?" The hubbub stilled and Dayan looked serious. "Such a defeat as this," he said thoughtfully, in accented English with a Yiddish twist, "no one needs."
Sinai, bar collecting captured weapons and stray prisoners, was now quiet. But next morning, a party of journalists would be visiting the West Bank. Libbert and I put up our hands and were back at Beit Shokaloff before sun-up. Our escort turned out to be a buxom woman soldier, Lieutenant Meir, which she explained means "light" in Hebrew. She carried an Israeli-made Uzi sub-machine gun, more as a symbol of authority than a weapon. "You're not in Vietnam now," she warned. "Here you do what we say, please." Our topless truck climbed to New Jerusalem, all-Jewish but with the solid functional look of what only 19 years before had been British-administered city. We crossed the pre-war Israeli frontier, past a minimal roadblock and made the long descent down to the River Jordan. I don't know what I expected, but what I saw haunts me to this day. My report, Crossing over Jordan, was published in The Sunday Times of June 18, 1967.
The road from Jerusalem down to Jericho today presents one of the most jarring images of the 20th century. Through a timeless biblical landscape, past names known to every Christian, Muslim and Jew as the places where the teachers of peace and reconciliation spoke, trudges an unending stream of refugees, thirsty, hungry and afraid, picking their way through the debris of mechanised war.
The road is littered with the wreckage of King Hussein's Arab Legion. In one pass (from the top you can see the glittering domes of Jerusalem, and the other way the Dead Sea shimmering far below in the relentless sunshine) the Israeli Air Force caught a Jordanian convoy. Six tanks, still pointing towards Jerusalem and Israel, are blackened burnt-out wrecks; they have been drenched in napalm. Trucks and Land Rovers have been run off the road as the drivers tried to get out of the way of the aircraft: they lie upside down, neatly stitched by cannon fire. Nearby a dispatch rider's motorcycle lies by the roadside. The rider ran for his life as the jets came in: I cannot tell whether he made it or not because the Israelis have cleared the road of bodies.
A tractor and trailer lie beside the road, the trailer's load of mattresses and furniture and pots and pans scattered over the ditch. This must have been an early refugee who tried to leave while the fighting was going on. Some tank in a hurry – from which side I cannot tell – must have run him off the road. Among all this military hardware there is tempting loot, but the refugees touch nothing. They are carrying enough already. Some drive donkeys loaded with household gear, some push overloaded bicycles. One Arab woman pushes two children in a perambulator. The pram has lost its two back wheels.
Most of the refugees are women with children; they are the wives, perhaps the widows, they have no way of knowing, of the soldiers who have been driven back in rout over the Jordan.
Some of the refugees wear Arab dress, but many are in tattered European clothes. They are Palestinians from the refugee camps in the territory Israel has occupied. They were fed by the United Nations and clothed in the cast-offs of Europe by such worthy bodies as CARE and Oxfam. Now they are on the move again, double refugees.
The plain of the Jordan and the Dead Sea is one of the driest places on earth and this is a very hot day. Whirlwinds carry columns of sand hundreds of feet high, from which the refugees emerge choking and powdered with sand. Outside Jerusalem some nuns from a nearby Catholic convent ladle out water to the refugees as they trudge by. Farther down the road a roadblock of Israeli soldiers have a captured Jordanian water carrier; they too ladle out water. Miles down the road we come upon a knot of refugees – a lad, three women and five small children – who hail us with the Arabic greeting "salaam eleikum" ("Peace be upon you"). Their lips are swollen and they are burnt red under their dark skins. They point to their mouths and the lad says the English word, "water, water".
We have none, but we give them a bottle of cold Israeli orange juice we have brought for ourselves. They share the juice out, children first, and the lad says the Arabic for thankyou (shuklan, shuklan) and shakes my hand.
The refugees are making for the Jordan River. But the Arab Legion in its flight has blown up all of the bridges. At the Allenby Bridge (renamed by the Jordanians the Hussein Bridge) just outside Jericho, the Israelis have constructed a primitive crossing of planks lashed to the twisted spans and girders, which have tumbled into the brown water.
The crossing is rough and uneven, just wide enough for one person to cross at a time. Since last Thursday the orders of General Chaim (Vivian) Herzog, Israeli commander of the West Bank of the Jordan [later president of Israel-MS] have been clear and simple: anyone can cross the Allenby Bridge into Jordan. But no one can come back the other way.
The refugees arrive at the Allenby crossing and are helped down by armed Israeli soldiers who behave with gentleness and consideration. The crossing is far too narrow and uneven for anything but people to pass. So the Israeli side is strewn with bundles of clothes and cooking gear the refugees have been unable to carry over – after getting their possessions as far as the Jordan. Donkeys and camels abandoned by their owners wander through the Israeli camp, the donkeys braying disconsolately. Across the river Jordanians in civilian clothes help the refugees into trucks and buses. They drive off, somewhere into Jordan. On the Israeli side the refugees keep arriving, by no means all on foot: the Israeli military have organised a transport service to bring refugees to the crossing point and they arrive in Israeli buses, Israeli military trucks and captured Jordanian military transport.
No one is allowed to cross the Jordan from the other side, but many want to. They are mostly men and they are frantic with worry – their families are over the other side in the occupied area.
One man seizes my arm: "Please sir, please I beg you," he says in good English. We talk for a few minutes, our feet practically in the Jordan River. "My wife and children," he says. He explains that he is Saad Sahawneh, a Jordanian engineer and he lived in Ramallah, just outside Jerusalem. He was away working in Saudi Arabia when the war broke out. He has come back to find them and got only as far as the Jordan.
He has spent two days and nights trying to get over. He is grey-haired and his face is creased with worry. "I beg you, sir, I am a peaceable man, I only want permission to find them and bring them out," he says. I tell him that the Israelis are behaving decently and have tolerated no looting and no molesting of women.
This seems to cheer him up somewhat and he scrawls a note to his wife in English and lists the names of his children, Mary, Isam and Ghada. I tell him I will try to find them and tell them he is all right and waiting for them.
I ask the Israeli colonel for permission for the engineer to come with us, but he says: "I am sorry, I have my orders. There is still a security problem on our side and we cannot let anyone in." Conscious that the scene before my eyes will be argued over, perhaps fought over again, I try to get some facts straight. Numbers: on the Israeli side there is no counting, no checking of papers or identities. But by counting the buses and checking the numbers who crossed in the hours I spent by the Jordan I estimate that between four and five thousand will have gone over by Saturday night.
Motive: this is one of the most difficult problems I have faced in years of newspaper work, and the answer greatly depends on which side your sympathies lie – if you are other than neutral in this war. Those who take the Arab side may well say that the Israelis intend to annex the conquered territories on the West Bank of the Jordan (and maybe the Gaza Strip as well), and that they are trying to get rid of the potential fifth column of Arabs by encouraging them to take a one-way trip to Jordan.
I discussed this with General Herzog. The general is the son of a former chief rabbi of Ireland and I take him to be a decent, kindly and honourable man. He is also a general in a victorious army and he is under orders himself. He told me: "We are compelling no one, Arab or otherwise, to leave the territories under our occupation. We cannot let anyone back in at this time because there is a real security problem still. I cannot say if we ever will: that is a political decision and not for me to make."
I was able to talk with many refugees on the roads. As far as I could see, the Israelis are not compelling anyone to leave, although they are not discouraging them either; their motive, whether reasonable or not, is fear. The Arab radio stations have certainly been telling them that the Jews will kill or maltreat them (which as far as I have seen is not the case) and a violent war has just been fought over their heads.
What are the prospects for Arabs who stay under Israeli rule? The fact which conditions the situation is one that every Israeli believes – and, one must admit with some justification – that if the Arabs had won this war they would have killed every Jew they could lay their hands on. It is true that the Arabs living in Israel have better schools, better medical care and a higher standard of living than most Arabs. But the Israeli who tells you this sounds disturbingly like a South African who tells you that his Africans are better off materially than the Africans who live in black-ruled countries, and seems to think that this is all there is to say on the subject.
But if the future of Arabs inside the old Israeli borders is unclear, the future of the Palestinian Arabs who have been living for 19 years in the refugee camps, which are now mostly under Israeli government, is one of black hopelessness: a disgrace to the ability of the human race to solve its problems.
[Or did I mean Israel's ability? Whose ultimate responsibility is the fate of these people? I hesitated on the word then, and decades later I still hesitate. It goes to the heart of the tragedy.] I concluded my report, all too prophetically:
I wish I could believe that the file of refugees scrambling over the holy River Jordan near the spot where Jesus was baptised are not simply carrying a fresh load of fear and hatred with them.