Rafik Halabi, The West Bank Story (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982).
Rafik Halabi is a Palestinian-Israeli Druze. He writes at times with the viewpoint of an Israeli soldier and a former aide to Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, sometimes as an Arab villager. The West Bank Story explores several themes. Drawing on his experience covering the occupied territories for Israeli television, Halabi offers a journalistic account of the occupation’s history, its political figures and its radical “Palestinization” (or “de-Jordanization”). Another theme is the impact of the occupation on the occupying society.
The language and perspective is that of the careful moderate concerned with the integrity of “our” society, meaning Israel. Where Halabi differs from many Israeli “moderates” is in his refusal to accept the racist notion that living with Arabs is what corrupts Israel. As the reporter who graphically exposed the labor market of Gaza children for Israeli farms and kibbutzim Halabi outlines both the dynamics and the degradations of the Palestinians’ integration into the Israeli labor market.
Halabi’s views on Israel and the occupation are interwoven with his own life, the evolution of his personal and communal identities. This is unavoidable; for Halabi himself has been a point of contention in the struggles over what he calls the “Zionist and Jewish” character of the Israeli media. As Halabi traces the West Bank’s evolution to a radical Palestinian nationalism, it becomes clear that Halabi’s own identity has undergone a “Palestinization.”
Halabi endorses the right of the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians to create an independent state, but has no desire to live in that state himself. He has become a Palestinian as well as an Israeli moderate. Halabi is alarmed by the radicalization of Israeli Arabs, and their growing tendency to make common cause with their compatriots in the occupied territories. He does not ascribe this to manipulation or intimidation by the PLO, but rather to the deep anger of Israeli Arab youth, which forces leaders and village councils to adopt positions that are more combative than their instincts.
His portrayal of the PLO is unflattering, yet he highly respects some of the national movement’s most dynamic figures in the West Bank. He has particular admiration for women like Samiha Khalil of Inash al-Usra (Family Protection Society) and Raymonda Tawil, and for Bassam Shak’a of Nablus. He argues on rather thin evidence that the externally-based PLO leadership was alarmed by the potential independence of the short-lived National Guidance Council. The Israelis, of course, duly banned the Council as an arm of the PLO.
Halabi is most comfortable with pro-Jordanian West Bank personalities like Hamdi Kenan of Nablus and Mohammad Ali Ja’bari of Hebron. As a journalist, though, he developed contacts with all wings of the new generation of Palestinian leadership, and made good use of them. One very regrettable lapse in the book occurs where Halabi states as fact that “Ziyad Abu-Ayin planted explosive devices in the Israeli city of Tiberias, killing a number of innocent civilians, and managed to escape to the United States.” The two-year extradition battle in US courts showed that the evidence against Abu-Ayin consisted solely of a third-party confession extracted under duress and repeatedly recanted. Abu-Ayin was extradited to Israel in December 1981, and was sentenced to life imprisonment a few days after the beginning of the Lebanon invasion.
Halabi can no longer find employment with the Israeli media as a reporter on the occupied territories. The temptation may exist to regard him as a privileged Arab who only became sympathetic to the Palestinians when his own position began to crumble. I think he needs to be taken more seriously than that. Rather than being caught between Israelis and Palestinians and unable to choose sides, Halabi seems to me to have a genuine and simultaneous identification with both. This accounts for both the insightfulness and weakness of his book. His is a viewpoint which the vast majority of Palestinians will never share, but which the Palestinian movement cannot afford to ignore. The Israeli Druze are part of the Palestinian minority inside Israel, and part of the Israeli minority in the Middle East. The destiny of that community depends ultimately on how national and religious-minority questions are resolved—by Israel today, by the Palestinian and Arab national movements tomorrow.