By Samir El-youssef, the author of the forthcoming A Treaty of Love (THE GUARDIAN, 14/05/08):
In the first chapter of Amos Oz’s novel My Michael, the protagonist Hannah recalls her childhood friends, Khalil and Aziz, two Palestinians who in 1948 disappeared along with 800,000 of their people. In the last chapter she imagines her two friends coming back to blow everything up. By then Hannah has descended into madness.
Hannah, like Oz and his generation of Israelis, knows that before the war of 1948 there was another, older and larger society than her own, and that that society was destroyed and its traces erased; the population was forced to leave, villages were razed to the ground and cities, neighbourhoods and streets were renamed. She must also know that the destruction of the Palestinian society was necessary for the creation of Israel. Unlike her generation, however, Hannah is willing to admit what she knows; but that’s only because she is mad.
Israelis know that, within the ongoing conflict, making this acknowledgement could, as the novel concludes, be an act of madness and a call for self-destruction. For such an acknowledgement endorses the basic and uncompromising Palestinian claims. Practically every single Palestinian believes that before the Nakaba – or “catastrophe” – there was a Palestinian society similar to Arab societies in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt; that if it hadn’t been for Jewish migration to Palestine, with the intention and means of creating a Jewish state, Palestine would have progressed into a sovereign Palestinian state.
Were the Israelis to endorse such claims they would have to admit that the creation of the state of Israel has blocked the natural birth of the Palestinian state; they would, therefore, risk facing the call to stand up to their responsibilities and correct the wrong they have done. But how could they do that without undoing their own nation and agreeing to become citizens of the long delayed Palestinian state? Could the Israelis – as a nation whose ancestors suffered a long history of discrimination, prosecution and genocide – take such a risk without being absolutely mad?
Madness, however, doesn’t always lead to the risk of self-destruction. Indeed, some of it could be so benign as to be the only hope. Let’s imagine a Palestinian protagonist, a Palestinian Hannah who could understand the position of the Israelis – that they have no choice but to evade or postpone admitting the embarrassing facts of pre-1948; that at best they could try to skip these facts by supporting a half-baked solution, such as the so-called two states solution, by which Palestinians are offered a compensatory miniature state. A Palestinian Hannah would also acknowledge that the damage has been done and attempts to undo Israel could only lead to further damage – and that Palestinians must forgive Israelis.
Forgiveness is good, and a decent society must do the good thing; it might also be the only hope to save present and future Palestinian generations from the curse of a damaged past. But surely one can’t expect a stateless people, who for the past 60 years have been condemned to the life of refugees or, at best, second-rate citizens, to forgive? It would be a pure submission to eternal misfortune.
Well, Palestinian forgiveness would be a risk, one that would require the courage of the mad, hence Hannah. For Israelis could see this as an act of surrender, an incentive not for peace but for more seizure of Palestinian land and total suffocation of Palestinian life. If Israelis were to misuse Palestinian forgiveness then the act of forgiveness would be nullified. Forgiveness addresses past injustices only. By forgiving Israelis, Palestinians would exempt them from past responsibility, but not give them licence to commit further injustice. On the other hand, Israelis might appreciate what they are offered; forgiveness would mean an end to violence motivated by past grievance, and if this didn’t bring about a peaceful solution it would probably lead to a state of calm, in which Israeli restrictive measures would be removed and Palestinians could resume normal daily life.
For the Palestinians who are prepared to forgive the hope is that the majority of Israelis, out of decency or out of sheer desire for a quiet life, don’t want any more war. Realising that Palestinian forgiveness meant that their national existence was no longer threatened, Israelis would want their government to seize the chance, not to confiscate more Palestinian land, but to consolidate the state of quiet and calmness, and do their best to rescue Palestinians from military occupation and second-rate citizenship.
This is probably a mad dream; a Palestinian Hannah might not exist, not in the near future, and if she existed she might be failed by the Israelis. The alternative, however, is the greater madness of a conflict that would go on for the next 60 years.