j o u r n a l i s m

r o b e r t  f i s k 


It is a tragedy of both our people. How can I explain in my poor English? I think the Arabs have the same rights as the Jews and I think it is a tragedy of history that a people who are refugees make new refugees. I have nothing against the Arabs ... They are the same as us. I don’t know that we Jews did this tragedy — but it happened.

Shlomo Green, Jewish refugee from the Nazis, on learning that his home in Israel was taken from a Palestinian family in 1948.


Editor’s note: In 1990, Robert Fisk, the British foreign correspondent in Beirut, published PITY THE NATION, an enormous narrative of the war in Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s, based on his dispatches for the London Times, for whom then wrote; he is now with the Independent. The book has just been re-issued. The chapter printed here offers, as the book does, a view from the ground of how terrible, deep-rooted, and complex is the unended conflict in the Middle East. Reading it, we are also moved to ask, What then is the journalist’s obligation? In the preface, Fisk gives his answer:

I think I was in Lebanon because I believed, in a somewhat undefined way, that I was witnessing history — that I would see with my own eyes a small part of the epic events that have shaped the Middle East since the Second World War. At best, journalists sit at the edge of history as vulcanologists might clamber to the lip of a smoking crater, trying to see over the rim, craning their necks to peer over the crumbling edge through the smoke and ash at what happens within. Governments make sure it stays that way. I suspect that is what journalism is about — or at least what it should be about: watching and witnessing history and then, despite the dangers and constraints and our human imperfections, recording it as honestly as we can.

However, in recent speeches and articles, Fisk has refined his definition of the journalist’s task, by quoting, and agreeing with, his colleague Amira Hass, of Ha’aretz. He writes: “‘There is a misconception that journalists can be objective,’ she tells me…. ‘Palestinians tell me I’m objective. I think this is important because I’m an Israeli. But being fair and being objective are not the same thing. What journalism is really about – it’s to monitor power and the centres of power.’”



When David Roberts toured the Holy Land, he was an explorer as well as an artist, a romantic who filtered the hot and crude realities of the Middle East through a special screen. As he journeyed on horseback through Palestine and then up the coast of southern Lebanon in the 1830s, he was an adventurer, staying overnight with the governor of Tyre, crossing the snows of the Chouf mountain chain to the gentleness of the Bekaa Valley where he sketched the great temples of the Roman city of Heliopolis.

In the world that he created, there were no wars, no political disputes, no dangers. His lithographs of Palestinian villages and of Lebanon, of Tyre and the peninsula of Ras Naqourra, of the temples of Baalbek, are bathed only in the peace of antiquity, a nineteenth-century dream machine that would become more seductive as the decades saw the collapse of the Turkish and then of the British Empire.

For today, Roberts’ delicate sketches and water-colours of Ottoman Palestine can be found in the hallways, bedrooms and living rooms of tens of thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon. In the dust of the great Elin Helweh Palestinian camp just east of Sidon, cheap copies of Roberts’ prints — of Nablus, of Hebron, of Jericho and Jerusalem — are hung on the cement walls of refugee shacks, behind uncleaned glass, sometimes held in place by Scotch tape and glue. His pictures of Lebanon’s forgotten tranquillity hang in Lebanese homes too. Volumes of Roberts’ prints of Lebanon and Palestine can be bought in stores all over Beirut. They can be purchased in almost every tourist hotel in Israel. They are a balm in which anyone can believe.

In Roberts’ drawing of Jaffa, the old city seems to bend outwards with domes and minarets and dusty tracks, watched from a distance by a pastoral couple with a donkey. At Acre, the ramparts of Richard Coeur de Lion’s massive fortress stretch down to a tideless Mediterranean while tiny Arab figures promenade in the dusk past the serail. From time to time, the dun-coloured hills are washed with a light green, faint proof for the Palestinians perhaps that the desert bloomed before the Israelis created their state. In his epic landscape of Jerusalem executed in April of 1830, Roberts draws the Holy City in silhouette, its church towers and minarets, the Dome of the Rock, mere grey outlines against a soft evening sky. Six Arabs — their headdress and robes suggest they are Bedouin — rest beside an ancient well of translucent blue water. A broken Roman column lies beside the pool, its mammoth pedestal a reminder of the immensity of history. Roberts’ prints have become almost a cliché, corrupted by overuse, representative of both a cause and a dream. If it was like that once, why cannot it be so again, a land of peace and tranquillity?

On the wall of my Beirut home, I have one of Roberts’ lithographs of Tyre in southern Lebanon. There in the distance is the great peninsula upon which Alexander built his city, there are the familiar standing Arab figures, the broken Roman masonry in the foreground. One afternoon in 1978, I returned from Tyre after spending 12 hours in the city under Israeli shellfire. The Tyre from which I had travelled was a place of unpaved roads and overflowing sewage, of Palestinian camps and fedayeen guerrillas, of guns and sunken ships and the sharp clap of explosions. Could I relate this in any way to the picture on my livingroom wall? Was this part of the Lebanon I knew? Was it a scene which in later years I would look at with nostalgia, even longing? For the Roman ruins of Tyre, a few of the old Ottoman harbour warehouses, the little Christian streets near the port, are still there. And the Mediterranean, the great pale green sea that sloshes away at the coastline of Phoenicia, this too still shaped our movements and our lives, provided the essential and unchanging link between that distant, unphotographed world of Roberts and the country in which I now lived.

Reading Roberts’ biography, one learns that the world he visited was violent: crossing the snows of the Chouf mountains, he was told that there were gunmen on the road to Baalbek — just as there are today. But this picture hung there on my wall with the depth and serenity of a new world. And if I could enjoy the dream, how much easier for those who were born in Israel or Lebanon or Palestine — or for those who wished to live in the land that was Palestine — to believe in it.

Certainly, the Palestinian Arabs can reflect that when Roberts drew Jerusalem, the Jewish population of the land can have numbered scarcely 10 per cent of the total. There had always been a continued physical Jewish presence there over the centuries; it was for the Jews too an ancient homeland. But eight years before Roberts sat on that hilltop above the city, there were only 24,000 Jews living in Palestine.1 Browse through the second-hand bookshops of Beirut or Jerusalem, however, and the ghosts begin to appear. In 1835, for example, just five years after Roberts had sketched the recumbent city of Jerusalem, we find the French writer Alphonse de Lamartine returning from a visit there to recommend to his readers in VOYAGE TO THE ORIENT  that since Palestine did not really constitute a country, it presented remarkable opportunities for imperial or colonial projects.

Within 60 years, the nineteenth-century fascination with the Middle East begins to lose its romantic edge, even for the most mundane travellers. In a broken-backed 1892 edition of John Murray’s HANDBOOK FOR TRAVELLERS IN SYRIA AND PALESTINE  which I bought in an antiquarian bookshop in west Beirut, a volume with a faded title in gold on its pale red cover, I discovered an item entitled ‘Muslim Arabs’. These people are, we are told, ‘proud, fanatical and illiterate ... generally noble in bearing, polite in address, and profuse in hospitality; but they are regardless of truth, dishonest in their dealings and secretly immoral in their conduct.’ The Jews, on the other hand, were in the guidebook’s opinion ‘the most interesting people in the land ... The Jews of Palestine are foreigners. They have come from every country on earth ... of late years there has been a remarkable influx of Jews into Palestine, but the Turkish government are striving to hinder their settlement by every means in their power.’

These were the authentic reactions of an imperial Britain to a land which covered its transit routes to the Indian empire. Britain encouraged the growth of Zionism in Palestine in the early years of the First World War because she wanted American Jews to ally their country in the war against Turkey. Since the Tsar was already an ally against German, it was politically inconvenient to demand an end to anti-semitism in Russia. The idea of settling Jews in Palestine, the British Foreign Office cabled two of its ambassadors in 1916, ‘might be made far more attractive to the majority of Jews if it held out to them the prospect that when in course of time the Jewish colonists in Palestine grew strong enough to cope with the Arab population they may be allowed to take the management of the internal affairs of Palestine ... into their own hands ... Our sole object is to find an arrangement which would be so attractive to the majority of Jews as to enable us to strike a bargain for Jewish support.’2

This is cold-blooded business indeed, just as was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that gave Britain’s support to a Jewish homeland providing that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. The equally earnest Anglo-French Declaration of 1918 promising the Arabs of former Ottoman colonies their independence if they supported the Allies against the Turks fell into much the same category, although it was not a promise that was intended to be kept. As Balfour himself said the following year, ‘in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.’ So far as Balfour was concerned, Zionism was ‘of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land [of Palestine]3 The slaughter on the Somme and at Passchendaele had helped to bring about these conflicting pledges, just as a far more terrible massacre would in the second great European war virtually guarantee the creation of the Jewish state in Palestine. Against these historical profanities, the descendants of those colourfully dressed figures in Roberts’ lithographs stood no hope.

The British themselves began their descent of the bloody staircase the moment Balfour blotted his signature in 1917. As Winston Churchill was to write on a different occasion, ‘at first the steps were wide and shallow, covered with a carpet, but in the end the very stones crumbled under their feet.’ One of the men who had to walk down this precarious companion-way was Malcom MacDonald, the British dominions secretary in 1938, still vainly attempting to reconcile the desperate promises of the First World War before the outbreak of the Second, trying to preserve order in the British mandate of Palestine by restricting Jewish immigration.

Forty years later, I sat in the drawing-room of his home at Sevenoaks in Kent, watching him shake his head vigorously from side to side as he contemplated the ruins of his own efforts to resolve the Palestine problem. The ghosts were more substantial now. Churchill, a strong Zionist supporter, had fiercely condemned MacDonald in the Commons in 1938 and continued his verbal assault afterwards in the Division Lobby of the House of Commons. ‘Churchill accused me of being pro-Arab,’ MacDonald said. ‘He said that Arabs were savages and that they ate nothing but camel dung.’ But the British could avoid turning such disputes into personal grievances with a generosity not available to those who would ultimately be their victims. ‘I could see that it was no good trying to persuade him [Churchill] to change his mind,’ MacDonald said, ‘So I suddenly told him that I wished I had a son. He asked me why and I said I was reading a book called My Early Life by Winston Churchill and that I would want any son of mine to live that life. At this point, tears appeared in Churchill’s eyes and he put his arms around me, saying “Malcolm, Malcom.’” MacDonald sat there in his deep armchair, savouring this story, an old man contemplating lost opportunities. He was to die four years later. He fussed for a while over a large teapot, pouring both of us outsize cups of tea. He put down the pot, stared at the floor for a few seconds and then looked up glowering, pointed his finger at me in a way that was frightening because it was so sudden. ‘But you are living now in Beirut,’ he said, ‘because I failed.’

How could he have succeeded? More ghosts, more photographs intervene. The Yad Vashem memorial on the hills west of Jerusalem is supposed to commemorate the Holocaust. That word ‘supposed’ may anger Jewish readers, but Yad Vashem is not so much a memorial as a political statement. Its documents, its photographs, dictate its theme: that the Holocaust produced the state of Israel and that anyone who opposed the creation of that state is on the level of the Nazis. Thus in the same building as the photographs of SS officers selecting the Jews on the ramps of Birkenau are news pictures of British paratroopers ordering the concentration camp survivors away from postwar Palestine. The British, it says in effect, were like the Nazis; they too were war criminals. When I first visited Yad Vashem in 1978, I found it a place of unanswerable accusation. When I went there in 1987, after my journey to Auschwitz, it seemed somehow facile, an instrument of propaganda that used the horror of what happened in Auschwitz and Treblinka and all the other camps to justify not just the existence of Israel but all that Israel had done since.

It is also a place of accusation against the Arabs of Palestine. For there are pictures at Yad Vashem of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem being greeted in Nazi Germany by Heinrich Himmler. The photographs are perfectly clear. Here we can see Sheikh Haj Amin al-Husseini shaking hands with the leader of the SS, there he proudly inspects a volunteer Muslim contingent of the Wehrmacht. On the wall are his words — an accurate translation — exhorting the German government to prevent the Jews of Europe going to Palestine. The inference is clear: the Muslim religious leader of the Palestinian Arabs is also a war criminal. So why should not his political successors be war criminals? If the Arab Palestinians who saw in the Nazis some hope of preventing Jewish immigration into Palestine were on the same level as the SS, were not those Palestinians who oppose Israel today equally guilty?

The civil war in Palestine that followed the end of hostilities in Europe inevitably embraced the tired holders of the imperial mandate. From the desert of political opposition at Westminster, the old Zionist Churchill contemplated the murder of British troops by Jewish gunmen and pronounced Palestine a ‘hell-disaster’. It was far worse for the Arabs whose homes lay in that part of Palestine in which the United Nations had decided to locate the new state of Israel. Those whom Balfour had described as ‘the existing non-Jewish communities of Palestine’ were about to undergo their first catastrophe.

The Arab armies that invaded the new Israel were driven out, together with between 500,000 and 700,000 Arab Palestinians whose homes had been in that part of Palestine that was now Israel or in those areas of Arab Palestine that the Israelis captured. For decades after their War of Independence, the Israelis claimed that most of the Arab Palestinians had left of their own free will after-being urged by Arab radio stations to leave their homes and take sanctuary in neighbouring states until the Arab armies had conquered the upstart new Israeli nation. Israeli scholars now agree that these radio appeals were never broadcast and that the allegations were fraudulent. The Palestinian Arabs left their homes because they were frightened, often because they had heard stories — accounts which were perfectly true — of the massacre of Arab civilians by Jewish gangs.

The result was inevitable. While the Jews of Israel exulted in their renaissance, the Arabs of Palestine left in despair. From the camps of Europe, those who had avoided the execution pits and the gas chambers had at last reached the Promised Land about which their cantors had sung at Auschwitz. Here, for example, is how the American journalist I. F. Stone describes the last hours of his voyage to Haifa, aboard a Turkish refugee ship called the Akbel, a listing hulk carrying hundreds of concentration camp survivors on their journey to Palestine. The vessel approached the coastline at dawn, somewhere to the north of Mount Carmel.

Shortly before dawn I slept for a while on top of the wheelhouse. I woke to see the dim outlines of a mountain towards the southeast.

As the light increased and the sun rose, a cry ran over the ship.

‘It’s Eretz Israel.’

We saw Mount Carmel ahead of us and the town of Haifa sleeping in the morning sun below us ... The refugees cheered and began to sing Hatikvah, the Jewish national anthem ... People jumped for joy, kissed and hugged each other on the deck.4

And here is the militant Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani recalling an Arab family’s departure from that same country just a few months later:

At Al-Nakura, our truck parked, along with numerous other ones. The men began to hand in their weapons to their officers, stationed there for that specific purpose. When our turn came, I could see the rifles and guns lying on the table and the long queue of lorries, leaving the land of oranges far behind and spreading out over the winding roads of Lebanon. Then I began to weep, howling with tears. As for your mother, she eyed the oranges silently.5

The feelings of joy and despair in these two passages are almost equally balanced, and the Jewish cry of delight on seeing the shore-line of Palestine in the first and the image of Arab guns and hopelessness on leaving Palestine in the second are even more relevant now than they were then. The idea that Israel is the final and true refuge of all Jews — ‘the first and last line of defence of the Jewish people’, as Szymon Datner called it — is as credible to Israelis today as it was in 1948. And amid the hovels of Sabra and Chatila in Beirut, in Ein Helweh, in the Nahr el-Bared camp in Tripoli, in Bourj el-Shemali in Tyre or in Rashidiyeh further south, the guns and the bitterness and tears that Kanafani witnessed have congealed in hatred.

Henceforth, the many thousands of Arabs who fled — like the few thousand who stayed and like the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the West Bank that would shortly be annexed by Jordan — would call themselves Palestinians. The Jews of Palestine were now Israelis. And from the ‘land of oranges’, the new exiles arrived in the West Bank and in Lebanon and in the Kingdom of Transjordan with an identity — as ‘Palestinians’ — that applied to a country that no longer existed, that indeed never did exist as an independent nation. This irony was only accentuated by the refugees’ initial belief that their exile was to be brief, a few days perhaps, at most a month, after which — in the manner of other civilians who had abandoned their homes in the midst of battle — they would return to their houses and fields to resume the life which had been interrupted by war.

It was for this reason that many of them carefully locked their front doors when they left their homes. Those who had time also diligently collected their most important legal documents — the deeds of ownership to property, the maps of their orange groves and fields, their tax returns and their identity papers going back to Ottoman times — and packed them into bags and tins along with family heirlooms and jewellery and their front door keys. With luck, their homes would not be burgled and any disputes that might subsequently arise over their property would be swiftly resolved on production of those impressive-looking deeds, some of them so old that they bore the colophon of the Sublime Porte.

By one of the more subtle cruelties of Middle East history, the papers and the keys were to prove the most symbolic and most worthless of possessions to the Palestinians. They acquired a significance that grew ever more painful as weeks and then months away from home turned into years. Younger Palestinians — Palestinians who were born in Lebanon, for example — can remember how their parents angrily threw the keys away in the early 1950s, how the documents that were guarded with such care in the initial days of exile were mislaid or destroyed as their true meaning became clear; because they proved ownership of a world that had disappeared. For the keys — often made of thick grey iron, sometimes with decorated handles — were in a sense a promise of return, a promise that history inevitable broke. The new owners of those homes forbade any return and then changed the locks.

Yet among the half million Palestinians now living in Lebanon, many stubbornly went on cherishing these keys and their titles of ownership in Palestine. When a Palestinian political identity began to emerge after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war — when the West Bank and Gaza Strip were occupied by the Israeli army — the promise contained in these mundane implements and pieces of paper was somehow renewed. Reminders of humiliation once again became priceless possessions, as emotionally valuable as they had once been legally essential. In Lebanon, where the Palestinian war against Israel was focused once the PLO’s guerilla movement was evicted from Jordan in 1970, they were squirrelled away beneath floors or carpets, sometimes stored in rusting biscuit tins, broken suitcases and ancient trunks, often the way containers in which the refugees carried their most valuable belongings from Palestine in 1948.

Each document is signed by a British mandate official and gives in detail the figures of sale and settlement in the name of the Palestinian who inherited or bought the land. Some of the papers are now torn and others have been heavily creased because they have been re-read and re-folded so many times over the past 41 years. But each of them, surmounted by the royal coat of arms and the monogram of King George VI, carries the authority of the British Crown. Laid across a map of Israel, these documents form a patchwork of disputed ownership, a matrix of lands from northern Galilee to Ashqelon for which there are now in existence two perfectly legal deeds: one, in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or Beersheba, proving irrefutably that the land is now owned by an Israeli, the other — in Beirut or Amman — showing that the rightful owner is a Palestinian Arab. Placed next to each other, the documents are both a territorial and a political contradiction; one is proof of the existence of Israel, the other carries with it the dream of Palestine.

The first time I ever saw one of the keys was in the Chatila camp in Beirut in 1977. I had been interviewing a family — four young brothers, two sisters, their parents, the children’s paternal grandmother — about their lives in a city that was now dominated by the Syrian army. Were they watched by the Syrian intelligence service? Probably. Had any of the family been arrested? Perhaps. Did Yassir Arafat truly represent them? Of course. And then — because the deepest questions curiously acquire the least importance in such interviews — did they ever really think they would return to ‘Palestine’? At this, the grandmother stood up and shuffled into a little hut-like concrete alcove, her bedroom, and emerged carrying something in a handkerchief. ‘It is from our home in Haifa,’ she said, unwrapping the cloth. And there was her key, its gun-metal grey shaft rusted brown but the handle still gleaming. How many families kept these keys? They did not know. Only the grandmother was old enough to have lived in Palestine. Her son and his family regarded the instrument as the key to ‘their’ home, just as they regarded Haifa as ‘their’ town although they had never been there.

Over the following three years, I was to see the keys again and, more often, the deeds of ownership to lost land. In many cases, they were kept in a container with ageing brown British Palestinian passports, the last used page of which registered their owner’s final departure into exile. Before the fighting started in 1948, some Palestinians had even arranged to take a holiday in case of hostilities and had called at the Lebanese consulate in Palestine to pick up a visa for Beirut. An agreeable sort of departure, a legal exit to which no legal re-entry was ever to be forthcoming. But if it was so easy for me to see this evidence and to talk to those who had substantial proof of their ownership of homes in mandate Palestine, surely it would be no more difficult to go to Israel, find those same homes and — the idea had a special excitement about it — to knock on those same front doors. Who would open them?

What I did not realise then — but what I would discover the moment I embarked on my journey to those front doors — was that I had touched upon the essence of the Arab-Israeli war; that while the existence of the Palestinians and their demand for a nation lay at the heart of the Middle East crisis, it was the contradiction inherent in the claims to ownership of the land of Palestine — the ‘homeland’ of the Jews in Balfour’s declaration — which generated the anger and fear of both Palestinians and Israelis. The evidence of history, not to mention the physical evidence of those land deeds, suggested a subject of legitimate journalistic inquiry: who legally as well as morally had the right to ownership of the property? To the Palestinians, the question appeared naive, almost insulting. In their eyes, they were not refugees but legal inhabitants of Palestine who were illegally exiled. Their homes had belonged to them, had been taken away from them and were now in the hands of others. Merely to ask the question was to imply that the justice of their cause was in doubt. To the Israelis, however, and to their supporters in the Jewish diaspora, the same question struck at the very morality of Zionism. To knock on those front doors, it transpired, was to cast doubt upon the very legitimacy of the state of Israel.

It mattered not that after weeks of interviews with 35 Palestinian families in Lebanon, I chose to write about the experiences only of those who had no immediate connection with the Palestinian guerrilla movement. It proved of no consequence that I then chose only those four families who still possessed their original Palestine passports, complete land deeds and mandate tax returns. The fact that three of these families had been moderately wealthy in Palestine and had managed to acquire the same social status in their exile — that they behaved and looked like millions of middle-class couples in Europe, or indeed in Israel — only compounded my error. I set off from Beirut for Jerusalem in the late autumn of 1980; and the moment I entered Rafi Horowitz’s office in Jerusalem, I realised that I had set myself no easy assignment. Horowitz was an Israeli government spokesman, a middle-aged man with an angry, almost bitter way of explaining what happened to the Arabs of the old Palestine mandate. Every few minutes, he would break off to apologise for his own cynicism. ‘You’ve got to realise that the state of Palestine never existed,’ he said. ‘The Arabs went to war with us in 1948 to destroy our Jewish state. Please excuse us for winning.’

Outside, in the rainy winter evening, the rush-hour traffic still clogged Jaffa Road. It had taken almost half an hour to reach his office along streets jammed with tourist coaches, the Americans inside staring through the windows at the neon Tel Aviv highway sign that glowed through the drizzle. The advertisement hoardings, the posters on the buses, the names above the shops — all were in Hebrew. A pretty Israeli girl had been selling magazines in the little paper-shop on the corner. ‘That’ll be two dollars,’ she said. ‘Have a nice day.’ She sounded like a clerk at a Manhattan bookstore. Could this really once have been Palestine?

It is a question that immediately caused irritation in the office of Israel’s official spokesman. Ask just who legally owns the land in Israel — who owns the deeds to the houses and orchards and blocks of property parcelled out under the British mandate — and the irritation turns to open annoyance. Horowitz left the room for a moment and returned with a slim red volume entitled Land Ownership in Palestine 1880-1948. It was written by Moshe Aumann of the Israel Academic Committee on the Middle East and its 24 pages are sprinkled with quotations stretching back a hundred years — from Mark Twain and Lamartine to Lord Milner and the 1937 Palestine Royal Commission — all of which assert that Palestine was a land of brigandage, destitution and desert before the mass immigration of Jews in the late 1930s.

Aumann, for example, quoted Mark Twain’s account of his visit to the Holy Land in 1867 in which the American writer spoke of ‘desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given over wholly to weeds — a silent mournful expanse ... We never saw a human being on the whole route.’ Twain is quoted as recording that ‘one may ride ten miles, hereabouts, and not see ten human beings’ and that ‘the hills are barren ... the valleys are unsightly deserts ... it is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land ... Palestine is desolate and unlovely.’ The quotations were accurate but one sensed within Aumann’s text an underlying idea: not just that Palestine was empty of people — which it assuredly was not — but that perhaps those people who did live there somehow did not deserve to do so; that they were too slovenly to use modern irrigation methods or to plant trees or to build brick houses. That Palestinian Arabs did cultivate the land in the nineteenth century — as a glance at Roberts’ lithographs clearly proves — went unnoticed by Aumann, who concluded his thesis by stating that the contention that 95 per cent of the land of the state of Israel had belonged to Arabs ‘has absolutely no foundation in fact.6

To Horowitz, the Palestinians were now refugees, pure and simple. ‘When the entity of the mandate ended,’ he said, ‘two other states — Jews and Arab — were to have come into existence but the Arab state did not. It was annexed by Jordan. Of course, Arabs owned land here legally in what is now Israel. There are Arabs who owned land and can prove it without any doubt. But these people are now citizens of Arab states that are at war with Israel and they cannot claim possession of this land. As a result of losing the war in 1948 — excuse us for winning — the Arabs became partly a community of refugees. That is part of the Middle East problem.’

There was a pause in Horowitz’s peroration. Then he leant forward across his desk. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘you people have a habit sometimes of coming here to Israel with some specific details and thinking that from them you can deduce some universal truth. Forgive me for being a little cynical of that.’ There was in reality no need for his self-proclaimed cynicism. Up in Lebanon, where so many of the 1948 Palestinian refugees are concentrated, there is sometimes precious little detail to be had about the land they once owned.

Even memories have been sealed up. One elderly Palestinian in Beirut wanted to draw a map of his olive grove for me and spent ten minutes sketching and re-sketching the roads south of Jaffa. But after a while, the roads on his map began to criss-cross each other in a crazy fashion and it became clear that he had forgotten the geography of his land. ‘I am very sorry,’ he said, ‘but you must understand it has been a very long time ...’ There is indeed an opaque quality to the memories that Palestinians like to tell of Palestine. Many now recall how happily Jews and Arabs lived together before 1948, although it is a fact that in some parts of Palestine near civil war existed between the two communities long before that date. Elegiac recollections are buttressed by the Roberts lithographs, pictures which have become part of a deep and dreamlike sleep through which the Palestinians have passed since 1948.

They bear little enough relation to the land that now lies west of Jerusalem. In many places, the Arab villages have disappeared, their names erased from the map. Even the township of Deir Yassin — notorious in Palestinian history as the village in which Jewish gangs massacred 250 Arabs, half of them women and children, in April of 1948 — has vanished. It is now called Givat Shaul and is a mere suburb of Jerusalem, its main street a line of petrol stations, garages and highrise apartment blocks, more like the Edgware Road or Brooklyn than the scene of a mass murder. Only occasionally can you glimpse the old Palestine. Near the Latroun monastery, for example, and along the back road to Ashqelon, you can briefly catch sight of Arab women picking fruit in the dark orchards, their traditional Palestinian dresses of gold and red embroidery glimmering amid the heavy foliage, descendants of the 170,000 Arabs who stayed behind in 1948. Down in the old Arab quarter of Jaffa, the cosy streets of Roberts’ lithographs are all but gone. The Arab houses are little more than shacks separated by acres of devastation where developers have torn down vacated Palestinian homes. While I was searching for some Arab property in the area, I had come across three young Palestinians standing beside a shabby food stall on the waterfront. The three — all were Israeli citizens — were arguing fiercely among themselves about a loan of ten Israeli shekels. One was talking in Arabic. But the other two Palestinians were shouting at each other in Hebrew. After the Palestinian militancy of Lebanon, it was like staring at the wrong side of a mirror: Palestine through the looking glass.

Is this the land to which the Palestinians of the diaspora wish to return? It was not difficult to find the answer in Lebanon. For every Palestinian who expressed doubts about the worth of returning, there were hundreds who would go back to what is now Israel if they had the opportunity to do so, people like David Damiani, a Christian whose family had been in Palestine since the time of the Crusades. Sitting on a thin metal chair above one of west Beirut’s noisiest streets, eyes staring intently through heavy framed spectacles, he described his family tree with careful pride. Boutros Damiani was born in Jerusalem in 1687 and his four sons were consuls there for Britain, France, Holland and Tuscany. The last consul in the Damiani family was Ferdinand, who represented Mexico in 1932. David Damiani has an old photograph of him, a slightly pompous-looking man in a top hat surrounded by some Jerusalem worthies and an Englishman or two.

‘When Napoleon besieged Jaffa,’ Damiani said, ‘my ancestor Anton Damiani interceded on behalf of the Muslim population and protected them from French anger — we have an official certificate from the sharia court to this effect.’ In the early nineteenth century, Lamartine stayed with the Damiani family in Jaffa and mentioned them in Voyage to the Orient, the same book in which he advertised the colonial possibilities of Palestine. David Damiani’s father Jean owned olive groves, extensive properties in Jaffa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and a soap factory which he operated inside the old Turkish serail on the hill above Jaffa not far from St Peter’s church. The Damianis had bought the decrepit domed buildings from the Jaffa municipality and for several decades after the First World War the name of Damiani was proudly displayed in English and Arabic over the vaulted gateway where Turkish pashas Turkish pashas once administered the law.

David Damiani’s memories of the time were those of a schoolboy in a safe land. He lived with his five brothers, sister and parents in an old building near the Cliff Hotel in Jaffa and he still remembered the day in 1935 on which Jean Damiani bought the first family car, a magnificent light green Buick saloon costing 350 Palestinian pounds, equivalent then to the same amount in sterling. Damiani senior maintained a chauffeur to take him round the family olive groves. ‘Before 1936, the harbour at Jaffa was flourishing,’ Damiani recalled. ‘There were always 25 or 30 ships moored off the port waiting to load. It was a prosperous place. Arabs and Jews were happy to live in Palestine. Everything was in abundance — fruit, vegetables and foodstuffs of all kinds. People would have lived happily if it wasn’t for the troubles instigated by the government and the Jewish Agency.’

It was only when he came to 1936 that Damiani’s face grew suddenly cold and his hands, until now resting quietly on his knees, began to move in agitation. ‘I remember the general strike starting in 1936. It started on April 19th, a Sunday; and the next day I didn’t want to go to school. I was fourteen years old. A bus used to take us to school in the Ajami area of Jaffa but there was no school that day and I was pleased. It was an Arab strike but we were in a safe area. It was middle-class.’ Damiani paused here for several seconds. ‘When the Arab revolt came in 1938, the Arab leaders used to impose taxes on well-off people. So like many others, my father went to Beirut to get away. In his absence, the factory was run by honest workers. I was still at school but at home I used to look after the accounts for the soap factory. My father did give money to the Arabs to keep his head.’

With the outbreak of the Second World War, life in Palestine returned to normal — ‘in a day’, according to Damiani — as old enemies temporarily cooperated. When the Allies liberated Lebanon in 1941, David Damiani went to the American University in Beirut to study business administration. It was a gentle enough life and it took only six and a half hours to travel home by taxi from Beirut to Jaffa. The first hint that things were not really changing for the better came in 1945 when, according to Damiani, two Palestinian Jews paid a visit to his father.

‘They were both prominent Jews in the town. One was called Jad Machness and the other’s name I can only remember as Romano. They proposed to my father that he make a list of all our properties in Palestine so that they could buy them. They said he would then have to take his family to Switzerland. My father would not accept the idea. He told them that we were a very ancient family in Palestine and were much respected. He said that our grandfathers fought for the Holy Land and that we must stick to the Holy Land. Then Romano took me to one side — my father was sitting at his desk — and told me that I had a great future in front of me and that people would be prepared to sell property to the Damianis. He brought out a list of thirteen Arab properties that he wanted me to buy and then resell to the Jews. One of the properties comprised five thousand dunums of land owned by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem near Nablus. He told me that if I bought this land at five pounds a dunum, he and his friends would buy it from me at twenty-five a dunum. He told me he also wanted me to buy land from an Arab magistrate called Aziz Daoudi who had an orange grove near Tel Aviv. “You will make two million pounds,” he told me. “Then you can go and live in Switzerland with your family.” I told my father and mother about this and my father said: “Is there anything that you lack? Do you lack clothes, food or a home? Why should we do such a dirty business and stain our name, we who for centuries had an excellent reputation?” I turned Romano down.’

When the United Nations resolved upon the partition of Palestine in 1947, the Damianis were in Jerusalem, buying property near Talesanta in the Jewish part of the city. ‘We thought that if we didn’t like the Arab sector of Jerusalem after partition,’ Damiani said, ‘we would also have property in the Jewish sector. We thought that Jerusalem sooner or later would be an international city. We wanted to put our money in various places so that if one was not safe, the other would be. We did not think of going to live abroad or of buying property outside Palestine. We did not think things would be as bad.’

A year earlier, David Damiani had married Blanche, an 18-year old Nazareth girl, and set up a home of his own in the Arektenje district of Jaffa. He bought a two-storey house at the end of a narrow street just off the Tel Aviv road and furnished it with new tables, chairs and beds. There was a handsome portico outside and four mock Grecian columns at the back of the front hall that gave the house a museum-like effect. There was no street number but in Beirut years later, David Damiani could remember that his postal address had been Post Office Box No. 582. It was to be the only home he ever owned in Palestine.

‘You have to realise,’ he said, ‘that we didn’t think in terms of a Jewish state and an Arab state. We thought the worst that would happen would be a national partition with Jews and Arabs still living in their own homes. But from the beginning of December 1947 until April 1948 there was continuous fighting around Jaffa. In early 1948, people started sending their families outside Jaffa to Nablus, Gaza and Lydda. Some Arabs went to Amman, Egypt, Lebanon or Syria. In Jaffa, life was rendered very difficult. Water pumping by the municipality stopped. The electric wires were cut. The British cooperated with the Jews against the Arabs. Dogs and donkeys were killed and left in the streets to create a health hazard. The city was in chaos and we were afraid that armed men would attack us. I once went to the Ajami police station to ask for protection but the British constable wouldn’t open the door to me.’

Palestinians find it almost impossible to recall their final departure from Palestine without considerable emotion, for it was not only a tragedy for individual families but has become a critical moment in modern Palestinian history. The Damiani family made their decision to leave in the third week of April after snipers in Tel Aviv began shooting into the centre of Jaffa, sending at least one bullet into David Damiani’s home. They left for Beirut by sea on 25 April.

‘My father originally refused to leave Jaffa,’ Damiani said, ‘But the rest of our family insisted because we did not want him to be endangered. We were peaceful people. We did not care very much for politics. We are still not interested in politics. We locked the front door of our home just before lunchtime. We carried only suitcases and clothes and we had a case with our jewellery and the registry deeds to our lands inside. We never thought we would not be able to go back. If we had thought that, we would never have left. We thought we were going for a month or so, until the fighting died down. We took our front door keys with us but we threw them away some years ago. They are worthless now ...’

In Jaffa harbour, the Damianis boarded the Italian passenger cruise ship Argentina, a comfortable vessel which would take the family on the 16-hour journey to Beirut port. Damiani still has the tickets for the journey. ‘When we pulled out of Jaffa, I stood on the stern and looked out over the old city,’ he said. ‘I could see our soap factory in the serail on top of the hill and St Peter’s church next to it. Then I did ask myself if we would see this place again; and when Jaffa started to disappear to our starboard, I remember I said to myself: “If this ship could turn round now, I would return to Jaffa.” We were foolish. It was too late.’

David Damiani said nothing for several seconds after finishing his narrative but he opened up a battered suitcase and produced from it his old pale brown British Palestine passport and opened the document on page six. There, in the top left-hand corner, is an exit visa. ‘Jaffa Port,’ it says. ‘25-4-48’. It still retained the same dark blue colour that it had when it was stamped into the passport by a British policeman 32 years earlier; last exist from Palestine.

David Damiani’s life since 1948 was a mixture of family bereavement, hardship and moderate business success. The family spent the summer of 1948 in the Lebanese hill resort of Aley, living on 7,000 pounds they had taken with them from Palestine. By the standards of other refugees, they were well off. ‘We heard the radio and saw photographs of the damage in the papers,’ Damiani said. ‘We wondered who would take care of our orange groves. After about a month, we realised that a catastrophe had taken place. My father was very sad all the time; he was an old man without home, property or money. He died in 1952, a broken man.’ Damiani and his wife went to Jordan in 1950 while his brothers looked for work in Beirut. In Amman, he worked for UNRWA — the newly established United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees — and started a small soap factory, but the project was not successful. He became a civil servant in Jordan and then part-owner in a Beirut hotel. In 1949, he had become a Jordanian citizen and in 1954 secured some family money that had been locked in Jaffa bank accounts, making him ‘not a rich man, but living’.

Yet he still kept all the family deeds and files. On a clean parchment headed by the British crest were the deeds to his home in Jaffa, bought from his father for 3,493 Palestinian pounds and dated 27 October 1947. He was even able to produce the fragile Turkish deeds to the serail in Jaffa and British documents proving family ownership of orange groves in Yazour on the main Jaffa—Jerusalem road (32 dunums), near Holon (76 dunums) and at Beit Dajan (240 dunums) and to property in Jerusalem, part of which was rented to a British assistant district commissioner.

‘I once had an opportunity to visit Jaffa again,’ Damiani said. ‘My wife went but I refused to go there. I would see my house occupied by other people. I am not allowed to dispose of my property or live in it. If you were not allowed to go back and live in your country, how would you feel? And if you could go back, would you stay in Beirut just because you had a nice home there?’

There is something insulting about the way in which a stranger can visit a place which is forbidden to people with infinitely more interest in such a journey. If Damiani could go to Jaffa, most of his fellow exiles are prevented forever from walking in the streets outside their old houses — or knocking on those front doors. The nearest a Palestinian in Lebanon can go to his former family home in what is now Israel is likely to be the orange orchards south of Tyre or the east bank of the Jordan river. A key or a lifeless deed or a cheap Roberts reproduction, perhaps a family snapshot or a tourist postcard of the 1930s, is the nearest that many Palestinian exiles can move in spirit towards the place they regard as their homeland. Blessed be the foreign correspondent who can fly from Beirut to Athens, therefore, and in the same day pick up an El Al flight from Athens to Tel Aviv and land at Ben Gurion airport and travel — faster even than the old direct taxi route from prewar Beirut — to Jerusalem. Doubly fortunate is the journalist who can within 24 hours leave Beirut and look upon what is left of the world Damiani lost on that April day when the Argentina sailed out of Jaffa harbour for Beirut, carrying his family from Palestine for the last time. It was not difficult to find the ghosts of that world. The Israelis had turned the Damiani soap factory into a municipal museum but you could still see the family’s name in fading Arabic letters on the archway at one end of the building. The wind and rain on the little hill above Jaffa had ripped away at the paint but it was just possible to make out the words ‘David Damiani’ to the left of the broken wooden gate.

The rest of the wall was stained with damp and flaking brown paint; the winters had cut deeply into the fabric of the old serail. The museum had taken over the northern end of the building but the main hall of what had been Damiani’s factory, with its vaulted roof and tunnels, was in semi-derelict condition, leased on occasion to a firm of Iranian-born Jews who dealt in Persian art. The outer windows had been smashed and the cut stone had been severely fissured. Dust lay thickly over the cracked flagstone floor and only when I ascended a dangerous staircase did I find a solitary reminder of the business that helped to make the Damianis one of the richest Arab families in Jaffa. Against a wall was a corroded iron trolley that was once used for carrying oil in the factory. It was perhaps as well that David Damiani had not come back.

The first-floor museum for the Ancient History of Tel Aviv-Jaffa just round the corner was well cared for, although it recorded not the Arab history of Jaffa but the Biblical history of the land; there was an exhibition to illustrate the Israelite Royal Period (930 BC) with references to King David. A large Biblical map of Solomon’s life lay beneath a quotation from the Book of Chronicles chapter 2 verse 16: ‘And we will cut wood out of Lebanon, as much as thou shalt need: and we will bring it to thee in flotes by sea to Joppa; and thou shalt carry it up to Jerusalem.’ The museum staff knew the name of Damiani, although it was not recalled with much enthusiasm. ‘Do I know the history of this building?’ asked the Israeli Jew in the museum curator’s office. He was a cheerful, tubby-faced man, born in Australia and still using the broad, flat accents of the Antipodes. ‘This place used to be the Turkish administrative headquarters in Jaffa. It was one of the most important places in the city. Then much later it was bought by a very rich Arab Christian family called Damiani and they turned this building’ — the man paused in humorous reflection for a moment — ‘into a soap factory. In 1948, this became a Jewish town and we took over the building.’ The whole structure was now owned by the municipality of Jaffa and the museum hoped to extend it galleries into the rest of the building when money was made available.

When I told the museum official that I had met David Damiani, his eyes opened wider with interest. ‘Does he know this is a museum now?’ he asked, and then walked over to a glass-fronted bookcase. He withdrew from it a rare bound second volume of Palestine Illustrated by Francois Schotten, published in Paris in 1929. The Israeli flicked through the pages of photographs, sepia prints of Arab peasants and donkey-drawn carts clattering through the streets of a forgotten Palestine, until his thumb came to rest on a picture of workers inside a cavernous hall. And there, sure enough, was the interior of old Jean Damiani’s soap factory with a row of moustachioed Palestinians piling up bar after bar of soap around the walls. Each man in the picture was staring blankly at the photographer, a bar of soap in each hand as if caught in the act of some doubtful ritual. ‘When you get back to Beirut,’ the Israeli said, ‘you must ask Damiani if he’s got that picture.’

Beneath the hill on which the serail huddles, the great iron gates of Jaffa port still stand next to a row of small stone shops, their Arab architecture belied by the Hebrew names above the windows. David Damiani set off from here with his family in April 1948, and it was not difficult to see how clearly the old factory and the church above the city must have stood out on the horizon as the Argentina slipped past the tide bar and steamed for Beirut.

Finding Damiani’s old home, however, was not quite as easy. The Israelis had turned the old Arab buildings south of the serail into a shopping and restaurant precinct, a tastefully laid out tourist attraction in which the best architectural features have been preserved. But no one there had ever heard of the Arektenje area of Jaffa where the newly married Damiani had bought his home. Nor did the Israelis in the market by the Jaffa clock-tower have any idea where it was. It was only when I entered the Arab quarter, a network of dusty roads and wastelands of rubble interspersed with a few small houses just south of the city, that a Palestinian remembered the name. He directed me to a main road on the edge of Jaffa and to a small lane that ran off it to the north. I followed his directions and down a narrow street came to a cul-de-sac dominated by a large white house with a portico over the front door.

Jews and Arabs lived together in the street, speaking each other’s language with some fluency, and it was an Israeli Jew who first pointed to the white house. An Arab woman, a Palestinian, was peering from the upper balcony. ‘Was this Damiani’s house?’ he shouted up to her in Arabic and she replied, in Hebrew, that it was. A small Palestinian boy led me up some steps to the side of the building and the woman ushered me inside. It was a light, airy room with some rural paintings on the wall and two small clean bedrooms leading off on each side. Very shyly, the woman introduced herself as Georgette Aboud. She and her husband Louis, a garage owner, had bought the upper floor from a Jewish family and were bringing up their four children there. The little boy, Zohair, was sent to make coffee.

Mrs Aboud led me to the balcony from where it was evident that many of the surrounding buildings — like those elsewhere in the Arab quarter — had been devastated, their roofs smashed in and their windows punched out of their frames. ‘The landlords do that,’ she said, and pointed to three small cottages that had been vacated and destroyed within the past 24 hours. ‘Two Arab families and a Jewish family lived there and the moment they moved out, the landlords broke the houses. They want to build on the land.’ Mrs Aboud — she and her husband were both Israeli citizens — seemed resigned to this gradual destruction of the little mixed society around their home. But her family owned only the upper floor of Damiani’s old house. ‘There is an old man living downstairs,’ she said. ‘We do not usually see him but he is a kind man. He is a Jew.’

It was growing dark and a sharp wind was coming in off the Mediterranean, blowing up the dust around the house. But downstairs I rang the bell next to the black steel gates and after a while I heard someone coming to the front door. The gate opened to reveal an old man, slightly stooped and staring quizzically at us. We told him why we had come. ‘If you know the man who owned this house, you had better come inside,’ he said. And so we followed the old man up the stone steps beneath the portico and into the long hall.

At the far end it was possible to see four mock Grecian columns, painted white and glowing in the light of a single bulb. ‘I live here with my two daughters,’ the man said and sat down carefully in an armchair beside the columns. There was a little table between us, piled with books upon which lay an old photograph of a man in British army uniform standing next to a beautiful young Jewish girl. ‘That was my wife,’ the old man said. ‘I was in the British army during the war. I have been here eight and a half years now. I bought this floor of the house from an Arab family. I never knew Mr Damiani.’

The man spoke in short sentences, as if trying to strain out of his monologue all but the most essential facts. There was a long silence and then he said with just a trace of a smile: ‘I am a sculptor, I am an old man and I am a Jew.’ He wanted to talk. His name, he said, was Shlomo Green and he had been a refugee from Romania. He had left his village of Clug on the Romanian-Hungarian border in 1939 and boarded a ship for Palestine just before the outbreak of the Second World War. ‘The British navy caught our ship but we were lucky,’ he said. ‘It was the last ship from which the passengers were permitted to stay legally in Palestine. I spent a year and a half in a kibbutz then joined the English army for five years. I went from Alamein to Tobruk then to Syria. All my family were sent to Auschwitz. Only my mother survived. They made her a slave labourer. She told me my father died in the camp in 1944. I lost about a hundred relatives in Auschwitz.’

Shlomo Green stopped speaking for a moment. It was a natural coda in his story. He joined the Israeli army in 1948, fought at Latroun and in Galilee and joined up again in 1956 and 1967. His wife had died just over a year earlier; one of his daughters was a teacher in Tel Aviv, the other a painter, and Shlomo Green was himself a sculptor of some distinction. He had had 11 exhibitions in Jerusalem and some of his creations lined the walls of his little home, of David Damiani’s home. Shlomo Green was only 62 but he looked much older.

He walked quickly around the room to show off his sculptures and then said: ‘Tell me about Mr Damiani. I know nothing about him.’ So he sat down again and listened to the story of the Damianis, of their life in Jaffa and of how they fled in 1948, how David Damiani stood on the stern of the ship off Jaffa port and wished he could have turned round then and gone back to his home. If human death is a measure of suffering, then David Damiani would surely have agreed that he had suffered less than Shlomo Green.

But the old Jew sat for a long time in silence as the wind and rain in the darkness outside lashed at the windows of Damiani’s old home. Then he looked up quite suddenly with tears in his eyes. ‘I am very moved by what you have told me,’ he said. ‘What can I say? I would like to meet these people. If you can say for me ...’ Here he paused, but he wanted to go on. ‘It is a tragedy of both our people. How can I explain in my poor English? I think the Arabs had the same rights as the Jews and I think it is a tragedy of history that a people who are refugees make new refugees. I have nothing against the Arabs. I am living here with Arab people in peace and I have some friends among them. They are nice people. They were the same as us. I don’t know that we Jews did this tragedy — but it happened. I want only one thing: peace for the new generation and progress. How can I say more than this? I feel at home here.’

In Beirut, I told Damiani of what Shlomo Green had said, of the warm old house with the mock Grecian pillars still standing in the front hall. I repeated the details of how so many of Green’s family had been murdered at Auschwitz. Damiani showed no bitterness. ‘I wish him happiness,’ he said. ‘Can you tell him that? Can you tell him please that I wish him happiness?’

It would, however, be an historical untruth to suggest that all Palestinians felt as generously as Damiani towards those who now own the lands that belonged to them. Kanaan Abu Khadra was a case in point, a journalist in mandate Palestine — by all accounts a good one in a crusading and courageous if rather partisan sort of way — who founded and edited a newspaper called Al Shaab. In 1946, in the top front page article in the very first edition of his newspaper, whose title in Arabic means ‘The People’, he urged Arabs to struggle harder to maintain their land in Arab ownership in Palestine. The page carried a map covered in dark smudges. ‘These shaded land areas have become the property of the Jews,’ the caption said. ‘This will become the national homeland of the Jews.’ It was a prophetic piece of journalism.

Leafing through bound volumes of those old editions in Beirut, Abu Khadra could still experience the odd moment of journalistic triumph as old newspapermen tend to do, long after their papers have died. ‘We had a great paper,’ he said. ‘By 1948, we had a circulation of 12,000 — the highest in Palestine. I bought a second-hand English flatbed press and issued shares. We were less than self-supporting but we were an independent, neutral paper. We were independent of the Husseinis and the Nashishibis, the big Arab families. It was a national paper. The Jews hated it but we were not against the Jews.’

Abu Khadra’s heavily boned face and strong rectangular glasses gave him a slightly fearsome appearance. He was also the kind of editor who would ask you to check the spelling of a place name or the age of a politician (he was born in 1920). He was as exacting in his own business affairs. The old blue suitcase which he carried out of Palestine in 1948 was still stuffed with his files and documents, all neatly labelled and dated — land deeds, deeds of sale, taxes, rents and maps of allotments — together with correspondence with the United Nations about the ownership of his family’s land. There was a lot of it. Indeed, the Abu Khadras were one of the largest families in Palestine, their orchards and property scattered between Jaffa, Jerusalem and Gaza. There were two Abu Khadra Streets in Jaffa and there still is an Abu Khadra Mosque in Gaza. The family jointly owned 12,000 dunums of agricultural land and about 20 properties in Jaffa. One of Abu Khadra’s first memories — and one that he went back to again and again — was of walking with his brothers Rabah and Anwar through his father’s olive grove in Jaffa to visit the house of his uncles. The family grew oranges, corn, barley and sugar cane.

‘I used to go there every day when I was a boy. My uncles Fawzi and Tawfiq lived in two houses joined together, one of which had been built by my grandfather Ismail. It had three big windows with iron doors and white walls and you used to go into the house up a flight of steps because there were shops underneath. My cousin Ibrahim lived in a two-storey house a few hundred metres away, just beyond the Tel Aviv-Jaffa port railway line. He had Jewish tenants in the house.’ In 1937, Abu Khadra went to study science in Beirut and attended the American University — as David Damiani was to do four years later — but he did not like the course and returned to Jaffa, eventually settling for a degree in journalism at the American University in Cairo.

He started Al Shaab in 1946, with four full-time staff in Jaffa. He was at his desk at the paper when the UN passed its resolution to partition Palestine. He kept working when the war started between the Arabs and the Jews but his last edition came suddenly on 9 March 1948. ‘We wanted to print a banner headline above the capture of a Jewish settlement by Lebanese soldiers,’ he recalled. ‘The British mandate censor, a Jewish man called Arieh Siev — a nice fellow although we never saw eye-to-eye — refused to let us print. On the next day, the district commissioner suspended our paper. My father and mother had died some years before and I lived with my brother Rabah, my sister Rabiha, my wife Sulafa and my baby son. It was originally my father’s home; there was a big hall inside the entrance which was also used as a dining-room. Most of the house was white. My father had been a great admirer of Kemal Ataturk — he fought in the Turkish army against the British in Gaza — and Ataturk’s picture hung in the living-room.

‘About April 15th, my house was mortared. It was in the middle of Jaffa. Two shells hit the roof and one exploded in the corridor during the night. By five in the morning, it was impossible to stay there. We had a car, an English Rover, so we drove to the southern part of the city. We locked the house up but we thought we were going back. People say that the Arabs were told to leave their homes by Arab countries. But in Jaffa it was panic. The city was being destroyed. Some people left babies behind. We were being murdered.’ The shelling, according to Abu Khadra, came from Tel Aviv. The family stayed with relatives for ten days, then drove to Ramleh where Abu Khadra’s second brother Anwar lived. Abu Khadra remembered stopping at a gas station and finding three bullet holes in his car from snipers. Then he went on to Gaza. By this time, the Egyptian army had entered southern Palestine but Abu Khadra was to watch them, only a few days later, retreating along the beach towards Sinai. The family Rover also became bogged down on the beach road and his brother Anwar suffered a heart attack after spending a night on the open beach. He died of a second attack a few months later.

For days, the Abu Khadras lived in a house in Gaza under nightly air attack. ‘We could not move further,’ he said. ‘We could not move back home and we had reached the end of Palestine.’ Abu Khadra became a refugee camp official for the UN in Gaza, leaving in 1951 to become an UNRWA officer in Lebanon. He was later to become owner of a Beirut company that dubbed educational films and translated technical books into Arabic. Yet he took with him to Beirut his old suitcase of deeds and taxes, proof that the Abu Khadras owned their land in Palestine. The documents amounted to a small archive; they even included his Palestine mandate press cards, entitling him ‘to pass freely anywhere in Palestine, including areas in which a curfew has been imposed’. There were 1948 tax receipts from the Municipal Corporation of Jaffa and rental agreements for the lease of land to the Royal Air Force. There were deeds for the family home in Jaffa, in the name of his father and dated 1 August 1930, and a map of the Abu Khadras’ mortgaged orange orchards at Barqa around the Wadi al Gharbi on the road from Jaffa to Ashqelon.

‘The groves were just above the sea,’ he said. ‘They were magnificent oranges, the best in Palestine. These were the original Jaffa oranges; they were grown in Palestine long before the Israelis came. From my orchard, I could see the steam trains running down the coast to Gaza. I used to hear the locomotive’s whistle.’ Abu Khadra showed little physical emotion when he talked about the past, but his words were carefully chosen and sometimes very angry. ‘It is miserable for us to look back on these things. The West says the Palestinians are better off now and this could be true in some cases. But it is not the point. Palestine is our home. My sister-in-law was allowed to visit Palestine a few years ago. She brought me some oranges from my orchard but I couldn’t eat them. I threw them away. I don’t realise even now that we will not go back. My kids want to go for a visit and my daughter wants a picture of our home ... I was asked if I wanted to go. But I could not stand the humiliation of crossing the Allenby Bridge — at my age, being stripped and searched by a Zionist, Jew, a Pole, a Russian or a Romanian who is living in my country, in my home, asking me questions and searching me. And it is my country. I think about my land every day. I remember every stone in my house and every tree in my orchards. I am not willing to sign any paper that would release that land to anybody.’

Abu Khadra’s faith in legal niceties was only a gesture. He knows what has happened to his land. The trains still run along the coastline south of Jaffa where the family’s old orange groves stand. It is no longer a steam locomotive but a fast diesel pulling a trail of red, white and blue carriages, an express that rumbles down to Ashqelon between the orchards and the sea. I could see it from where Abu Khadra used to stand at the edge of his fields in Barqa, although few people knew where Barqa was. ‘Was’ is the correct word; for Barqa, like hundreds of Palestinian Arab villages, disappeared after 1948.

The Israeli Jews in the little kibbutz a mile or so away had never heard of it, but an old Arab woman in a long dark dress picking fruit pointed up a hill when she heard the name and shrugged her shoulders. The orchards, now part of a large farming combine, stretched across a little hill. The Wadi El Gharbi — mentioned in Abu Khadra’s land maps — elicited a faint response in the woman. It is buried today, like the village beneath the trees, their branches heavy with fruit.

The Abu Khadra inheritance in Jaffa was almost equally hard to find. The house which Kanaan Abu Khadra fled in April 1948 had lain in semi-derelict condition for years, its windows partly boarded up. The olive grove through which he used to walk as a boy was submerged beneath a main road and a cluster of lean-to engineering sheds even before 1948. But I found the home which his cousin Ibrahim owned next to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa port railway line. The railway track had been torn up years earlier — a cutting lined with ivy-covered telegraph poles marked it now — but the house, in need of a few coats of paint, was just next to the old railway bridge. One of Ibrahim’s former Jewish tenants still lived on the second floor.

David, a small, thin, smiling man with a long, sensitive features, welcomed me to his little home. He and his wife were Turkish-born Jews who came to Palestine before the Second World War. They had never left their home, even when the Arab-Jewish front line ran behind the house in 1948. He well remembered Ibrahim Abu Khadra. ‘He was a nice enough man,’ David said. ‘But we saw little of him in 1948. This house was part of the Jewish front line and although Mr Abu Khadra never knew it, we had guns and ammunition stored downstairs. Menachem Begin used to come here during the 1948 battles to this house, and he came up to see us three or four times during the fighting to have coffee and biscuits with us. He was a good man, an agreeable man.’

The war had left its mark, too, on the home of the two uncles whom Abu Khadra so often recalled visiting. Abu Khadra Street had now become Gerulot Street, but the white-stone house was still there, with its three fine, tall windows of delicate iron tracery. The embossed iron doors were rusting and one of them had fallen off its hinges. On the south wall, there were some faint shrapnel marks; several deep bullet holes could be seen beside a window. The ground floor consisted of a key-cutter’s stall and some small shops, just as it did when Abu Khadra knew it. Up the flight of steps was a very old door, covered in flaking green paint.

I knocked on it but it was so dilapidated that I could see right through the door frame and into a large room where a man was sitting in a kitchen chair, dressed in trousers and vest. He was suspicious but courteous. ‘Yes, this was Abu Khadra’s house,’ he said. ‘It is not his house now.’ He was joined at the door by his wife and daughter. He wanted no publicity and he did not want to talk about himself. ‘I own this house now,’ he said. So I left, and as I walked back to my car, the man watched me from the little steel balcony upon which Kanaan Abu Khadra had played as a boy. His hands were thrust deep in his pockets, his shoulders slightly hunched in the breeze, a man looking after his home.

At least in Jaffa there had been doors to knock upon. The same cannot be said for many thousands of Palestinian houses in what is now Israel. Fatima Zamzam, for example, knew just what had happened to her home and lands. But from her two-room concrete refugee shack, she could now just see Palestine. She still called it that; and indeed, beyond the line of evergreen trees beside the main road south of the Lebanese city of Tyre, I could see above the coastline a faint, thin grey line of hills inside Galilee on the other side of the Israeli frontier. Mrs Zamzam had left her home on the other side of those hills more than three decades earlier and she had never been back.

She lived in the Palestinian camp at Rashidiyeh, a wretched four square miles of breeze-block huts and cabins relieved only by the occasional tree, a straggling plant hanging from a poorly made brick wall and an open sewer that snaked uneasily down the centre of the mud roads. Mrs Zamzam had a tiny garden; a few feet of clay with a stunted flowering cherry tree that shaded the sandbagged air-raid shelter. For Rashidiyeh was coming under shellfire or Israeli air attack almost every day.

She was at first sight a cheerful figure, a plump woman of 65 who wore a brightly patterned dress and whose curly hair showed around the front of her white scarf. She had a heavily lined face, a prominent, almost hawk-like nose, but she had kindly eyes and every so often she would display a vein of sharp humour that suggested her family had to keep their shoes clean when they approached her little parlour. When she told me how she came to be a refugee, she paused reflectively before each statement, conscious that as a foreigner I might not know the history of Palestine before 1948.

‘I come from a village called Um Al-Farajh,’ she said. ‘It was in northern Galilee. My family had three houses in the village. We used to make olive oil to sell to the other villages around. We grew wheat and made flour. My husband was Mustafa Zamzam and we had three orchards — two with olives and one with citrus. We even grew grapes on the side of our houses. We had all kinds of fruit — we had everything. In 1944, we had a new house built just outside the village for my husband and myself. Mustafa got Arab engineers up from Tel Aviv to build it and it cost about 700 Palestinian pounds. Some English tourists even came to take pictures of our home. It was a stone house — white stone — with four rooms upstairs and four rooms downstairs. It was built in an orchard opposite a place where we used to have our old house. It was known in the village as the Island Area. We had seven children — five boys and two girls.’

Mrs Zamzam spoke slowly, a village woman speaking to a stranger, and without warning she stood up and went to her other room, returning a minute or so later with a rusting tin. I could still read the name of the English toffee manufacturer on the lid which she prised off with a knife. From inside, she took a piece of pale mauve, floppy parchment. It was the 1915 Turkish deed to her family land, heavily stained by damp, the corners torn but the wording and the ornate flowered crest still clearly visible. A Turkish stamp was still affixed to the bottom left-hand corner. ‘This shows that my family owned the land,’ she said with a simplicity that might have left even a lawyer silent. Then she took a cleaner but still crumpled paper from the tin. Government of Palestine Certificate of Registration, it said at the top. ‘Land Registry Office of Gelo, Sub-District: Acre. Village: Um Al-Farajh. No. of Land 18151. No. of Doc 52. Block: Al-Habara Kanel. 19 dunums ...’ The date is 22 October 1947. The document was in the name of Mustafa Ibn Assaad Shihada Zamzam, Mrs Zamzam’s husband, and when she said that I recognised this type of British mandate deed Mrs. Zamzam’s face lit up as if a great discovery had been made. Mr Zamzam was dead but his widow regarded the land — not without reason under Islamic law — as rightfully hers.

She said that it never occurred to her or her husband that her village would be harmed or its people endangered. ‘We used to visit Jewish people,’ she said. ‘There was never any problem. We took our sick people to a Jewish doctor. There was a Doctor Kayewe and a Doctor Natani and there was also a lady doctor called Miriam. They were good to us. Sometimes we took our goods to sell in Jewish villages. But one day in 1948, Jewish gangs stopped a truck from our village. They ambushed the truck and killed the driver. Jewish women then shot all the men on board the truck. This happened on the road between Um Al-Farajh and Acre, near the Al-Insherah orchard opposite Nahariya. So no one went to Acre any more.’

According to Mrs Zamzam, Jews then began to shell her village. ‘We were surrounded. Other Arabs told us we were surrounded and should move to another village. We tried to use the date palm trees to close the roads — we had only eight English .303 rifles in Um Al-Farajh. The Jewish gangs were just outside. I met a brother-in-law who told me to leave but I stayed another night in our new house just outside the village. The men stayed behind but we left next day. I held my son Hassan who was 40 days old and the small children carried the other babies. We took the keys to the house with us — we lost them here in Rashidiyeh.’

Mrs Zamzam listed the villages through which she travelled — Al Naher, Al Kabil, Al Nahalie, Tashiha and Al Dear — and then she fell into a kind of swoon, wailing as if she was mourning a husband or son and holding her hands to her face. The young Palestinian who had gathered in the room to hear her story sat quietly, knowing that she would finish her grief and that this was a ritual even if it was a deeply felt one. Mrs Zamzam looked up to the wall of the room where there hung a framed portrait of a young man and woman. The girl was dark-haired with an attractive but serious face; the man was painfully innocent, his handlebar mustache and sleeked-down hair with its sharp parting at odds with his handsome features. It was a photograph of Mrs Zamzam and her husband taken in 1939, six years after their wedding.

Outside Um Al-Farajh as she fled, she had met her brother-in-law Mohamed, who had a car, and he returned briefly to her home to get blankets and clothes for the children. ‘We thought we would only be away from our village for a few days,’ she said. ‘But the Jews entered the village. My husband was in the fields and he saw them blow up our new house. They discovered the olive oil we had left behind and they took all our olive oil machines. The Jews destroyed all the village. Even the cemetery was destroyed — my father had been buried there.’

In May of 1948, the Zamzams crossed the Palestine border into Lebanon at Naqqoura — where the Palestinian writer Kalafani was to describe the misery of the refugees — and rented a house in Tyre for 12 Palestinian pounds a month. ‘We moved to Baas camp from there,’ she said, ‘We had only tents for shelter and we tried to make concrete blocks. Then we cam to Rashidiyeh. I thought I would go home when I left but it has been a long time. I have been twenty-nine years in camps now.’

Just as Mrs Zamzam was finishing, there was a shriek from a home-made air-raid siren in the street and a general movement towards the door of the little hut. High up in the deep blue midday sky were the contrails of three Israeli jets. They soared above us up towards Tyre and then turned southwards over the Mediterranean, back towards Galilee. Mrs Zamzam watched all this with equanimity. A year and a half earlier, she had lost her previous camp home when a shell fired from the Israeli-armed Lebanese Christian enclave to the south hit the roof. She had lived almost half her life amid violence.

Throughout our conversation, a loaded Kalashnikov automatic rifle had lain propped against a wall of her living room, left there by a youth who had gone off to drink tea. When I asked Mrs Zamzam what her sons did for a living, a young man interrupted to say that they all worked ‘for the revolution.’

When I asked Mrs Zamzam whether she would really go back to Palestine if the frontier was opened, she did not hesitate. ‘We are waiting to go back. I hope I am still alive to go back to Palestine again. I would like to die there.’ Mrs Zamzam agreed to let me photograph her and she sat a little unsteadily beside the wall of her home just in front of the cherry tree. She stared into the camera as if she was talking to it. But when I suggested that she smile, another young man interrupted to answer for her. ‘She cannot smile,’ he said bleakly, ‘because she has lost her land.’

Mrs Zamzam’s land should have been only 25 minutes’ drive across the international frontier. It was actually only 15 miles away. But true to the political contours of Lebanon and what is now Israel, I had to fly to Greece, then to Tel Aviv and then take a four-hour car journey to see it, a round-trip of almost a thousand miles. On the way to Mrs Zamzam’s land, I looked across the same Lebanese border from the Israeli side and could actually make out in the far distance Mrs. Zamzam’s camp at Rashidiyeh inside Lebanon. It was a journey that would not have made Mrs Zamzam happy had she been able to make it herself.

For her land now lay underneath a plantation of banana trees a few hundred yards down the road from a bricked-up mosque. Her two-storey white-stone house long ago disappeared. It had vanished as surely as the name of her village had been erased from the map of Israel. The Palestinian Arab hamlet of Um Al-Farajh simply no longer existed.

Just how it came to be extinguished was something of a mystery, and even the Israelis who live in Ben Ami — the farming settlement that has been built on the site — had scarcely heard the name. A young man wearing a yarmulka skullcap and sitting astride a roaring tractor wiped his brow with his arm when I asked for the location of Um Al-Farajh. ‘I have never heard of this village,’ he said. ‘Why do you want to know?’

The mere question had been enough to provoke suspicion. Ben Ami lies just five miles south of the Lebanese border, well within range of the Katyusha rockets which were then being fired by Palestinian guerrillas around Tyre and Rashidiyeh; there were concrete air-raid shelters with iron doors between the bungalows. Barbed wire zigzagged in front of the small houses and large Alsatians snarled at strangers from behind steel fences. The people of Ben Ami were not frightened but they were prepared for an enemy; and visitors interested in the Arab-Jewish war of 1948 were well advised to present convincing explanations for their questions before they stirred memories too deeply.

‘So you are writing about those things,’ another Israeli said as he stood in a narrow, shaded lane. ‘There was an Arab village here but there is nothing left now, you know. All that business is over long ago.’ His friend, a tall, bearded man in a black vest with a pair of garden shears in his hand, stared at me without smiling. ‘Whose side are you on?’ he asked. ‘Are you on our side or their side?’ He did not bother to explain what he meant by ‘their’ side. In the event, it was a local veterinary surgeon, a woman with a brisk, hospitable but no-nonsense attitude towards journalists, who invited me into her home and confirmed that this had indeed been Um Al-Farajh. She gave me sandwiches and coffee while I told her of Mrs Zamzam’s flight from the village in 1948. She listened carefully to the details of the Palestinian woman’s story, of how Jewish gangs had murdered a truckload of Arab villagers shortly before Um Al-Farajh was surrounded and of how the Jews then destroyed Mrs Zamzam’s home, the village and even the little Muslim cemetery beside it.

‘This certainly was an Arab village,’ the Israeli woman said. She spoke charitably of what happened so long ago but her attitude was to grow colder as the evening wore on. She suggested that I speak to a man who had lived nearby in 1948, and after some hours he arrived at the house, a middle-aged Israeli with a lined face and very bloodshot eyes. He spoke only Hebrew and the woman translated for me. I never knew his name; if I wanted to quote him by name, I would have to get permission. Neither of them disclosed from whom this permission would have to be obtained. The newcomer listened in his turn to the description Mrs Zamzam had given me of the events that led her to run away from Um Al-Farajh, occasionally nodding agreement or interrupting to correct her account.

Yes, he said, it was true that the houses had grapes on the outside walls. He himself had seen them when he used to bring olives to the village so that oil could be made from them. Yes, Jewish doctors did indeed care for the Arab villagers then, although Mrs Zamzam had mispronounced the names. It was Dr Kiwi not ‘Dr Kayewe’ as Mrs Zamzam remembered, and Dr Nathan not ‘Dr Natani’, but there was indeed a woman doctor called Miriam just as Mrs Zamzam had said. Her family name was Beer; all were now dead. But the man was clearly unhappy about Mrs Zamzam’s memory. Did she really have a two-storey house? he wanted to know. All the houses in the village had been small single-storey homes, perhaps only four square metres in area. He was to become even more disenchanted about Mrs Zamzam’s record of events.

The first ambush was staged not by Jews but by Arabs, he said. A bus travelling from Haifa to Nahariya in the early spring of 1948 was stopped by Arabs who took the five Jewish passengers from the vehicle and cut their throats. Then it was rumoured that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti, was travelling from his postwar sanctuary in Lebanon to Acre and there was an ambush at Insherah on the bus believed to be carrying him. When shots were fired at two cars accompanying the bus, one of the vehicles, which had been loaded with ammunition for the Arabs, blew up. This, the man thought, was the ambush to which Mrs Zamzam had referred.

‘Um Al-Farajh was not shelled,’ the man said, ‘although the Jewish forces threw hand grenades near the village of Kubri some kilometres from here. Mrs Zamzam had accurately remembered the way she travelled away from Um Al-Farajh but the Jews never destroyed her village. They never blew up the houses. The mosque is still standing here and one of the stone-built houses of the village is still here. You can see it. And the cemetery was not destroyed. It is still here. Some houses fell down later. Mrs Zamzam is correct when she says that the villagers put tree trunks on the road but she seems to have forgotten why this was done. They were afraid of reprisal because the Arabs had just ambushed a relief convoy at Kubri. It had been sent to an isolated kibbutz with food but the Arabs stopped it and killed forty-seven Jews. That is why Mrs Zamzam left Um Al-Faraih. All she forgot to tell you about was the killing of forty-seven Jews.’

It is quite true that the Jewish armoured convoy was ambushed over at Kubri. What is more, the old iron trucks with their armour plating are still lying rusting beside the old Kubri road just where they came to a halt in 1948, the wheels stripped of their tyres but their iron bullet shields still intact. The rifles with which the Jews defended themselves have been welded onto the sides of the vehicles as a memorial. A plaque erected by the Israeli Ministry of Defence pays tribute to Ben-Ami Pachter, the Israeli commando leader who died in the ambush; which is one reason why the name Um Al-Farajh ceased to exist and the name of Ben Ami took its place.

It was also perfectly true, as the Israeli said, that the village mosque was still standing. Its windows and doors had been sealed up with breeze-blocks but the Koranic inscription beneath the roof remained and someone had painted it in the past ten years. The only surviving house of Um Al-Farajh was now used as a storage shed.

It was not so easy to find the cemetery where Mrs Zamzam’s father was buried. The same bearded man whom we had already met said that it lay next to the mosque, behind some barbed wire which had been put there to protect it. It was impossible to see it now, he said. But I walked round the barbed wire and crawled inside the little ground that lay beyond. The Muslim cemetery of Um Al-Faraih was a field of rubble and undergrowth, distinguished over most of its area by nothing more than small mounds of earth and scattered, broken stones. Two cement graves had been smashed open, apparently several decades earlier. Just as Mrs Zamzam had said — and contrary to what the Israelis had told me — the cemetery seemed to have been systematically destroyed.

Beside a new gymnasium not far away, an Arab Israeli was sweeping a path. Where was Um Al-Farajh, I asked him, and he led me to a large square of fir trees and pointed to the earth. ‘There is Um Al-Farajh,’ he said and raised his hands quickly together in the way you might imitate an explosion. There he left me.

So I walked beneath the trees and found just under my feet pieces of old concrete and what might once have been bits of wall. There was what looked like a door lintel. It was cheaply designed, the kind that villagers would have used in their homes. All this time, I was watched by three Israeli farmers standing next to a tractor.

It seemed as if the circular ironies of history in Ben Ami were too strong. The dead Jewish convoy commander had given his name to the land where Mrs Zamzam’s village once stood, an Israeli hamlet that was now periodically threatened with rocket-fire from Palestinian guerrillas, perhaps the same men who as children walked with Mrs. Zamzam from Um Al-Farajh after the ambush on the Jewish convoy.

My visit might have ended there if my car had not run short of petrol on the road south of Nahariya. The gas station attendant was an Israeli Arab, a young man with light brown hair who assumed I was a tourist and wanted to know what I was doing in the cold far north of Israel in winter. I mentioned Ben Ami and Um Al-Farajh and referred momentarily to Mrs Zamzam, when suddenly the boy’s face lit up. ‘She is may aunt,’ he said.

And so it was that Osman Abdelal took me from the gas station and up to a small Arab village called Mazraa, clustered round the ruins of an old Roman aqueduct. He lived in a small house there with his brothers and sisters, all Israeli citizens who spoke Hebrew and lived and worked in Israel. It was Osman’s father Mohamed who had returned in his car for the clothes for Mrs. Zamzam’s children just before Um Al-Farajh was finally abandoned by the Palestinian Arabs in 1948. The family did not want to talk about politics but they asked about Mrs Zamzam’s health. They never went near Ben Ami, they said, and smiled at me. What happened to Mrs Zamzam’s house? I asked. ‘It is gone,’ one of Osman’s older sisters replied. ‘My mother went to look for it later but it had gone.’

Then what happened to Um Al-Farajh? Osman looked at his brother and sisters. ‘They blew it up, he said. ‘My family did not see it but they heard the noise of the explosions. They were already coming here to Mazraa.’

And so Mrs Zamzam’s family, perhaps irrevocably split by nationalities, was living only 15 miles apart, divided by the Israeli—Lebanese frontier. If Osman Abdelal and his sisters had climbed the furthest hill to the north, they might have just been able to see Mrs Zamzam’s refugee camp at Rashidiyeh. But they had never climbed the hill.

There are, of course, specific Israeli laws to stop Damiani and Abu Khadra and Mrs Zamzam from crossing back in the other direction. There is Israeli ‘absentee’ legislation and there are land expropriation laws passed on from the British mandate. Palestinians with relatives still inside Israel could pay two-week visits — many, like Damiani’s wife, have gone wistfully to look from a distance at the homes they once bought and lived in — and the same Israeli spokesman who referred to the Palestinian Arabs as ‘a community of refugees’ said that he had himself assisted 40,000 Palestinians to rejoin their families and become Israeli citizens. Yet most exiled Palestinians instinctively reject the idea of taking Israeli citizenship in order to return. The spokesman, Rafi Horowitz, was wrong when he said that Palestinians could not claim their lands because they were citizens of a country at war with Israel. Whatever his or her status, a Palestinian can claim compensation from the Israeli Special Committee for the Return of Absentee Property. But only about 170 Arabs had claimed such compensation in five years; making a claim in the Israeli courts means recognising the state of Israel.

It was a point made to me with some vehemence by Mahmoud Labadi, who was then official spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Lebanon, a bespectacled figure every bit as urbane and cynical as his Israeli counterpart. ‘Do you really wonder,’ he asked me at an embassy function in west Beirut, ‘why we won’t claim compensation? We don’t want compensation — we want our land.’ He sipped his champagne (Veuve Clicquot 1976) and raised his finger in the air. ‘It’s invidious for any Palestinian to take a cash payment from the Israelis. It undermines our demand for the return of our homes.’

And he was right, as the Israelis themselves were well aware. They still hoped in 1980 that the Palestinian issue — the demands of Palestinians who lost their homes in what is now Israel — could be dealt with as part of a general Arab—Israeli peace settlement, that the whole two and a half million Palestinian diaspora could be given a lump-sum, once-and-for-all payment of compensation. They do not want the Palestinians back and a glance at the statistics quickly shows why. Well over two million of that diaspora regard themselves as victims of the 1948 war; the half million or so who fled Palestine in 1948 have had children — in many cases grandchildren — who regard themselves as Palestinians. Many Arabs who lost their homes in what became the state of Israel and settled on the West Bank in 1948 became refugees for a second time during the Six Day War in 1967. All these people now regard themselves as having a moral claim to land inside Israel — which is one reason, of course, why the PLO was for so long loath to consider a Palestinian nation outside the boundaries of the Jewish state.

Exactly how much land the Arabs owned in the part of Palestine that became Israel is still disputed. Moshe Aumann concluded from original British figures that in 1948 Jews owned 8.6 per cent of the land and Arabs 20.2 per cent; of which, he claimed, 16.9 per cent was abandoned by Arabs when they thought the neighbouring Arab armies were going to destroy Israel.

But there was one man to talk to in Israel who knew more than anyone else about the land of Palestine. Jacob Manor proved to be the very opposite of David Damiani or Fatima Zamzam. He was academically specific and efficient, a thin ascetic man with a degree in jurisprudence from the Hebrew University and offices in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Manor held the title of Custodian of Absentee Property — the word ‘Absentee’ giving the curious impression that the absent person could not be bothered to return. He could describe the land registration bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire, define the intricacies of land expropriation and run off a photocopy of the Israeli Absentee Property Law (1950) in the twinkling of an eye. And everything he did, as he told me several times in his Tel Aviv office, was strictly according to the law.

In his possession were copies of almost every British mandate land registration document, file after file of papers recording in detail the Arab and Jewish owners of property in pre-1948 Palestine. Ask Jacob Manor about the land that belonged to Mrs Zamzam’s husband in the village of Um Al-Farajh and he could immediately explain how it came into the hands of the development authority and was then leased to the village of Ben Ami. Each transaction — of which the original owners remained in ignorance — had involved the transfer of money from one Israeli government department to another. If the government expropriates land, then it must pay compensation to the office of the custodian. The custodian can then in theory pay compensation to the original owner — although the land, of course, has gone.

The law is so rigorous and so thorough that it would be difficult to misunderstand the import of the statutory legislation which governs the property of the Palestinian Arabs who fled their homes in 1948 and who — by the same law — cannot return. Manor knew much of this legislation by heart. An absentee, according to the 1950 Israeli law, includes anyone who, between 20 November 1947 and the ending of the State of Emergency, was ‘a legal owner of any property situated in the area of Israel ... and who, at any time during the said period, was a national or citizen of the Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Trans-Jordan, Iraq or the Yemen or was in one of these countries or in any part of Palestine outside the area of Israel ...’ An absentee also included anyone who was ‘a Palestinian citizen and left his ordinary place of residence in Palestine for a place outside Palestine before 1 September 1948, or for a place in Palestine held at the time by forces which sought to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel or which fought against it after its establishment.’

The definition is broad. For the ‘State of Emergency’ has not yet ended. And if a Palestinian Arab fled his or her home during the 1948 fighting for an area controlled by Arab forces — even though the individual did not in any way participate in the war — Israeli law effectively deprived the owners of their homes and lands. Jacob Manor made no bones about it. ‘Let us suppose,’ he said, ‘there is someone called Mohamed and that he was born and lived in Acre. And let us suppose that in 1948, following the fighting, he left his ordinary place of residence for a place of insurrection, then he is an absentee — even if he did not join the Arab forces that were fighting against Israel.’

There is a further clause in the 1950 law that permitted Manor to confirm that a man or woman was not an absentee if that person left his place of residence ‘for fear that the enemies of Israel might cause him harm or otherwise than by reason or for fear of military operations’. Manor said he had given this dispensation on 40 occasions. But the law did not take specific account of Arabs who left their homes for fear that Israeli forces might cause them harm — the reason most Arabs give for their sudden departure. So much, therefore, for the Damianis, the Abu Khadras and the Zamzams.

Of those who left — well over half a million people — scarcely any had disinherited themselves by claiming compensation under the Israeli Absentees Property Compensation Law of 1973. Only 170 Arabs made successful applications in five years. The Israelis, of course, do not dispute the legality of the old British mandate deeds. ‘There is no dispute about the legality of the mandate papers,’ Jacob Manor said. ‘There is no dispute about the land unless a claim is made ... compensation for those who claim it for their land and receive it from the authorities is calculated according to the value of the property in 1973 plus the difference in the index of inflation together with four per cent interest.’

Manor sat back in his office chair as he rolled off these statistics. ‘I am a very liberal man,’ he said. ‘I always take a positive view towards any claim.’ He himself was an Iraqi Jew and estimated that 150,000 Iraqi Jews were expelled from their country. ‘They left all their property. They cam here penniless and made a claim to the Minister of Justice. We have a list of all the claimants for the future when there is peace with Iraq.’ Manor holds the figures, too, for those Jews who lost all their property in Egypt, Yemen and Morocco after the creation of the state of Israel. The Israelis have in fact scrupulously recorded every dunum and block of lost Jewish property in the Arab world so that it can be placed on the scales of compensation payments when there is any balancing of refugee debts at that final Middle East peace conference.

The Custodian of Absentee Property did not choose to discuss politics. But when I asked him how much of the land of the state of Israel might potentially have two claimants — an Arab and a Jew holding respectively a British mandate and an Israeli deed to the same property — he said he believed that ‘about 70 percent’ might fall into this category. If this figure was accurate — and it should be remembered that over half of Israel in 1948 consisted of the Negev desert — then it suggested that Arabs owned a far greater proportion of that part of Palestine which became Israel than has previously been imagined. Jacob Manor seemed unaffected by this fact. ‘Do you really believe that the Palestinians want to come back?’ he asked. ‘Most of them have died. And their children are in good positions now.’

If this extraordinary statement involved a blindness to reality, it provided no warning of the storm of anger and abuse which my series of articles in The Times was to generate among Israelis and their supporters in Britain. At some length and in careful detail I had told the story of David Damiani, Kanaan Abut Khadra, Fatima Zamzam and of another Palestinian woman, Rifka Boulos, who had lost land in Jerusalem. To visit their former homes and lands had been like touching history. For I had also told of the lives of those who now lived on or near those lands. Save for one mention of a PLO official in Beirut — the spokesman slugging champagne at the diplomatic reception — Yassir Arafat’s organisation did not receive a single reference in the thousands of words I wrote. The Times also carried a long interview with Jacob Manor. But the reaction to the articles — a series that dealt with Palestinians as individual human beings rather than as some kind of refugee caste manipulated by fanatics and ‘terrorists’ — was deeply instructive.

On the day that the last of the articles appeared, the Zionist Federation staged a demonstration outside the London offices of The Times, some of their supporters holding placards which announced that the paper was ‘a new Arab secret weapon’ and that the PLO would be the next owner of The Times. Shlomo Argov, then Israeli ambassador in London, denounced the series as ‘a bold apologia for what is none other than basic PLO doctrine’. In the letters columns of The Times, Jewish readers variously suggested that I was ‘making a serious attempt to undermine the legal basis of Israel’s existence’ and that the paper had become ‘a platform for the enemies of Israel’. The general drift of critical correspondence suggested that the mere publishing of the series was anti-semitic. Argov himself had written an earlier letter of such hostility that it had to be returned by the paper because its contents were regarded by lawyers at The Times as potentially defamatory. When this was first pointed out to the ambassador, he said that he could not be sued for libel since he possessed diplomatic immunity. The Zionist Federation condemned Damiani, Abu Khadra, Mrs Zamzam and Mrs Boulos as ‘victims of their own aggression’ who had ‘remained refugees because they are being used as an instrument of the destruction of the State of Israel.’

Just how such lack of pity could be justified was not vouchsafed. Eric Graus, the Federation’s honorary secretary, was involved in a heated argument in the street outside The Times building with Louis Heren, who was deputy editor of the paper and a former Middle East correspondent. Heren was actually in Palestine in 1948 and was one of the first correspondents to enter Deir Yassin after the massacre of its Arab residents by Menachem Begin’s Irgun gunmen. He found himself bitterly telling Graus of the horrors which he had witnessed during a war in which the Israelis still claim they never committed atrocities. No comment was made by either demonstrators or critical readers — or by the ambassador — about the kindness of Shlomo Green, the old Israeli who showed such compassion towards the Palestinian in whose former home he was now living.7

Generosity, however, was not an emotion that could be found in many Palestinian hearts in Lebanon, and the hatred that burned in 1948 was eagerly taken up by a new generation. I witnessed this phenomenon in tragically symbolic form several months after The Times had published my series. In early 1981, the Israelis had staged an air raid against the Rashidiyeh Palestinian camp — where Mrs Zamzam had her home — and I drove down to southern Lebanon from Beirut to report on the attack. The Palestinians had been firing Katyusha rockets into Galilee, the missiles landing not far from the Israeli village of Ben Ami where Mrs Zamzam’s Arab village of Um Al-Farajh had once stood. There had been little damage to Galilee or Rashidiyeh in the exchange of fire but, not far from the entrance to the Palestinian camp, I was briefly introduced to a man who was described as the ‘leader of joint PLO forces’ in Rashidiyeh.

Several seconds passed before I recognised the features of the PLO officer who was defending the Palestinian camp and shelling the area around Ben Ami. It was Hassan Zamzam, Fatima Zamzam’s son, the same Hassan who as a 40-day-old baby had been carried by his mother out of Um Al-Farajh in 1948 on the family’s road to exile. So now the children of the dispossessed were attacking the children of those who had brought such misery to their Palestinian parents. The war had truly gone full circle.


1 Edward Said, Question of Palestine (New York: Times Books, 1979), p. 9.

2 Among the most carefully researched works on this period, containing many other examples of Foreign Office pragmatism, is BRITAIN AND ZION: THE FATEFUL ENTANGLEMENT by Frank Hardie and Irwin Herrman (Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1981).

3 Quoted in Said, QUESTION OF PALESTINE, p. 16.

4 I. F. Stone, UNDERGROUND TO PALESTINE, AND REFLECTIONS THIRTY YEARS LATER  (New York, Pantheon Books, 1978), pp. 205-06.

5 THE LAND OF THE SAD ORANGES, quoted in DISPOSSED: THE ORDEAL OF THE PALESTINIANS 1917-1980 by David Gilmour (London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1981). Gilmour’s book is among the most readable accounts of the Palestinian tragedy in Lebanon.

6 Moshe Aumann, LAND OWNERSHIP IN PALESTINE 1880-1948  (Israel Academic Committee on the Middle East, undated), pp. 5-8.

7 The complete series of ten articles entitled ‘The Land of Palestine’ can be found in editions of The Times between 15 and 24 December 1980. Editorial comment, readers’ letters and a report of the demonstration by the Zionist Federation appeared in the paper between 23 December 1980 and 20 January 1981.


©copyright Robert Fisk, 1990, 2003
From PITY THE NATION, The Abduction of Palestine
Atheneum Books, (1990); Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books 2002 (pb)
With permission of the Author and Nation Books.


A selected list of links to sites concerning Robert Fisk (Ed.):

Robert Fisk, “Amira Hass: Life under Israeli occupation,” 26 August 2001

Robert Fisk’s articles in The Independent

The unofficial Robert Fisk website, maintained by Z Magazine

Robert Fisk, “Oussama bin Laden ,” Le Monde, 18-09-01

Interview with Robert Fisk, “Four Corners,” Australian Broadcasting System


For criticism of Fisk as a Palestinian apologist, see for example, Andrea Levin (1994) and “Robert Fisk’s Orwellian Newspeak.”

A French view of death threats against journalists, particularly Fisk, for criticizing Israel.

Fisk in Afghanistan: “UK journalist beaten by Afghanistan mob,” BBC, 9 December 2001

Partial transcript of Robert Fisk speech, Concordia University, Montréal, Canada, Nov. 17, 2002



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