Mahmud Abu Shilbayah
(Arabic, not dated)
After the Six Day War of June 1967 was over, I spent a lot of time on the West Bank and in Gaza. For the previous twenty years, British Palestine had been divided between Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Now that the parts were re-united under Israeli jurisdiction, my assumption was that the moment was bound to have come for a treaty settling the relationship between Israelis and the Arabs. Moshe Dayan, the Minister of Defence, announced that he was waiting for a telephone call. Flippant though it was, the remark reveals the value system that has been operating for a long time throughout the Western world to give political reality to the conclusions of the battlefield. Victor and vanquished decide how to conduct themselves, the one reacting to the propositions of the other in a process akin to bargaining that is strictly rational and inclining to democracy. Dayan’s telephone did not ring because Arabs have a value system that is not just different but totally incompatible, and it too has been in operation a long time. The high and mighty as well as the poor and humble have to gain honor and avoid shame because these values determine what people will think of them. Defeat at the hands of Jews is a shame so absolute that only military success is able to wipe it away. What is at issue here is status, something personal and irrational, not open to measurement or bargaining, and inclining to dictatorship.
Arabs of course have ways of making peace. Harold Ingrams, a British official in the days of empire, describes in his memoir Arabia and the Isles his career of treaty-making between warring Arab tribes, a process so delicate and personal that it might well last several generations. Those involved have to be men of experience and authority, ceaselessly attentive to the imperatives of shame and honor for victors and vanquished alike. If they were to conduct themselves according to the Israeli value system, they would have become self-declared losers, disgraced by the shame of it and immediately rejected by their people.
The 1967 war had left the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza pretty much in a state of shock. Fearing the worst, more than a hundred thousand of them had fled their homes and were refugees in Jordan. Some houses had been wantonly destroyed in the small town of Qalqilya, but otherwise the war had been almost a formality and there was nothing to fear. It was safe to go anywhere and to talk to anyone.
The formation of public opinion was the business of a few individuals generally referred to as notables. Qadri Tuqan, the el-Masris, Hamdi Kanan, Sheikh Ali Ja’abari from Hebron and Rashad Shawa the mayor of Gaza were men of experience and authority. They had handsome houses in which a room or two was furnished with seating along every wall. It didn’t seem to matter if discussion fell silent and there was nothing for it except another cup of coffee. Friendship and rivalry were hard to distinguish. Some thousands have the surname Barghouti, for example, but which one speaks for the family, or is it for the tribe? At the time, all they could do was to insist that the Israelis withdraw unilaterally from the territories that had just been fought over and then they, the Palestinians, would see what to do next.
The values of shame and honor dictated what to the Israelis was simply the demand for an undeserved gift, tantamount to saying that no costs had to be paid either for starting a war or for losing it – something contrary to every Western treaty ever signed. Those same values were evident when, a few months after the end of the war, self-selected Arab representatives met in Khartoum and passed a resolution that there could be no peace, no negotiation, no recognition of Israel. As the issue became one of honor and shame, local notables and their followers no longer had the prerogative to determine their future. A political vacuum was created, which the various groups in favor of armed struggle and terror made haste to fill, and continue to do so right up to the present.
At the time, Mahmud Abu Shilbaya was one of the leading Palestinian intellectuals on the West Bank. In person he was a little overweight, his face framed by heavy spectacles and a keffiyeh. His book has a paper cover with the red, white and green of the Palestinian flag on it, giving it the look of a clandestine publication when in fact it is the usual evocation of nationalism as the solution to everything. We sat in a café in East Jerusalem while I tried to explain that in the absence of anything like the social structure of a nation, his nationalism was bound to remain a literary abstraction and nothing could come of it. Nevertheless, on the title page he wrote, “To my friend David Pryce-Jones hoping my people will get a real peace.”