Witness in the Territories
In the last days of March, at the end of a five-day voyage with seven fellow members of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) through the battered archipelago of reservations that make up the Palestinian territories, I met for breakfast at the King David Inter-Continental Hotel in Tel Aviv with two young
leaders of the so-called refuseniks, the members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who have publicly declared their refusal to serve in the occupied territories. These men are not peaceniks or pacifists; they're not of the left or veterans of the now-demoralized Israeli peace movement; and they are certainly not cowards. They are Zionists, university-educated, articulate, patriotic sons of Israel, and their stand has become in these terrible dark days the most serious challenge that anyone has put to Israel's moral credibility from inside the family.
We met alone and at their request. They wished to meet with me, they said, because of my role as president of the IPW and leader of the delegation, but mainly because they had learned from the Internet that I was an American who had been involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and '70s. They wanted avuncular advice from someone who, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was thought likely to identify with their decision to stand apart from their nation's oppressive policy against the Palestinian people. This conversation took place two days after the sickening suicide bombing of the Passover celebration in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, and a day before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared PLO chairman Yasir Arafat his "enemy" and launched Operation Defensive Shield with a brutal assault on Ramallah. The young men knew that everything was now about to get much worse for both the Palestinians and the Israelis, and they needed to decide what to do next. My advice was simple: Make it a single-issue movement; broaden your base to include women and men from every rank and Israelis of every type; and keep it in the family. Then speak truth to power.
At this writing, there are 404 refuseniks, with ten or more joining their ranks every week. Events of early April may accelerate that rate, or they may have the opposite effect. We cannot know. I asked them what had moved them to separate themselves from their brothers and sisters in the IDF and invite rage and confusion from their fathers and mothers and prison sentences from their government. What had made them willing to be called at best naïve and at worst cowards and self-hating Jews? For this is indeed what these young men face daily in the Israeli press and in their homes. Their eyes were opened, and their minds were changed, they said, when they were assigned to duty in the West Bank and the other Palestinian territories. There they saw everything that I and my fellow writers in the IPW delegation had seen in the preceding five days as we traveled from Tel Aviv to Ramallah, passed through the cities and towns of the West Bank and descended into Gaza, where we visited the refugee camps, gazed mournfully on the violent destruction of whole neighborhoods and villages, witnessed the deliberate, calculated humiliation of the checkpoints and saw for the first time the appalling scale, dominance and encroachment of the Jewish settlements.
Our delegation had traveled to the Middle East from four continents: From Africa came the Nigerian Nobelist Wole Soyinka and the South African poet and memoirist Breyten Breytenbach; from China, the dissident poet Bei Dao; from Europe, the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo, Portugal's Nobelist José Saramago, Italian novelist Vincenzo Consolo and the French writer and secretary general of the IPW, Christian Salmon; and from North America, myself, a novelist of the United States. We came in response to a plea from one of IPW's founding members, the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, to express our solidarity with him and his fellow Palestinian poets and writers whose living and working conditions have increasingly come to resemble house arrest. The International Parliament of Writers is not a human rights organization or an NGO; it is simply a loose collective of poets and storytellers committed to aiding in as concrete a way as possible our fellow writers who find themselves under physical threat or political control because of their work as writers. Darwish and his colleagues, most of them based in Ramallah and elsewhere in the Palestinian territories, have for a year and half been enduring conditions that we believe are intolerable, conditions that must be condemned by those of us who are free.
By the same token, in expressing our solidarity with Darwish and his colleagues and in bearing witness to their intolerable circumstances, we were expressing solidarity with the people whose daily lives and history are celebrated in the poetry and stories of the Palestinian artists. To stand beside Neruda is to stand beside the Chilean people; to celebrate Whitman is to celebrate the American people. Governments and politicians, I'm sorry to say, usually have to look out for themselves. We came to the Palestinian territories, therefore, to see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears what was happening to the Palestinian people.