The first item I ever wrote about Palestinians was around 1973, when I was just starting a press column for the Village Voice. It concerned a story in the New York Times about a “retaliatory” raid by the Israeli air force, after a couple of Fatah guerrillas had fired on an IDF unit. I’m not sure whether there were any fatalities. The planes flew north and dumped high explosives on a refugee camp in Lebanon, killing a dozen or so.
I wrote a little commentary, noting the usual lack of moral disquiet in the Times story about this lethal retaliation inflicted on innocent refugees. Dan Wolf, the Voice‘s editor, called me in and suggested I might want to reconsider. I think, that first time, the item got dropped. But Dan’s unwonted act of censorship riled me, and I started writing a fair amount about the lot of the Palestinians.
Those were the days when Palestinians carried far less news value for editors than Furbish’s lousewort, and no politician ever said that this beleaguered plant didn’t actually exist as a species, which is what Golda Meir said of Palestinians.
Back then you had to dig a little harder to excavate what Israelis were actually doing to Palestinians. Lay out the facts about institutionalized racism, land confiscations, torture, and a hail of abuse would pour through the mailbox, as when I published a long interview in the Voice in 1980 with the late Israel Shahak, the intrepid professor from Hebrew University.
It’s slightly eerie now to look at what Shahak was saying back then and at the accuracy of his predictions: “The basic trends were established in ’74 and ’75, including settler organization, mystical ideology, and the great financial support of the United States to Israel…. Between summer ’74 and summer ’75 the key decisions were taken, and from that time it’s a straight line.” Among these decisions, said Shahak, was “to keep the occupied territories of Palestine,” a detailed development of much older designs consummated in 1967.
Gradually, through the 1980s, very often in the translations from the Hebrew-language press that Shahak used to send, the contours of the Israeli plan emerged, like the keel and ribs and timbers of an old ship: the road system that would bypass Palestinian towns and villages and link the Jewish settlements and military posts; the ever-expanding clusters of illegal settlements; control of the whole region’s water.
It wasn’t hard to get vivid descriptions of the increasingly intolerable conditions of life for Palestinians: the torture of prisoners, the barriers to the simplest trip, the harassment of farmers and schoolchildren, the house demolitions. Plenty of people came back from Israel and the territories with harrowing accounts, though few of the accounts made the journey into a major newspaper or onto national television.