NOVEMBER 21, 2018
PALESTINIAN AMBITIONS have not fared well under the Trump administration, which cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), closed the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, DC, and moved the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Each of these moves strengthened the relationship between the United States and Israel, encouraging American voters to view what’s left of Palestine as a sinister land full of half-built houses, rocket-launching sites, and angry terrorists.
Both Seth Anziska and Marcello Di Cintio grew up with this Israel-centered Western narrative; now they have written books that explore the complexity of the historical and political reality of Palestine. In Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo, the American Anziska traces how diplomatic relations following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War set the stage for the current sidelining of Palestinian demands for statehood. In Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Life in Contemporary Palestine, the Canadian Di Cintio travels to Palestine to see how al-Nakba — or “the catastrophe,” the displacement of Palestinians after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War — has shaped Palestinians’ everyday lives. Both authors show how attempts to quash Palestinian nationalism have only prolonged violence in the region.
Anziska views the 1978 Camp David Accords as the primary enabler of Israel’s suppression of Palestinian self-determination. He documents President Jimmy Carter’s attempts to include Palestine in the discussions, which soon faltered when faced with the intransigence of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who criticized the mere suggestion of interacting with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Begin assumed that the United States “would wish to refrain from having any contact with this terrorist organization whose method is the murder of innocent civilians, women and children, and whose purpose is the destruction of the state of Israel.” Backed by the 1975 US pledge not to negotiate with the PLO until it recognized Israel, the negotiators banned Palestine’s main representative body from the Camp David Accords.
While the topic of a Palestinian state remained on the Camp David agenda, without the PLO — or Syria or Jordan (both of whom refused to negotiate with Israel) — the significance of the discussions was diminished. Instead, Carter mediated between Egypt and Israel over the status of the Palestinian territories. Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, who prioritized the return of the Sinai Peninsula over any allegiance to Arab-nationalist goals, agreed to self-autonomy rather than sovereignty for Palestine. This framing of Palestinian political rights as non-territorial allowed for increased Israeli settlement in the region.
Transnational skepticism of Palestinian statehood grew with the rise of neoconservatism. During his 1980 election campaign, Ronald Reagan cast Palestinians as proxy warriors for the Soviet Union. On November 30, 1981, President Reagan signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel promoting strategic cooperation to deal with the Soviet threat. Israel took advantage, rapidly expanding an operation meant to combat PLO attacks in Beirut into an attempt to destroy the PLO itself. The violence that followed included a saturation bombing that killed 500 Palestinians and a massacre of at least 800 others at the Israeli-controlled refugee camps Sabra and Shatila. Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon dismissed the dead as terrorists; however, the PLO had already evacuated the camps, meaning that only Palestinian civilians were killed. Anziska supplies numerous examples where the Israeli government refused to differentiate between PLO fighters and civilians, a conflation that justified any military action against Palestinians.
In Anziska’s account, Israel and the United States are the leading powers, the intricacies of their relationship sometimes overshadowing its impact on the Palestinian people. Anziska dedicates a chapter to political alternatives to the controversial PLO, although a more thorough discussion of the difficulties of Palestinian political representation would have been welcome here. The chapter on the PLO illustrates how the organization evolved away from radicalism but remained the main representative party; in 1988, the poet and member of the PLO Mahmoud Darwish wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independence, proclaiming that an independent Palestine could coexist with Israel. This possibility was noted in the 1991 Madrid Conference and subsequent Washington talks, where Palestinian delegates were invited to speak for the first time. Anziska believes that these talks offered the greatest potential for a peaceful resolution.
Yet the hope was short-lived. Following outbursts of violence by Hamas activists, Palestinian participants were again excluded. Without the knowledge of Palestinian delegates or American mediators, a frustrated PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat turned directly to Israel. These discussions led to the Oslo Accords of 1993–’95, which divided the West Bank into three separate zones of control. The result, far from the national sovereignty the delegates had fought for in Washington, mirrored the language of the Camp David Accords.
Where Preventing Palestine concentrates on the diplomatic history surrounding the crisis in Palestine, Pay No Heed to the Rockets is a ground-level view that shows the real-life consequences of that history. Rather than adopting a third-person viewpoint, Marcello Di Cintio is an active participant who reacts emotionally to the Palestinians he interviews. A photograph of a smiling girl pulling books out of shattered concrete in Gaza functions as a metaphor for Di Cintio’s reportage. Rather than focusing on the ugliness of deprivation, he seeks out the experiences of Palestinian writers and artists for whom, he says, nothing is more beautiful than a story.
Di Cintio begins his time in Palestine by researching the late Mahmoud Darwish, from whose work the book draws its title. (During Israel’s siege of Beirut in 1982, Darwish wrote about the mundane process of brewing coffee: “Turn off the heat, and pay no heed to the rockets.”) Darwish puts a human face on the contentious PLO; a member of that organization when they still endorsed violence, he resigned in the wake of Oslo. Darwish’s influence was so great that, when he wrote a poem criticizing the Oslo Accords, President Arafat demanded he revise it. The most influential Palestinian writer, Darwish was in many ways also the most constrained. In general, his work sought to transcend politics, presenting Palestinians as more than the products of repression and war. As a result, he was sometimes rebuked for writing about trivialities like love during a time of pressing need.
Di Cintio also explores the work of younger writers, such as Maya Abu-Alhayyat, whom he meets at the Café Ramallah in the West Bank. On the first day of the Second Intifada in September 2000, Israeli forces shot Abu-Alhayyat’s boyfriend. Yet, Israelis rarely appear as characters in her stories, since Maya admits she doesn’t know any. Such omissions are a common practice of many of the writers Di Cintio interviews. But he also shows that partitions exist not merely between Israel and Palestine, but within the Palestinians themselves. When he travels to “the 48” (Israeli-controlled territory that had belonged to Palestine before 1948), he discovers that Palestinians living there are called, by their countrymen in the West Bank, shamenet, a term meaning spoiled from birth.
Yet the reality is more complicated. As Di Cintio shows, some Palestinian artists enjoy greater freedom in “the 48” than they do in the Palestinian territories. For example, gay writers like Raji Bathish can publish homoerotic works without fear of persecution. Nevertheless, Bathish rejects the notion that Israel’s accommodation with the LGBTQ community proves its humanitarianism. “You cannot be a fascistic state, with apartheid and occupation,” he tells Di Cintio, “and be proud of your gay integration.”
Pay No Heed to the Rockets ends where it began, with a dedication to the people of Gaza. Despite poverty and war, Gaza is the only place where Palestinians live as Palestinians among Palestinians. Here, Di Cintio meets Mona Abu Sharekh, a writer who believed Arafat when he promised that Gaza would become the next Singapore. But the Israelis shut the Erez border in 2000 and starved the region of resources. While Abu Sharekh may have grown up in Gaza, she hates the place. She sees her people’s difficult lives as only likely to worsen, pointing to a 2012 report by UNRWA that claimed the region would soon be uninhabitable. But Mona cannot leave: Israel considers Gaza a “hostile entity” and requires Palestinian people to acquire permission to pass the Erez Crossing, a boon bestowed almost exclusively on traders or medical patients seeking treatment in Israel.
A contrast between the domestic and the political informs nearly every scene in Pay No Heed to the Rockets. While most of the writers Di Cintio meets describe themselves as non-political, their charged words reveal the inescapable influence of their situation. This painful contradiction exists side-by-side with the beauty of the landscape itself. In one scene, the author hikes in the Hashmiyet Mountains: “We passed pomegranate trees ablaze with scarlet blossoms and old olive trees bearing new fruit as small and green as peppercorns […] Tender chickpeas grew in wide fields near lentils, tobacco, and Egyptian cucumber.” In another scene, he visits Khuza’a, a small town in Gaza, “with concrete roofs that sagged, almost comically, on the broken bodies of houses.” Through its rich descriptions, Pay No Heed to the Rockets depicts Palestine as a place filled with life and hope.
Pay No Heed to the Rockets portrays Palestinian writers without exploiting or romanticizing them. Some were admittedly involved in violent terrorist organizations from which they now seek to distance themselves. Di Cintio concludes with a return to Darwish: “The Nakba is not a memory; it is a continuous uprooting that makes Palestinians more worried about their existence.” Most of the writers Di Cintio meets tell stories of what it means to be human in a context where the prevailing powers do not view them as such. All Palestinians are shaped by this conflict, but none are fully defined by it.
Both Preventing Palestine and Pay No Heed to the Rockets offer vivid portraits of Palestine that transcend the fragmentary glimpses of poverty and violence that the region is often reduced to in Western media. Anziska provides the historical background, while Di Cintio explores the lived experiences, of a people whose homes, but not their identities, have been displaced.