Israel's search for 'Good Arabs'

The innumerable echoes of the present in a new history of Israel's coercive relations with its Palestinian citizens.

Rajah Shehadeh finds innumerable echoes of the present in a new history of Israel's coercive relations with its Palestinian citizens. Imagine, if you can, living in a land that is metamorphosing before your eyes. Your family members, friends, and neighbours have been forced to leave and are not allowed to return. In their place, newcomers are being settled on the land that was yours - or that of your family and friends. Only months ago you had been a member of the majority, but now you are part of a defeated minority, ruled by a hostile government that suspects you of treason. The new state excludes you - but you are expected to give it your allegiance and salute its flag.

Your world has crumbled; in its place a new one has arisen, a new society whose ways are foreign and whose language you cannot understand. You are angry and newly destitute; the land you used to cultivate has been confiscated; your livelihood has been crippled or taken away; you live in fear of being forced to into exile, of becoming a refugee like thousands of your friends and neighbours. All of this has happened almost overnight: so fast that you can hardly catch your breath, let alone fathom the awful consequences that are yet to come.

This was the state of the 156,000 Palestinians who managed to remain in Palestine after the Nakba in 1948. But what was perhaps more astonishing is the fact that they were able - despite the impossible conditions - to survive and, in some cases, prosper. It is not difficult to appreciate that such circumstances might provide fertile grounds for breeding collaborators. And indeed they did, but as Hillel Cohen writes in his new book, Good Arabs, "the willingness or readiness of so many Arabs to collaborate with Israeli intelligence - does not mean that such active collaboration was rampant or that Israel succeeded in recruiting everyone it wanted."

There were many such collaborators, and Israel deployed every possible means of coercion and persuasion "to gain maximal control of the populace," as Cohen writes. But the true significance of Good Arabs has little to do with the colourful historical tales of Israeli security men and their Palestinian consorts. The book's power derives from its resonance for the present day, and the way that it illuminates the attitude that Israel has taken - and still takes - toward the Palestinians, whether they are citizens of Israel or residents of territories under Israeli control.

As a resident of those territories, I could not help thinking that in this regard precious little has changed since the establishment of the state 62 years ago. Perhaps this should come as no surprise: over the course of six decades Israel's idea of itself, and its conception of the Zionist project, has shifted only slightly - and its attitudes to its Palestinian neighbours have changed not at all. "While the methods used today are presumably not the same ones used in the 1950s," Cohen writes near the end of the book, "the political activity of Palestinians in Israel, even when legitimate, is still under surveillance, and the level of involvement of the security services in Arab local and national politics is still significant."

The recognition of this inexorable status quo poses a severe dilemma to those who seek a peaceful end to the conflict and a new relationship with the state of Israel. Israel's unbending obduracy in its dealings with the Palestinians raises the question today of whether the attempts of the Palestinian leadership to achieve a peace agreement through negotiations, rather than by violent means, can be characterised as pragmatism or treason.

Cohen's book narrates the histories of a number of Palestinians who sought to establish amiable relations with the Israeli establishment, often with few positive results beyond self-enrichment. Many of these tales chronicle the small defeats and frustrations of eager collaborators like a resident of the Galilee called Rabbah Awad, who "provided significant assistance" to Israeli intelligence during the 1948 war, but discovered afterwards that his co-operation provided no protection against the state, which soon ejected Awad and his neighbours from their village, demolished their houses, and confiscated their land. (Their descendants, Cohen notes, have still not succeeded in returning.)

A far grander and more compelling story is that of Muhamad Nimr Hawwari, a lawyer born in Nazareth in 1907 who was one of the early proponents of armed struggle against the pre-state Jewish underground and founded the Najjadah, a Palestinian paramilitary organisation that Cohen says was "the first initiative of its type". By the end of 1947, when hostilities began in Jaffa, Hawwari was convinced that Jewish military superiority made defeat inevitable, and he tried to prevent the spread of the battle by establishing contacts within the Haganah, the pre-state predecessor to the Israel Defence Forces. Cohen writes that "in Arab nationalist circles, this was looked on as treason," and Hawwari had to flee Palestine for Jordan.

Hawwari's own account of these events, Ser El Nakba (The Secret of the Nakba) was self-published in Arabic in 1955 and is now out of print. Cohen makes no reference to it, but Hawwari addresses those who accused him of treason by asking whether it was he who stirred the conflict in Palestine "with the intention of dispersing its people?" After the Nakba, Hawwari continued to pursue his conciliatory policies. In the spring of 1949 he joined a Palestinian Delegation at the meetings of the Palestine Conciliation Commission created by the UN, though the Israeli delegation refused to meet with them. At the end of 1949, Hawwari crossed the border to meet with the Israeli prime minister's adviser on Arab affairs, Yehoshua Palmon, though Cohen notes that the archives do not indicate what, if any, agreement they reached. In his own memoir, Hawwari justifies his decision to return by writing that he felt staying away would entail turning his back to "the refugees who put their trust in me".

What Cohen explains, however, is that the ruling Mapai Party, led by David Ben-Gurion, was eager for Hawwari to return so that he could lead an Arab party that would support Mapai and oppose its rivals in Israel's communist party, Mapam - so that Mapai could divert votes from the communists, advocates of Jewish-Arab coexistence who then had the support of most Palestinian voters in Israel. The communists accepted the legitimacy of the state, and worked within its political system to obtain equal rights for both Jews and Arabs. But, as far as the Israeli establishment was concerned, the struggle was not over coexistence but submission to the aims of the state. Mapam, which argued for a "state of all its citizens," whether Jewish or Arab, was anathema to Ben-Gurion and his colleagues, who regarded the communists as "the Mufti's allies before Israel was established and afterward as well".

The Zionist mission was not merely to secure Palestinian allegiance to the new state, but acceptance of its racial self-definition as a Jewish state, and therefore one that relegated non-Jews to an inferior status. This was impossible to achieve through persuasion; few can be convinced to willingly accept discrimination and exclusion. Coercion was required, and, to this end, the recruitment of collaborators to act against their community and its struggle for equality and freedom.

Almost all the Palestinians who remained within the borders of what became the new state of Israel found themselves displaced or dispossessed of their land. Most of those who stayed had been farmers, and they sank quickly into destitution with the loss of their fields. The military government that presided until 1966 kept Palestinian movement under tight control; travelling from one village to another required special permission from the Israeli authorities.

These restrictions, whose putative rationale was the preservation of security, formalised the ethos of exclusion, and ensured, as Cohen writes, that "the Arabs in Israel [did not] become an integral part of the country they lived in. Israel found no place for them in its polity, so they preserved their national discourse and identity." In the end, efforts to control the Palestinian citizens of Israel through a network of collaborators inevitably ran aground for this very reason: "the Zionist movement," Cohen writes, "did not offer Arab citizens a real path to participate in the state, influence on policies or involvement in its public life. The consequence was that the state actually reinforced Arab identity among its Arab citizens."

The military government that controlled Palestinian life in Israel came to an end in 1966, but the next year, Israel occupied the remaining Palestinian territory and simply shifted the military administration from the Galilee and the Negev to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The lessons learnt (or not learnt) after 1948 were simply applied beyond Israel's original borders. The scope of Cohen's book ends in 1967, but the methods and practices of Israeli control continue into the present. The seizure of land has continued; collaborators are still recruited by the hundreds. The fundamental issue is unchanged: Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, rather than a state for all its citizens, and the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza remain in a position even lower than the second-class citizenship granted to those who live in Israel.

Cohen does not attempt to address the question of whether Hawwari, and others like him, were traitors. No doubt, as Cohen writes, the Israeli authorities who arranged for he and his family to return hoped that he would be. But this is not the important question. What Good Arabs makes absolutely clear is that Israel did not seek allies among the Palestinians. It sought traitors and collaborators, and it still does.

Cohen closes by suggesting that the nature of the Israeli state did not allow for equal relations with, or inclusion of, non-Jews: "the fundamental duality between Palestinian Arab national identity and integration into Israel's civil society did not change, even as it metamorphosed with the development of relations between Israel and official representatives of the Palestinian people." This is the tragedy of Hawwari - and of all Palestinians who have nowhere to go, and no exit from a hopeless situation. It is also the problem that befalls those Palestinians who seek peace and reconciliation with a country that has absolute military superiority, but refuses to look for partners with whom it could create good neighbourly relations based on an equitable distribution of land and full and equal rights for all citizens. Instead Israel continues - as it did in the period that Cohen details - to search for "good" Arabs, for collaborators willing to serve the interests of a regime that by its very nature excludes and discriminates against them.

Raja Shehadeh is the author of nine books, including Strangers in the House and Palestinian Walks, which won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2008. He lives in Ramallah.