November 5, 2007
I was born in Palestine during the British Mandate, and one of my early memories is of the Arab General Strike of 1936 - the first of a series to protest the heavy Zionist immigration: my father did not go to work, shops were shut, and my mother had to find groceries and vegetables where she could.
My reaction was that of a typical small boy: I summoned some of my more lively school friends; we armed ourselves with a good collection of pebbles and waited for a contingent of the Black Watch to pass our way. This was a Scottish regiment, and they wore navy-blue and green tartan kilts. When they came marching correctly past, we flicked our pebbles under their kilts and, before we knew whether we had hit our mark, we ran for our lives.
But the Jews of those days had more lethal forms of resistance: they were the ones who introduced terrorism into the Holy Land, and they directed it against both the British and the Palestinians. For they were not content with the "Homeland" promised in the Balfour Declaration of 1917: they wanted a Jewish state - preferably purely Jewish.
Jerusalem was "zoned" into Jewish, Arab, and neutral zones, which was meant to protect the British offices - but many were blown up, and I lost both English and Palestinian friends during those years. I found that it was dangerous to drive a car, because your vehicle might be commandeered by Jewish terrorists or by British soldiers who had heard of a terrorist plot.
The years of World War Two (1939-45) were somewhat quieter than the previous years. I left Bishop Gobat School and was able to obtain work to help my parents with expenses for my six younger brothers and sisters. My first job was in the Pay Corps, which was very tedious, and then I was put in charge of a NAAFI canteen.
With the end of the War against Germany and the release of the Nazis’ victims, all hell broke loose. The two main terrorist gangs were the Stern Gang, which was led by Itzak Shamir (later Prime Minister of Israel), and the Irgun Tzi Leumi, led by Menahem Begin (also later a prime minister). The Stern Gang was responsible for the killing of Count Bernadotte, who might have solved the Jewish-Arab problem in the 1940s; and the Irgun counted among its main "achievements" the bombing of the King David and the massacre at Deir Yassin.
These three disasters (and others of a similar nature) resulted ultimately in the British giving up the Mandate and leaving the country; for the Palestinians, this meant the beginning of the Nakba or catastrophe. The United Nations, in November 1947, had already declared Jerusalem a divided city: the Jews rejoiced; the Palestinians, like the true mother in Solomon’s judgment, mourned. The British had lost many soldiers and employees; they were in trouble with India; their people - at home and abroad - were exhausted from the war; Bernadotte was dead, and they saw no negotiator to equal him.
To many Palestinians, it was as if the British were selling them out: they had been some sort of protection, even a guarantee. The horrors of Deir Yassin made most of the villagers in its vicinity - and many of those from the more distant villages as well - pull up stakes and leave the area. There was a constant stream of those in flight crossing over the Allenby Bridge; most of them became refugees under United Nations care. There was fighting, which the Israelis - as we must call them now - consider their War of Independence. But the Arabs lost more in the truce talks than they did in the conflict.
The Palestinians who were living in West Jerusalem were in danger from the time of the Partition when the city was divided. There were some beautiful houses that Israel coveted. They set snipers to aim at the mother of the family when she dared to hang out the washing, and the family would decide to leave. The houses were put in the name of the Custodian of Enemy Property, and a law was later passed that no "enemy" or "absentee" could claim the property.
At about the same time as the law was passed, more than three hundred villages throughout the country were razed to the ground. This meant that villagers could no longer claim their houses even if they still had the keys. A few villages, such as Bir’am in the north, were spared complete destruction, though the only structure that remained intact in Bir’am was the church. But when the former inhabitants pleaded that they be allowed to restore their homes and live there again, the court ruled against them: "You cannot go back. It would set a precedent.
Reluctantly the refugees settled in camps, mainly in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon; they could only dream of the free and easy life they once had. It was very difficult, especially at first, to get work; they lived in crowded conditions; the only plus factor was that they were with people from their own village - but this prolonged the dream.
My family and I were driven out of Jerusalem and went first to Madaba, a village in Jordan where almost every house has a patterned mosaic. We had relatives there. Then we moved back to Palestine - to Bethlehem - and settled because there were a good number of Syrianis there who, like my parents, had been in a forced migration from Turkey years before.
One of these was Kando the Shoemaker, whose shop was next-door to our house; it was there, in 1946, that he received what became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. When we arrived in Bethlehem, my Bishop and I tried to get recognition for these scrolls, some of which were in Syriac, which I speak and read; but they were not recognized until a young American scholar met the Bishop by chance in New York and took them to be tested using carbon 14. I had no work at the time, but my dreams of making money from the Scrolls came to nothing.
After 1948 Jordan had control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank; there was a green line that divided West Jerusalem and Israel from East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and one could only go from East to West Jerusalem or vice versa via the Mandelbaum Gate. Crossing back and forth was not allowed.
Hotels were very few: virtually the only ones fit for tourists were the American Colony in East Jerusalem and the restored King David in West. But the tourists came: hotels, waiters, travel agents, guides, taxis, shops, restaurants, even postcard boys and camel owners rejoiced and made money. Palestinians showed a flare for tourism, and it blossomed in their part of the Holy Land.
At first they came as couples or individuals; then groups came, and tourist buses started to appear: hotels were built; guides were licensed; more shops opened. East Jerusalem at first consisted of little more than the Old City; and the Israelis destroyed the whole Moroccan quarter to make a huge piazza for the Wailing Wall. They also encroached on the southwest side of the City. On the other hand, the modern side of East Jerusalem began to grow.
In the early sixties the British government only granted travel money to English people going to countries in the Sterling Areas; Jordan satisfied this condition and so there was a bonanza of English people for those few years. But disaster struck again: although Jamal Abdul Nasser was almost certainly bluffing when he threatened war in 1967 because he was not adequately prepared, the Israelis took the opportunity to wipe out his air force on the ground - the war was lost from that moment. The effects of that war have lasted till now: in spite of United Nations resolutions, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights continues and grows worse.
The 1967 War nearly spelled total disaster for me, as we were in Lebanon at the time. My wife and children were able to go to England, but I could find no official way to enter my country, now occupied by Israelis. Finally, with others, I risked the unofficial way - by the River Jordan. After some nerve-wracking encounters with Israeli troops, I was able to reach Jerusalem, my parents and siblings, and the remains of my business.
I think my readers know what occupation is: it is checkpoints manned by unfeeling soldiers, or more particularly, female soldiers; it is imprisonment, it is incursion just when you are feeling secure; it is settlements and roads for settlers only, which eat away at the few kilometres left to the West Bank; and, most monstrous of all, the Wall, ruining the countryside for those within and without, surely causing complexes and ending hope of Bush’s contiguous state.
In addition, a visit to the Ministry of the Interior is a nightmare, and the Bridge crossing-point is a disgrace. Only the medical services are good, but they are not available to West Bankers.
When many friends and relations have given up hope of a fair peace and have left for Europe, America, or Australia, when Zionism and Christian Zionism seem to be gaining ground all the time, we in Palestine may well grow old - even before our time; but still there is youth, still there is talent, still there is resilience. Zionists do not have the monopoly on salvation: St Peter said to the Centurion in Caesarea, "God has no favourites."
We all start with a clean slate.
Gabriel Khano is a member of the Syriani community in Jerusalem. He has been in the travel business for more than 50 years.