The Arab World Geographer
Forum on Current Crisis in Palestine/Israel

Ghazi Falah
Centre for Urban and Community Studies, University of Toronto, 455 Spadina Avenue, Toronto, Ontario    M5S 2G8    Canada

Consistent with its stated mission—to address recent global developments and ongoing sociopolitical and economic change, especially with regard to the Arab World—The Arab World Geographer has opened its pages for reflection on and close scrutiny of the current tensions in Palestine/Israel, which erupted on 29 September 2000 and are raging still even as I write.

To this end, we solicited short essays from eight scholars who agreed to reflect on the crisis, its roots and implications. All eight contributors to this forum were asked to provide some brief reflections on the Intifada as it entered its second week. They were requested to be as specific and as empirical as possible and not to deal with the history of the conflict or relevant theoretical material. More important, they were requested to express their own opinions (from both mind and heart) as they viewed the crisis from their respective sites of representation. A crucial aspect is that none of the contributors has seen the other essays.

After the contributions were received (written within a span of three days), I approached Professor Peter Taylor to read the eight essays and comment on their common thrust. His cogent analysis of the contributions constructs a useful, more theoretical frame for viewing the ongoing uprising.

The aim of this forum was not to generate scholarly debate. Its purpose was to present a spectrum of opinion from differing individual sites, some in the very inferno of the conflict.

There seem to be four basic sites among the contributors. First, there are two scholars who are not physically affected but are spiritually and intellectually close to the events, Richard Nolte and Robert McColl. Nolte's experience and knowledge of the Arab world is extensive. He lived in Lebanon and Egypt from 1951 to 1957, and then returned to Cairo in 1967 to serve as US Ambassador to Egypt. McColl is an American political geographer with special interest and expertise in the geography of revolution and guerrilla warfare. He has visited Israel/Palestine several times, most notably in 1988 during the first Intifada. After this visit McColl published an article jointly with David Newman on the Intifada in GeoJournal 28(3): 333–45.

The second category of contributors is represented by Hilal Khashan and Joseph Schechla, based respectively in Beirut and Cairo. They live in the Arab world and have directly witnessed Arab mass reaction to the current Intifada. Though geographically a part of the conflict, they are not directly threatened by it. Khashan is a political scientist at the American University of Beirut, author of Arabs at the Crossroads: Political Identity and Nationalism (University of Florida Press, 2000). His broad knowledge of Arab affairs and close familiarity with Beirut—a city that has in the past been in the maelstrom of attack by the Israeli military—provide him with a site of authority from which to comment on the current Palestinian Intifada. Schechla, who lives in Cairo and was formerly for some time in the Gaza Strip, wrote his piece after completing a one-week visit to Gaza and the West Bank on October 10–16. At the time, he was a member of a UN Commission on Human Rights which went to the region to acquire first-hand knowledge on the current crisis.

The third grouping consists of Newman and Halper—in a sense, the Intifada is unfolding right on their doorstep. Halper lives in West Jerusalem and Newman in Mitar, a small Naqab desert town several miles south of the West Bank. The authors are to some extent present on the scene; and both are deeply involved, intellectually and perhaps emotionally. Nonetheless, the violent events do not directly threaten their lives, unless one accepts the Albright thesis that all of Israel is “under siege.” Halper and Newman have of course contributed here as individuals—they do not represent any official Israeli stance. Nor are they representative of the mainstream of Israeli scholars. Both consider themselves part of the peace camp in Israel.

The fourth locus of vantage, that of Mustafa and Khamaisi, is a Palestinian site. Both men live and work in the very centre of the unrest, and their lives have been directly affected by the Israeli violence. More than other contributors, they have experienced the agony of these events, and this shock has had a powerful personal impact on their reflections—eyewitnesses on the field of confrontation and battle. Both are Palestinian geographers living on opposite sides of the Green Line that bifurcates their people: Mustafa, based at Bethlehem University on the West Bank, wrote his piece while his city was under curfew, with rockets thundering past overhead, and in fear he might be struck at any time. At the time of writing, Khamaisi, who teaches at Haifa University, reflected the most extreme situation in which a Palestinian geographer could find himself inside Israel. His village, Kafr Kanna in Galilee (known to Christians as the place where Jesus changed water to wine), had to mourn one of its sons killed in the current uprising, Khamaisi's cousin, aged 19. Two other youths in Kafr Kanna (but 20 and 21 years old) were also injured seriously—shot in the chest by Israeli police; they will remain permanently disabled for the rest of their lives. Though this particular violent incident goes unmentioned in Khamaisi's reflections, one can feel the great rage, personal sorrow and bitterness burning beneath.

The eight contributions provide a spectrum of opinion and analysis. In themselves, they present an interesting case study in the production of knowledge about a specific set of events shaped by the amount of direct and indirect information one receives at his site of representation. While most contributors have by and large focussed on the local events, Taylor seeks to view the essays and their object within the broader frame of world political power structures since 1945. He questions Israel's imperial role as a “level-three state” for which, like its U.S patron, UN standards of global justice and fair play have little meaning. Taylor provides a powerful analysis of the nature of nationalism as the shaping force here, the motor behind Palestinian rage and identity, arguing that Israel, through its machinery of Rambo repression, "has begat a Palestinian nation which the current Intifada is confirming daily. National identities are forged in revolts, movements against repression where the sense of great grievance unifies a people." Taylor reminds us that national uprisings usually win in the long run "because by physically repressing them, their would-be destroyer is actually feeding the nation-building." Offsetting the comparative physical weakness of the Palestinians, “this “infrastructural power””—derived from a sense of national unity forged in blood and fire and struggle—is in his view the Palestinians' ultimate and formidable strength.

As we go to press, the Intifadat al-Aqsa is entering its second month. Whether we are witnessing the birth pangs of the independent state of Falastin is still to early to tell.

(Submitted 31 October 2000)

© The Arab World Geograppher

Forum / Editorial / Nolte / Khashan / Mustafa / McColl / Newman / Halper / Schechla / Khamaisi / Taylor

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