Sample text for Cain's field : faith, fratricide, and fear in the Middle East / Matt Rees.


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Introduction: "Camels, Sand and Shit"

Your brother, your brother! He who has no brother is like one going to battle without a weapon.

Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)

In the cluttered drawer of a dark teak sideboard in her living room in a Welsh mining town, my grandmother kept a postcard her mother received in 1916. My great-great-uncle Dan sent it from the Imperial Camel Corps base camp at Abbasia, Egypt. The card bore a sepia photograph of a haughty camel tethered before a distant pyramid. On the yellowing reverse side, in a Victorian hand displaying surprisingly schoolmasterly penmanship for a man who dug coal during peacetime, was the message "Dear Sis, There's nothing here but camels, sand and shit. Your brother, Dan." When my grandmother showed me the card, I imagined her mother, a forbiddingly formal woman who called her own husband by his surname, waiting for news of her brother away at the war and receiving only this terse, black humor. My grandmother giggled at the naughtiness of the language. With a vocabulary more blithely scatological than hers, I was struck more powerfully by the contrast between the popular image of the Orient on the card's front and Dan's grimly authentic missive on the back.

I came to the Middle East eighty years after Dan and his brother Dai, who battled to Jerusalem as part of the World War I campaign that made a name for another Welsh-born soldier, Colonel T. E. Lawrence of Arabia. Fortunately, I came not as a combatant but as a journalist, aiming to understand why others continued to fight here in a conflict that has halted for barely a single day since the Camel Corps crossed the Sinai. I soon saw that the dour bareness of Dan's note was not a great deal more simplistic than the framework through which many contemporary journalists and diplomats viewed the long struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. From Lawrence of Arabia to Bill Clinton, Westerners applied their apparently logical perceptions of the conflict to a potential resolution, colored by romantic notions of the noble desert Bedouin or an evangelical inspiration to succor the biblical Hebrews in their homeland. When I arrived in 1996, it soon became clear to me that these solutions failed because they missed something that, though intrinsic to the Middle East, never had become part of the picture-postcard myths of the mystical East or the biblical Holy Land. Westerners looked at it this way: there was a conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and there was a need to keep both from violence. Seeking a solution, they came at it with preconceptions perhaps more susceptible to the arguments of one side or the other, but even the most impartial found that whatever they suggested met with the inevitable outrage of one of the parties.

I began to think of the understanding most outsiders bring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as neatly framed, yet incomplete, like Dan's postcard. I tried to look beyond the edge of the photograph, where diplomats and foreign correspondents and think-tank experts tended not to delve. I focused less on the contacts between Israelis and Palestinians and more on the relations within the two societies themselves. Those cracks in the structures of Palestinian and Israeli society were the places I looked -- places that others largely ignored, because the complexity to be found there confused their theories and policy assessments or the tidy leads of their daily news stories, puncturing their unassailable definitiveness. For beyond the dualistic conventions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which were as cliche;d in the minds of Westerners as the image of a camel posed before a pyramid, there I believed I would learn the hopes of the man who rode the camel and the resentment of the peasant paid to shovel its shit for him, and the grudges of the two traders fighting over ownership of the same lone and level sands. The deeper I got, the further I went outside the frame of the photo, the more I found that it was the internal divisions of the two societies that provided a true reading of the conflict and a hope for its eventual resolution.

In both Israeli and Palestinian society, it is common to hear people admit that there are tremendous divisions -- between, for example, religious and secular Israelis, or between Islamists and the Palestinian Authority. But in each case the typical assumption is that those internal divisions cannot be confronted unless the national conflict is resolved first. Over my years in Jerusalem, I realized that this was, in fact, at least halfway wrong. Without beginning to look for solutions to these divisions within their societies, neither Israelis nor Palestinians could feel secure enough in themselves to take the risk of a true peace deal. Without those internal solutions, Palestinians were always at the mercy of undemocratic elements committed to violence or narrow, local interests. Without those internal solutions, Israeli governments continued to undercut peace deals by building more West Bank outposts at the behest of a minority, the settlers. These, of course, were only some of the divisions that marred the chances of either side truly uniting behind a peace effort.

These two Middle Eastern nations battle over a land that was the field Cain farmed in the Book of Genesis. Cain's offering of "the fruit of the ground" pleased God less than the "firstlings of his flock" offered by his brother Abel, a shepherd. Cain felt wronged by a judgmental God and answered with a new wrong. As most Westerners do, I grew up believing Cain had been evil, the first murderer, without ever reading anything but a children's version of the story. As I traveled the hills of Palestine, I studied the original tale in Genesis and was struck with a sense of outrage on behalf of Cain. It seemed to me that God had been unfair. Cain, as a farmer, could hardly have offered anything but the grain he harvested. It was not the first time this notion of divine injustice occurred to me while living in and writing about the Middle East. Each of the stories I tell here delivered a visceral shock to me, a physical reaction to inequity and suffering and intolerance. The violence that followed Cain's offering mirrored the region's present horrors, where brothers who feel themselves wronged still contend with each other.

I began with a simple Westernized understanding of the biblical story of Cain. As I looked at it more deeply, I was able to empathize with Cain's simple humanity, no longer obscured by the symbolism with which the centuries weighted him. In the same way, as my understanding of Palestinian and Israeli societies deepened, I transcended the received Western interpretation of the conflict. If I could empathize with Cain, so too I could look upon the people who were the subject of this book not as they might appear in most Western media -- as terrorists, oppressors, bullies, fanatics -- but instead I could listen to their human voices as they told their stories.

Though many thoughtful Israelis and Palestinians acknowledge the veracity of my thesis, it runs counter to the received wisdom of their cultures. It's easier to blame the other side for all your problems. The point is that this leaks into their perceptions of their own societies until they live with such a deep personal sense of victimization that many develop a concomitant feeling that anything they might do, no matter how heedless of their compatriots or how unreasonable, is justified because of the forces arrayed against them. The Hamas charter delineates a series of shadowy "powers that support the enemy," including the Masons, the Rotary Club, and the Lions Club. A prominent Israeli academic, Dan Schueftan, told me, "The first thought that enters an Israeli's head when he wakes in the morning is, Fuck you. It's there before he even has an idea to whom he wants to say 'Fuck you.'"

For Israeli Jews, there is a historical sensitivity to any suggestion that Jew might battle Jew. It's rooted in the destructive fundamentalist fratricide of the Hasmoneans in 167 B.C., and the other bloody civil fighting that drew the Romans eventually to demolish the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and, sixty-five years later, to expel the Jews from Judea. Even though a Jew killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 over his peace agreement with Arafat, Israelis play down the impact of their internal divisions and point to their supposed ability to pull together when Palestinian violence threatens them. The elements of their identity behind which they come together at those moments, however, are only superficially unifying. In fact, they are emblematic of the very divisions Israelis believe they override. There's a common bumper sticker in Israel that reads A Combat Soldier, That's the Best, My Brother. The daring, self-sacrificing Israeli reservist, taking up arms one month each year, is the symbol of the nation's unity and mission. But many Israelis don't serve in the army, let alone in combat roles: they are ultra-Orthodox, and are vilified by those Israelis that do fight. Few of Israel's Arab citizens, one-fifth of the population, enlist in the army, because they aren't trusted to fight other Arabs, and are shut out of both the kudos and the civic rights attached to military service. In no other country I have ever visited is it so common to hear someone call his countryman "Nazi," an epithet I heard used most often by demonstrators, secular and ultra-Orthodox, at various confrontations with police and army. Israelis' self-image is of a nation of Spartans -- single-minded, selfless warriors. In fact, they're closer to the fickle, self-defeating, captious Athenians.

The least admirable among Israel's political class continue to promulgate the notion that Israel faces an existential threat to which the only answer is the combat soldier's long weeks of reserve duty and an uncompromising line against the Palestinians. It's easy to unite people behind such jingoism and it's also simple to illustrate it. Take a helicopter ride up Israel's coastal plain and you'll feel you could reach out and scrape your knuckles on the Judean hills inside the West Bank at the same time as the fingers of your other hand dabble in the Mediterranean. That sense of threat ought to be diminished by Israel's nuclear weapons capability, but it isn't, because of politicians for whom a little paranoia is a valuable excuse to hold on to occupied land. Again, the unity that comes with such reasoning is deceptive and soon falls away when tested by the pressures within Israeli society.

Palestinians, too, indulge in myths and cliche;s designed to prevent them from looking too harshly inward. When a Hamas bomb maker named Muhi ed-Din Sharif died in 1998, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority suggested his comrades in the Islamic fundamentalist group had rubbed him out as part of an internal feud. In Ramallah, where Sharif died, Palestinians repeatedly told me it was inconceivable that a Palestinian would have killed another Palestinian. It was a parallel to the mantra of incomprehension heard everywhere after Rabin's death at the hands of a Jewish assassin. Yet it was evident to me that Jews killed Jews and Palestinians slew Palestinians, and when they didn't murder, they often abused and affronted their own. To ignore the impact of that civic violence and violation, to ascribe all ills to the national conflict seemed to me analogous to a paraplegic complaining that he'd walk fine if only someone would give him a new pair of sneakers.

When I came to Israel, it looked to some as though the national conflict might be near its end, because of the Oslo peace deal signed between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993. Since then, that great conflict between the two nations proved too big for the peace treaty. The commitment of both sides constantly eroded under the tension Oslo created within their societies and the unwillingness of various leaders to assuage that stress. Since then, too, my contemplation of the unity of purpose of my great-great-uncles led me to a personal understanding of the conflict that focuses on those battles within the two camps. Whereas Dai and Dan Beynon united through a mission and a faith, it seems that among Israelis and Palestinians such things divide more than they bind. Talmudic rabbis, who sought to expand upon the sparse details of the Book of Genesis, wrote that the argument between Cain and Abel was over the site where God's Holy Temple would be built: each wanted it constructed on his field. The eventual location of the Temple in Jerusalem is the source of dispute between Palestinians and Israelis, but just as powerfully between Israelis who would concede absolute control over the area and those who believe such an accommodation would signal the demise of their religion and their people.

I focused my reporting on the truly disturbing betrayals and hatreds within these two communities -- between Islamic fundamentalists and Palestinian rulers, between Israeli settlers and peace campaigners, and other ruptures I would never have imagined. In my years of reporting on the supposedly bigger conflict between the two nations, it was these internecine stresses that provided me with the most unexpected, enlightening insights into just why the Holy Land remains at war. It even afforded me a glimpse of how that war might, just might, end. Only when Israelis and Palestinians no longer contend with their compatriots will they feel strong and secure enough to make a lasting peace with their national enemies.

Copyright © 2004 by Matt Rees




Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Arab-Israeli conflict.
Arab-Israeli conflict -- Religious aspects -- Judaism.
Arab-Israeli conflict -- Religious aspects -- Islam.
Israel -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
Palestinian Arabs -- Social conditions -- 20th century.