Under the Steamroller

In the middle of our village was a square. On one of its sides, the horses and drivers would stand waiting; beyond them were the Yad Labanim war memorial, the “German” coffee shop, and then the office-supplies store where we got our first sexual education from the “stalag” literature [popular prose telling pervert tales of Nazi prisoner camps]. In front of the pharmacy was parked the fanciest car we had ever seen, a light-blue Chevrolet belonging to then Arab MK Fares Hamdan from Baka al-Garbiyeh, with the little adopted girl, Sinayah, sitting in the back, looking at us with dark eyes. She was a Bedouin girl whose family had been killed in an Israeli air raid during the 1956 invasion of Sinai; we knew this because there had been a movie about her. In a remote village like ours, seeing a member of Knesset (and not even campaigning, but in a pharmacy), a luxury car and a girl from the movies all at once was an occasion worthy of being etched in my memory. And this, too, I remember: In the fourth grade, when Israel celebrated the first decade since it was established, after May 1, 1958, I saw a great many detainees, I think they were tied up, in the backyard of our large police station, which faced the school yard. They were Arabs from the Triangle, the area that Hamdan represented in the Knesset.

Hamdan was not really the Triangle’s representative in the Knesset; he was the government’s representative in the Triangle, an extension of the logic that was behind the mukhtar. He always voted in favor of the military rule under which his own people, the Arabs in Israel were living, an administration whose main concern was travel restrictions and the confiscation of land (when the latter activity was completed, the administration was annulled). Hamdan, like other Knesset members that the Mapai Party who were built up to represent the Arabs in the Knesset–Diab Obeid, Seif el-Din el-Zubi and others–received the most distinctive kind of political bribe doled out by the government: land. Moreover, the book reveals, Hamdan also smuggled livestock from Jordan, with the permission of the Israel Defense Forces.
Predominant fear

Every village had its government collaborators, large and small. Using their own reports and the police reports about them, Hillel Cohen describes life under the steamroller in his new book Good Arabs. People who hear tales of totalitarian regimes where every movement, every word, every job are under surveillance have yet to read Hillel Cohen’s book, and they do not know what life was like for Arabs in Israel (the education system is today still subjected to the same kind of supervision). Fear was the dominant emotion. The desire to cling to what was left, the longing to know what happened to the ones who had been driven across the border, and especially hunger, combined with a social structure of family clans that the regime encouraged–all these created a great dependency on the government, which in return demanded collaboration from anyone who came to it. Those who refused were tagged as communists or nationalists.

Every government body had its agents: the police, the Shin Bet security service, the military administration, the Office of the Arab Affairs Adviser–sometimes even IDF Intelligence. Everyone provided information. Sometimes the contacts and the opportunity to turn others in were used to settle scores, as happens in any totalitarian regime. But it went beyond tattling. There were also provocations, use of government-provided weapons, fights and organized disruption of the Communist Party’s activities. Some of the collaborators believed that this was the only way to look out for the welfare of the village, the community, now that everything had been lost. This was the great challenge of the regime: to let them know that we are here forever, while they might not be. Anyone who wants to understand the background to Emile Habibi’s “The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist” or the extensive research Elias Khoury did for his great novel “Gate of the Sun–Bab al-Shams,” can now read the documents from the Israeli side in Cohen’s book.

Because many of the documents were sent out to multiple recipients, shared by the Shin Bet and other covert units, it is very easy to see the whole picture. The police operated “under the authority of the law,” and its documents therefore shed light both on the ways in which the law was put to use, and on illegal activities that were recorded (for example, the IDF’s smuggling, or the use of paid provocateurs). Especially amusing are the reports from the joint meetings held by the military administration, the police, the Shin Bet and Mapai (as the minutes clearly state), aimed at making sure that the Arabs would vote for the movement’s parties and against the Communist Party.

Denial has not been scholarship’s only method of handling oppression and disenfranchisement. Cohen’s excellent book essentially nullifies the way in which, since the 1980s, all this has been described in retrospect using that great concept we learned in youth movement debates, the “dilemma.” For example, Elie Rekhess of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and Africa Studies, tends to hide his historical arguments behind that particular veil; Rekhess, incidentally, seems to have access to some sources that were not opened before Hillel Cohen (a researcher at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem). The State of Israel has always found itself in a dilemma, struggling to choose between different values: democracy versus security. That scenario is compatible with what seems obvious to the average liberal, but it has nothing to do with the reality revealed in Hillel Cohen’s account and in other studies he cites. In fact, only one factor determined the state’s attitude toward the Arabs: There were too many of them left, and on too much land. This was not a dilemma that dominated those formative years of statehood, but rather a complete identification of security with ethnocratic interests: The land belongs to the Jews.

Cohen also wisely describes the quiet rebellion, the refusal to submit, the help given to those refugees who snuck back in (“infiltrated”), and the success of a few tens of thousands in settling back in their country. Drawing on the collaborators’ reports, he describes weddings as an occasion for singing songs that the official jargon termed le’umani (“nationalistic” or “chauvinistic”); the Jews, by contrast, have le’umi (“nationalist”) songs. He pays generous tribute to the activists of the Communist Party as they are portrayed in the archives of the security forces: a caretaker at the bedside of the battered and ailing collective.

It is interesting to read the stories of certain top collaborators who got rich or built themselves impressive careers. “Hassan Obeid, son of Arab MK Diab Obeid, also flirted with intelligence and politics; during the 1980s he served as deputy head of the Taibeh local council, while at the same time establishing contacts in Lebanon. The latter included drug deals. In 1989 Hassan Obeid was sentenced to 10 years in prison for dealing drugs. His partner was Mohammed Biro, considered to be one of Lebanon’s drug barons, and Hezbollah suspected him of collaborating with Israel. Biro was also arrested, and died in prison in Israel.”

I would not quote this unusual genealogy quite so extensively if it did not expose something that not just thrillers can tell us. Since Cohen was not given access to the Shin Bet archives, much remains classified (just as the recent case of Elhanan Tenenbaum [who was kidnapped by Hezbollah] is far from clear, and what is known about it pales in comparison to what remains secret). The “scandals” that erupt in our lives only find expression when someone violates a prohibition relating to a member of the ruling ethnos–but not when a “universal” law is violated. Only when the ruling ethnos is hurt are actions defined as crimes and made public, albeit with significant chunks missing; these are cleverly locked away by the security apparatuses in archives, or in prison.

Two weeks ago, Channel 1’s crime reporter interviewed Jean Elraz, a convict serving a life sentence. In 2001 Elraz murdered Kibbutz Manara’s security officer. Elraz himself claims that he has killed people while in the service of the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the IDF Intelligence Branch’s Unit 504. No one disputes these facts. Nor does anyone dispute that his ties to Lebanese agents involved murder and drugs (and, he claims, trafficking in prostitutes). In this context, it is not really all that interesting whether Elraz is the only psychopath ever to have served in the security forces (he spoke to a Yedioth Ahronoth reporter of his nostalgia for the smell of gunpowder and blood).

What should demand attention is the way in which such matters surface momentarily in our lives as an ethnos. The boundaries between the legal and the illegal, which have never existed with regard to the Arabs (and not only when a Jewish landowner executes an Arab thief)–these boundaries are fairly hidden, and the security bodies have the power to establish or obscure them, thanks to the support they get from the judiciary and the media in any affair whose skewers smell of “security.”

If local Arab communities had the kind of public libraries found in the Jewish ones, I would recommend that they all get multiple copies of Cohen’s book, so that Arab readers in Israel might not despise their parents after all that they went through.

YITZHAK LAOR is an Israeli novelist who lives in Tel Aviv.