Back to Square One

Sixty years ago this month, my mother rushed one morning into the bedroom that I shared with my younger brother, Suhail, and told us to dress quickly because we are travelling by sea very shortly to nearby Beirut, Lebanon.

We had had quite an evening the night before–April 22–in Haifa, our Palestinian hometown–a horrific night because the sound of gunfire was deafening, keeping both of us wide awake. I recall the blankets that my father had placed over our window so that stray bullets would not harm us while we were asleep.

It turned out that Haifa had fallen in the hands of armed Jewish groups and many Palestinian Arab families were already in the port area hoping to take a boat to the Lebanese capital.

A British military jeep escorted us with our 11 suitcases to the harbour since my father was the Customs officer-in-charge of a nearby oil installation where we also lived. But to our shock, the freighter did not want to proceed, as promised, to Beirut because now that the fighting had stopped it preferred to unload its merchandise rather than make an extra penny or two. We took the next available ship to Alexandria, Egypt, a beautiful city which we enjoyed tremendously and lived there gloriously, not realising what was in store for us.

I did not get to see Haifa for another 30 years. Thanks to my American passport, I was able to go back with my American-born wife, who was eager to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land. When we arrived there after visiting Jerusalem I told my wife that I also have “stations” in my hometown which I wished to visit–our house as well as those of my grandmother and uncles, my elementary and high schools, the nearby all-girl English High School, where I had some friends, our grocery store and my favourite movie theatre, Armon, whose ceiling use to retract at night just before the show started, probably because there was no air-conditioning at the time.

Although it was a very emotional and a depressing visit I had the feeling, I told my wife, Lili, that I really could live here because Haifa has not essentially changed much in 1977. It always had a large non-Arab element there–mostly European Jews and other Westerners–as it did on this first visit after my departure in 1948.

Sixty years have now passed very slowly since we lost our homeland and yet there is no acceptable resolution to the world’s longest occupation.

Israel is now established in 78 per cent of Palestine while the indigenous Arab population, then numbering about 750,000, is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip and anywhere else in the world. All attempts since 1993, when the so-called Oslo Peace Accords were signed by Palestinians and Israelis, to come up with a just and fair settlement that will accommodate the two peoples have so far come to naught.

A recent visitor to the West Bank, Edward Abington, Jr, who was the US consul general in Arab East Jerusalem during the Clinton administration, said he came back to Washington “convinced more than ever that the two-state solution is dead as a doornail”.

His finding: “There is absolutely no willingness on the part of the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) to change the situation on the ground from the stranglehold they now have.” He noted that 40 per cent of the West Bank is off-limits to Palestinians, primarily because of the expansion of colonies in the region and the highway network that is exclusively confined to travel by Israeli colonists and the military.


Although the Palestinians are still negotiating with the Israelis in the hope of reaching an agreement as promised before the end of the Bush administration’s term early next year, there is general apprehension about the likelihood of such an accord.

One reason for that is the absence of American as well as international pressure on Israel, a situation that should dissuade President Bush from going to Israel next month to celebrate its 60th birthday unless, of course, Israel takes convincing steps towards a viable two-state settlement, some believe to be a far-fetched objective.

The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed to have had her own doubts about seeing a sovereign Palestinian state established alongside Israel. She had told a House Foreign Affairs Committee last fall that the US is concerned “we will lose the window for a two-state solution”.

In a new book with the eye-catching title, Married to Another Man, Ghada Karmi, a British-Palestinian scholar, argues convincingly that “the only way forward for both Palestinians and Israelis” is not a two-state solution where the Israelis control four-fifths of the land while the Palestinians will have the remainder, if at all.

Karmi writes, “The only possible solution that can provide (dignity and equality) will be that of a single state in an unpartitioned land where both people may live together.” She continued, “There is no other sensible way to accommodate their needs and, had it not been for Israel’s destructive and foolish pursuit of an ethnic state for Jews alone, the one-state solution would have been implemented long ago.”

Back to square one. Believe it or not, many prominent Zionists, in the past and at present, had advocated that course that is now gaining ground among the two peoples.

George Hishmeh is an Arab American columnist based in Washington, DC. He can be contacted at