The literature on the protracted struggle between Jews and Arabs over Palestine is voluminous. A lion’s share of it, however, deals with the military, political and diplomatic dimensions of the conflict, with scant attention paid to the impact it has had on the daily lives of ordinary Jews and Arabs in historic Palestine. Enemies and Neighbors by Ian Black, the British historian and journalist, admirably fills the gap. Instead of overwhelming the reader with detailed accounts of wars, diplomatic maneuvers and futile peace negotiations, Black skillfully unveils the conflicting historical narratives of each side and clarifies how and why Jews and Palestinians have interacted primarily as foes in the Holy Land during the past century. His illuminating insights were derived from a variety of sources: eyewitness accounts of Jews and Palestinian Arabs living inside Israel, the West Bank and Gaza; the latest available official documents; and the most recently published scholarly sources. Approximately one-half of the some 400 items listed in the bibliography have appeared since 2005.
The Zionist narrative encompasses the notion of the return of Jews to their ancestral home after suffering centuries of persecution in the Diaspora. With the emergence of the state of Israel shortly after the Holocaust, Jews see themselves as having regained strength, self-respect and security. Israeli Jews tend to regard Palestinians as hateful enemies intent on destroying their state while describing themselves as willing to make peace with recalcitrant Arabs.
On the other hand, the Palestinians regard themselves as the genuine indigenous inhabitants of the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Historically constituting a vast majority of the population, they define themselves as innocent victims of Western colonialism. Palestinians accuse Britain for breaking empty and contradictory political promises during the Mandatory period, hold the United Nations responsible for approving the partition of their homeland in 1947, and blame Israel for both the Nakba — the disastrous loss and tragedy of the 1948 war — and the oppressive occupation of the West Bank during the past five decades.
Black points out that, in addition to being diametrically opposed, these competing narratives reflect an irreconcilable zero-sum dilemma: the realization and eventual triumph of Zionism occurred at the expense of inflicting injustice, defeat, exile and humiliation upon the Palestinians. He notes, “Portraying one side as colonialists, settlers and racists and the other as terrorists, fanatics, and anti-Semites only reduces the already slight chances of reconciliation.”
Black provides new evidence that various Zionist leaders were fully aware from the beginning of the twentieth century that the local Arab population was strongly opposed to the waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine. That is why they repeatedly stressed the economic and social benefits that would redound to the Arabs as a result of the increased Jewish presence in Palestine. However, the Palestine that emerged during the three decades after World War I was an area filled with waves of bloody intercommunal violence and torn by distinct and noninteracting Jewish and Arab economic, social, cultural and political structures.
The author maintains that both Palestinian and Zionist leaders missed several opportunities before 1948 to reconcile their conflicting political aims. From the 1920s onwards, leaders in both camps rejected the solution of a binational state in which Jews, Muslims and Christians would enjoy equal political rights regardless of their religion, ethnicity or demographic proportions in the total population. In the mid-1920s, the Zionist leadership and the more radical Palestinian leaders rejected a British proposal to create a joint legislative council in which both Jews and Arabs would have participated on the basis of their respective percentages of the total population. In 1939, both sides again rejected a British plan to establish within a decade a single Palestinian state in which Jews would have remained a permanent minority.
One of the recurrent themes highlighted by Black involves the complicity of some Palestinian Arabs in the Zionist enterprise both before and following the establishment of the Jewish state. He notes that in the early 1900s, absentee Arab landlords sold large tracts of land in the Northern Galilee to the Jewish Colonization Association. Such transactions enabled the Zionists to establish numerous agricultural settlements, encouraged further Jewish immigration, and dispossessed thousands Arab farmers. In the 1930s, various Arab leaders were accused of accepting bribes and selling land to the Jewish National Fund and private Jewish buyers throughout Palestine.
Arab collaboration with Jews has taken different forms during the past five decades. Black notes that, since the 1967 war, Israel’s General Security Service, Shin Bet, has been able to gain valuable intelligence by recruiting hundreds of Palestinian informers in the West Bank and Gaza. It has been estimated that by the end of 1989, at least 150 suspected Palestinian collaborators had been killed by militant Arab nationalists in the occupied territories.
It is also evident that Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza have become an indispensable component of the Israeli labor market. By 1974, close to 70,000 Palestinians were employed as workers in agriculture, construction and restaurant kitchens. A decade later, some 100,000 Palestinians from the territories were holding mostly menial jobs inside Israel. Ironically, some of the more skilled Arab laborers were helping to construct the very new settlements in the West Bank to which the Palestinian leadership had been adamantly opposed.
Black sheds new light on the plight of Palestinian civilians during various stages of the 1948 war. While the forced ouster of thousands of Arabs from Lydda (Lod) has been publicized by Israel’s revisionist New Historians, more recently available sources reveal a considerably larger number of expulsions that were carried out by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). For example, 50,000 Arabs were ousted from Ramle, and large numbers of Palestinians were also expelled from Safed, Majdal, Tiberias, Beisan and Beersheba. As a result of the expulsions and large- scale flights, only 20,000 Arabs remained in the formerly mixed cities of Tel-Aviv, Jaffa, Lod, Ramle, Acre and Haifa.
According to documents recently released by the Israeli government, IDF forces committed atrocities and massacred several hundred Arabs, including women and children, in Lydda, Ramle, several villages around the Hebron hills and Huleh in the Upper Galilee. It has been estimated that between 350 and 400 Arab villages were completely depopulated and most of them destroyed. By 1949, some 120,000 Jewish immigrants were housed in abandoned Arab homes.
Black devotes several chapters of Enemies and Neighbors to vivid descriptions of the harshness of daily life for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank. He notes that for most Arabs facing economic hardships and being subjected to various sorts of humiliation, life under Israel’s military rule has become routinized. The hopelessness and despair emanating from the presence of some 650,000 Jewish settlers, supported by a network of Jewish-only roads and more than 700 checkpoints, have led Rajah Shehadeh, the Palestinian lawyer and writer, to lament, “All these harsh realities conspire to make Palestinians feel that this land is no longer theirs.” In a similar vein, Nissim Levy, a former Shin Bet operative notes,
If a boy in Beersheba falls in love with a girl in Haifa, what does he do? He picks up the phone, makes a date and drives to see her. If a boy from Bethlehem falls in love with a girl from Nablus, what does he do? He has to cross the checkpoints; he needs 1,001 permits. The moment that you reach the conclusion that you have nothing to live for, you immediately find that you have something to die for.
Black contends that most Jews inside Israel proper are unaware of the depth of the misery of Palestinian lives in the occupied West Bank and in blockaded Gaza, and that they consequently lack empathy toward their Arab neighbors. In marked contrast to their brethren across the Green Line, Israeli Arabs — now constituting one-fifth of the total population in the Jewish state — have improved their lot over the past seven decades. Residing in isolated villages under strict military rule until 1966, Israeli-Arab citizens exercise basic political freedoms and enjoy a higher standard of living than the Arabs in the territories. Yet they are poorer than the country’s Jewish citizens and confront discrimination in housing, employment, education and access to various social services.
Black is a gifted writer with an impressive ability to summarize vast amounts of complex material in a few lucid sentences. For example, instead of barraging the reader with a mountain of details about the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian negotiations at Camp David, he explains that Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat were able to reach the historic accord because “Sadat backed down on one vital point, dropping his initial strong insistence on a link between bilateral issues and a full [Israeli] withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
In a similar vein, the author perceptively notes that the 1993 Oslo Accords were made possible and were bound to end in failure because “Israel’s most important gains — recognition by the Palestinians and the pledge by them to stop fighting — were immediate. But the core issues of the conflict — still the subject of enormous gaps — remained untouched.” Likewise, Black attributes the failure of the Camp David II summit between Ehud Barak and Yassar Arafat in July 2000 to the following problem: “Israel’s concessions still fell short of minimum Palestinian demands though: the contiguity of the Palestinian state, full sovereignty in Arab areas of East Jerusalem and a compromise on refugees.”
In the epilogue to this volume, Black turns toward the future and analyzes three potential solutions to the century-old Jewish-Arab conflict over Palestine: two states, one state or no state. He believes that neither Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor any future successor would agree to support anything more than a quasi-autonomous and demilitarized Palestinian entity under “effective Israeli control of the area west of the Jordan.” Such a solution has been and would continue to be unacceptable to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.
There is very little support for the emergence of a single, binational state within the Jewish and non-Israeli Arab publics and leadership levels. Critics of this alternative argue that, with the annexation of the West Bank, the binational entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would shortly have an Arab majority that replaces the Jewish state. To maintain itself as a safe home for the Jews, the current democratic polity of Israel would have to become an apartheid state, with the Arab majority turning into second-class citizens deprived of basic political freedoms.
Black concludes that the most likely foreseeable scenario is what he describes as “an irreversible one-state reality,” the continuation of the status quo with the Palestinians living under oppressive Israeli occupation for years to come. With no mutually acceptable solution in sight, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are tragically bound to remain enemies and neighbors.
Black has been lauded by several reviewers for his evenhanded treatment of this highly controversial subject matter. Indeed, he identifies acts of commission and omission on both sides and catalogues every major act of violence inflicted by Jews and Arabs, both inside Israel proper and in the territories. Yet he could have achieved even greater objectivity had he subjected Palestinian policies to the same critical scrutiny that he applies throughout the volume to the Israeli side. For example, in his analysis of the Barak-Arafat summit at Camp David, Black notes that Arafat walked away from the most generous proposal ever offered to the Palestinians, including Israeli withdrawal from 92 percent of the West Bank and Palestinian sovereignty over some parts of East Jerusalem. But the author fails to pass judgment on the wisdom of Arafat’s rejection, an evaluation that any reader would rightfully expect given Black’s oft repeated observation that when it comes to direct negotiations with Israel, Palestinian interlocutors have been and continue to be in a very weak bargaining position. At the same time, Black is not reluctant to criticize Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of the Gaza Strip, and the construction of Jewish settlements in these territories — policies that he regards as politically shortsighted and morally indefensible.
Notwithstanding this caveat, Black deserves praise for presenting a comprehensive and highly readable account of the protracted and tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By relying heavily on the voices of the victims on both sides, he manages to capture and convey the emotional dimension often missing from the vast literature on this hostile and insoluble encounter. Devoid of scholarly jargon and filled with riveting firsthand accounts, the book should be easily accessible to anyone seeking a better understanding of the topic. Accompanied by its compendium of relevant documents, Enemies and Neighbors would be an important supplementary textbook for an introductory course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.