Three Books on Palestine to Read this Summer

The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas, by Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon

Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is the debilitated and authoritarian leader of the Palestinian Authority ruling by decree 11 years into a four-year term. On his watch, the Palestinian movement has fractured into feuding segments and stands at its lowest ebb since the 1967 war. It was not always this way. For many decades, Abbas was one of the shrewdest Palestinian officials who recognized before most of his peers in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that a guerrilla war to liberate historic Palestine was never realistic given Israel’s formidable military superiority and the realities of global politics. The Palestinians, Abu Mazen knew, would have to settle for less than their historic and moral right: a two-state solution. Long before the much heralded “peace process,” Abu Mazen was reaching out via surrogates to test the possibility of an agreement with Israel. In October 1993, shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Abu Mazen established a back channel with Israeli statesman Yossi Beilin that ended up producing a draft of a final peace agreement that Yasser Abed Rabbo, PLO Executive Committee member, called “the most balanced proposal for peace.” Abu Mazen conveyed the draft to his superior PLO Chairman Yasser ‘Arafat, and both men waited to hear what Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would say. Days before Beilin could present the draft to Rabin, Rabin was assassinated by a far-right Jewish zealot. Abu Mazen might have never come closer to clinching a reasonably fair deal for his people, which was born out of his pragmatism. That pragmatism is no longer visionary and has morphed into nothing loftier than holding onto power. Abbas has lost the trust of his people and offers no vision of liberation. How that came to be — the arc from potential peacemaker to despot — is traced in this unfortunately titled book, which should be read by all those interested to learn how that came to be and why the recent record of the Palestinian movement has fallen so short of its promise

Jerusalem 1900: The Holy City in the Age of Possibilities, by Vincent Lemire

One of the most pronounced myths of Israeli occupation is that, under Israeli stewardship, Jerusalem has never been more open and respectful of all Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The propaganda is easily disproven, however, given Israel’s discriminatory practices toward Palestinian Christian and Muslim Jerusalemites (including their holy sites), and the fact that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza seldom have access to the holy city. On the contrary, the introduction of Zionism in Palestine upended the erstwhile peaceful, and occasionally warm, interfaith order in Jerusalem. Vincent Lemire’s Jerusalem 1900 chronicles the history of the ancient city at the turn of the century and offers a compelling rebuke to this false Israeli claim that seeks to legitimize Israel’s occupation. The French-educated Albert Antebi, a prominent Jewish Jerusalemite who served as the director of the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) in Jerusalem, foreshadowed in his writings the inevitable destruction of ecumenical bonds by Zionism’s tribal nationalism. Antebi’s record, which the author explores, sheds light on the Jewish community at the time. Antebi welcomed the social progress that American and European Zionist newcomers brought to the much poorer Eastern Jews, but was appalled by “their arrogance” and unapologetic anti-Arab stance. As a native Arabic speaker who was fully integrated into Palestinian culture, he was accused by Ashkenazi Jews of being too close to Jerusalem’s Muslims. In one illustrative anecdote, three Ashkenazi Zionists showed up at the AIU and demanded that Antebi kick out a Muslim teacher at the organization, which had Christian and Muslim students. “I am disgusted, discouraged,” Antebi wrote. The exclusionary vision of Zionism — expelling the Palestinians — was always at the heart of the project to colonize Palestine, along with a contemptuous arrogance toward the natives, including Jews deemed to be too “oriental.” Antebi knew this would separate the Jews from their neighbors with devastating consequences. This long-lost voice of Jerusalem, along with other assuming vignettes of a Jerusalem free of Zionism’s militarized segregation and brutality, deserves to be widely heard.

The Land That Remains, by Federico Busonero

How does one photograph a land and a country that’s often reduced to distorting images? Federico Busonero, who made three photographic excursions into Palestine in 2008-09, offers one of the definitive photography collections of contemporary Palestine in The Land That Remains. Busonero does not aim his lens at Israeli checkpoints or the infamous separation barrier. An ignorant reader might not discern that there is a military occupation in Palestine from his photographs. Critics might charge that Busonero, a sympathizer with the Palestinian struggle, has done a disservice to that cause by omitting the brutal intrusion of the occupation. But, Palestine is more than the occupation, and the real disservice to the Palestinian people would be to reduce their existence to that sad state of affairs. What Busonero’s photographs vividly convey is that despite Israel’s efforts to dominate the landscape and turn the Palestinians into mere incidental props on their land, the Palestinian existence transcends Israeli occupation. In the mosques and churches, villages and towns, the Palestinians people appear not in the shadow — literally and figuratively — of Israeli occupation but as permanent beings embedded in the soil.  Their daily lives – from traveling to work or attending to their herd – appear to be indifferent to the surrounding open-air prison; it is the Palestinian fellahin that Busonero captures, “the essential strain of the basic primitive, wailing humanity,” who will outlast all ephemeral rulers.  The narrative arc running through Busonero’s photographs is that Palestine is an antique land, as exhibited in many of the photographs of ancient ruins. This land has known many conquerors, but through it all the Palestinian people go on with their lives in the land that remains. The only thing circumstantial and incidental is the Israeli walls and checkpoints deforming the land, and Busonero is only interested in capturing the eternal landscape and its people.

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About Khelil Bouarrouj 27 Articles
Khelil Bouarrouj is a Junior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

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