Revolt of Arab Refugees, 1969

The war raging on in the Gaza Strip is complex. I am not qualified to talk about it. There are a few great articles and posts (on photojournalism and geopolitics) which I am sharing below:

From The Economist: Ali Jadallah has lost four relatives in Gaza. He’s still taking pictures

From Patrick Witty, former photo editor for the New York Times, TIME, and National Geographic: Embedding with the Enemy; War is the Most Violent Color; The End, and Beginning of Life in Gaza.

From Nic Kristof: What we get wrong about Israel and Gaza

From John Oliver: Israel-Hamas War (30-minute YouTube video)

I flipped back into old magazines for a sense of historical perspective into the conflict, which is important. In 1969 issue, Look magazine profiled Fatah and PLO, earlier incarnations of the Palestinian movement. Reporter Christopher Wren and photographer Tom Koeniges spent time with various guerrilla groups in the West Bank, Palestinian refuges and diaspora, and Israeli settlers to put together a report whose quotes and insights still resonate today.

Several quotes like these ones still resonate because between 1969 and now, these sentiments have not changed, tragically: “This is the generation that will reach the Mediterranean.” “War will last not six days, but 60 years or even longer….it took 200 years to drive the Crusaders from Palestine.” “We’ll make the cost too high for Israel.” “We want people in Europe and America to know that they will have no peace at home if there is no justice for Palestine.” “When you kill one person in Tel Aviv, it has more effect than when you kill ten soldiers on the border.”

Without additional commentary, below the photos, is the article as it appeared in May 13, 1969 issue of Look magazine.

Look Magazine, May 13, 1969

In 1948, the fathers lost a land called Palestine. Now their sons come with Russian guns to take it back. Are they freedom fighters or terrorists?

THEY KNOCKED AT MY hotel room in Beirut one night – two affable young men from the Palestine National Liberation Movement – to find out why I had been making inquiries. In their dark business suits and polished cordovans, they looked like a pair of Madison Avenue account executives calling on a client.

They were Fred and John, they said, with no last names. “Please don’t call us Al Fatah.” said Fred. He took the Scotch I offered, with a little soda. “Everyone has, but our name is just Fatah.” He wore a striped tie and a blue button-down-collar shirt. Fred had been educated at Ohio State University.

When we arrived in Amman two days later, Fatah showed a different face. Ahmed was a big, sour man, almost fat, with thinning hair. Under his gray-wool cardigan, in a discreet shoulder holster, he packed a Browning 9-mm automatic pistol. Ahmed was only a code name, like Fred and John in Beirut.

“We don’t have homes,” he argued, “why should we have names?” Though he was Fatah’s press contact, he distrusted reporters, and he didn’t like Americans.

He was a fighter. “We waited 20 years for a political solution,” he brooded, “and it failed. No one is going to do anything for us, unless we do it for ourselves.

We bounced over rutted roads in his Land Rover to a training camp tucked under the trees, high in the rock-heavy Jordanian mountains. About 50 Fatah recruits were sprinting over an obstacle course as bullets from an instructor’s Kalashnikov assault rifle kicked dirt clods at their heels. They wore four varieties of faded camouflaged uniforms, blue jeans, even two U.S. Marine Corps khaki shirts with NCO stripes.

Photographer Tom Koeniges scooped up a green frog. He held it out to several young guerrillas beside him. One snatched it, bit off the head, squeezed out the guts, and chewed it up. The others nodded. That’s what would keep you alive on a mission someday.

One old-timer said Tom looked Jewish. As a matter of fact, said Tom, he was Catholic. Oh, that was different. The guerrilla invited us off to fire his Kalashnikov. We took turns blasting away at a rock.

The other guerrillas soon gathered around. They wanted to wrestle. Given no choice, I plunged in and lost. A medic with red-crescent armband dabbed my bleeding chin with wet cotton. My opponents slapped me on the back. Even if America was selling Phantom jets to Israel, I was one of the boys.

Such are the people of Fatah. In a better world, they would have so little in common, but now they have converged in a hip pocket revolution that is going to get bigger. These are the refugees of Palestine.

Nearly three-quarter million of them lost everything when Israel was born, and they were easily for-gotten, though the United States has sent some half-billion dollars through the United Nations to keep them barely alive in the squalid camps. Now, abruptly, the hands they once begged with hold sleek automatic weapons. The new identity is disturbing. Are they mechablim, those who destroy, as the Israelis label them? Or are they fedayeen, those who sacrifice, as they describe themselves?

Prof. Walid Khalidi, who teaches political science at the American University in Beirut, calls them “people banging at the door of the conscience of mankind.” Professor Khalidi is the leading intellectual of what has become a very real Arab brand of Zionism. “I trace my family in Jerusalem back for 800 years” he told me, “which is considerably longer than Lyndon Johnson’s has been in Texas. Tet for some reason, 800 years of continuous occupation do not give me a right to my home.

“The basic grievance of the Palestinians is that they haven’t done anything wrong. They have been made to pay for the sins of the West, for the persecution of the Jews in the Christian countries and for the failure of the United States and the others to take in the Jewish immigrants.”

The Israelis say that the Palestinian leaders told their people to leave in 1948 until the Arab armies could crash the new state The Palestinians insist that they left to avoid the fighting, and because of terror, like the massacre in April, 1948, at Deir Tassin, where more than 200 Arab villagers were rounded up and shot by Jewish guerrillas of the extremist Irgun Zvai Leumi. Once they fled, they were never allowed to return. In Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, the Palestinians went into tent-city diaspora and waited for the Arab governments to bring them home.

Political activity was suppressed by their fellow Arabs. “We were treated as troublesome children and nothing more,” recalls a Fatah guerrilla. Many of today’s leaders served time in Arab jails. The Egyptians ran the Palestinian political organization. Their handpicked choice, Ahmed Shukairy, swore he’d drive the Jews into the sea, a pledge that Palestinians now take pains to refute. “He barked night and day.” says a Fatah veteran, “but he never represented us.”

In the limping Arab economies, they became superfluous labor. Only in Jordan were they given full citizenship. Secret armed societies sprang up; Fatah’s first martyr, returning from the first raid into lsrael on January 1, 1965, was killed by Jordanian soldiers. When the Arab countries took a third beating in 1967, the Palestinians decided they would have to do their fighting themselves.

The generation that lost Palestine was emotionally destroyed. Some refugees were displaced by war three times in 20 years. “It is in our tradition,” an old man in the Beddawi camp outside Tripoli, Lebanon, cried at me, “that anyone who has no country has no dignity, no faith, no honor!” In 1969, two-thirds of some two million Palestinians are still refugees, and half of these are under 18 years old. They want more than what they call their land; they want their self-respect. The slang boast, “We’ll meet in Tel Aviv.” affirms the only future they want. They are the material from which the guerrillas have been molded.

“The idea that time is a healer has clearly been proven wrong.” said Professor Khalidi. “This in a generation born in the camps. These are children who have seen their parents with begging bowls in their hands. They know why this has happened.”

The militancy of the young camp refugees struck a chord among the educated Palestinians who had scattered throughout the Middle East. Some 50,000 Palestinians hold university degrees. They have given the movement its depth-and shadow leadership-and sometimes even the muscle.

Total guerrilla strength runs from 3,000 to 10, 000, depending upon whom we talked to. The Israelis put it low, the Arabs, high. Western guesses place it anywhere in between. The guerrillas operate from Syria and Jordan, but about 300 crossed the border to the southeaster slopes of Mt. Hermon without the consent of Lebanon. Egypt has sent its own commandos into the Sinai, and lets Fatah broadcast an hour every night from Cairo. The guerrilla organizations have totaled more than 40, but since the war of 1967. they have merged into four mainstreams:

  • Fatah (Conquest), the strongest and best known. with its military arm Al Assifa (The Storm)
  • Popular Liberation Army, a new guerrilla offshoot of the old regular Palestine Liberation Army.
  • Al Saiga (Thunderbolt), Syrian-influenced.
  • Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. possibly the deadliest. Younger fighters recently splintered into a Popular Democratic Front.

The groups, except for the Front, have collected under the political umbrella of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Our story took as inside Fatah and the Popular Front.

“We started with Sten guns, whatever me could find.” said Walid, 33, a regular since Fatah’s first days. “The rusty guns developed into rockets.” I had met him at the organization’s stucco house on a residential hillside of Amman. Fatah, he said, patterned itself after the Algerian revolutionaries. The earliest guerrillas trained in Algeria. Some, he added, had been in Cuba, China and “all parts” of Vietnam. Today, Fatah trains in Syria and Jordan.

Fatah’s Soviet weapons were scrounged from the 1967 battlefields or bought with hard cash from factories in Eastern Europe. I later saw some Chinese arms that one guerrilla said had been “donated” by Red China, via the Syrian port of Latakia. If so. they were few. Fatah emphasizes that it is non-political. The Palestinians, in fact, make the Soviet Union nervous because they threaten to unbalance its expensive alliances in the Middle East.

Fatah’s sidestepping of politics has brought in oil money from the governments of Saudi Arabia, Ka-wait and Libya, and “conscience money” from other Arab states. Some grass-roots financing comes from the refugees themselves.

The guerrillas have introduced an informal socialism to the Arab world. Pay in Fatah runs according to family size and not rank. though it can total more than what a Jordanian soldier earns. Officers and men call each other ach (brother). The whole refuge community is swept along in the cause. Its women have been asked to knit a sweater a year for the jedayees. In return, guerrillas have passed out surplus submachine guns in the refugee camps. The Jordanian authorities have been ordered by the guerrillas not to search the camps.

Outside the Baqa’a camp, razged boys 10 to 11 years old ran through their daily two hour military training. They were Fatah’s ashbal. “This is the generation that will reach the Mediterranean,” boasted a Fatali adviser in a maroon beret. After watching one 12-year-old slip a bayonet across his little partner’s throat, I remarked that schooling like this wouldn’t win American fans. My companion from Fatah lost his tempers. “We haven’t got gardens to take our children to. We haven’t even got homes. If I took my son to a garden, I’d be deceiving him. He must know only one thing: what it is to be a human being. Why shouldn’t he learn to fight?”

Though the brother of Kuwait’s prime minister was wounded fighting with the fedayeen, all Fatal guerrillas I met were Palestinian but one, a handsome 27-year-old Egyptian psychiatrist. He had left a Cairo hospital to work as a Fatah doctor. He was examining patients by kerosene light in a corrugated-iron shack that Fatah ran as a clinic in the Marka refugee camp. The doctor treated 200 refugees at the camp: they no longer both with the UN-run clinic. His medicine was ample. It came, often free, through American, Swiss and Russian channels. People in the U.S. had collected $60,000 worth of drugs for Fatah. Arab doctors in U.S. were financing a hospital bus. Doctors at the American University in Beirut had already outfitted another.

When a Fatah raiding party went out, Egyptian doctor kept at his aid station past ten guerrilla blood donors, so that transfusions could be given to any casualties brought back. Serious casualties I learned later, were sent on to hospital in Beirut and Kuwait. One Fatah lieutenant had his leg sheared off in combat and he was flown to London for treat-and an artificial leg.

Fatah must operate across some of most disastrous guerrilla country in world – arid, barren, often flat. Travelling on foot, its guerrillas are no match to what is, for its size, the most mobile  army in the world. The guerrillas the best Soviet small arms, even rockets, and now they are bidding anti-aircraft guns. But against jets, helicopters and tanks, they have little chance, though with Jordian Army support, they stood and fought the Israelis off Al Karameh in March, 1968. They have had to resort to mining and shelling. The Israelis call such terrorism, but for Fatah. Battlefield etiquette disappeared years ago.

“Why call as terrorists?” one guerrilla officer protested. “They were the same when they were killing the British. they call themselves terrorists? They called themselves a War of Liberation.”

In fact, he insisted, Fatah has no intention of attacking Israel in set-piece battle. “The Israelis crossed border twice to defeat the Arab armies. Can we deal with the Israelis any better? Of course not.”

The Fatah strategists concede the Israeli Army power and speed. But time, they say, is with them. The refugees’ war will last not six days, but 60 years or even longer. They point out that it took 200 years to drive the Crusaders from Palestine.

“We’ll make the cost too high for Israel. Five or six billion dollars a year,” said a PLO delegate, “until tire of paying the bill. They will have no peace they come to accept Palestinian rights.”

After all, explained a Fatah veteran, the guerillas have no country to lose. An Israeli reprisal against Jordan or Syria doesn’t stop them; in fact, it brings in more recruits. When a base is napalmed, they’ll build another. “We should pay whatever price it takes to regain our land,” he said.

The guerrillas insist their war is with Zionism not Judaism. They want to see Israel dismantled as a state. But, said Ahmed, Fatah’s information officer, “We are not anti-Semitic because we are Semites. We have no quarrel with the Jews as a people. They are two million, we are the same. They’ve been here for 20 years. We don’t want to send them back. The state we build together will be secular.”

Though in the past it has suffered up to 90 percent casualties on its missions, Fatah has an almost mystical faith that toughness can overcome Israeli technical superiority. But the guerrillas inevitably become fatalistic. I stood with one as we watched a bazooka mis-fire three times. I asked if it ever happened on a raid. He shrugged: “If it works, we’re alive. If it doesn’t, we’re dead. But that’s life.”

Fatah’s men basked in our attention, up to a point. Too many questions and photographs led them to conclude one day that we were not correspondents but espionage agents, and they told us so. We made a delicate exit and went off to visit the competition.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, far less known because it turns away both oil money and visitors, is the most radical and ruthless of the fighting units. There is evidence that, at least until its schism at the end of February. it was nearly as solidly rooted as Fatah, if less affluent. It prefers brain to brawn.

While Fatah guerrillas take bayonet training, the Popular Front types take Hebrew lessons. Fatah skirmishes along the border. The Front goes long-range into Israel.

The Popular Front has gained notoriety for its attacks on the El Al airliners. The planners, aware that Israel’s only links with the outside world are tv air and sea, work from a large El Al master schedule, circling dates and locations of possible targets. A few hawks who’ve argued that any aircraft on the Israel run is fair game have been overruled – thus far. In Beirut, the man who helped set up the attacks agreed for the hurst time to tell why:

“As Palestinians driven out of our homes, we will fight our enemy wherever he is. We have not relinquished the right of jurisdiction over our land. Anyone going there must have our permission.

“The fedayeen who attacked the planes had strict orders not to injure civilians. It was a stray bullet that killed the passenger in Athens. They are ordered not to fight the local authorifies. Our fedayeen know they will be imprisoned or killed.

“El Al is a legitimate military target. It has hauled military supplies and troops. Its pilots are Air Force reserve officers. Let them refrain from using El Al for military purposes.

“We want people in Europe and America to know that they will have no peace at home if there is no justice for Palestine. Inconvenience is not a bad price to pay for supporting the Israelis.”

In Jordan, the Popular Front finally agreed to take us to a base. Someone ventured that we were the first Western reporters to be allowed inside. No. another guerrilla corrected, there had been the French reporter, but he was killed on a mission, and they had that terrible time getting his body out. They drove us into the mountains at night. We kept climbing and bouncing: suddenly, the car lurched to a stop. A scrawny 11-year-old aiming an Egyptian Port Said submachine gun stepped out of the darkness. If we had crossed the imaginary line, he would have opened fire.

The camp was hidden in a small grove of pines. We found the camp commander. Abou Raad, reading poetry in his tent. He was 28, a former economics student, and had a brother studying in Texas.

“Were all Marxist-Leninists here.” he said. “Every week we go into the refugee camps and hold open political discussions. If we went in depending only on our arms, we wouldn’t have the support. We have to awaken the people to the political realities

“We don’t compromise with governments we believe are wrong.” Abou Raad had already been in a Jordanian prison. “The Popular Front is the only one that doesn’t give a damn. If we want to operate from Lebanon or the Golan Heights, we will.”

Abou Raad’s list of wrong governments included Israel, the West, most Arab states, even the Soviet Union, for its invasion of Czechoslovakia. His friends were China, Algeria, North Vietnam and Caba, none of which had helped the Front.

We were given a tent, blankets and, incredibly. several Port Said submachine guns (to protect ourselves, one guerrilla explained, if either the Jordanians or Israelis hit the camp). We let the guns lie.

A day with the Popular Front begins with 6 a.m. reveille and a 6:30 training run. We ran down one mountain, along a road, stopped for calisthenics, and climbed back up again. Breakfast was sweet tea and bread dipped into a communal plate of za’atar – olive oil, sesame seeds and thyme. Political education came first, then tactics or weapons instruction, and at midday, a meal, usually of bread and a communal plate of potatoes cooked with tomatoes. Meat appeared only on Wednesdays and Sundays. Political discussion continued during lunch: more military instruction filled the afternoon. Before supper. there was a group self-criticism meeting: after supper, tutoring in Hebrew and geography. Before going to bed, the guerrillas read from a tent library of Marx, Lenin and Mao Tse-tung, all in Arabic. Every two weeks, they made an all-night march. and sometimes a three-day forced march across the mountains to check out isolated villages.

Abou Raad led the political discussions under the trees. His critique of the Six Day War echoed what he called the Popular Front’s “correct thought.”

“It’s said that the defeat of 1967 took place because we were weak. Nobody offered a scientific solution. Our leaders have looked after their own interests rather than those of the masses. It was their regimes and their mentality that were defeated, and if it keeps on, we’ll lose again.

“The most important thing is to arm the people with political thought as well as physical arms. We are not in the middle of a revolution. We are in the beginning, and the beginning is the hardest.”

Our Front hosts knew the guerrilla business well. On patrol, they spread out, the lead man far ahead. They stayed off the skyline. The last man always covered the rear. Their weapons were buffed with constant cleaning. I was told that their Kalashnikovs had cost the Popular Front $300 apiece, whether bought used from the Bedouins who had scavenged them in the Six Day War or new on the Eastern European market. Each bullet cost ten cents. The last man who had fired off his weapon for fun had been made to crawl around the mountains on all fours.

If a guerrilla broke the rules, a meeting was called. He stood up and confessed. When he couldn’t suggest a punishment, the others did it for him. And if, for instance, he slept on guard three times, he was tossed out of the Popular Front altogether.

Unlike Fatah, the Front pays no salary. Money goes to support a guerrilla’s family, but he himself gets just his food, blanket and weapon.

Our camp, though vulnerable to attack, was not an assault base. These were small way stations on the border itself, where a party got its last minute briefing on target, tactics and weapons. After a raid, the guerrillas pulled back to their regular bases.

Abou Aaid, an 18-year-old carpenter turned machine gunner, was steeped in the Front’s thinking: “The Popular Front depends on the quality of raids, not the quantity. When you kill one person in Tel Aviv, it has more effect than when you kill ten soldiers on the border. Our strategy for the future is to create bases inside Israel and operate from within the population.” In fact, the Front has already gained roots on the West Bank, Last winter’s bombings of a Jerusalem supermarket and the Hebrew University cafeteria were carried out through its inside link.

The Popular Front’s hard line is enough to keep the rival Fatah from ever going soft. The Front guerrillas think they may run the show someday.

“We’ll never carry arms against Fatah.” one told me, “but other fedayeen will emerge into the Popular Front stream. Like any revolution, the socialist cause will emerge from the nationalist.”

When we left, Abou Raad drove back with us to Amman. “Now you take care of each other,” he told his deputy, and they kissed Arab-style. Seven of us packed into a small station wagon and drove into the night. Abou Raad kicked off a lusty medley of fedayeen songs. A car caught up behind us. One of the guerrillas dangling his feet out the open rear pulled out a pistol and waved the car away.

At the city outskirts, a Jordanian roadblock stopped us. A soldier poked his head in at three Kalashnikovs, backed out fast, and waved us on. So much for the law forbidding the guerrillas from taking their guns to town. What if he’d made us get out?

“We would have shot him.” someone laughed.

We strong-armed through another roadblock arrived at our hotel. The guerrillas, shoving aside a Jordanian major, escorted us to the door. Abou Raad dipped into his pocket and handed me a scarred American. M-1 rifle slug. Expressionless, he told me be had taken it out of the belly of a girl killed by Jordanian soldiers in a shoot-out at the Wedhaat refugee camp last November. Supported by the Front and Fatah, the refugees had set four tanks afire with Molotov cocktails. I tried to hand the slag back. No, be insisted, he wanted me to keep it and remember it.

“We’ll meet in “Tel Aviv.” He climbed into the station wagon, and the guerrillas screeched off.

We ended our journey in Israel, partly on suggestion of a Palestinian leader that we go to “occupied land” to see for ourselves what the guerillas had wrought. The Israelis said they found mechablim troublesome but not dangerous. A man complained: “The terrorists wouldn’t be so well off if you didn’t romanticize them in the press.” In Isereal, captured guerrillas are not prisoners of war but common criminals to be locked up. But then, the guerillas don’t bother to take any prisoners at all.

Kfar Ruppin is a kibbutz set smack against the Jordan River border. It had been quiet during the 1967 war. The troubles started in the fall, when the Arabs guided the first Fatah raiders at night through the alfalfa fields. Army ambushes and then an electronic fence cut their mobility, The guerrillas started mining the roads. The Israelis paved them over. Fatah began random shelling. The Israelis strafed back with jets. Now, Fatah wires its Russian bazookas with time fuses and clears out.

“We decided to put the children to sleep in the shelters at night.” said Jacob Noy, who runs the kibbutz security. “It’s safer for them, and it’s a burden lifted from their parents. Now we are digging deep.

Jacob. Noy, short and muscular, came Czechoslovakia 26 years ago. In fact, his code name in the Haganah, the Jewish underground, was “Czech”.

“We bought this land from an Arab sheik,” he told me. “We paid a lot of money for nothing. We work 20 hours a day, with malaria and dysentery. I live a tent for five years. I can understand they want back what they lost. But if you buy some property and build a house and garden, and someone comes and says he wants it back, would you give it to him?”

We walked down the dusty paths. The flower beds had been ripped up to make way for new underground concrete bunkers with rubber-sealed doors. Czech was telling us about his four year the Haganah. He had helped blow up one ship in Haifa harbor, another off Cyprus. From what he told me, I said, the Haganah sounded a lot like Fatah.

No, said the Czech. “When we blew up British police stations, we did eight in a night. But we warned them beforehand. If you perform terror, you must do it in a nice way to show you are in power, not to kill. Fatah kills people.” I mentioned that the Irgun and the Stern Gang also killed people. Yes, he said, but they weren’t the Haganah.

He looked at the mountains to the east. “Fatah is there, watching us every day. We don’t know how it will end. We hope it will. But if they want to fight, we’ll fight. It’s our home, and we’ll stay.”

It’s our home. Another man across the Jordan had said that just a week before. His Fatah codename was Walid. The futility of the years had drained the words of their passion:

“In 1918, our Jewish neighbors told us, ‘Don’t leave your homes. Stay here.’ But when the Haganah came to drive us out, they could not protect us. Our neighbors wept, but they could not protect us.

“We didn’t accept it for 20 years. Our children will not accept it. Their children will not accept it. There is room for us. We know it very well.

“What can we do? I don’t want to live forever in a tent.” He had pointed west. “I sometimes take children to the top of the mountains to show the lights of Jerusalem. I tell them, “That is your home.”

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