When I last saw Gaza

The Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza stirs my memory of my only visit to the place. It was twenty-two years ago, before the words intifada, Hamas, and “Oslo” had entered the Israeli-Palestinian lexicon. I had taken up my appointment at Tel Aviv University a couple of years earlier, and we had a treat that semester: the historian Elie Kedourie and his wife Sylvia left the comforts of London to spend the term with us. One of our tasks was to fill up their time with interesting people and trips. Someone had the idea of taking them to Gaza, and I went along to provide small talk on the way. As Elie had a famous aversion to small talk, it was a daunting assignment.

Our guide on that occasion was Zvi Elpeleg. I came to know Zvi quite well in the mid-1990s, when he served as Israeli ambassador to Turkey and opened many doors for me. But back then, I knew him only as a street-smart Arabist who’d served in every war as a military governor. As a young man in the mid-1950s, he had governed a large swath of the Arab-populated “Triangle” in Israel. He later served as a military governor in Gaza in 1956, in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, in Fayed in Egypt in 1973, and in southern Lebanon in 1982.

In Gaza Elpeleg still knew plenty of people. He had kept up old ties and did some business there. So he was more than happy to plan the day, do the driving, and introduce the Kedouries to some of his friends. In those days, driving an Israeli car through Gaza was a routine exercise, not fraught with any great danger. As we left, Zvi deliberated over whether he should take his sidearm; I don’t even recall whether he did.

During the drive down, I did my best to distract Kedourie, and at one point touched a nerve. Elie had been born and raised in Baghdad; he had left Iraq for Britain in the general Jewish exodus, never to return. Since we were headed into Gaza, I asked him whether he had traveled anywhere else in the Arab world—perhaps to Egypt, about which he had written a great deal. He answered that he hadn’t, and then pointedly added that he didn’t feel any need to do so. I was taken aback, but it reminded me of an old Jewish-American joke. Irv wants to impress his Old-World Jewish mother with his success. “Mama!” he announces triumphantly, “Sheila and I are going to Europe!” “Nice for you,” the old lady mutters dismissively, “I’ve been already.”

Here and there, as we drove through Gaza City, older men waved to Elpeleg or shouted out greetings. He’d obviously left an impression all those years ago. And our prime destination was one of his old interlocutors: Haj Rashad ash-Shawwa, a former mayor of Gaza (twice appointed and twice deposed by Israel) and a big landowner and citrus merchant, who had a long history of shifting to and fro among Israel, Jordan, and Fatah. He also enjoyed the exclusive franchise for issuing travel permits for Gazans who wanted to visit Jordan—the so-called “Shawwa passports”—and applicants formed a crowd outside his offices. Haj Rashad was nearing eighty, which made him the grand old man of Gazan politics.

I can’t say I remember exactly what Haj Rashad and Elie Kedourie said to one another about the issues of the day. Back then, “peace” diplomacy focused on getting Palestinian notables to come out for King Hussein in favor of a Jordanian-Palestinian federation. Haj Rashad was all for it, and so were many Israelis and Americans, but the “Jordanian option” never gelled. I do remember Haj Rashad and Elie hitting it off nicely. Here were two men who shared a memory of British order in the Middle East, who distrusted nationalist passion, and who exchanged views with meticulous civility. So we drank our coffee and mulled over various proposals, unaware that the pressure outside was building toward an explosion. They lived through its beginning, but not to its end: Haj Rashad died of a heart attack in 1988, and Elie died of the same in 1992.

Given the little history I’ve just described, I’ve wondered what Elie would have thought of the Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza. In 1978, he published an article entitled “The Retreat from Algeria” in the Times Literary Supplement. It was of a piece with his reproach of Britain for “abandoning” its responsibilities in the Middle East. “France and Frenchmen were guilty of a wrong no greater than that committed by the conquerors whom they supplanted,” he wrote. “What seems exorbitant and monstrous is for a state deliberately, suddenly and precipitately to withdraw its protection from those who look to it for the defense of their lives and possessions.” Algeria, he once told an interviewer, “was abandoned in the most lamentable and pitiless fashion, from one day to the next. Abandoned without any regard to the interest of those for whom France had taken responsibility for 130 years. That much can be said. In Algeria the French had a great responsibility and they fell down on it.”

But this responsibility—and this was Kedourie’s point—was owed by France to all the inhabitants of Algeria, not only the settlers. The French army had quelled the Algerian insurrection by 1959, he wrote. “This could have been the opportunity for the French state to assume its historic responsibilities, and at least to institute a public order which was not the plaything of the pieds noirs [the Europeans settled in Algeria], which would treat Frenchmen and Muslims as equals, and protect the life, property and livelihood of all without exception.” De Gaulle’s retreat not only betrayed the pieds noirs (who had seen him as their savior); above all it betrayed the Muslims, who were left to the terror and vengeance of the FLN.

This passage, more than any other, makes it impossible to infer anything about Gaza from what Kedourie wrote about Algeria. In leaving Algeria, Kedourie argued, France failed to live up to its universalist ideal. But Israel claims no “civilizing mission,” it has never annexed territory that would compel it to assume full responsibility for large numbers of Palestinians, and its long-standing objective has been to find someone credible to assume that responsibility. In leaving Gaza and putting up a high barrier there and in the West Bank, Israel has spurned the messianism of the far right and the universalism of the far left. It is still inspired by the model of the classic nation-state, in which the dominant nationality enjoys a clear majority and lives behind impermeable borders. Today Israel is reaffirming its faith in that model.

The problem is the weakness of Palestinians who share that faith. In leaving Gaza to the Gazans, Israel hopes to compel the Palestinians to mirror Israel. It’s a gamble: people like Haj Rashad don’t call the shots. Israel will soon find out whether, in the person of Abu Mazen, it has found someone who does.