“Real lasting peace is made between peoples, not governments,” writes Sari Nusseibeh near the end of his excellent memoir, Once Upon a Country. Nusseibeh is a philosopher and some-time Fatah activist who has dedicated himself to making that peace a reality by, among other things, cultivating relationships with like-minded Israelis. In this, he and his allies have been repeatedly undermined by the suspicion, mistrust, and belligerence of extremists on both sides, and in both governments, Israeli and Palestinian.
Nusseibeh comes from a noted Palestinian Arab family, whose ancestors entered Jerusalem along with caliph Omar in the seventh century. Having family roots in Palestine that go back thirteen centuries, Nusseibeh repeatedly confronts and eviscerates the notion that the Palestinians “aren’t a real people,” as well as the frankly preposterous idea that some dude just off the plane from Kiev or Brooklyn should somehow have more of a moral claim than he to the land in which he was born and raised.
One of the central themes of the book, unfortunately little remarked upon in the reviews and interviews which have followed its publication, is the way that the efforts by Palestinian activists to develop democratic institutions, such as trade unions and academic associations, organizations which could support and strengthen a mature Palestinian state, have consistently been frustrated and crushed by Israel. Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, virtually all efforts by Palestinians to organize around the principle of their own nationhood have been vigorously stamped out by an Israeli government that saw the very existence of Palestinian political consciousness as a national security threat. Israeli support for the pan-Islamic Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, the precursor of Hamas, as a means of diluting support for the secular nationalist PLO is just one example, one with particularly severe consequences.
Nusseibeh has no illusions about his own side. He recognizes that tragic mistakes have been made, and good opportunities missed, by the Palestinian leadership. He recognizes that the use of terrorist violence has been both morally disastrous and politically counterproductive. But neither is Nusseibeh willing to give any credence to the lazy “equal blame to go around” dodge, a form of rhetorical hand-washing that works decidedly in Israel’s favor, that unfortunately characterizes so much mainstream American liberal thinking on the issue. The root cause of the conflict in Palestine is, and has always been, the attempt by one group to realize its own national aspirations at the expense of another’s, and Nusseibeh is very clear that the Israeli occupation, and the illegal settlement enterprise which it facilitates, is, has been, and continues to be the single biggest obstacle to peace between the two peoples.