In Emile Habibi’s book “The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist,” when the protagonist Saeed argues softly with his wife, they are told off by their little son in an even softer voice to keep quiet or the neighbors will hear. The son is called, to be on the safe side, “Wala’a” (“faithful” in Arabic). This is what is deeply etched into our consciousness. We are the generation born around the time of the Nakba (in Arabic, “the catastrophe,” the Palestinians’ term for what happened to them when the state was founded in 1948), for whom even the walls have ears and it’s impossible to trust anyone. And exactly at this difficult moment, the military administration pressed upon the wound with full force to persuade those who had remained – a branch of an uprooted tree – that they were a nation of informers with a traitorous leadership.
My father-in-law, Nimr Rihani, who participated in nationalist groups, told me that in those days a Shin Bet security service agent who was known in the area came to visit him – on a holiday of all days. The Shin Bet man took advantage of the tradition of Arab hospitality that did not allow guests to be thrown out, even if they were enemies. The visit’s purpose was to transmit the message to other residents that even the patriotic Abu Hisham, as my father-in-law was known, was “one of ours.” Several years later, Abu Hisham was sent to prison for two years because he did not reveal information he had about a “hostile” organization that had not carried out any actions, and he was fired from what was then considered a quite prestigious job as school principal.
When I joined the Communist Youth in 10th grade, a collaborator passed along a message to my parents that their son better be careful. And when we met by coincidence in the street, he said to me, with his yellow-toothed grin, that all the party leaders were Shin Bet agents. So sometime later when I received an order forbidding me to visit the West Bank and Gaza, which had been conquered by Israel not long before, I was deluged with messages of encouragement as if I were a national hero. Some even hung their no-entry orders on their living room wall.
The military administration “penetrated all areas of civilian life and became a state instrument for political, economic and social control of the Arab minority,” wrote researcher Sarah Ozacky-Lazar. Indeed, the military administration settled in our homes, nestled between the sheets of our beds, between father and son, man and wife, until everything seemed suspect.
Emile Habibi, with characteristic irony, praised Israeli prisons since the “conditions within the prison aren’t different from the conditions outside it.” This statement stays with me, when I am asked about the military administration, as if it had been a huge detention camp with tall towers to oversee the activities of its inhabitants: love affairs, matchmaking, work, studies. And the Arabs, for their part, described their situation with the harsh phrase “like orphans at the table of the wicked,” and in my mind’s eye I see my parents and grandparents in those days as helpless children abandoned to an abusive father.
The other side of the coin is the staying power of those that remained. The key word was sumud (steadfastness) and it was expressed in the building of homes, most of them without permits. The entire village would join in the construction work. It was also expressed in the exhausting daily struggle to obtain an exit permit to work in Jewish cities, the struggle to pave a road, to connect a village to the water and electricity grids and to build a school.
The new generation that took command at that time was not just brave but also smart. Ben-Gurion was counting on an Arab refusal that would constitute, at a critical moment, the ultimate excuse for expelling the Arabs. Following 1948, and for the first time, the leadership of a large Palestinian group was changing the rules of the game, receiving Israeli citizenship and waging a civil struggle to achieve its goals. And thus the buds of political realism began to blossom, and the battle was decided in favor of staying. Even the 1956 massacre at Kafr Qasem, when 48 Arab civilians were killed by Israeli Border Police, did not change matters. Moreover, the struggle was colored by optimism and was open to the other, so that even a Jewish democrat wouldn’t feel alienated from it.
In December 1966, the military administration was abolished thanks to the Arab-Jewish struggle that shimmered in its beauty. However, it still hasn’t been uprooted within the public discourse and in terms of actual behavior. Ten years later, in 1976, six Arabs were killed during a wave of protests against the expropriation of Arab-owned land. And almost 35 years later, in October 2000, 13 Arab citizens were killed while protesting the killing in the occupied territories.
The military administration may have come to an end, but its spirit still hovers above us.