‘A Wall in Palestine’ by Rene Backmann and ‘Rebel Land’; by Christopher de Bellaigue
A Wall in Palestine
Translated from the French by A. Kaiser
Picador: 272 pp., $17 paper
Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town
Christopher de Bellaigue
Penguin Press: 270 pp., $25.95
Language is a weapon of war and of the after-war. It is ammunition for making history and for writing it. This is why governments and their challengers fight over the name of things. This is why it matters whether a stretch of concrete and barbed wire running through Jerusalem and the West Bank is called a fence or a wall, a security barrier or a border. And it is the root of the argument over whether the slaughter of thousands of Armenians at the start of the 20th century was a massacre or genocide.
René Backmann, foreign affairs columnist for Le Nouvel Observateur, makes his position clear in the title of “A Wall in Palestine.” The book will be dismissed by hard-liners in Israel, which is a shame, because it is the story of the barrier’s construction from the beginning, based largely on Israeli documents and interviews. Rooted in an impressive array of maps, facts and frank discussions, it is worthwhile reading even for those who don’t agree with its conclusions: that the barrier is a wall in a place called Palestine, and that, even if driven in part by the legitimate need for security, it also functions as land grab and de facto border.
Backmann was a supporter of the failed 1993 Oslo peace accords and still cannot believe that “what the entire world saw fall down yesterday in Berlin could be a solution tomorrow in Jerusalem.” He wants to understand “how and why, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the leaders of a modern, sophisticated country would choose to resolve its biggest problem with such an archaic strategy.”
Without a doubt, the barrier has dramatically reduced the suicide bombings that terrorized Israelis and claimed a terrible death toll. At the same time, it has severed Palestinian communities and families that found themselves on opposite sides of the wall. It has disrupted farming and development of the Palestinian economy. Palestinians must obtain permits to cross the barrier as well as to travel on Israeli-built roads through the West Bank. Like the roads and Israeli settlements, the barrier serves to make a contiguous Palestinian state all but impossible.
Certainly, there’s nothing new about building a wall against enemies and invaders, be it in China or Jerusalem, whose old city is, of course, surrounded by a wall. Backmann makes a convincing case that a separation barrier had been proposed by both the Israeli right and left from the beginning. In fact, the idea was born before the state itself, raised in a 1923 article by the Zionist ideologue Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, who imagined a “wall of iron” as protection from the Arabs.
About two months after Israel captured Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War, the left-wing Labor Party’s Yigal Allon suggested a 6-mile-wide “strategic defense zone,” which would have meant annexing a third of the West Bank. He also proposed Israeli settlements on the ridgeline over the coastal plain that would serve as lookouts and a new border.
The barrier, Backmann argues, is part of a system of strategically placed settlements, roads and checkpoints that both protect Israel and lay claim to Palestinian territory. The settlements annex West Bank land while the barrier protects the settlements and marries the land to Israel, along with disputed Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.
In July 2004, the International Court of the Hague determined that “construction of the wall being built by Israel, the occupying Power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories including in and around East Jerusalem” was contrary to international law and called for its dismantling, with reparations. Perhaps the decision, along with Palestinian court challenges, has contributed to a slowdown in construction. Or perhaps, as Blackmann suggests, the Israelis intend to use the wall as a bargaining chip in final status negotiations. Call it what you will, a fence or a wall, that’s one big chip.
Of course, it’s not just what you call a thing but the story you chose to tell. In “Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town,” Christopher de Bellaigue, a former correspondent for the Economist, mines histories of the centuries-old conflict among Turks, Armenians and Kurds that omit the grievances of any other side, distorting their heroes and rights, indeed their very identity.
De Bellaigue explains that a love affair took him to Turkey in 1995, where he also fell in love with the country and absorbed founding father Kemal Atatürk’s official narrative, that it was a secular republic, more Western than Eastern, whose ethnic, religious and political minorities had no legitimate claims. Six years later, he wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books in which he explained the massacre of up to half a million Armenians in 1915 as part of the chaos accompanying the end of the Ottoman Empire. He was inundated with letters saying that the toll was more like 1.5 million and in an orchestrated genocide. This book is his repentance and, he says, a betrayal of his Turkish friends.
Because many of the official documents of Turkish history are locked away by the state, De Bellaigue focused on the remote district of Varto in mountainous southeastern Turkey, a kind of ground zero of the country’s ethnic conflicts that had been caught up in both the massacres of 1915 and the Kurdish rebellion of 1925.
This is rough terrain, shaped by coups and earthquakes and controlled in turn during the 20th century by Ottomans, Russians, Armenians and Kurds. It has produced many rebels and not a few turncoats among its multifaceted population. De Bellaigue tries to humanize them, offering a close-up look at their faces and foods and bloodied landscape, where bodies are set alight, pierced by bayonets and boiled in cauldrons.
De Bellaigue notes that he was regarded with suspicion from all sides, even the Kurds, Alevis and Armenians who presumably stood to gain by a non-Turkish history. Turkish officials dogged him; in one encounter, a plainclothes police officer greeted him with a public kiss on both cheeks and grabbed his arm for a stroll down the street — a gesture clearly designed to cast doubt on his credibility.
Presented with multiple versions of a single event, he sometimes became convinced that all sides were lying. As he sat down to write, he realized: “I had heard diametrically opposed accounts of things that happened 100 years before or last week.” The common trait among these competing stories is that they present their own suffering in great detail while failing to mention their crimes. This, De Bellaigue shows us, is the enriched verbal uranium that fuels these conflicts to this day.
De Bellaigue is a lovely writer, thorough reporter and deep thinker, although his mix of historical figures and local characters is sometimes hard to follow. He understands the importance of language (as did the Turks, who tried to wipe out the Kurdish language). When it comes to the question that started his journey, he writes that, coming as they do from far-flung corners of the world, “it is hard to take issue with much of the detail that one finds in the Armenian accounts of the events of 1915.”
That said, nearly 100 years later, the sides are caught in an absurd battle over the word “genocide” that is “a travesty of history and memory.” What’s needed, he says, is a new word, even as he dismisses such a fantasy as “the prattle of a naïf, laughable, unemployable.”
Miller is a foreign policy editorial writer for The Times.