Half a million Palestinian Arabs live in the state of Israel. They have generally received less attention than the 1.2 million Palestinians in the occupied territories–the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights–who have lived under Israeli military rule since 1967. Have these “forgotten Palestinians” been successfully integrated into the Israeli state? What problems are encountered by Palestinian writers in Israel?

Two prominent Palestinian writers recently in London discussed these issues with Roger Hardy. One of them, Samih al-Qasim, is a well-known poet, born in 1939, who lives and works in Haifa. The other, Emile Habibi, born in 1921, is a short-story writer and former member of the Israeli parliament, who in 1974 published a remarkable novel, The Pessoptimist, which looks satirically at the life of an Arab in Israel. (A French translation has been published and an English edition is due to appear in the United States.)

Both writers are members of the Israeli Communist party, whose prestige among Israel’s Arabs sometimes puzzles outside observers. In fact, its appeal is less ideological than practical: it is the oldest and best organized non-Zionist party in Israel. Communist publications give many Palestinian writers–Communist and non-Communist–the chance to appear in print for the first time.

Hardy: Samih al-Qasim, you once wrote an article entitled “Poets, not diplomats.” Are you a poet or a diplomat?


Al-Quasim: I believe poets can deal with politics and diplomacy and still be real poets. At the same time politicians and diplomats can be good writers and poets. There is no contradiction. But if you ask a poet to be only a politician it will be very difficult for him.


Hardy: Clearly political events have shaped your poetry. When did this process begin?


Al-Quasim: I believe my childhood, like that of many other Palestinians, was a very abnormal one. Although I was actually born in 1939, I sometimes say I was born in 1948 , when my village–Rama in Galilee–was bombed by the Israelis. I remember the Israeli soldiers on the roofs, soldiers breaking down the doors of houses and searching our homes.


Hardy: How were these themes reflected in your first collection of poetry, published in 1958?


Al-Quasim: At the beginning I think national problems were stressed more in my poetry–for example the Algerian revolution, the Lebanese crisis in 1958, the question of the Palestinians. Like every young Arab in those days, I was impressed by Nasserism.

Through that I became aware that my national problem was connected with other international problems in the world. Day by day I felt closer to an internationalist understanding, until I became, politically and spiritual, a member of the Communist party.


Hardy: When was that?


Al-Quasim: I joined the party in 1967, in the Mount Carmel prison [in Haifa], but I had been cooperating with the party for two years before that. I worked in the press of the Communist party without being a member. On the first day of the Six-Day War of 1967 I was arrested early in the morning with other comrades. In prison I discovered–when the Israelis were declaring, “Sharm el-Sheikh is in our hands, Jerusalem is in our hands”–that I had to make one of two choices: either to find a cave in the mountains, isolated from mankind, or to find a higher stage of struggle. I lost my belief in nationalistic big words.


Hardy: Before the war, had you not been a leading member of Al-Ard [literally “The Land,” a left-wing but essentially non-communist group, which emerged in the early 1960s]?


Al-Quasim: I was close to those people before [Al-Ard] became a group. There were Nasserists, left-wing as well as right-wing people. I didn’t go further with them. I said that you can’t make a national movement without social depth.


Hardy: Has your poetry changed significantly since those early days?


Al-Quasim: I have changed, and it’s clear my poetry has changed. I believe I am more suspicious and doubtful, and less optimistic.


Hardy: When you write a poem for a communist publication, do you feel free to write what you like?


Al-Quasim: I thought it would be difficult. Maybe that is why I didn’t join the party earlier. But while working with the party for two years, without being a member, I discovered you can argue if you don’t agree with something. No one can send you to Siberia.

Sometimes I publish a poem that the editor himself can’t understand; but he publishes it, then afterwards he argues with me.


Hardy: Do the Israeli authorities exercise censorship?


Al-Quasim: Since Israel came into existence military censorship has been enforced. Poets and writers were supposed to bring their material to the military censor.

My second book, Songs of Alleys (1965), is full of empty pages. The censor cut whole poems, parts of poems, or individual lines. It was very humiliating, so I decided not to bring my poems to the military censor.

In 1968 I published my collection, Waiting for the Thunderbird. I didn’t bring it to the military censor, and so I was confiscated and the book was arrested.


Hardy: You mean the other way round.


Al-Quasim: No, I insist that I was confiscated and the book was arrested. In some police stations they put up the cover of the book and said, “Wherever you find this book take it”–wanted, dead or alive–as in the westerns.

There was a huge campaign in Israel and abroad. Meetings were held in Tel-Aviv and Haifa protesting against military censorship. I must say that a lot of Jewish–non-communist–writers and artists joined the protest. We had about 70 telegrams from well-known figures–Jean-Paul Sartre, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsburg, and a good playwright from England, Arnold Wesker, who became a close friend. So, with pressure inside Israel and international pressure, the Israelis decided to end military censorship. I was freed. But, at the same time, publishing houses and the press were told they must bear the responsibility if anything contrary to the security of the state were published.

Censorship, I believe, continues to this day–but through indirect means.


Hardy: When one of your books is on sale in Israel, is it also available in the occupied territories?


Al-Quasim: As you know, the occupation authorities have a “blacklist” of hundreds of books–including mine.


Hardy: Emile Habibi, for a long time you edited the Communist party’s newspaper, Al-Ittihad (Unity). As an Arab journalist in Israel, are you free to express your point of view?


Habibi: As journalists we are not free at all. Frequently our journalists are arrested or attacked. I have been fortunate since I was a member of the Knesset [Israel’s parliament] from 1952 until 1972, with a certain immunity. But I was attacked by the police on many occasions and they pretended they didn’t know I was a member of parliament.

I remember when the poet Tawfiq Zayyad [mayor of Nazareth] became a member of parliament, his Hebrew was not very good and one of the government members shouted, “Where did you study Hebrew?” and he replied, “In your prisons.”

So as individuals we suffer in various ways.


Hardy: What was your role in Al-Ittihad?


Habibi: The paper first appears in 1944. I edited it from that time, and although I have had other jobs from time to time, I am still close to it. It began as a weekly and then became twice-weekly.


Hardy: Was it censored?


Habibi: From the beginning we have had to submit most of our articles to the military censor. And there is an agreement that we censor ourselves in many spheres of our work. But any news from the occupied territories must be presented verbally to the military censors–and we are not allowed to distribute our newspaper in the occupied territories.


Hardy: Are there other forms of pressure?


Habibi: When they want to censor us they can do it through the so-called public opinion. One day you will find lading articles in all the daily newspapers attacking something that appeared in Al-Ittihad. And then, day after day, they build pressure on us, so that we will understand our limits.

Sometimes we forget our limits, and then they start a campaign. This is the indirect way of censoring us; there is also the direct way. For a long time we were not allowed, for example, to write anything about Jewish emigration [from Israel]. Only recently, after this was exposed in the world press, did they relinquish their censorship on this item. Otherwise we would be unable to write that more Jews are leaving Israel than are coming to Israel.

Concerning the occupied territories, generally we are unable to publish news from our own correspondents unless it has already appeared in the Israeli Hebrew press.


Hardy: Is Al-Ittihad, as a communist newspaper, independent or pro-Moscow?


Habibi: What is important is how the Arab minority in Israel looks at it. They accept it as their own newspaper. The pages are open to different writers and different ideas. It defends the national rights of this minority. It is accepted as an anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist Palestinian publication.


Hardy: Let’s return to Palestinian literature. How has the literature written by the Arabs in Israel developed since 1967?


Habibi: My friend Samih al-Qasim wrote a poem about the effects of the 1967 war, and spoke of a “shattering of idols.” He, and other poets, told the Palestinians outside about us, and said to them, “Don’t think that before 1967 we were idle and that our struggle started only in 1967.”

They discovered us because, it seems, they needed us. Necessity, as the saying goes, was the mother of invention.

Often we ask ourselves what the difference is between our Palestinian literature and other Palestinian literature, or “refugee” literature. The answer is that, from Israel’s appearance in 1948, we have been confronted with a challenge: to be or not to be.

There was an official policy of “cleansing” the country of Palestinians, and to a certain extent this policy is still continuing. There were schemes, at various times, for the expulsion of Palestinians. We were the candidates for this expulsion.

We remember Ghassan Kanafani’s novel, Men in the Sun, written after ten years of the tragedy: you have to knock on the walls of the tank if you want to live.

We had to fight, from the very beginning, for our survival. We could not wait. There were some writers who hoped for a knight on a white horse who would come and rescue us; but these were few–most had a daily struggle for bread and work and survival.


Hardy: What solution do you put forward?


Habibi: We believe that ours is the only program that can unite all Palestinians wherever they are. The Palestinians under occupation [in the West Bank and Gaza] are united in regarding the PLO as their sole legitimate representative, and in their daily struggle against the continuing occupation.

What is the alternative? The Israeli leaders have other alternatives–more occupation, another war. Our solution–which the world community is presenting–is the only possible solution. It is not only Arabs who will suffer from further conflict; Jews too will suffer. Peace is in everyone’s interest.


Originally Published in December 1982 issue of the Boston Review