Camped out in a land that should be home

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The Independent Online
JUST 40 years ago I went to Jericho. I was to be an archaeological draughtsman at the dig there. Until then, Jericho had been connected in my mind only with Negro spirituals. It was late in the evening when I arrived and already dark. Next morning the sunlight was streaming through the window. I was in the middle of a palm grove, with all sorts of roses and other flowers, and the sky was brilliant blue. It was as if someone had turned on the light for the first time in my life.

The dig at Jericho was housed in an old farm building and a group of tents, next to Elisha's Spring, of the Old Testament. At the foot of the ancient mound, the perennial spring pumps out thousands of gallons of fresh water every day, which is why Jericho has always been a natural oasis in the Jordan valley, at the lowest point on the earth's crust. Hot as Hell in the summer, it is pleasantly warm in the winter time.

My task was to plan some Middle Bronze Age tombs in a cemetery that had been found close to the main site. This meant being lowered on a rope into the tombs, where I would spend peaceful days drawing pots and skeletons some 20 feet underground. This was pleasant, but as we located each successive tomb, we had to ask the inhabitants of the tented settlement above if we could move their tents, so we could dig.

What tents? At first I was nave enough to think that the local population of Jericho always lived in tents, but then quickly found out that the camp was relatively new, being composed of Palestinians who had left their villages a few years before during the 1948 war. Sitting in the tombs, there was often a clink-clink as a rope came down with a kettle of mint tea from the nearest tent.

Friendship established, questions followed: why were they there? The answer, then, was that they were frightened and had left their villages for the relative security of the Jordan valley. Their question to me was: why are we still here, three years later, and why can't we go back home? And when I went back home to England at the end of the dig, couldn't I tell everyone how unhappy they were? They were, indeed, living in tents just like the British archaeologists, but in considerably more squalid circumstances. And there were only two score of us, and 60,000 of them.

I was appalled by what I had inadvertently walked into and when I returned to England in 1952 I did try to tell people. But in my limited world, not only was no one interested, they didn't even know where Palestine was.

Each year I returned to Jericho and the tented city assumed a more permanent aspect: huts, houses, shops and schools replaced the tents, and the attitude of the Palestinian refugees became a weary resignation about the past and a pragmatic attitude to the future.

In 1956, as an art instructor at the American University in Beirut, I met another kind of Palestinian exile - the intellectuals. Now the Palestine problem was dissected entirely in the life of the mind - the Balfour Declaration, who had said what to whom, had the Palestinians left of their own accord or were they pushed? - and everyone's energy was devoted exclusively to footnoting the events that had led up to 1948.

My first-hand experience of what life was like in the camps after 1948 seemed of interest to no one. Again, I gave up; it seemed to me that if the intellectuals were not particularly concerned with what happened to their own people on a day-to-day basis, then it was no concern of mine.

These were years when the Middle East was, as usual, in turmoil; but Beirut itself was a boom town, with capital pouring in from the oil states. They were also tolerant times; Beirut was the still centre of the wheel, and everyone was doing so well that Lebanon's good fortune seemed gilt- edged. There were, however, pockets of discontent and there was certainly an underprivileged sector - Shias from the south, Kurds and Palestinian refugees - for whom the trickle-down effect of the new wealth did not operate. These were, of course, the seeds of the conflict to come.

The war of 1967 changed everything. Suddenly, the benign philosophy of middle-class Palestinians who had adapted to exile was rocked. Jerusalem was lost, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees contained in the camps on the West Bank were chased across the River Jordan, including the 60,000 who had lived in the camp on top of the Jericho mound. I had seen the results of the first exodus, and here it was happening all over again, 20 years on. What is left is a deserted ghost town; not one single Palestinian from Jericho was ever allowed back.

It is now 40 years since my first arrival in Jericho. Can it be true that after all this time, an infinity of UN resolutions, insults and accusations traded back and forth, the Palestinians are still living in camps? Yes, they are, in Gaza, in Jordan and in Lebanon. All I can think of this Easter is that Jesus Christ was a Jew, but that he was also a Palestinian, born on the West Bank, in Bethlehem to be precise.