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Robert Fisk: John McCarthy knows the value of history


How come people like historical memory holes?

I'm moved to ask this question by the Lebanese Minister of Culture, Gaby Layoun, who said last week that "the Cedar Revolution does not exist". He's decided, in fact, to erase it from any secondary school books in Lebanon. So that the uprising by up to a million Lebanese on 14 March 2005 to protest at the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and to demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon didn't – well, that's it, it didn't happen. I was there. I saw it. It was probably the very early start of the Arab Awakening. And it did get the Syrians out. But... well, maybe the Syrians are still here.

Actually, I know what offends Gaby. He believes the phrase was invented by the former US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman – actually, it was dreamed up by the US Under Secretary of State, Paula Dobriansky, but no matter – and thus is not a "genuine" name for the extraordinary event seven years ago. The Lebanese called it the "Independence Intifada" and later the "Beirut Spring". But "Cedar Revolution" certainly stuck with many Lebanese. Since the present Lebanese government is supported by Hezbollah and displays total neutrality towards Syria, you can see the problem. The Sunnis and part of the Christian Maronite community and the Druze feel that their protest is being deleted. After all, they accept Liberation Day which marks the final withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000 – and which honours the Hezbollah Shia resistance.

"Does disagreement in politics erase historical events?" the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt asked. And he's right, because if you're going to mess with history, how is this new textbook going to handle the Lebanese civil war and all its grotesqueries? If the Phalangist part of the Maronites insisted on taking the Shias out of Lebanese history, what would the Hezbollah say? Gaby Layoun, I should add, is a Christian Maronite supporter of General Michel Aoun who is in turn a supporter of Syria. Enough.

These evasions, of course, do not all stem from political trickery. Tony Blair did not claim that America was Britain's oldest ally because he was trying to change history but because he was ignorant. (The answer is Portugal.) But I've already noticed the Israelis trying a little trickery of their own. Will there be a fourth Lebanon war, they are asking? Well, no, Israel has already had five Lebanon wars (1978, 1982, 1993, 1996, 2006) and the next one will be the sixth. But since they almost all ended in disaster – I was here and watched them – I guess it's worth chucking out a couple to lessen public indignation.

I'm reminded of this because of a passage in John McCarthy's forthcoming book on the Palestinians of Israel, You Can't Hide the Sun: A Journey through Israel and Palestine. John spent five years in Lebanon's hostage dungeons, and he's had the intriguing idea of focusing not on the West Bank and Gaza but on those Arabs who have Israeli nationality. And he retells, of course, the story of the Palestinian disaster of 1948 – the Nakba – and the flight of 750,000 civilians who now, along with their children, grandchildren, etc, make up the Palestinian refugee population. The Palestinians who remain in Israel and their descendants are those who didn't flee, or managed to stay inside the frontiers of the new Israeli state.

Now comes the memory hole bit. "There are only three mixed schools in Israel," John writes. "... Arab children attend schools where they are taught in Arabic... and Jewish students learn in Hebrew. A few years ago an enlightened (Israeli) minister of education approved a textbook that talked about the Nakba. It was only used in Arab schools, though. A subsequent minister had the book taken off the syllabus. The history of modern Israel and of the Palestinians, when taught in school, is twisted by the establishment's agenda." Alas, all true. And many reporters still lap up the Israeli story that the Palestinians were, in 1948, ordered by Arab leaders over the radio to abandon their homes until Arab armies drove the Israelis into the sea. Totally untrue. And that the Israelis did not massacre any Palestinians in 1948. Alas, untrue again.

John McCarthy tells the wonderful story of a Palestinian reporter broadcasting to America from a Palestinian protest demonstration about the Nakba on Israel's Independence Day (for which the Palestinians, as you might think, have somewhat less enthusiasm than the Israelis). The programme's presenter in New York, however, simply didn't know the story. He finished by wishing the reporter "Happy Nakba!".

But John McCarthy's interest in history – and getting it right – is admirable. He went to Haileybury, one of whose old boys was General Allenby. John's hostage humour shines through. Allenby took Megiddo as part of his title – Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and of Felixstowe. "Setting the scene of his military triumph – and that of the Book of Revelation's Judgement Day – alongside a minor English seaside resort has to be one of the most extraordinary and endearing of geographical twinnings," McCarthy writes. "But I did begin to think that if he had stayed in Felixstowe, I might not be sitting in that hole in the ground." Spot on, John. And that was some historical hole.