A few months ago a twitter correspondent suggested I should read Ramzy Baruod's book My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story. If memory serves, the suggestion was something of a taunt, or a dare, along the lines of "let's see if you've got the guts to read such an important book, and if you can deal with it honestly". So the next time I was at Amazon I purchased a copy, and have now finished reading it. As could have been predicted, my reading is a bit different from that of my correspondent, so here's a quick review.
Baroud's book is not particularly well written, as, say, Raja Shehadeh's is. Yet it is interesting and I'm glad I read it. I discerned three major levels in it, the personal, the historical and the political.
The personal is the poignant story of the author's father, Mohammed Baroud, along with lesser strands about his grandfather and his mother, all of whom were born in the town of Beit Daras before 1948, and all of whom eventually died in the Nuseirat camp in the Gaza strip. One can - indeed, should - be careful when telling the story of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, even when inevitably taking sides, but Israelis should be able to accept that the personal stories of Palestinian individuals whose lives were harshly changed by the events of 1948 are tales of woe, misfortune and yearning for an earlier time. Was there a river that flowed near Beit Daras in whose pools Muhammad swam "endlessly" as a boy? Of course not. Were the battles of 1948 which emptied the town naked Israeli aggression with the gunning down of large numbers of women and children? No, and no. Were the ensuing decades of misery in Gaza the inevitable result of intentional Israeli policies? Of course not. Yet for all the disagreements about simple facts and complex interpretations, the fundamental outlines of the personal story are true, and tragic. His grandparents and parents were uprooted from their ancestral home, and life never went back to being normal for them. Many many millions of people in Europe and Asia were likewise uprooted in the 1940s, including Jews, and some built new lives and others didn't, but the general shouldn't hide the specific; we as Israelis can afford to accept that the lives of many Palestinians were ruined by their conflict with us, especially in the 1940s.
We can also accept that life for Palestinians during the 1st Intifada was most unpleasant, and their interactions with the IDF often extremely negative. Why this was so is a different question, but that it was so, seems to me beyond argument.
The historical level of Baroud's book is, simply, silly. His depiction of Israel and Israelis lacks any factual plausibility; his repeated claim that Israel succeeds at what it does because of American interventions is odd given that he has chosen to make his own life in America (Seattle, apparently). His chronology is often manipulative; one example among many is when he tells of Netanyahu's electoral victory in 1996 first, and then only recounting the fact that Hamas was blowing up Israeli citizens by the dozens a few pages later, so the ignorant reader can't see any possible connection. He often confuses his chronology in such a way, to the extent it's hard to maintain that he's merely confused. His footnotes (as an archivist I often take note of footnotes) are abysmal as historical sources. Even his over-arching thesis - that his father was a freedom fighter - is true only in a metaphorical way, in that his father despised Israel all his life, even as his best commercial enterprises seem to have been conducted with Israelis. His treatment of the history of Palestinians as subjects of history, as actors rather than passive objects, is extremely confused at its best, and disingenuous as a general rule. Which brings us to the third level of the book, the political.
The politics of the book are probably their most valuable, and focus mostly on the period since the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993 until the present (the book was published in 2010). This is the section diplomats, pundits, journalists and observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need to read. The way Baroud sees it, and he presents his position as being mainstream and representative, the entire Oslo process was a conspiracy to harm the Palestinians; it was a machination by Israel, America, and a corrupt PLO leadership to screw the Palestinians, prevent their attaining their rights, and defeat their honorable struggle. True, his appraisal of Yasser Arafat is complex, but his disdain for the rest of the PA leadership is palpable. At one point, speaking of his father, he makes it very clear that the only possible just outcome of any peaceful resolution of the conflict must of course include his return to Beit Daras. Any Palestinian political leadership which accepts anything less than that is illegitimate, and probably made up of lackeys of Israel and America.
I'm on record as having accepted the need for Palestinian independence alongside Israel since the 1970s. There's nothing in this book to suggest there's a significant group of Palestinians who agree with me, while there is much in it to suggest that Palestinian figures who negotiate with Israelis lack legitimacy among their own people. It's one book, by one man, and there may be other voices among the Palestinians, but it's no less depressing for all that.