Israel Palestine Infos
December 24, 2011
The Duke of
THE NAME of Munib al-Masri has recently come up as a possible candidate for Prime Minister of a Palestinian national unity government. Not being a member of either Fatah or Hamas, he is acceptable to both.
Al-Masri himself denies any such ambition. He says that he is too old (77), and that a younger generation of Palestinians should take over.
He also says that he is quite content with his present situation.
And so would you be.
THE WEST BANK city of
If you walk along the
main street of
Well, “home” may be
slight understatement. Actually, it is the most imposing private residence in
The al-Masri villa is an
exact reproduction of Villa Capra, also known as La Rotonda, a unique
architectural masterpiece some
The marble for the floor and all the other building materials were brought from abroad. An Italian expert has joked that the Palestinian palace looks more like the original, and the Italian palazzo like a convincing copy.
That would have been more than enough. But it isn’t.
All the rooms of the palace are crammed with works of art, collected by al-Masri over some 40 years. They are enough to fill an impressive museum. Paintings from renaissance masters to the moderns, fireplaces from Versailles, classic tables and chairs from Spain, Tapestries from Flanders, chandeliers from Italy, and much, much more. Room after room.
Well, that should be more than enough. But it isn’t.
When excavation work for the foundation started, three small ancient pottery sherds were discovered. The work was stopped and archeological diggings began. The results were staggering: a complete 4th century Byzantine monastery was uncovered. It stands there now with all its rooms, chapels and stables, surrounded by stout pillars on which the entire modern structure rests. One building on top of another.
Enough? Not nearly. The palace is surrounded by a huge estate, greenhouses, olive plantations, a pool and whatnot. But enough of that.
I MET al-Masri, a slim,
tall gentleman, some twenty years ago, on one of my visits to Yasser Arafat in
Before that, he had served as a Jordanian cabinet minister and had been accused of helping Arafat and other Fatah leaders escape from Jordan during the bloody “Black September” of 1970.
Side by side with the masterpieces of art, the walls of the palace are covered with hundreds of photos of the owner with his American wife, his sons and daughters, and in the company of world figures. Among them, Yasser Arafat stands out. Al-Masri admires him.
Since that casual meeting
Remarkably, he has
remained a man of peace even after tragedy hit his family: on Naqba day, a few
months ago, his grandson, who was studying at the American University in Beirut,
joined the protesters who came south to the border fence. Israeli troops opened
fire, the grandson was hit by a bullet – a prohibited dumdum bullet, he says –
which injured his spinal cord, liver and kidneys. The young man is now being
treated in the
Since finishing the
palazzo, al-Masri occupies himself with his many philanthrophies, especially
supporting the universities of
He named the palace “
THE AL-MASRI family is
one of the most distinguished in the country. Though the name means “the
Egyptian”, the family comes originally from the Hejaz, in what is today Saudi
If this were
My first contact with the
family came a few days after the 1967 war. At the time, few people believed that
For that purpose, I made
the rounds of the local Palestinian leaders, mostly the heads of the great
families. One of them was Hikmet al-Masri, Munib’s uncle. I put to all of them
in confidence the same question: if you had the choice of returning to
During a Knesset session,
I advertised this fact, which was furiously denied by the Minister of Defense,
Moshe Dayan. In the ensuing debate, this time with the Prime Minister, Levy
Eshkol, I said that Dayan was consciously lying. Eshkol defended his minister
heatedly, but being the person he was, the next day he sent me one of his chief
advisors to ask what evidence I had. The protocol of this conversation, made by
the advisor, stated: “There is no difference between deputy Avnery’s information
and my own. However, he agrees with me that no Palestinian state without
When I recounted this to Munib al-Masri last week, he shook his head sadly.
HOW IS it, he asked me, that the Israelis know nothing about the Palestinians, while the Palestinians know so much about the Israelis?
The fact cannot be denied. Israeli schoolchildren learn practically nothing about the people with whom our existence is intertwined. Nothing about Islam, nothing about the Koran, nothing about the glories of Arab history.
Many years ago, in a Knesset debate on education, I put forward the idea that every pupil in Israel learn not only the history of his people – the Jewish or the Arab, respectively – but also the history of the country from ancient days to the present, Canaanites, Israelites, Samaritans, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Turks, Palestinians, British, Israelis, as a way to see what unites us. For some reason, this amused the Minister of Education so much that from then on he called me “the Mameluke”.
As it is, when a young Israeli joins the army at 18, he “knows” only that Islam is a barbaric, anti-Semitic religion, and that the Arabs want to kill him for no reason at all.
Perhaps that is natural. An oppressed people has a great incentive to know about the occupier, but the occupier has no incentive to study the occupied beyond the realm of military intelligence. The more so since an occupier tends to regard the occupied as an inferior race, in order to justify the occupation to the world and to himself.
Every conflict engenders mistrust, prejudice, stereotypes, hatred, demonization. When it goes on for generations, like this one, all these are multiplied. To make peace, they have to be overcome. That’s why people like Munib al-Masri are so important. I wish that every Israeli could meet Palestinians like him.
I also hope he becomes Palestinian Prime Minister, presiding over a cabinet of national reconciliation between the Palestinian factions, ultimately leading to the reconciliation between our two peoples.