IT WAS the most loving fax I've ever received. I had just come back to the office from asking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few questions at a news conference during his visit to Washington in January. I was astonished to learn that my dad, in Amman, Jordan, saw it on CNN International. "You were fantastic," he wrote me.
I was thinking of dad - and the fact that he and 700,000 other Palestinians were forced from their homes in 1948 - as I asked the Israeli leader if it was time that Israel acknowledged this wrong. The most he conceded was that the Palestinian people have indeed suffered - because of their own bad leadership.
When Netanyahu returned to the United States this month, the Israeli prime minister rejected the paltry pullback from 13 percent of the West Bank that the Clinton administration favors. Netanyahu's position denies the Palestinian leadership even the slightest face-saving deal. In fact, if Israel gets its way, the Palestinians will be subjugated to "Bantustans," living in dense population areas and having limited control of the areas surrounding them. Israel wants to continue to control the population flow from various cities as well as most of the land and the water resources in the West Bank. As Netanyahu stalls for time, he confiscates more Palestinian land, heaps more injustice on an injured people and sows the seeds of more Palestinian resentment.
The inability of the Clinton administration to make any sort of progress prompted the French and the Egyptians to call for an international peace conference. That could put the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict where it was 50 years ago: in the hands of the United Nations.
When I talked to dad on his birthday - April 9 - it was a low-key conversation. Neither of us mentioned that it was 50 years to the day after the massacre of Dir Yassin, a village near Jerusalem, by pro-Israeli forces. My father witnessed another massacre in Eilaboun, a village in the Galilee. The last time I was in the Middle East, I visited the towns and villages where my father was in 1948, and he put some flesh on events that he had hinted at for years.
One evening, we walked around Terra Sancta College, where my father was a boarder at the end of the British mandate, in a largely Jewish part of Jerusalem. On a similar evening in 1947, he was puzzled when he heard jubilation and dancing in the streets. Another student said that the United Nations apparently made a decision that the Jews liked. The United Nations had voted to partition Palestine. They had good reason to celebrate. The Jewish state was allocated 56 percent of Palestine, even though Jews owned only 6 percent of the land and made up one-third of the population - and most of them were mandate-era immigrants.
We visited Tiberias, where my dad was born. We saw the lovely stone house he was raised in, now empty, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I had visions of its becoming a museum for what happened in 1948 - before it is demolished to make room for another hotel. Despite my prodding, my dad, hardly a shy man, did not want to try entering the house.
My dad told me of his earliest memories of his father, who was vice mayor of Tiberias, gerrymandering election maps. But a Christian, no matter how adept at dividing districts, could not secure re-election without substantial Jewish and Muslim support. There certainly were prejudices, but the intermingling of the faiths contradicts the "ancient hatreds" mantra we hear so often. Two of my uncles were nursed by neighbors because my grandmother had trouble lactating. One had a Muslim wet nurse, another was breast-fed by a Jewish neighbor.
We went to a lawyer's office, and he showed us the land records with my grandfather's name, "Yousef Habib Husseini" in English, crossed out as the owner, and the "Israeli Authority of Construction" written in Hebrew. My father's claim to ownership, though completely documented, has been denied by Israeli authorities because they regard him as "absentee" and thus not a legitimate inheritor. Never mind that he was driven out at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the World Jewish Restitution Organization is recovering Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis.
Tiberias fell to Israeli forces 50 years ago. It was then that my dad and his younger brother went to the small village of Eilaboun, where they had relatives. Today, my extended family members there are educated, but they retain a simplicity I haven't experienced elsewhere. They are technically Israeli citizens, but since they are not Jewish, they're third-class citizens. They and other Christians and Muslims cannot buy or lease land that the Israelis confiscated from my family - controlled by quasi-governmental organizations such as the Jewish National Fund.