Book review and launch with Olfat Mahmoud

Remarks made by Mr Paul Heyward-Smith QC, Patron of AFOPA, at the Adelaide launch of

Tears for Tarshiha

by Olfat Mahmoud

(Wild Dingo Press, Melbourne 2018)

28 August 2018

This is a story of the remarkable ascendancy of the human spirit – the capacity to overcome adversity. Let me tell you that I feel so honoured to have been asked to speak of this book. Why is that you might ask.  Well, this – Palestine - is an issue that has engaged me for over 40 years – the last 20 years in a hands-on capacity. And so I have some knowledge – some appreciation. But whatever my involvement, it pales into insignificance when one reads the story of Olfat. But before I get there I was asked to give a brief update on the situation in Palestine. How can you have a ‘brief update’? 

I was provided with Gareth Evans’ address when he launched the book in Melbourne a month ago.  Inter alia, he said this:

"In continuing to drag its heels on everything that would advance a resolution, and now with the new Nation-State Law moving the country ever more inexorably down the path toward becoming an overt apartheid state, Israel and those who support its current leadership are not only standing against the tide of history, but acting against its own founding ideals, and creating a mass of problems for its own longer term security and well-being." - Gareth Evans

But, I suppose the current vibe is Donald’s 'deal of the century'.  The deal of the century is of course the US-Israel entity’s ‘deal’ for it.  It is intended to be a sop to the world. It is based on apparent generosity to the Palestinians – lots of money to set up a ‘state’ in Gaza, a bit of Egyptian territory, a bit of Israeli territory in the Sinai, a few bits of land in the West Bank with a ‘capital’ in Abu Dis – a remote suburb of Jerusalem.  The right of return is given up.  There is no real Palestinian state because it has no sovereignty – it would have no right to have arms for example. It won’t happen, of course.  Why not?  Not because the Palestinians won’t accept it – and they probably wouldn’t – but because the Zionist settler body of the Israeli population can’t give any of that territory up. 

Why not?  Because God gave the land to them.  They cannot give away what God gave to them! And what land did God give to them?  All of the land from the Great River (the Nile) to the Euphrates.  That is a fair chunk of Egypt, all of Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and a fair chunk of Lebanon and Iraq. And so you can see that unless the world deals with these crazies our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, will never see peace in the world.

Can I mention again Gareth Evans – one aspect of his speech with which I disagree.  He said this:

“The hardest single issue to resolve for those of us who, like me, have strongly supported a two-state solution is that of the right of return – for which Olfat passionately argues throughout this book, as she has throughout her life.  It is impossible to argue against her on the fundamental moral issue – the forced dispossession of Palestinians from their homeland was indefensible at the time, and has remained indefensible since.  No one has ever made that case more effectively than she does in Tears for Tarshiha.

“But I think we all have to acknowledge the overwhelming practical reality that Israel is never, ever going to accept the unrestricted unconditional return of all those who were dispossessed, let alone the generations to which they have given birth since, and there is no mood whatever – including anywhere in the Arab or Islamic world – to force them to do so.  A one-state solution, to which many are now turning in despair at the present impasse, might conceivably improve conditions for Palestinians now living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, but it is hard to believe that Israelis will not fight to the death to preserve their state’s Jewish identity. They will opt for outright apartheid rather than accept Palestinian majority rule, and will be more determined than ever to close their borders against the return of the dispossessed who would guarantee that majority.  And I find it difficult to see anyone in the wider world fighting to stop them.” - Gareth Evans

I disagree.

Now back to Olfat.

Olfat is a Palestinian refugee.  Born in a refugee camp in Lebanon, she is a descendant of people who were forced from their homeland at gunpoint by the Israel military in 1948. In 1949 Ben-Gurion, a founder of the State of Israel and the first prime minister, stated that “We must do everything to ensure the Palestinians never return … the old will die and the young will forget.”

Olfat’s life mission is to prove Ben Gurion wrong, to return to Tarshiha in Palestine. 

The book follows Olfat’s career starting as a nurse.  Her extraordinary story illustrates the Palestinian plight, their continued survival and determination that has become an inconvenience to the international community.  The book is part of Olfat’s ongoing campaign to keep her people’s predicament in the public consciousness.  This is their story and the story of all Palestinians and their descendants who were forced from their homeland.

Olfat is 10 years younger than me. And so we have shared a part of the world’s history – our eras are close.   Close – but oh so far apart.  I read Olfat’s book and I read of her trials and I can only compare her life to my easy life – here in Australia.  I – and I suspect most Australians of my generation simply have no idea of what adversity really is. 

Let me quote from pg 59.  Olfat is recounting the bombing by the Israelis in 1981: Olfat is a nurse in Gaza Hospital:

“I felt deeply that it was my duty to care for my people. Even though I was young and relatively inexperienced in nursing (I was still only in my seconf year of training), I was often in charge of a whole ward. Student nurses were sent to the various PRCS hospitals in Beirut to get more practical experience. In Gaza Hospital I worked in the surgical and emergency wards. I did not like medical or children’s wards as I found the children’s pain and suffering too distressing. I had some operating-room experience, but in 1980 and 1981 most of my experience was in the surgical ward.” [p.59]

She goes on to describe the treatment of a 10 year old girl:

“The operation was performed on the little girl that night, the doctors removing bullets and shrapnel from her abdomen. She was given a temporary colostomy, and with the necessary blood transfusion, this little girl’s life was saved. I nursed her post-operatively and it was so satisfying to see her make a full recovery. Because she had lost a brother and sister, her parents were deeply grateful for what everyone in the hospital had done for her.” [p.59]

Let me also come forward in the book to pg. 186.  This is towards the end of the book – addressing a time in 2009:

“When I had come under attack in the camps by the Islamist groups, Helen was insisting it was time I emigrated to Australia. It was a temptation. I knew my family and I would have a good life there and could still campaign for my people. But I couldn’t leave. I believed then, and still feel, it is my duty to serve my country, to be a voice when others can’t speak - this is the one way I can serve my people.” [p.186]

Let me tell you about this book.  For someone like me who has read extensively on this issue, I was pleased to note that I learnt something new – appreciated a new emotion – on virtually every page.  I might instance the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.  When one sits down to read a book that person might want to be informed – might hope to be embraced, to be uplifted – I can tell you that this book does that. I learnt the horror of Shabra and Shattila, and the rage that it engendered in Olfat.  I quote from pg. 93:

“…as my grief waned, it was replaced by a burning rage at what had happened. Even now, if I talk about these events, my fear and rage return and I know the nightmares will soon follow.” [p.93]

I empathised with her removal to London:  This from pg. 110:

“To come from my camp home - where nine children had lived in a single tiny room, where we had a minute kitchen, leaking waste water and, of course, no garden - to the nurses’ home in Epping where I was now staying, with its many rooms and toilets and nice garden, initially overwhelmed me. I raged, inwardly, especially lying in bed at night, asking myself why we had to live as we did in Lebanon, exiled from our ancestral home. My parents had come from a financially secure background; they’d been affluent and ha owned land and houses. Now we lived in dreadful poverty, in a miserable camp, in daily fear of our lives; a situation not of our making. Indeed, while I was in England, it often crossed my mind that the British were responsible for our situation in the first place. But what kept me going through my first week or so at the nursing school was the clear objective i had: I was in the UK to learn as much as possible and to take that knowledge back to my people.” [p.110]

I want to talk about the issue of rage. I have a rage. I have a rage when I read and contemplate the settlements.  My rage is probably more at our response to the settlements.  We tend to think: that is land lost to the Zionists.  It isn’t.  International law prevents – or is supposed to prevent – the acquisition of territory in that way.  Do not think that the settlements are lost! My rage is at the world’s pathetic response.  The BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement is wonderful  - that is people not governments.  But boycotting products from the settlements?  What use is that?  We must boycott all products from Israel.  And more – we must boycott the US – the co-conspirator. And if the boycotts don’t succeed we must press our government – all governments – to sanctions. And if the sanctions don’t succeed we must contemplate force – as our forebears had to do in the late 1930s.  I quote again from Gareth Evans:

“We are where we are, and there is no alternative but for current and future generations to continue the struggle.” - Gareth Evans

And to Olfat I have to say: I love you as a brother – or in your case – perhaps as a sister.  Your struggle is my struggle.  It is our struggle. The only thing left for me to do is to declare the Adelaide launch of this wonderful book.

- Paul Heywood-Smith, Patron, Australian Friends of Palestine Association, 28 August 2018