Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1991, Page 13

Special Report

The True Crime of Palestinian Professor Sari Nusseibeh

By Andrew I. Killgore

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army officer, was convicted in 1894 of betraying military information to Germany. For the following 12 years, French society was torn apart by debate over whether he was really guilty or had been railroaded because he was a member of a mistrusted minority, and if the latter was the case, what the French establishment should do about it. Hungarian born journalist Theodor Herzl covered the entire "Dreyfus affair" for a leading Vienna newspaper.

Dreyfus, whose only "crime" was being a Jew, was eventually exonerated. Herzl, deeply troubled by the depth of French anti-Jewish feeling displayed during the long Dreyfus ordeal, went on to publish Der Juden Staat (The Jewish State) . Herzl devoted the rest of his life to preparing the way to make a Jewish state an eventual political reality, and in doing so breathed new life into an almost moribund ideology and became the father of Political Zionism.

Now Israel, the state Herzl spiritually fathered but did not live to see, has arrested Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, a prominent Palestinian professor of philosophy at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University. Among other charges, Dr. Nusseibeh is accused of betraying military information (the locations of Scud missile impacts) to Iraq.

Analogies to the Dreyfus Case

Betraying military information was precisely the charge leveled against Dreyfus. One explanation for the bizarre series of events that transfixed France for the next 12 years was that the Dreyfus case had become entangled in the machinations of two competing branches of French intelligence. Neither would admit to the blunders that would have revealed both agencies to be incompetent and morally corrupt. So the state sacrificed an individual, Dreyfus, to protect the "basic institutions of society."

The formal charges against Sari Nusseibeh, who lives under the closest possible Israeli military surveillance in the occupied West Bank, are ludicrous. However, his real "crime, " living and speaking for others who live on land coveted by Israel, is grave indeed.

Sari Nusseibeh is a Palestinian. Worse, he is well-educated, sensitive and articulate in English and Arabic. A graduate of Cambridge University, he converses easily and forthrightly with journalists, and has appeared many times in filmed reports prepared in East Jerusalem and the West Bank by American and other Western television reporters. Most heinous of all, from Israel's point of view, Dr. Nusseibeh is a moderate who never fails to call for a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, taking into account the national aspirations and security concerns of both Palestinians and Israelis in the land he knows they both must share.

Analogies abound in the Dreyfus and Nusseibeh cases. Alfred Dreyftis' private Gethsemane included a stint in France's infamous "Devil's Island" penal colony. However, France in Dreyfus' time was a democracy in which the debate over his case never stopped, and in which the public slowly came to realize that the damage to society of letting a false conviction stand outweighed the danger to French institutions of admitting that such a miscarriage of justice could take place at all.

Sari Nusseibeh may face an ordeal as grim at that survived by Alfred Dreyfus. As a Palestinian, Nusseibeh is subject to Israel's Basic Law, under which a particular group, Jews, rule supreme over any other group. Jewish group rights, in fact, override the rights of any Jewish individual advocating, for example, equal rights for Palestinians. Sheldon Richman concludes his illuminating article on Israel's codified discrimination against non-Jews in the February 1991 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, by asserting that columnists and others who list Israel among the world's democracies display ignorance, hypocrisy, or both.

Thus Sari Nusseibeh, as a Muslim Palestinian, is absolutely at the mercy of the state of Israel. He can be imprisoned for up to six months without a trial. Then, still without a charge, he can be imprisoned for intervals of six more months at a time for the rest of his life.

An Accurate Snapshot

Israel's arrest of Sari Nusseibeh provides an accurate snapshot of the terrible, mindless brutality Israel exercises against all Palestinians, and the ease with which Israeli authorities ignore even the most rudimentary tenets of common decency. This soft-spoken, tweed-wearing professor makes the perfect target. If even this man, a familiar figure to American television audiences, and a star among, Palestine's moderate intelligentsia, can be made to "disappear" without any meaningful protest from abroad or any adverse consequences for Israel's lucrative relations with American Jewry and the US government, the lesson for humble Palestinians is clear: if you stay in your country you will be crushed, at a time and by means to be chosen by Israel.

The entire Nusseibeh family would be unassailable in any society based upon law, just because that is exactly the kind of society it exemplifies. Dr. Nusseibeh's mother, Nuzha (Ghussein) Nusseibeh, is descended from Palestine's wealthy landed aristocracy. His late father, Anwar, also a graduate of Cambridge University, was a distinguished Jerusalem advocate and a former Jordanian minister of defense who lost a leg in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949.

So highly regarded is this great Jerusalem Muslim family that it has long been entrusted by the world's Christians with the keys to Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre, the tomb of Jesus Christ. The purpose of this unique appointment was to ensure that no single Christian sect would gain advantage over another in this precinct sacred to all.

The arrest of Sari Nusseibeh appears to be a blow directed at this entire distinguished family of moderate Palestinian Muslim leaders, and a gratuitous slap at the Christian institutions of Jerusalem as well. Nor is it inconceivable that the sudden Israeli move was precipitated by concern over the emerging role of still another generation of Nusseibeh leadership in East Jerusalem. Many Americans were transfixed by the revealing minute-by-minute reconstruction on "60 Minutes" of the Nov. 8 events in Jerusalem's Haram AI-Sharif/Temple Mount which led to the deaths of 18 Palestinians. Juxtaposing videotapes made by visitors to and residents of Jerusalem with the testimony of eyewitnesses, "60 Minutes" disproved Israeli allegations that there was an attack by Muslims on Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall. Instead, the deaths took place at the hands of Israeli police and border guards firing at Muslims, assembled to defend the Haram AI-Sharif. Stones that fell near the Western Wall were thrown at police in the enclosure above, and those that overshot their mark landed near the wall well after the area had been vacated by Jewish worshippers.

One of the most articulate witnesses interviewed was a 13-year-old Palestinian schoolboy who, with many of his classmates, one of whom was killed, had assembled to defend the two Islamic mosques from a planned assault by Jewish religious fanatics called the "Temple Mount Faithful. " The boy, in impeccable English, described the events that led to the death of his friend calmly and unemotionally. He, few Americans realized, is the son of Sari Nusseibeh and his British born wife, Lucy.

The crimes of Sari Nussaibeh, it seems, never end. First, he received an education, refused to become radicalized, and insisted on speaking his mind about the legalized racism and bigotry practiced by Israel against Muslims and Christians. Then he reared a son well-prepared to carry on the family traditions. There are no greater crimes in the Israel of the 1990s. It may be, however, that just as the bigots of turn-of the-century France could not devise a punishment capable of silencing their humble victim, Alfred Dreyftis, the bigots of turn of-the-next-century Israel will finally be silenced themselves before they can stamp out the transcendental human values represented by Sari Nusseibeh. 


Ambassador Andrew I. Killgore, a retired career foreign service officer, is publisher of theWashington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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