Arab and Jew in History's Cauldron -- One Valley in the Jerusalem Hills

By Marcia Kunstel and Joseph Albright

Crown. 392 pp. $19.95

Popular histories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tend to deal with it in segments, treating either the events of 1948 or the situation since 1967 but rarely connecting the two. The impression left is that 1948 is just an episode in history with few lingering consequences and that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 is the only Israeli-Palestinian problem to be resolved. It is not often recognized that 1948 and 1967 are pieces of the same history and that Palestinians still live with the consequences of both.

"Their Promised Land," a brief encapsulation of the millennia-long history of the Sorek Valley just west of Jerusalem, corrects the imbalance. Journalists Marcia Kunstel and Joseph Albright carefully do not choose sides; they look at the issue unemotionally from both perspectives, treating the continuous Palestinian and the interrupted Jewish history in Palestine up to the present. But simply by demonstrating that there is indeed a long Palestinian history, traceable to the Canaanites of 3000 B.C., the authors give the Palestinian claim a kind of credibility that few histories do.

The Sorek Valley, extending west from Jerusalem in a series of rocky hillsides, was where Delilah betrayed Samson. During the first half of this century it was home to five Arab settlements and a relatively new Jewish colony, established in 1895 by a group of Bulgarian Sephardim. Jews and Arabs coexisted uneasily for half a century, usually ignoring each other, occasionally fighting, often cooperating in the effort to eke out an existence.

When Palestine was partitioned in 1947, the valley found itself inside the borders of the proposed Arab state, but Zionist military planners saw it as a vital part of the corridor between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Kunstel and Albright demonstrate, through Israeli archival material and interviews with both the dispossessed and the dispossessors, that all five of the Sorek Valley's Palestinian towns, as well as numerous others, were deliberately depopulated and destroyed in the effort to open the corridor. Throughout Palestine, they note, Israel "midwifed into being the Zionist dream of a land without people."

The valley's one Jewish settlement, Hartuv, had been evacuated early in the fighting in 1948 when it appeared in danger of capture by Arab forces, but following the war the town was rebuilt by Jewish immigrants. Most of the original Hartuv settlers returned only for a brief time, eventually resettling elsewhere. New Israeli towns and industries sprang up on the hillsides where Palestinian towns had stood. The destruction was so complete that most of the Jewish transplants had little awareness that this had been a Palestinian place. One kibbutznik tells the authors that when she arrived only months after the Palestinians had fled "there was not a sign anyone had lived here before."

By tracing the fate of several Jewish and Palestinian families, the authors put a human face on history and give a sense of the stake both peoples have in this land. The Palestinians interviewed in this book, most now living in West Bank refugee camps, are willing to accept a small Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel, but the pain they have endured in arriving at this point is evident. There is in the authors' interviews with Israeli families no awareness of this continuity. Many of those interviewed criticize Israel's occupation and believe the only feasible solution is a separate Palestinian state, but they give no indication that they have any feel for what the creation of Israel meant for Palestinians.

Many will not like this book. Uncompromising readers on either side will resent its neutrality. But the book is honest in its choice of historical source material and its treatment of the facts of Jewish-Arab conflict in the Sorek Valley and throughout Palestine. Its smooth, often elegant prose and the clever interweaving of historical background with the human story make it pleasurable reading indeed.

The reviewer is a former Middle East political analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency.