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Living in an Impasse

It’s Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street: A Jerusalem Memoir

by Emma Williams
London: Bloomsbury, 450 pp., £14.99

Was ever a place on earth so haunted as the Middle East by the arrogance and thoughtlessness of the past, by the special interests and irresponsibility of powerful outsiders, and now by the cycle of outrage and revenge that consumes Israelis and Palestinians in an unequal but deadly struggle? Has any other historic problem absorbed so much effort to resolve it with so few positive results?

Hundreds—by now probably thousands—of books and studies have been written on different aspects of the Israeli–Palestinian problem. Occasionally there is a brief spell of cautious hope for progress, although such optimism is rarely shared by both sides at the same time. The short, violent, international wars of the first thirty-five years of Israel’s existence have given way to bloody local exchanges of violence between the Israeli and Palestinian communities, which have now spread to Lebanon and which both sides like to call terrorism. The conflict has become an intensely emotional issue in the confrontation between Islamic religious extremism and the interests and the principles of the industrialized Western world.

Any other struggle, between any other peoples, might well have ceased long ago to engage the world. The Israelis and the Palestinians, quite apart from the unique character and history of both peoples, each claim universal values and interests, and each have powerful external supporters—the United States for Israel, the Arab world, ineffectively, for the Palestinians, and now Iran and the extremist groups of the Islamic revolution as well. Extreme partisanship in the outside world serves to exacerbate the conflict. The partisan versions of the struggle, none of which truthfully conveys its reality, make the acceptance by either side of a reasonably just and workable solution more elusive than ever.

1.

The two books under review could hardly, at first glance, be more different. One is a personal reflection on three intense years in Jerusalem and the occupied territories during the second intifada. The other is a large-scale account of the struggle and its origins in the broader Middle East by a British journalist who has lived in the region for thirty years and has closely followed its wars, its violence, its intrigues, and its tangled relationships. Both books are notable for their depth of observation and insight and for the vividness of their descriptions of particular events and people. Both authors have a strong affection and respect for the suffering majority of Palestinians and Israelis inexorably caught up in the storm of violence, fear, mythology, and hatred that the former territory of Palestine has become.

Emma Williams is a medical doctor who has worked in Britain, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and South Africa. She is the wife of a United Nations official and mother of four children, the last of whom was born in Bethlehem during the second intifada. She lived with both Israelis and Palestinians during an unusually stressful and violent three years. By day she worked in the Al-quds University School of Public Health at el-Bireh near Ramallah and later at the al-Makassad hospital on the Mount of Olives. Her husband was stationed mostly in Gaza and the West Bank. At night they returned, sometimes with difficulty, to their home in an Arab part of Jerusalem and often talked far into the night with their Israeli and other friends.

The second intifada started in September 2000, six weeks after their arrival in Jerusalem, but Williams and her husband insisted on staying on as a family. They shared the fears and very different anxieties and hardships of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians to an extent rare for diplomats or international officials. Among other things they learned a lot about looking after, worrying about, and explaining violence and brutality to young children in a war zone. “We were all happy,” Williams writes. “It was just the situation, living alongside two extraordinary peoples who were bent on killing each other. Except they weren’t all. The killing was driven by the few.”

Working in Jerusalem often presents a dilemma for anyone who likes and respects both peoples and sees “the situation” as primarily an agonizing human tragedy perpetuated by mistaken policies and ambitions on both sides as well as in the outside world. “I had been changed by living here,” Williams writes, “stuck between the two communities, Israeli and Palestinian, moving from one to the other, hearing from each side about fear and hate and rage, facing the same things but as an outsider, and finding myself torn between the two.”

The second intifada started after Ariel Sharon, with an escort of one thousand police, visited the Haram al-Sharif/ Temple Mount in Jerusalem on September 28, 2000. It changed everything, and it also intensified the well-intentioned outsider’s dilemma. “People I had begun to know,” Williams writes,

were starting both to lose control and to be strangely accepting. Israelis were not horrified by their forces’ killings or by the likelihood of this provoking more bloodshed; they were horrified by the stone-throwing Palestinians. Palestinians were not surprised by Israeli actions, but no Palestinian voices called for the street to quieten down—neither to save the rioters’ lives, nor to save the political situation. Everyone was reacting to each event as it occurred, soaking up the version of events given by their own side.

The intifada soon went beyond stone-throwing. By the third day, some Palestinians had guns and began, in Williams’s words, “painting themselves into their TV stereotype: looting holy sites, giving way to uncontrolled rage.” Hate began to take over on both sides. Settlers attacked their Palestinian neighbors. Palestinian Israelis, protesting against the occupation, were harshly put down by the Israeli police. In Ramallah after the funeral of a Palestinian victim—ninety Palestinians were killed in the first ten days of the intifada—an enraged mob captured two Israeli soldiers and, in spite of the efforts of the Palestinian police to rescue them, beat the soldiers to death. Not surprisingly the Israelis reacted with rage. Apache helicopters set off to attack the Palestine Authority’s police, TV, and radio stations, as well as Arafat’s headquarters and other installations in Ramallah, Hebron, Jericho, and Nablus.

Williams had another constant worry. This time her husband, Andrew, called from Gaza:

I’m stuck. There are helicopter gunships hovering just out to sea, and they’re going to strike….”

Isn’t your office next to Arafat’s?”

Yes. Not far…. But we can’t leave, we can’t just abandon all the Gaza staff. We should go to see Arafat…to try to talk some sense into the man. I’ll call again soon.”

Some time later another call:

We’re in Arafat’s office.”

But…”

The helicopters are still hovering out there, but the IDF know we’re here. I got through to them. They won’t bomb us.”

Arafat himself did not cut a particularly sympathetic figure. “Arafat appeared on TV,” Williams writes, “visiting the wounded lying in Gaza hospitals—a sickening sight, knowing that whatever he felt for their suffering, he also found it useful. Both sides manipulated their suffering; victimhood was at a premium.” The consuming rage on both sides drove out all interest in the basic realities of the situation and silenced any serious debate about the future.

Let’s not forget,” a veteran American commentator told Williams, “that the Palestinians are resisting a military occupation…. They’ve had more than thirty years of oppression—and they’re in revolt.” Many had been driven off their land and forced to live in camps. They’d had to watch their land given away to settlers, and their freedoms shrink. They’d been granted a pretense of self-rule but seen their leaders lose out—sell out—and cream off millions in corruption while they “ran” the lives of their fellow Palestinians in brutal fashion, leaving the occupiers to say “look, they can’t govern themselves.” The Palestinians, the commentator said, lived with expropriations, closures, curfews, and having their homes demolished, “with humiliation that we…could not begin to imagine. And all of that,” the unidentified commentator continued, “was during the peace process. It’s not surprising they’re resisting, using whatever means they can. Vile, vicious, yes, all of that….”

And if you were the average Israeli you wouldn’t be doubting the IDF right now. Israelis are afraid, and so would you be. They’ve no idea if the IDF’s actions make sense, to them it’s self-defence, and the world condemns them for it. They’ve been told over and over that the occupation is not the issue—that anyway the territories are essential for Israel’s security—and that the “Arabs” attack out of hate and Islamic zeal, nothing more. So of course they’re terrified…. They’re fighting for Israel’s security. To most of them, Arafat is out to destroy Israel.

In November 2000 the suicide bombings started. This abhorrent and obscene form of attack served the unintended purpose of causing Palestinians in general to be condemned even more harshly as “terrorists” and, for large sections of public opinion especially in the United States, of converting the occupier into the victim. “A smokescreen hid the realities of the occupation,” Williams writes, “and it would be made thicker and blacker by Palestinian suicide bombings.”

The tendency of people to dismiss the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in the glare of the suicide bombings was brought home in Jerusalem by the news that Hillary Clinton, running for the Senate in New York, had denounced as “offensive and outrageous” the statement of a New York community leader that international law supported the right to resist an occupation. Clinton’s remark was in striking contrast to the seriousness and frankness of a number of leading Israeli journalists, politicians, and newspapers, Haaretz especially. Even in times of national danger, they challenged the legality and morality of the occupation and demanded simple decency in the way it was being conducted. Plain speaking and moral courage on such questions seem to be accepted as a matter of course in Israel; they are seldom matched either in the national politics or in the “mainstream press” in the United States.

A city under the constant threat of suicide bombings develops its own special way of life. Williams, with a family dispersed during the day—the children at school and her husband and herself away at work in different places—felt the full emotional effect of the bombs:

There was no getting used to suicide bombings. We would hear the “boom” over Jerusalem and know when it was not sonic, but murderous. After the boom the quick tally: family, friends, colleagues? Israelis did the same. If family and friends were not involved you could breathe again and carry on with the day—you had to—until the stories of the victims hit home: the children, old people, the personal tragedies, the heroism and the unbearable task of clearing up, of picking up the pieces of life and personality, dreams and hopes reduced to gobbets of flesh.

The bombings in restaurants, streets, and other gathering places were so horrendous, so shocking, that it was often impossible to think about much else at all.

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