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.

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 …

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