Sunday, June 25, 2006

Book Review (You Are hereby Warned)

I know that some people just can't stand to read or listen to Zionism's detractors and critics, as well as the pro-Pals.

Okay, I'm different. Somehow, I seem to learn something from every article I read, no matter how unfair, misconstrued and mendacious. If you find yourself in agreement with me, fine. If not, skip to another blog entry of mine. I try to balance.

Here then is a book review that, despite it all, has some lessons on how not to do Hasbara.

Jerusalem the ungolden

by Emma Williams
Bloomsbury £14.99 pp462

What is it like to live as a foreigner in a land of suicide bombers and road blocks, of tensions sometimes verging on hysteria and communities consuming themselves with mutual fears and hatreds? Not much fun, unsurprisingly.

Emma Williams is a British doctor who in 2000 went to live in Israel with her husband Andrew, a United Nations official, and three young children. This book is her account of their lives there through the three years that followed — the times of Arafat’s intifada, Sharon’s power, Arab atrocities and savage Israeli retaliation.

“I soon found that when you arrive in Jerusalem you land not so much in hell as in a maelstrom that has swallowed thousands before you and will swallow thousands more,” Williams writes. “Eventually you are spat out, land in a heap, and shake down the reality and drama of the place.”

One evening outside a cake shop in a Jerusalem suburb, as she emerged from her car with its UN plates, an Israeli woman began to harangue her in English: “You bitch! You dirty bitch. You UN bitch — get out of here! You BITCH! You whore! Dirty dirty bitch! You kill our soldiers. You UN are for the Palestinians. You love the Palestinians.”

Williams responded: “No. The UN is for the Israelis and the Palestinians.” This proposition seems implausible to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Returning to visit Jerusalem in 2006, she records the remark of a friend: “I hate being Israeli sometimes, I feel like an animal in a zoo. People come and look at us to see what we’re doing, what cruel things us Jews are up to now. And they watch us, without understanding.”

What Israelis want understood is that, while “Arabs have many countries, Jews have only one”; that, in the face of Palestinian terrorism, the security of Israel makes ruthless measures essential; that the longer the Palestinians remain intransigent, the more just it seems to punish them, by confiscating each year a little more of their lands and livelihoods.

Williams quotes an Israeli named Uri [Daromi??? - YM]: “We weep to see the suffering of other people, but what can we do? The terrorists are out to kill us because of who we are. It’s because we’re Jews. They hate us and want to destroy us. We have to destroy the terror. We have to free the world from terror.”

Yet terrorism is the weapon of choice for the weak, fighting the strong. Williams, who formed close friendships among Palestinians, chronicles the humiliations and cruelties to which they are subjected, the frustration of daily life in which communities are shelled, bulldozed, road-blocked, or merely denied freedom to travel to their own homes or jobs, all in the name of Israeli security. The sick often cannot travel to hospitals, nor husbands reach their wives, nor children get to schools.

Fear was a constant throughout the author’s time in Israel: of Palestinian suicide bombers, of the Israeli army. She believed that she had shielded her young family from comprehension of much that happened around them. Then one day at an Israeli checkpoint, after an altercation with a soldier, she returned to her car and found the children sobbing. Her eight-year-old said: “We thought — we thought the soldiers were going to shoot you.” A suicide bomber, it emerged, had blown himself up next to her children’s school. His head had landed in the playground.

Williams is an excellent recorder of dialogue on both sides of the political divide. Her purpose is to illuminate the plight of each community. Yet pity for the Palestinians predominates [my emphasis - YM]. Whatever excuses and explanations Israelis offer, she says, nothing alters the fundamental fact that they have subjected the inhabitants of the West Bank to illegal military occupation for almost 40 years, and still dominate Gaza even though they notionally evacuated it last year.

Each month, despite the state of the “road map” or “peace process”, Israeli settlements continue to rise in the West Bank, and the consolidation of Jerusalem and its suburbs into Israel advances. Sometimes, Israeli governments talk of abandoning some settlements in return for an end of terrorism, yet the great Security Wall between the two peoples is being constructed on a line determined solely by Israel’s convenience, heedless of Palestinian orchards or homes in its path.

The Palestinians have been as much betrayed by their own leaders as by their foreign oppressors. Williams quotes an American UN official, musing on years and billions of international aid to the Palestinian Authority. At the end of it all, “what have the Palestinians got? Egyptian standards of bureaucracy, Syrian standards of human rights, Lebanese standards of accountability — and all to serve the interests of the Israelis”.

Towards the end of her time in Jerusalem, an Israeli friend said unhappily: “The Palestinians can’t have a real state and they can’t leave, so they have a pseudo-state made up of giant prisons. We can concoct whatever charade-state we like, but it will still be a prison for them. We’re stuck as much as they are, even if their conditions are far, far worse. Without a workable Palestinian state there can be no peace for Israel.”

This last proposition seems indisputable to most outsiders, including Williams. Yet Sharon’s response to the intifada was systematically to destroy everything that passed for economic activity in the West Bank, so that today terrorism is the Palestinians’ only viable industry. Most of Sharon’s people still believe that their own interests are best protected by keeping the Palestinians weak, poor and divided, not least by Israeli strategic roads and fortified settlements. No proposal anywhere near the negotiating table would offer the Palestinians a viable society, nor return to them most of the land taken by Israel since 1967.

Williams argues that the Israelis’ obsession with “security, security, security” blinds them to the concessions that are indispensable, to provide a glimmer of a hope of peace. For the Palestinians, she says (explaining her title), suicide bombing represents a rational alternative to the misery of their daily lives. “As long as it remains easier to reach heaven than the end of the street — or the field, or school or hospital or the next-door village, let alone Jerusalem, the City of God,” she writes, “then no security measure yet devised will stop people seeking a gruesome short cut to end their hell on earth.” Williams’ angry chronicle makes grim reading, but it is all true.


Checkpoints were a constant feature of Williams’s time in Israel. Pregnant with her fourth child, she had to abandon her car on her due date to get to hospital, and then watched as a Palestinian woman ahead in the queue, as heavily pregnant as her, was turned back. Asked why, the soldier at the checkpoint replied, “How do I know she’s pregnant . . . Everone’s fat round here.” Williams was waved through.

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