The wake of conquest

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> 16 June 1967</strong>

The twisted legacy of Israel's

Peace has come with a vengeance. The extraordinary army of last week yearn to rejoin their ordinary selves. They have surfeited on miracle. Those who are not dead are dead-tired, and patching up the pitiful detritus of war. People look around at a landscape of power utterly changed, at frontiers deep under rubble. They are not sure how to proceed. ‘It’s awful being a conqueror,’ sighed the new commandant of a Jordan village. A meek teacher of biology, he did not enjoy his new job: ‘Maybe Jews are better at losing — we’ve had more practice.’ What to do with conquered territory exercises Israeli thought. Every wider frontier will bring ambivalent gain: security for settlements under threat these two decades, and an Arab populace inevitably hostile. ‘D’yer think we’re going to feed this lot?’ demanded a sergeant bus-driver in the Gaza Strip, herding barefoot prisoners to lunch. He had corralled the same miserable infantry after the Suez Campaign — conscripts from refugee families kept alive by world charity, packed into stifling huts. ‘Who’s going to take care of them?’ The sergeant, helpless, out-flung a grimy gesture at the infants, innumerable, fly-black, crawling through sewage. School copybooks repeat the crayon sketches of Jewish demons found by Israeli troops a decade ago. ‘Nasser must be made to take this lot,’ argued a gunner, skewbald with dust, and he gave a toffee to the urchins, bare- bottomed, hailing their captors.

If the Sinai desert, under tougher control than the UN would guarantee, might serve as a barrier between Israel and Egypt, what of Jordan? The ever-hostile triangle Jenin, Tulkarem and Nablus reiterates an unanswerable question. How neutralise them without annexing their barren, beautiful plateux? Direct rule is the least popular solution. Even right-wing zealots dread a Pax Judaea over a million Moslems; Jenin lounging with inscrutable thugs, Hebron harbouring the sharp-shouldered youth who have learnt to plant nothing except plastic mines. Israel does not want to augment its Arab minority. The Moslems boast a birth-rate quadruple that of Jewish couples. But at least the 20-year lunacy which put a stockade down the middle d Arab villages and forced the Israel railway through Jordanian melon-patches has gone.

One stand is certain. ‘Never, never, shall we relinquish Jerusalem.’ The Defence Minister, Dayan, spoke for all Israel. On this primal point, the unity brought by war has not disintegrated. The most irreligious Israelis gape at the mere idea of international control for the Old City. ‘What kind of a joke?’ snorts a sturdy pagan in a tin hat, ‘d’you think we’d let those twats from the UN take over Our Wall?’ Somehow, this lone height of masonry has obliterated those other terrible walls, at Warsaw, barring forgotten ghettos. It is the heart of Israel: noisy, polyglot, bathed in sweet lamentation and unbelievable bathos. Amid the crush, commandos bearded as bison attempt to wind phylacteries they’ve long since abandoned. A tiny shtetl Jew, almost crushed by his army pack, bends to kiss the cool marble like a bride. Pressmen, led by a bewildered history don in colonel’s rig, get lost near the Mosque of Omar (entry is still forbidden). An advance guard from the Israel Tourist Corporation entangle with pious rebbitzin, garbed from head to beige ankles, who have sneaked past the police as lady reporters. Little votive candles falter in the clap of exploding mines. Tears runnel the sweaty faces, rocking, rocking, beneath camouflaged flak-helmets. ‘Break forth into joy, sing together ye waste places of Jerusalem.’ But no one can hear the chanting for din. Even Dayan the anti-cleric left a note to some deity tucked between the huge hewn blocks.

To avoid shelling within the walled city, an arduous encirclement had to be fought out. A tall captain from an atheist kibbutz turned away, shaken by grief: ‘Look at the boys we could have saved with a shell or two.’ The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Benediktus, hung with heavy glitter of crucifix, confirmed that no damage had been done. ‘Except,’ his pale yellow palms, eloquent, ‘for certain inevitable holes ...’ The Patriarch was greeting General Herzog, Commander of the West Bank, at a conclave of 21 church dignitaries, all viewing each other with silent distaste. (‘They’ll get together against the Yidden,’ someone whispers.) His Catholic Beatitude sat next to the Anglican Archbishop, looking rather cross. Both wore petunia regalia, reflected in the brash bar of the Ambassador Hotel, alongside someone who resembled the Grand Inquisitor, and a dark-brown Copt. All their Excellencies awaited the pleasure of this mild, well-spoken son of the late Chief Rabbi. Herzog acquitted himself with forthright civility, while making it clear he would not tolerate snipers in Holy Places.

For people who have lived in cleft Jerusalem, gazing at a city magical because unattainable, it is a walk through the looking glass. There’s the Jordan YMCA, its unglazed windows framing a salon set for lunch last Monday. The American and British Consulates are a ruin, blasted by both sides. Out from the lovely pinkish relic strolls a vice-consul from New York, his shirt impeccable. ‘All their grovelling denials of help to Israel did not help them,’ grinned a West German reporter. People on both sides emerge to buy bananas from Jericho and poppy-seed loaves for Sabath. A few Jordanian shops were looted, though not by battle units. ‘We had no time,’ said a captain going home at last, ‘the noch-shleppers came in after us and whipped the beer. It’s better than Israeli booze.’

A white rag flew from the Church of the Nativity; tanks grind outside. Otherwise, Bethlehem appears remarkably neat, even normal. In one chapel, Armenians keep up an odd chant like a football cheer. ‘Would Madame care to see the grotto where Our Lord got born?’ murmurs a guide, very round and lounge-suited. In confidence, he continues: ‘We do hope Bethlehem will be international. We expect the Pope to arrange it.’ ‘— the Pope,’ remarked a soldier agreeably. ‘I’m doing political science and, believe me, no one falls down when the Pope farts.’

The grey-faced mutilates of war pack every hospital in town. Staff work 12 hours a stretch, their coats gory. Here lie two children with bandages instead of feet. Arab or Jew? ‘What does it matter?’ snapped a nurse. Doctors move in a kind of clenched, ultimate fatigue. Here lie Arab Legionnaires, who fought inch by inch until surrender. They look up to the ceiling: ‘Salaam,’ — a blistered mouth cannot form the word — ‘shalom, salaam.’ ‘Peace they want,’ said an elderly, acrid woman, checking blood pressure, ‘their peace.’ Her husband had died among the 77 doctors and nurses massacred in convoy, 19 years ago, on their way to the hospital on Mount Scopus. Outside, people wait like stone for their ambulances to open. A sky of that brilliant aridity peculiar to Jerusalem arcs impartial above the roseate, shell-pocked houses.