Wrongs and rights

<strong>Palestine Inside Out: an Everyday Occupation

</strong>Saree Makdisi

<em>W W Norton, 32

The hinge to this guidebook to the Palestinian morass is a quotation from the Zionist thinker Vladimir Jabotinsky: "Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement." His essay of 1923, of course, advocates Jews settling in Palestine to make sure that that hope is destroyed among the people they will displace. It was titled "The Iron Wall".

Saree Makdisi is not the first writer to point out that what was a metaphor used by a racist right-winger, reviled at the time by the liberal Zionist mainstream, is now an actuality. A high wall in concrete and steel runs along the occupied West Bank and around Gaza. And Jabotinsky's creeds now run through the heart of 21st-century Israeli government policy, endorsed by the United States and, to an extent, Britain. Call them Bantustans - and people do - or ghettoes, pointing out the awful irony; the forcible separation of the Palestinians is now central to the strategy of a government among whose coalition members are politicians who believe there is no place for Arabs in Israel. And that is why they support a two-state solution.

So what's new? I recently asked a couple of Palestinian friends if they could think of anything - book, artwork, play, film - that had made a real difference to the Palestinian plight. None, said one. Maybe some of Edward Said, said another. Said, the Palestinian-American historian who was for many years the intellectual face of the Palestinian diaspora, is Makdisi's uncle, a fact of which this book's publishers make much. But Palestine Inside Out is no child of Said's work.

Rather, it is a competent review of the history and the current state of play between Palestine and Israel; heavy with statistics, citations of experts and the reports of human rights groups, low on the grit of human misery. It is most interesting perhaps for its view of its original, American audience and what they need to know. (What is Hamas? Why on earth would decent people support a "terrorist" organisation?)

No one here will be shocked that Americans are ignorant about the nuts and bolts of a conflict that their government is intimately involved in. What is more intriguing is that Makdisi reckons that American outrage will best be fired by accounts of the banality of occupation, of how the dogmatic Israeli bureaucracy at checkpoints and permit offices becomes an instrument of suppression itself. There are long accounts of these injustices. But listing the elements of suffering is not describing it. Makdisi's dry approach is surprising, given that he is a professor of literature at the University of California, Los Angeles specialising in the 18th and 19th centuries. He says he is interested "in the play of language and politics" and in the ways in which Words worth and Blake "conveyed the immense revolutionary upheavals of their own time in literary works". He has smelled the blood and dust: he has visited Palestine "several times" and he grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. But this book goes out of its way to eschew poetry or, indeed, much colour at all.

It might have been better to try for, if not "The Prelude", something more passionate. (Although, as I write that, there comes to mind a vision of David Hare, white-faced and furious on the Royal Court stage ten years ago, delivering a monologue to a gripped audience about his trip to Israel and the occupied territories. Fat lot of good that did.) But it is when Makdisi veers furthest from storytelling that he is least convincing. It's all very well to remind us of the unregarded UN resolutions calling on Israel to put back what it has broken, but this is not the stuff of modern, practical solution-finding. Clearly everyone needs to talk - and particularly the Israelis to Hamas. But that's obvious, too. Hamas is Gaza's elected government. What's more interesting is why people like Tony Blair, charged by the Quartet group of countries as their special envoy for the peace process, won't talk to Hamas. (Come to that, is he doing anything out there?)

Indeed, Makdisi does not delve at all into the reasons behind the abject failure of the current political Establishment in Washington and London to do anything to address the world's most pressing human rights problem. In a book which promises a solution to the 60-year-old conflict this is so obvious an area of discussion that he must have deliberately avoided it, and you wonder why. Were the squalid truths of the US neocon affair with Israel just too strong for his audience? Or is that old hat - is Makdisi aiming for the next president's bedside table?

There are odd things: a bad-tempered assault on a David Remnick New Yorker analysis of Hamas and Israel's relationship with Fatah which amounts to a list of all the things Makdisi thinks Remnick should have put in it. Makdisi - and his publisher - promise a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: when at last you get to this in the final pages it turns out to be nothing new, and indeed rather sweetly improbable. Surprise, surprise - otherwise this book really would be the sort that changes lives, 4.25 million of them. For that, now, is how many Palestinians are still waiting, in limbo, for someone to sort out the great injustice done to them 60 years ago, and ever since.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession