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9 July 2015

Living, working and dying: the literature of occupied Palestine

Once again, history has conspired against the Palestinians – but as these books show, they cannot be wished away.

By Adam LeBor

Return: a Palestinian Memoir
Ghada Karmi
Verso, 321pp, £16.99

Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine
Dervla Murphy
Eland, 442pp, £18.99

The Drone Eats With Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire
Atef Abu Saif
Comma Press, 250pp, £9.99

Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching under Occupation
Tom Sperlinger
Zero Books, 157pp, £9.99

Language of War, Language of Peace: Palestine, Israel and the Search for Justice
Raja Shehadeh
Profile Books, 150pp, £8.99

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For writers, the Israel-Palestine conflict, like the Second World War, is the gift that keeps on giving. Israel and the Palestinian territories are about a third of the size of Scotland. Yet the world remains obsessed with these two tiny countries. Palestine, and the Palestinians, inspire far more emotion, acts of solidarity – and books – than, say, Syria, where the toll of human misery is many times worse.

Why is that? In part, because of the historic and biblical backdrop. Also, as the old newsroom adage goes, “Jews are news”. Certainly, Israel’s contradictions fuel our fascination. The Jewish state was founded by immigrants and refugees who in turn displaced another people. Israel is the region’s most robust democracy, with independent institutions, civil rights, the rule of law and an aggressive free press. Its universities produce a stream of technical wizardry while its historians ruthlessly strip away Zionism’s founding myths of statehood. More than 100,000 people attended the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade last month. The Arab spring is withering across the Middle East, but blooming in Israel, where the Joint List, a coalition of Islamists, Arab nationalists and progressive activists, is the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Yet beyond the Green Line, in the terri­tories captured in 1967, is another, much darker world. There Israel administers an apartheid-style colonialist administration, with separate roads and infrastructure serving illegal settlements on stolen Arab land. The same military that has brought 2,000 Syrian refugees for treatment in Israeli hospitals sporadically kills and maims Palestinians with near impunity. It incarcerates Palestinian minors in Israel proper, depriving them of contact with their families. It diverts Palestinians’ water supply to settlement swimming pools, denies them permission to build and humiliates them at checkpoints. (See Cursed Victory, by the Israeli academic Ahron Bregman, for the most incisive, up-to-date account of the legal, political and moral cost of the occupation.)

Who cares? Even in über-liberal, gay-friendly Tel Aviv there is little appetite for the grim details of life under occupation. Instead, Israelis prefer the comforts of Ha-Buah, the “bubble” of new gourmet restaurants, booming property markets and hi-tech industries. The security fence, or apartheid wall, that slices deep into Palestinian lands has only increased many Israelis’ sense that events in the occupied terri­tories are playing out on another planet. But as all of these books show, however hard Israel tries, Palestine, and its people, cannot be wished away.

The wall, Ghada Karmi writes,

wound in and out of Palestinian territory in such a way as to enclose the best farming land and water within the Israeli side, a plain and simple seizure of other people’s property. But for me, the wall signified much more; for behind its huge bulk was blotted out, and deliberately so, the physical presence, the very thought even, of another people who walked and breathed there as if they had no right even to be alive.

If you read only one of these books, all of which are worthwhile additions to the Israel-Palestine canon, make sure that it is Return, Karmi’s gracefully written, poignant and evocative memoir. Born in Jerusalem, Karmi moved to Britain after 1948. Like many intellectuals of the Palestinian diaspora, she returned to work with the Palestinian Authority (PA), the quasi-government that Israel allows to administer fragments of the occupied West Bank. The reality did not match her hopes. Israel cast a long and dark shadow, but not everything could be blamed on Tel Aviv. Political infighting, corruption and the lack of civil society had fractured Palestinian society.

The PA she describes was a snakepit of competing factions. The officials almost all felt threatened by her gender, her western expertise and her experience. Instead of building a nation, Palestinian officials were building micro-empires, obsessing about status symbols such as the colour of an office sofa, or whether their desk had two or three drawers. Perhaps this is to be expected. The PA has some influence on the international stage but its power at home is strictly constrained by Israel. When external forces direct so much of a person’s life, it is natural to focus on that which can be controlled, even if it is only office furniture.

Karmi’s strength is to focus on her personal story. Some of the best chapters in the book relate her visit to Amman to see her centenarian father. She opens her heart about her own fractured relationships with her parents and siblings, and how her sense of displacement has led her to seek love and friendship in unproductive places. She also describes astutely how the Palestinians in Jordan have distanced themselves psychically from their brethren under Israeli occupation, as if their depredations had made Jordan’s Palestinians decide “they wanted no part of that misery”.

Out of the blue, Karmi is invited over by Steven Erlanger, the Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times. Erlanger has read one of Karmi’s earlier books, In Search of Fatima, and realised that his Jerusalem apartment is built on Karmi’s childhood home. Erlanger has arranged for Karmi to visit the house where she grew up. The new tenants are liberal Israelis who welcome her inside solicitously, “as if I had a disability which made me especially fragile”. It is a thoughtful gesture by Erlanger, but she does not enjoy her visit. The memories are too raw. “All I could think of were the many alien people who had lived in these rooms after us, and how each one erased more and more of our presence there.”

The doughty octogenarian Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy takes a more conventional approach, criss-crossing Israel and Palestine and gathering reams of interviews and impressions. Murphy is not a friend of Israel. Somewhat oddly, she announces in her foreword that she is “anti-political Zionism” and “therefore anti-Israel as the state is at present constituted” (would a travel book about Pakistan, for example, demand a political positioning?) but at least she is frank about her bias.

She has certainly done both her homework and her legwork. She starts in Jaffa, the millennia-old port and former cultural capital of Palestine, now absorbed by Tel Aviv. Jaffa’s lovely old Arab villas, abandoned by their owners in 1948, are now worth millions and are highly sought after. Arab families are facing eviction as state land is sold to developers. Those who stay must struggle daily with Israeli officialdom.

The sheer bloody-mindedness of Israeli bureaucracy, honed over the decades into a machine to humiliate and intimidate, runs like a thread through the books by both Karmi and Murphy. A fig tree is ordered to be cut down in a Jaffa garden on the absurd grounds that it might provide cover for a sniper. A security guard at a hospital prevents visitors from bringing toys for injured Palestinian children because they are too big. Family members are denied permits to traverse Israel from Gaza to the West Bank.

Between River and Sea crackles with energy as Murphy draws out her subjects’ life stories and digs deep into the underbelly of Israeli society, beyond the Israeli-Arab conflict: the disdain of the Ashkenazi (eastern European) elite for the Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries); the grim life in development towns surrounded by desert; the anger of recent Russian immigrants, a fury that sometimes warps into a hatred of Arabs in general; the continuing trauma of the Holocaust as it ripples through the generations, and its political exploitation.

Murphy also travels across Palestine, visiting Bethlehem, Ramallah and Hebron, speaking to settlers and Palestinian nationalists, always keeping the human story to the fore, weaving in history (biblical and modern) and atmospheric scene-setting. In the Judaean desert, “occasionally a cloaked shepherd appears on a faraway skyline, or a woman is glimpsed riding side-saddle on a donkey, balancing a sack behind her, followed by children carrying jerrycans”. In Beersheba, southern Israel, she meets Daniel, a Polish-born man in his eighties with an “Einstein hairstyle” and “kindly blue eyes”. But Daniel is enraged at the mention of Marek Edelman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. For most Jews, Edelman was a hero; but he remained in Poland during the Nazi war, and had expressed solidarity with the Palestinians. Daniel denounces him as a traitor, and refuses to shake Murphy’s hand when she leaves. Edelman’s real sin, of course, is not to have moved to Israel.

Perhaps Israel’s darkest irony is that the country was established to provide a refuge for Jews fleeing anti-Semitism but it now helps generate that same prejudice. Most Jews will defend Israel’s right to exist. Many are profoundly uncomfortable with the country’s lurch to the right and have been appalled by the repeated death and destruction in Gaza. But when the tanks start rolling and the guns start firing, the clamour of war drowns out the distinctions. The pattern is set: whenever Israel goes to war in Gaza, there is a huge spike in anti-Semitic incidents across Europe.

The writer and teacher Atef Abu Saif chronicled the Gaza war of summer 2014 from the Jabaliya refugee camp. His accounts were published in the Guardian, in the New York Times and on other media. His cool, spare prose only highlights the extreme stress and horror of living under constant bombardment, when death can, and does, come at any moment. Frequent footnotes listing the names of those killed are a bleak reminder of the human meaning of the statistics of war.

“In time,” writes Abu Saif, “you start to distinguish between the different types of attack. By far the easiest distinction you learn to make is between an air attack, a tank attack and an attack from the sea.” A bomb from an F-16 “makes the whole street dance a little, sway for a good 30 seconds or so”; tank rockets “give off a much hollower sound”, while the boom from a shell fired from the sea makes you feel “like the ground itself is being swallowed up”.

What is missing here is more context. It now seems increasingly possible that the International Criminal Court will investigate Israel’s actions in Gaza in summer 2014. Palestinians welcome the ICC but its involvement may prove more complicated than they hope. Hamas was outgunned and outnumbered by the Israeli military, but its fighters also fired missiles into civilian population centres, which may prove to have been war crimes. Meanwhile, over the years, vast resources and expertise that could have been used for reconstruction were instead spent on building tunnels out of Gaza to infiltrate fighters into Israel proper. In military terms, both the missiles and the tunnels were futile exercises that triggered further Israeli bombings and incursions. Only a cynic, of course, would argue that that was the point.

Demonstrations, land-snatching and occasional Israeli military raids aside, life is much calmer in the West Bank, where Tom Sperlinger taught English literature in 2013. Sperlinger shows how, even under occupation, young Palestinian men and women have concerns similar to those of their counterparts the world over: getting good grades in their examinations, finding love, starting a career. In Romeo and Juliet in Palestine, his slim but engaging debut, his pen-portraits show a sharp eye for detail.

Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian writer based in Ramallah, has a similar talent for observation. He won the Orwell Prize in 2008 for Palestinian Walks, which chronicled the steady devouring of the landscape by settlers. Language of War, Language of Peace is a collection of lectures delivered in New York and London in memory of Edward Said. Calmly argued, clearly written, each chapter is a valuable snapshot.

A lawyer, peace activist and founder of al-Haq, a human rights organisation, Shehadeh is especially strong on the legal sleight of hand and Orwellian language that Israeli officials use to obfuscate their steady appropriation of Palestinian land. His own family fled Jaffa during the 1948 war and resettled in Ramallah. Soon after the 1967 war, a relative who had stayed in Israel and become a citizen explained to Shehadeh what would happen next in the West Bank, using tactics finessed in Israel proper after 1948. The honeymoon would be short, and then the hardship would begin. “First they will impose heavy taxes, then land acquisition will start, then what is left of the land will be rendered out of reach through land-use planning.” Which is precisely what happened.

What lies in the future? The occupation, as even the former prime minister Ehud Barak agrees, is untenable. If the two-state solution really is dead, Israel faces a stark choice. It can absorb the West Bank and rule the Palestinians but deprive them of civil rights, thus becoming a proper apartheid regime. Or, it can remain a democracy and enfranchise the Palestinians, who will eventually vote the Jewish state out of existence in favour of a one-state solution.

“It has been known for a long time that the key to a safer, more peaceful Middle East lies in resolving the conflict,” Shehadeh writes. For a while, it seemed this was true. The international community, especially the United States, poured resources and energy into bringing Israel and Palestine together. But as the Arabic proverb says, the dogs bark and the caravan moves on. Once again, history has conspired against the Palestinians. The collapse of Syria and Iraq, and the rise of Isis, have all but removed the prospect of any meaningful pressure on Israel. President Obama has given up on reconciling the two sides. In a region collapsing into terror and chaos, the Jewish state now presents itself as a bastion of western values and stability. As Lenin once said, “The worse, the better” – but not for the Palestinians.

Adam LeBor is the author of “City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa”. His latest thriller, “The Washington Stratagem”, is published by Head of Zeus

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