It was a day of extreme heat, and extreme emotion. The prisoners were due to be released at Tarqumia, a checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank.
It was August. The Middle Eastern summer was at its hottest. There was no shade. Waiting families did not seem to mind. Perhaps they had been strengthened by learning to endure absence and separation. Perhaps hope and expectation alone sustained them that afternoon. Their excitement seemed to increase the air temperature even further.
The newly-freed prisoners were Palestinians who had been held in Israeli jails, mostly for carrying out, or planning, attacks on Israeli targets. A similar release is planned now, as part of moves by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It was just such a restart, in this case prompted by the launch of the “Roadmap” for Middle East peace, which had led to the prisoner release I witnessed then, in 2003.
Such new beginnings seem often to be prompted by the ambition of politicians or diplomats. In this case, Kerry, new in his post, is taking on one of the toughest diplomatic challenges of the age. In his announcement last week, he talked of £a significant and welcome step forward”, which would see delegations coming to “Washington to begin initial talks within the next week or so” – in other words, very soon now.
Without the dedication and energy which Kerry has shown, this stage might not even have been reached. It is his enthusiasm which is the catalyst. The need to end the conflict is nothing new. There seems to be a growing opinion that it may soon be impossible to create a Palestinian state on the West Bank. The European Union’s view, published last December, is typical. Foreign Ministers decided then that continued settlement expansion, “would seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution of the conflict by jeopardising the possibility of a contiguous and viable Palestinian state and of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states.”
If attempts to take on the challenge are not prompted by ministerial ambition, they are often prompted by more than circumstances inside Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Roadmap of 2003 came in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq; the Madrid talks of 1991 followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The disputes remain the same: borders; refugees (those who fled the 1948 war, which brought Israel into being, and their descendants); the status of Jerusalem. Any solution to these fundamental issues will require compromise, or acceptance of loss or injustice. So far, this has proved impossible.
As the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004, I was the only international journalist then based in the territory. I watched the conflict unfold from a rare viewpoint. Reporting the news gave me an understanding of daily reality, and the longer I did it, the more I sought to understand the deeper, enduring, causes of enmity between Israeli and Palestinian.
Taking a week or so away from news reporting, I made a radio documentary about the conflict and ideas of home.
It seemed that the more you went beyond the questions designed to get a soundbite for that day’s bulletins, the more ideas of historical destiny, reinforced by religious faith, came to the surface.
I was reminded of this recently when watching a BBC Television documentary, Israel: Facing the Future.
“Both sides claim to have rights on this land, and they claim that they are the only ones who have the rights on this land, and no side can in any way forego its rights on every inch of territory because it’s holy land,” Ephraim Halevy, a former Director of Mossad, told the reporter, John Ware.
This is the extremely inconvenient truth which conventional diplomacy, and the journalism which reports it, too often underplays. Taking it into account is no guarantee of a successful peace process. Ignoring it seems to guarantee failure. Energy and ambition alone are not sufficient. This new diplomatic initiative will need to understand ancient ideas of land and faith if it is to succeed.
James Rodgers is the author of the newly-published No Road Home: Fighting for Land and Faith in Gaza (Abramis) and of Reporting Conflict (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012). From 2002-2004, he was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. He lectures in Journalism at City University London.