Israel-Palestine: Tears and fears
Two crucial books offer empathy and balance on a bitterly contested issue
Welcome to This Week, Those Books, your rundown on books new and old that resonate with the week’s big news story.
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The Big Story:
The unprecedented land, sea and air attack on Israel by Palestinian group Hamas has set off a spiral of death and destruction. Amid a rising toll, there are fears of a major escalation of violence and regional tensions. Some analysts say this may be an inflection point in the entrenched Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It was the most serious assault on Israel since 1973. Its prime minister said the country was “at war” but some Israelis have been asking what their leaders “see as victory”. The UN secretary general has called for Israeli operations to “be conducted in strict accordance with international humanitarian law.”
The hostilities threaten a series of delicate regional negotiations, not least a US-brokered deal aimed at the normalisation of Saudi relations with Israel and the revival of Israeli-Palestinian talks.
World reaction has fallen along predictable lines. Many countries denounced “terrorism” in any form, expressed solidarity with Israel and evacuated their nationals. Pakistan, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, said there was an “urgent need to address the Palestinian Question”. The UAE called for a revival of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Saudi Arabia pointedly noted “the deprivation of the Palestinian people of the legitimate rights”.
The roots of the conflict go back to the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I, leading Britain to gain control of Palestine, then inhabited by a Jewish minority and Arab majority.
In 1917, British foreign secretary Lord Balfour issued a 67-word document expressing support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Historians have suggested different reasons for this. In the pithy criticism of writer Arthur Koestler, the Balfour Declaration meant that “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third”.
In 1947, the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.
In 1948, the British withdrew and Jewish leaders proclaimed the founding of Israel. Palestinians objected and a war ensued with neighbouring Arab countries intervening. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes in what they call nakba or the catastrophe.
Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya or Islamic Resistance Movement, was launched by a Palestinian cleric in 1987.
Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank say they suffer from Israeli actions, such as the 16-year blockade of Gaza, the construction of the West Bank barrier by 2006, and the destruction of Palestinian homes. Israel says it is defending itself against Palestinian violence.
This Week, Those Books:
One of the most balanced accounts on a century of conflict from 1917.
A novel about two grieving fathers, one Palestinian, the other Israeli.
Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017
By: Ian Black
Publisher: Allen Lane
An engaging and enlightening account of the long and unresolved struggle over one small territory on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. The late Dr Ian Black was The Guardian’s Middle East editor. Fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, he spent decades immersed in Israeli and Palestinian societies. He offers some key insights, not least how before 1948, the term ‘Palestinian’ made no distinction between Arabs and Jews; the liberal Manchester Guardian newspaper offered enthusiastic support for the Zionist cause, and the early Zionist pioneers relied on Arab labour. And so on, until we get to this cauldron of mutual suspicion, hatred, instability, misery and violence.
“Portraying one side as colonialists, settlers and racists and the other as terrorists, fanatics and anti-Semites only reduces the already slight chances of reconciliation.”
“…both peoples should heed the wise words of the Palestinian-Israeli writer Odeh Bisharat: ‘If there is no shared narrative for the past, then at least let us write one for the future’.”
Apeirogon: A Novel
By: Colum McCann
An unusual novel that’s not entirely fiction. It’s the story of a friendship between two grieving fathers. Palestinian Bassam Aramin and Israeli Rami Elhanan lost their young daughters in the senseless cycle of violence. Abir, 10, died at the hands of an Israeli soldier; Smadar, 13, in a suicide bomb attack. The fathers join a group of bereaved people searching for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The book’s seemingly hard-to-pronounce title (a-pay-ro-gone) comes from the mathematical term for an object with an infinite number of sides.
“…to listen to the stories of Bassam and Rami, and to find within their stories another story, a song of songs…remembering, while listening, all of those stories that are yet to be told.”
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