Review: A (happily) partial memoir of the second intifada

Emma Williams is a doctor who worked in Britain, Pakistan, Afghanistan, New York and South Africa before accompanying her husband, a UN official, to Jerusalem in October 2000. This account of their three years in Palestine, It’s easier to reach heaven than the end of the street - a Jerusalem memoir, was originally published in the UK in 2006 and now appears in a revised and updated US edition.

The book has meanwhile acquired a slew of glowing recommendations from reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic. These tributes have one thing in common: the admiring conviction that Williams is “even-handed.” For Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party’s Lord Mayor of London, the book “shows the best and the worst on each side of the tragedy, and … engages our sympathy with both.” To Eric Silver of The Jewish Chronicle it demonstrates that “Israelis and Palestinians are like angry twins joined at the hip.” For The Sunday Times, Williams toes “the valuable line of impartiality,” and for the UK’s The Independent she offers a “vivid portrait of this tribal dispute.”

These tributes raise my hackles. I consider “impartiality” to be the most unbalanced approach to a monstrously unbalanced situation, “tragedy” a distorting sublimation of sustained, deliberate aggression, and “tribal dispute” a crass euphemism often employed to disguise imperialist oppression and belittle the oppressed.

My discomfort deepened as I read on. In her introduction, Williams refers to the situation as “a tragedy of our times” (xvii), to Israeli soldiers as being “stuck in the middle, trapped” (xxxii) rather than active and often sadistic agents of government policy, to a hypothetical Israeli “general at the top” as being “trapped, wondering how to get out of the situation” (xxxiv), although such generals thrive on the “situation” and are the ones laying the traps.

Williams and her family arrived in Israel a month before the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, her account of which arouses further misgivings. She writes that then Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount — known to Palestinians as the Haram al-Sharif — in September 2000 surrounded by a huge phalanx of security was “provocative to the Palestinians and provocative to Israel’s Labor government and Prime Minister” (18). This is an unconscionable attempt to whitewash then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s role in the affair. Against the advice of his political and intelligence advisers, Barak approved Sharon’s visit, hoping it would assist him in upcoming elections — or the very least not expose him to attacks from the Israeli right. Later, William continues this whitewashing by claiming that Sharon as Prime Minister stopped the Taba peace negotiations (65).

Contrary to the narrative Williams presents, Barak was far more culpable for the failure of continued negotiations before Sharon’s election. Barak relied on force — including air strikes — and threats to pressure then Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to make concessions he was unwilling to make before the intifada began. Moreover, based on his public statements at the time and since losing the election to Sharon, as well as published accounts from participants and scholars, his support for the continued negotiations hardly appears genuine. Indeed, Barak’s repeated claims in the US, European and Israeli press, which were subsequently revealed to be untrue, to have made a “generous offer” at Camp David that Arafat rejected had a devastating effect on future negotiations, effectively branding the Palestinians as “unwilling partners” and “unready for peace.”

Given these negative portents, I was surprised to find myself being drawn inexorably into Williams’ narration, and gradually coming to admire and even like the author. The family moves into a house in Palestinian East Jerusalem “near the top of the Forest of Peace on a hill called the Hill of Evil Counsel.” As the region erupts in the wake of Sharon’s “Temple Mount stunt” (her phrase), she sends her children to the French lycee, acclimatizes herself to “the city of monotheism,” acquires Arab and Jewish friends, and finds work as a physician and medical researcher in Palestinian hospitals in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Vivid vignettes of everyday family life, repeatedly entailing the thorny task of explaining “the situation” to her children without prejudicing or terrifying them, are juxtaposed with revealing conversations with fellow foreigners puzzled by her decision to live among “the Arabs,” with Zionist and (rarely) anti-Zionist Israelis, and with ordinary and extraordinary Palestinians whose steadfastness inspires and often baffles her. Williams’ self-portrait is free from the implicit egocentricity one often finds in such accounts, and her interactions with Palestinians have the unmistakable ring of mutual respect.

The climax of her tale comes undoubtedly with her stubborn decision, regarded with incomprehension by Israelis and Palestinians alike, to give birth to her fourth child in Bethlehem’s Holy Family Hospital. During her pregnancy, the Israeli army assassinates Abu Ali Mustapha of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), occupies the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala, murders three Fatah officials, shells the Holy Family Hospital during the subsequent reoccupation of Bethlehem, kills five children in Gaza, and assassinates Mahmoud Abu Hanoud of Hamas’ military wing in the West Bank. Undaunted, Williams gives birth to a baby boy in Bethlehem just before Christmas 2001 (145).

Williams manages to intersperse her gripping personal tale with accurate and detailed accounts of the historical and legal background to “the conflict,” so that the book has considerable usefulness as a primer. There is also an informative glossary but, inexplicably, no index.

Happily, it must be reported that this account is by no means impartial, and that Williams is outraged by the injustices meted out to the Palestinians by Israel and its Western backers. Indeed, she is clearly contemptuous of the very notion of “balance” that she nonetheless attempts repeatedly to embody. She quotes a “long-time observer” who contrasts “Arafat’s appealing to the [Israeli military] to use restraint against the stone-throwers” with “Israel’s appealing to the Palestinians to use restraint against the snipers, tanks and helicopter gunships!” (27). In a footnote (389) she refers to a French book that analyzes the “false symmetries” of Israeli propaganda. Her thirteenth chapter is a devastating critique of the pusillanimous rhetorical tricks deployed by the international media to avoid confronting the reality of Israel’s overwhelming culpability.

Yet even as she piles on the evidence, Williams again and again slips in “balancing” qualifications, instances of Palestinian wrongdoing that, however baleful in their consequences (and I agree that Jewish and Palestinian civilian lives are equally valuable), are so dwarfed by the relentless horror of their context that their very enumeration takes on a ludicrous quality that seriously mars the text.

To suggest that she is simply courting the myopic reviews cited earlier on would probably be unfair. Perhaps she feels that, particularly in a US context, the book might fail in its didactic aims were it to leave itself open to mischievous accusations of partiality. However, anything other than an unambiguously preferential option for Palestinian rights fails to live up to the moral responsibility that the West bears for having brought this “situation” into being.

Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist (www.raymonddeane.com)

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