Friday, February 19, 2010

Light Years Apart- Emma Williams on Jerusalem

Light years apart
MEI 18th Feb

From Ian Williams

It’s Easier to Reach Heaven than the End of the Street: A Jerusalem Memoir, Emma Williams
Olive Branch Press, an imprint of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.
ISBN: 9781566567893, $16

Newly updated for the American edition, Emma Williams’ account of her six years in Jerusalem is, in many ways, far more telling than many of the more overtly partisan and ideological accounts of the Middle East conflict. She was conducting medical research in the Occupied Territories while her husband, Andrew Gilmour, was in Jerusalem with the United Nations, trying to put truth in the increasingly far-fetched rumours of a peace process.

She does not belabour the symbolism of the timing and location of the birth of her son – just before Christmas in a hospital in Bethlehem – but it surely enhances her authority. The statue of the Virgin Mary on the roof hospital had been raked with machine-gun fire from an Israeli tank the night before, but, unlike many Palestinian women, she made it to the hospital and was not held up to die at an IDF checkpoint.

Shortly after the author’s arrival in Jerusalem in 2000, Ariel Sharon took his deliberately provocative walk through the Haram al-Sharif, triggering the Second Intifada, followed after 9/11 by his assault on the Palestinian Authority. She records the puzzlement of her international colleagues in the bars of Jerusalem about the mentality of someone who could order the destruction of dental records, examination records and even driving licence records in the government buildings.

Williams’ family lived in an Arab part of Jerusalem, but with Jewish as well as Arab neighbours. Their social and professional lives crossed the divide between communities while also exposing them to the foreigners, who brought their own intellectual baggage with them. From her anecdotes, the experience is not so much one of apartheid as of switching frequently between parallel universes. “You live on the wrong side of reality,” a friend tells her about their home “on the seam”, in an Arab village in “no man’s land” in Jerusalem.

On one side, life goes on normally, except she vividly paints the perpetual fear of suicide bombings, the randomness of which magnifies their effect on morale, where every explosion has friends and family checking on the whereabouts of their children and spouses. One exploded outside the French School that her children attended. She, her three children and the unborn she was carrying, all missed it only by minutes.

Anyone who has dealings in or about the Middle East has confronted the absolute assumption of moral correctness. On the one side are those Israelis who have no conception of the brutality and humiliation of the occupation, and on the other are some Palestinians who make the “traditional” justification for the bombings as “the weapon of the weak.”

The author’s quantum leaps between the universes provide telling contrasts. The metaphysical membrane of belief is so strong that an Israeli acquaintance asserts to the wife of a French journalist shot by an Israeli paratrooper: “Our security forces don’t do that sort of thing.” The paratrooper had been captured on film taking careful, unprovoked and deliberate aim. Only the journalist’s flak jacket and the angle he was standing at stopped the bullet from going though his heart. The armour of moral certainty is hard enough to stop mere reality penetrating.

Williams is archetypically British in her politeness, which makes her a much better reporter than a more easily riled observer. When Israeli officials and, indeed, ordinary people say blinkered things, she does not take them to task and so can record the smooth flow of their prejudices.

However, she goes further to show how the suicide bombing campaign alienated even the best-intentioned Israelis, such as veteran peace campaigner Israel Shahak. Yaser Arafat’s half-hearted condemnations enhanced the rapid shrinkage of the Israeli peace camp and allowed him to be easily typecast as the terrorist leader rather than the opportunist would-be beneficiary.

What terrorises about suicide bombs is their unpredictability. But as a frequent visitor across the lines to the West Bank, she records how randomness is subsumed in the caprice of the occupying forces. The wall, the checkpoints, the peremptory behaviour of the troops are perennial, even for relatively privileged foreigners. At the same time, Williams illustrates how much worse it is for the Palestinians – especially the casualties, direct and indirect, that as a doctor and medical researcher, she saw in the Occupied Territories.

Her direct experience of both worlds (one checkpoint, but light years away from each other) allows her to ask questions that would seem offensive from others. After a bomb at the Hebrew University, she asks: “Why is the killing of so many students worse than the killing of women and children or old people – or anyone?” She compares suicide bombing to “the other forms of killing: those from further away, or from so great a distance that the victims are unseen.”

This eminently readable book not only recounts dispassionately the background to the problem, but, perhaps most usefully, gives the reader a vivid and touching depiction of the human clay, on both sides, from which any peaceful solution has to be built.

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