Tales that give insights into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

THE BLUE BETWEEN SKY AND WATER by Susan Abulhawa (Bloomsbury)


Given a death toll well over 120 from the “current conflict” in Israel/Palestine, which some are calling the Third Intifada, it seems strange to review what is essentially a feel good novel set in Gaza. But, because many people shy away from factual accounts, a novel may go far towards spreading information about this seemingly unending and irresolvable situation.

In Susan Abulhawa’s novel, an Arab family, displaced from their ancestral fishing village, moves south of Gaza. The reader is shown how they survive lost children, an imprisoned son, friends killed while working in Gaza’s blockade-busting tunnels, and impoverishment.

The main character is Nazmiyeh, mother of many sons and one daughter, a richly created figure at the centre of an extended family, including those who go to the United States. The title refers to a boy who is so traumatised by the bombing and shooting that he goes into a state of semiconscious paralysis.

Abulhawa combines the old traditional lifestyle with modern know-ledge in fields such as psychology.

Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has praised the writing in this book but it is popular fiction, giving an interesting view of life in Gaza, and is a little too cheerful for this desperate situation. The other book reviewed here is mostly serious and, at times, quite harrowing to read. In 1994 I interviewed Dervla Murphy, then already a veteran travel writer.

The last question I asked her was: “Do you think you may be a bodhisattva?” (an enlightened being who returns to Earth to help others achieve the same). She dismissed this with a laugh. But Murphy is not just a consumer of travel experiences. All her books (23, so far) show deep research, reading and concern for human rights.

Between River and Sea is based on visits she made to Israel and Palestine between 2008 and 2010. She concedes in her authorial note that certain figures and stats may now be out of date, “but for the majority of Palestinians, no major economic or political changes have taken place and the military occupation has … become more oppressive”.

The book has an extensive bibliography, glossary, timeline and good maps. For anyone wanting to understand Israel and Palestine better, this would be a good read. Murphy takes us along with her on daily walks, into coffee shops, serveeces (communal taxis), and the homes of both Jews and Arabs in Israel.

She talks to everyone: academics, taxi drivers, kibbutzniks, people living in refugee camps. Her route is a wide circle from Tel Aviv down to the Negev (Gaza has been described in a separate book, A Month by the Sea, 2013), then up to Jericho, Jerusalem and Hebron, and on to Safed. She travels with residents, nongovernmental organisation workers and United Nations employees. She walks alone into Mea She’arim, one of Jerusalem’s oldest neighbours, populated by Haredi Jews, where she is physically attacked by children.

She combines planning (many letters of introduction), reading and the delights of happenstance. Among her chanced-upon interlocutors are: an Israeli political sociologist, Ida, studying the connections between Mizrahim (Jews from Middle Eastern countries) and underworld Russian Jews; Afaf, a Palestinian feminist, single and working in education in the camps; and Daoud, a 75-year-old Jericho-born Palestinian who invites her to drink tea on his balcony when he sees her paused in the street “to converse with three cats”.

She has much to say about the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), which is used to enforce evictions, set up road blocks (where she witnessed many instances of bullying and harassment), search houses and enforce compliance on settlers where their behaviour has been monitored by court orders. But she has also seen the IDF escort Palestinian children to school where they would be stoned without their protection. She discusses refuseniks who won’t serve in occupied territory, and the IDF’s Nahal Haredi ultra-religious unit.

Murphy’s integrity as a writer and observer is well established and she is upfront about her position. She is opposed to political Zionism and distinguishes this from anti-Semitism and she devotes considerable space to examining the use of language in Israel. Zionists object to the use of the term Nakbah, meaning catastrophe, for the displacement of Arabs from their villages in 1947–1948. Nor is the term “occupation” acceptable for them.

Despite favouring the Palestinian side, with some criticism, Murphy seeks out Jewish Israelis, religious and secular. Many are against the occupation and the way Palestinians are treated. (Recently there were large demonstrations by Israelis against the continuation of the war.) Where they fully support the state of Israel she notes their commitment, but takes a careful look at the power of hasbara.

This term means explanation in Hebrew, but is sometimes understood as propaganda. Older South Africans will remember this operating here to support apartheid.

Murphy visited the Holocaust memorial museum, Yad Vashem. She also walked the Avenue of the Righteous – trees planted at Yad Vashem for those who helped Jews escape the Holocaust, or the Shoah as it is also called. The Catastrophe.

She quotes Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman: “It does not matter how many people chose moral duty over the rationality of self-preservation – what does matter is that some did. Evil is not all powerful. It can be resisted …” Murphy leaves the reader to make the moral choice.

She has shown the reader Israel and Palestine as she found them on her journeys. She quotes a psychotherapist who treats traumatised IDF conscripts: “There is no simple antidote to hasbara.”

By the time you read this, things may be even worse in Israel/Palestine, the death toll there overshadowed by deaths in Beirut (37), Paris (129), Baghdad (26) and Mali (23).

Sayed Kashua, the Arab-Israeli TV writer, Ha’aretz columnist and novelist, is enduring voluntary exile in the United States. In the New Yorker of September 7 he says: “You can’t raise children in Israel on values of full equality. Arab children, I mean. Jewish children maybe you can lie to. But when my children find out they are not equal, where will they go?”“You can’t raise children in Israel on values of full equality. Arab children, I mean. Jewish children maybe you can lie to”


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