May 4, 2013
In a recent interview, the editor of the New York Review of Books , Robert Silvers, remembered a visit in 1969 to Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel, in the company of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. At this meeting Silvers made clear that he came from "a Zionist family" and expressed his admiration for the achievements of Israel. Then he said, "But I do keep asking myself about what happened to the Palestinians who lived here and the Palestinians who are now living under military occupation." Meir replied, "I want to say that we are a moral people, as concerned about the Palestinian people as anybody else," before turning to Berlin to ask him his opinion. Berlin said, "Military occupation. Seldom a good thing. Seldom works out. Shouldn’t go on and on."
For anyone who visits Israel, the tone of that conversation is oddly familiar. Outsiders, even ones who admire and support Israel, feel uncomfortable, to say the least, about the fate of the Palestinian dispossessed. Many of those who live in Israel feel that too; in theory, the feeling is often vehement. But when it comes to what might be done, the feeling can become defensive or, indeed, vague.
In the late 1980s I was taken to a site on the West Bank by an Israeli military attache. As he sought to show me how vulnerable Israel was to attack, I saw on the hill opposite a single Palestinian tending goats. A few times when I tried to interest the military attache in the other man’s presence, when I attempted to move the conversation away from military strategy to more pressing issues about the rights of those who actually lived in the world we surveyed, I got nowhere. My military guide spoke as if he could not even see the other man.
I had witnessed the strange disconnect that allows ordinary life in Israel to continue, with much discussion about internal politics, say, or competing rights between secular and religious Jews, with books being translated and elections held, with a civic life and sense of flair in how much is managed. And the fate of the Palestinians strangely in the shadows, raised by outsiders, or by novelists, raised when there is a crisis, but kept away like a guilty secret or a problem too intractable ever to be solved.
The Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy is known for her fearlessness and for being intrepid, but there has also been at the core of her work a kind of moral seriousness. In her work there is an urge to investigate how others live – and how she herself responds to the unfamiliar – as a way of suggesting how we might, as a species, be improved, even if we cannot be perfected.
Between November 2008 and December 2010 she spent three months in Israel and five months on the West Bank, where she was living when Operation Cast Lead, directed by Israel against Gaza, took place. In June 2011, after much difficulty, she made her way into Gaza itself and spent a month there. (Her account, at the end of this book, of how hard it was to leave Gaza is astonishing.) She planned to describe her time in Gaza in the last two chapters of a book about the region. Instead, she has devoted her entire book to what she witnessed in Gaza, and it is easy to see why.
Her description of the place itself is factual, careful: "Hearing that the Strip measures 140 square miles doesn’t have the same impact as being driven its full length in one hour and 15 minutes while realising that at its widest point one could walk from sea to fence in less than two hours." She shares with John Hume the view that where there is contested territory it is best to concentrate on the people who live in the territory. Thus she went out every day, often alone, often putting herself in some danger, to talk to people, both ordinary citizens and civil leaders, to visit them in their houses and pay careful attention to what they had to say.
Although the detail of life in Gaza now is at the core of this book, Murphy also displays a sharp sense of history, geopolitics and local politics. She writes with care and subtlety about the internal politics of Hamas, for example. She notes that Gaza for many centuries, because of its location, was "one of the Near East’s most cosmopolitan cities . . . Always there was much fighting, trading and building; not until the 20th century did the Strip lose its cultural and commercial significance." At the time of her visit "75 per cent of families were wholly or partly dependent on food aid".
Her version of the difference between the violence perpetrated by Gazans and the retaliation by Israel is stark. "By June 2011, Gazan rockets had killed a total of 23 Israelis and one Thai farm labourer. In 22 days Cast Lead killed more than 1,400 Gazans." This does not mean that Murphy takes a light view of Gazan rockets. Her tone is acid when she sees young men in Gaza carrying such weapons, and remarks that "if Gaza grew fewer [armed] wings, it might not fly into such sterile grief".
The grief, however, ceases to be sterile under Murphy’s searching and forensic gaze. Her pages are filled with accounts of the vast suffering of the people she encounters: the deaths, the terrible injuries, the constant fear, the powerlessness, the sheer vulnerability, the idea that no one in this small stretch of land has been spared. There is a sense of people in Gaza locked into their territory as though it were the dungeon of a prison. Most of Murphy’s indignation is directed at the Israel Defence Forces, but often too at the international community, not only the United States but also the European Union.
Her own sense of fierce individuality, which has made her such an exact noticer of people and things, allows her to seek out the precise story of each individual. There are moments when you hold your breath at the extent of the suffering and other moments where a small story is given its full due, such as a man "worriedly reading text messages" finding that his mother is in dire need of a drug that is not being allowed into Gaza because of the blockade.
It is part of the value of her book that this man is not offered to her as part of a propaganda campaign. Rather she encounters him at a five-a-side soccer game, which she describes with relish. She tries to see some semblance of ordinary life in Gaza. She writes critically about the way in which Gaza is changing, such as the emergence of a sort of morality police "looking out for couples who behave improperly (eg, hold hands or lean a head on a shoulder) and for men who bare their torsos or women who bare anything but face and hands".
She is also acutely conscious of how difficult it is to make a living, to work, say, as a farmer or a fisherman or a doctor, or even be a student, under this siege, and the interviews she conducts with those who still try make heartbreaking reading.
Her book is a kind of wake-up call to the world, a request written by a passionate witness for all sides in this dispute to stop making abstract arguments about territory or conflicting rights and look at how life is lived in this world closed off from outside existence. The quality of Murphy’s sympathy and the sharpness of her mind offer a sort of blueprint for a new way of thinking and feeling about the plight of those who live now in the Gaza Strip.
Colm Tóibín’s most recent book is "The Testament of Mary" , the stage version of which was nominated for a Tony Award this week.