Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis And Palestinians
Anton La Guardia (John Murray, £22.50)
Why, one is tempted to ask, would anyone want to read, let alone write, yet another book on that most dismal of subjects, the Israel-Palestine conflict? Don't we already hear enough about it day after dreary day? And yet the body of published books on the subject has come to resemble a massive geological feature on the Earth's surface, deepening like a coastal shelf with every passing year, and probably visible from space. Who needs another one? The best of them usually are of interest only to a particularly obsessive type of specialist. The worst are themselves acts of participation in the conflict, supporting one side over the other and explaining nothing of how and why the conflict continues.
This book contributes a new type of deposit to this great reef of words. Anton La Guardia was The Daily Telegraph's Middle East correspondent for six years and is no doubt more aware than most of the need for a fresh approach to this subject if it is not to remain the narrow domain of zealots and sadomasochists. Rather than narrating in conventional chronological form the history of the struggle for geographical Palestine and attempting the impossible, a definitive narrative, he divides the whole enormous subject into a sequence of broad themes and lets his material speak for itself. He cunningly juxtaposes accounts of important historical episodes and encounters with the individuals who are the conflict's protagonists and victims, to create a crowded panorama of incommensurate historical forces, cultures and people, and in doing so turns the complexity of the subject into a literary virtue.
A perennial problem that he faces, and successfully grapples with, is that books that promise to tell this story from both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, usually fall foul of the tendency of history to be the history of the victors and find themselves with more to say about the victorious Israelis - who are, after all, an outpost of European civilisation, despite their oriental location - than about the downtrodden Palestinians. He genuinely does manage to write movingly about the sufferings of both peoples, a remarkable example of the human ability to hold two incompatible notions in the mind at once.
One of the techniques he uses is to be rude about both sides, though in judiciously different ways. Surprisingly few writers on the Holy Land - too deeply mired in the overwhelming, intractable grimness of the place, perhaps - take the trouble to evoke for us the sheer ghastliness of a place like Tel Aviv, where you can't even get a decent cup of coffee. "For years Israelis have cheerfully sipped an awful substance called bots, or 'mud', a bastardisation of Turkish coffee," he writes. "Instead of delicately boiling and reboiling water, ground coffee, sugar and cardamom into a perfumed nectar, as has been done in the Levant for centuries, Israelis take a glass of hot water, throw in cheap ground coffee, stir it for a moment with sugar, and serve up the mud." It's a small but canny detail and tells us more than reams of political analysis what the place is really like.
Or this on the Holy Sepulchre, the lugubrious Christian shrine in the Old City of Jerusalem that traditionally contains the tomb of Jesus Christ: "Its jumble is like the musty home of a demented pensioner who has kept every kitsch relic of a past life while the walls of the house are crumbling."
The incurable hatred that each side has for the other gives the place an inescapably acrid flavour, which the author doesn't flinch from identifying. "There is the callousness of Israel in its treatment of Palestinians, its relentless expansion of Jewish settlements even as it negotiated peace, the chronic unreliability of Arafat, the chaotic authoritarianism and corruption of his rule, and the fanaticism of the politics of religion."
In a book conspicuously free of grand statements, he ends with a commendably pragmatic (and very English) assessment of what keeps Israel and Palestine in our newspapers and news broadcasts almost every day. First, the conflict is easier for journalists to cover than, say, the civil wars in Chechnya or Algeria. There are good hotels to retire to, with a bar and clean sheets. And the story itself is both inexhaustibly compelling and tragic. "There is a constant moral tension about the place - the survival of the ancient amid the new, the superimposition of the religious and the profane, the sullying of the spiritual with the brutal, the discordance between epic heroism and pettiness."