JERUSALEM — A group of “renowned” authors has published a collection of essays about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, hoping their grim firsthand perspectives will draw attention to what they say is an unsustainable situation that is harmful to Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Through the eyes of novelists and nonfiction writers, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash” highlights the day-to-day struggles of Palestinians living under Israeli control and the collective trauma inflicted upon both peoples.
The 26 authors involved in the project include Pulitzer Prize-winners Michael Chabon and Geraldine Brooks, celebrated Irish writer Colm Toibin and Peruvian Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. Chabon and his wife, American-Israeli author Ayelet Waldman, also edited the volume.
The writers visited the West Bank and the Gaza Strip last year to bear witness “in vivid and clear language” to the reality for Palestinians after 50 years of Israeli occupation. Gaza, from where Israel withdrew its settlers and troops in 2005, is now controlled by Hamas militants.
The essays describe the segregated city of Hebron, the vibrant nightlife in Gaza City, the hardships of businessmen in Ramallah, and the frustration of young Palestinians who carried out a stabbing attack that wounded two Israelis in 2015.
“They came with relatively few preconceptions,” Chabon said. “They saw for themselves and they got to talk to people on the ground.”
The project was organized by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization of former soldiers who speak out against the military’s policy in the Palestinian territories. The group has come under heavy fire from Israeli leaders, who say it should air its criticisms locally instead of taking its message to foreign audiences.
Chabon said the book is aimed both at international and Israeli readers, though its affiliation with Breaking the Silence and reliance on foreign critics may limit its impact with the local audience. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, one of the most outspoken critics of the organization, declined to comment, as did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
The book was launched on Sunday to commemorate this month’s anniversary of the 1967 Mideast War, in which Israel took control of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Hebrew and Arabic versions are to hit bookshelves in Israel and the Palestinian territories later this week.
Speaking to reporters at Jerusalem’s American Colony hotel, Chabon said the project seeks “to draw attention to the occupation, and especially to draw the attention of people who aren’t paying attention.”
Chabon, in his essay “Giant in a Cage,” describes travelling from Ramallah to the northern West Bank city of Nablus with a Palestinian-American businessman. He talks of witnessing firsthand the seemingly arbitrary nature of Israel’s military control over Palestinian lives — from checkpoints and permits to resource allocation and settlement construction.
“I was embarrassed and ashamed, both by my ignorance before seeing it and also that such things are being done with my money as an American taxpayer and in my name as a Jew,” he said.
Waldman, who was born in Israel and grew up in the United States and Canada, worked as a public defender in California before turning to a career in writing. An outspoken liberal, she campaigned for Barack Obama, a former classmate at Harvard Law School, during his 2008 presidential campaign.
Her essay, “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” reads like a legal argument against Israel’s military court system through the case of two Palestinian teens. One was arrested and roughly handled, then held without bail for allegedly possessing a knife. The other was arrested in the middle of the night, imprisoned and confessed to setting a field on fire in exchange for a fine and lighter sentence.
“Whether those accused in fact committed the offences is less important than the creation of a general climate of fear, anger, and distrust that quashes rebellion,” she wrote.
While Israeli settlers in the West Bank are subject to Israeli civilian law, Palestinians are subject to military law. The military court system is frequently criticized for its near 100 per cent conviction rate and for meting out stiff penalties.
The authors say their work is not meant to be against Israel, only Israeli policies. Waldman and Yehuda Shaul, a founder of Breaking the Silence, consider themselves Israeli patriots.
“What we’ve come to see and believe is that the existence of Israel, which we feel very invested in, depends on ending the occupation,” Chabon said.
Though sympathetic to the Palestinians living under Israeli rule, the authors are not blind to the violence inflicted upon Israelis, whether in the latest wave of stabbings and shootings that erupted in late 2015 or in the past, during the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s and the massacre of Hebron’s Jews in 1929, decades before Israel was established in 1948.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three territories for a future state — a position that has wide international support. Netanyahu has rejected any return to the 1967 frontiers.
Over the past five decades, Israel, citing security needs, has established a military bureaucracy in the West Bank that enforces movement restrictions on Palestinians through a complex permit system. Some 600,000 Israelis now live in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israel says it has been willing to negotiate an end to occupation, but that Palestinians rejected or responded with violence to generous Israeli offers in 2000 and 2008. Netanyahu says he is open to talks, but negotiations have been frozen for over three years and most members of Netanyahu’s government oppose Palestinian statehood.
Waldman said the essays do not address all the aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but focus on the impact of the occupation on ordinary lives.
“This book is not going to end the occupation,” Waldman said. “The occupation is a vast edifice, and everybody’s obligation is to pry loose their brick. And if enough bricks get pried loose, the wall will crumble.”