Intifada: The Long Day of Rage (2)

In the foreword to this perceptive and timely book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, David Pratt notes that amid the hatred and bitterness it has generated over the decades, both warring communities cling resolutely to “their respective narratives of victimhood.”

Put another way, each has its own version of the events that have locked them together for so long, and as every journalist who has covered this story knows only too well, if one side applauds you for telling the truth, the other will accuse you of lying.

Pratt cites his conviction that the Palestinian people have been and are still victims of “a great injustice”, and that responsibility for the extreme suffering they endure lies unequivocally with the state of Israel, as grounds for abandoning the reporter’s tradition of impartiality.

His view, like mine, is that nobody who has spent time on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza could fail to conclude that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is anything less than barbaric. What better reflection of this is there than the stream of young men, and some young women, whose rage and despair drives them to become suicide bombers?

Intifada covers the eventful, many would say fateful, years that saw the Palestinian resistance develop from children armed only with stones confronting the might of the Israeli army troops to the uprising provoked by Ariel Sharon’s inflammatory visit to the al-Aqsa mosque and the subsequent emergence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as fully-fledged guerrilla organisations.

Part reportage, part analysis, it draws heavily on Pratt’s extensive time in the field, constantly ducking and diving in riot-torn Palestinian towns and counting the bodies after bomb attacks on “soft” targets in Israel. He’s very good at conveying the adrenaline fuelled and addictive business of covering the front line, though perhaps rather too fond of mentioning how dangerous this was – you chose to be there, David.

The shocking conduct of Israeli troops towards ordinary Palestinians is vividly portrayed: pregnant women aborting because roadblocks prevent them from reaching hospital, babies suffocating after tear gas is fired into houses, savage beatings in full view of the media. Pratt wonders aloud how the average Israeli can live with this and concludes that it is a case of wilful self-deception: the worst abuses occur in the occupied territories where relatively few have ever set foot.

Of course, there are those who refuse to turn a blind eye to the repression and injustice done in their name: the middle class Jewish women who monitor checkpoints, human rights groups like B’Tselem, the courageous newspaper Ha’aretz. Pratt might usefully have included something about the Israeli soldiers, many of them combat veterans, who found duty in the territories so abhorrent to their personal morality that they preferred to go to jail rather than serve there ever again.

The inexorable rise of Hamas as the most potent Palestinian force is examined in depth, and Pratt enjoys reminding us that Israeli military intelligence chiefs once backed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s Islamic fundamentalists as – to quote one general – “a healthy phenomenon that could counter the PLO” (not long before he was assassinated, Yassin joked to me that he was “Made in Israel”).

As Pratt notes, while the electoral triumph of Hamas last year hardly surprised seasoned observers of the intifada, the margin of its victory did: it is a gauge of the panic this created within the Israeli government that within a few months it discreetly approved a shipment of arms to the beleaguered Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. The potential for a disastrous civil war is reflected in the repeated clashes between opposing factions in Gaza, raising the nightmare possibility of sectarian violence spreading throughout the West Bank.

In an afterword that will chime with all Middle East correspondents, past and present, Pratt observes that war in this afflicted region “is like a malevolent wind that blows, disappears, then returns.” It is hard to believe that this will change until the Palestinians have a homeland of their own in which to dream of peace.

Intifada: The Long Day of Rage by David Pratt

Sunday Herald Books £7.99