If books about the Israeli-Arab conflict were building blocks, the Palestinians would have their own state already and then some. Most volumes bring little that is fresh or challenging, so selectivity is key. Daniel Gordis and Benny Morris are essential, Avi Shlaim and Tom Segev unavoidable. Take time on unsexy stylists like Mustafa Kabha or Anita Shapira; they will reward you. Anything by John Pilger or Ilan Pappé should be tossed aside like an iffy shawarma wrap, and for the same reason.
Disconcertingly, Ian Black defies this framework. Enemies and Neighbours, his history of a century of blossoming and bloodshed in the Holy Land, is not revelatory and yet it is quietly compelling. No major paradigms are exploded and few minds will be changed, but it merits close reading for its rich detail and rare subtlety.
Black, former Middle East editor of the Guardian, takes as his linchpin the British government’s declaration, made in a letter from the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, that ministers ‘view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’. The undertaking, although not as comprehensive as the Zionists had hoped, nonetheless recognised Jewish national rights in the Land of Israel. To the Arabs it was a double betrayal, lending an imprimatur to a usurping movement and pledging to their enemies territory already sworn to them. This ‘twice-promised land’ has not known peace since.
Black is careful to note that 1917 did not initiate hostilities but he seizes the moment to explore how a 67-word missive penned in London with, in part, Lloyd George’s political objectives in mind, shaped the next century in a desert 2,000 miles away. The competing claims to Palestine are recorded, but it is the claimants with whom Black is more concerned. The 1948 war of independence, the Six-Day war and the second intifada dominate, but orbiting these immovables are the experiences of those who live between the tank and the rock. Black captures lives caught up in struggle and the petty indignities exchanged, such as Sheikh Abdel Hamid al-Sayih, a Palestinian religious leader deported from his own country with nothing but pyjamas and a towel after counselling non-cooperation with the Israeli forces after 1967.
The Six Day war drew out the hypocrisies of both sides. Israel sought to retain its more expansive hold on the biblical territories but did not want the native Arab population — a paradox derided as wishing to keep the dowry while sending the bride back. The Arabs blamed Israel alone for their defeat and dispossession, a superstition Black disturbs by recounting an exchange between two Jordanian politicians after Israel’s victory. ‘I cannot understand how this could have happened to us,’ one lamented, to which the other replied: ‘It happened because for 20 years we have been building up a regime and destroying a nation — the Palestinians — while on the other side they have been building up a state, not a personal regime.’
Today, prospects for peace lie far off. Palestinians are mistrustful of their leaders, often with good cause, and Israelis, though supportive of a two-state solution in theory, show scant enthusiasm in practice. The nature of the conflict has evolved, with the Palestinians positioning themselves no longer as freedom fighters but, with some chutzpah, as Western-style liberals. As Black records: ‘Palestinian advocates of a one-state solution… used the language not of demographics, security and majorities but of universal human rights. Justice and equality required the replacement of the Zionist state… by a shared democratic one of all its citizens.’
Enemies and Neighbours is an odd book. It does no handstands. It is sober in a market where sobriety is not rewarded and nuanced in a way that will do nothing for its sales. I came to it with a foot on one side of the Green Line, expecting a history polemical in interpretation if not in tone. Black’s despatches for the Guardian tended to come from the other side of that line. While that flashes through here and there (he is more cynical about Israeli motivations and undue indulgences are granted the Palestinians), Black denies made-up minds their soothing certainties.
The land is harsh and its story bleak with dreams, and so much of its history is written in these unforgiving terms. Enemies and Neighbours does not amount to a new perspective but it offers a reading of uncommon clarity, informed by extensive research and keen insight.