Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of Israelis and Palestinians

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of Israelis and Palestinians

Article excerpt

Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of Israelis and Palestinians

By Dilip Hiro. Olive Branch Press, 1999, 372 pp. List: $18.95; AET: $14.

Reviewed by Char Simons

Char Simons is a freelance journalist and adjunct faculty member at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

"Palestinian" and "Israeli" are labels too simplistic for the peoples who share the Promised Land. From his vantage point as an Indian and Londoner, author Dilip Hiro deconstructs the monolithic images of these two groups.

Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of Israelis and Palestinians is part political and historical analysis and part travelogue. The book connects in great detail the personalities and events of the last half-century. Hiro begins by examining a Jerusalem shared, more or less, by Israelis and Palestinians, a city that has been controlled by 40 different armies in the last four millennia. "Holiness is its tragedy," said Arif al-Arif, a mayor of Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem before the 1967 Israeli conquest.

Hiro weaves personal narrative and interviews with ordinary Palestinians and Israelis in order to make political, economic, religious and cultural points. These real people serve to humanize the all-too-common labels of the Middle East. Also intriguing is Hiro's chapter on two composite characters, Muslim Zaki and Jewish Amnon, who debate the religious basis for both Islamic and Jewish claims to the Holy Land.

Praised by both Arab and Israeli journalists, the author's even-handed approach is Sharing the Promised Land's particular contribution to the body of Middle Eastern political writing. No apologist of Israel, Hiro nonetheless helps the reader understand the vast array of tensions thriving in Israeli society and how Israeli politics, including the rise and fall of numerous prime ministers, has become intricately linked to the fate of the occupied territories.

Indeed, readers well-versed in Palestinian politics may find Hiro's description of Israeli society the most valuable part of the book. The first half is an eye-opening account of the various important players in Israel today and the tensions that exist among them, such as between Sephardim (Middle Eastern and North African) and Ashkenazi (western European) Jews; the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox; the "double marginal" Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews; the West Bank settlers, or "zealots on the hills," many of whom are new immigrants from Russia; the Israel Defense Forces, who provide the country's military and social cement; and the secular center of pragmatic politicians.

The second half of the book is devoted to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, focusing largely on the struggle for statehood. Chapters include the origins and evolution of the secular PLO from armed resistance to "red-carpet respectability"; the nascent Palestinian Authority that tokenly rules over a handful of West Bank enclaves and less than half of Gaza; and the rise of the Islamist opposition Hamas and Islamic Jihad as the PLO concedes ever more political points to Israel and the United States.

Also discussed in the book are the effects of the Oslo accords, which have made the Palestinians economically poorer, even as the PLO hamstrung itself politically with too many concessions to Israel.

"We made peace with our enemy of 47 years, not to make enemies of our own brothers," Hiro quotes Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to Arafat and PA cabinet minister. …

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