Dervla Murphy on life on the ground in the West Bank
Travel. Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine by Dervla Murphy. Eland Books, 442pp, £18.99
Originally from the beautiful Lismore in Waterford (where she founded a now thriving travel writing festival), Dervla Murphy is a gifted author who has been writing travel books for decades and is best known for titles such as Full Tilt - Ireland to India with a Bicycle (1965) and A Place Apart, about Northern Ireland in the 1970s. In 1979, she published a memoir entitled Wheels within Wheels and, at the age of 83, she is still travelling and recording.
Recently, Murphy has been drawn to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and she has now written two books about her experiences in the bitterly-disputed region. Her first, entitled A Month by the Sea - Encounters in Gaza, described conditions in the crowded Mediterranean strip of Gaza, which is surrounded by Israel, run by Hamas and sustained by smuggling. It was an excellent and haunting account, and sustained by Murphy's curious way of recording what she sees in her many walkabouts and meetings.
This is her second book, about living in the West Bank, which is the other part of the original Occupied Territories, next to Israel itself, and which constitutes the land won by Israel in the 1967 war and on which Israel will not allow a Palestinian state to be created until the Arabs living there completely accept the right of Israel to exist. And it is the territory on which Israel, in defiance of international law and opinion, continues to build new Jewish settlements. And so on and so on.
Surrounded by a huge wall and chopped into zones by the Israeli military, the area is nominally ruled by the Palestinian authority, which is governed by Fatah, the secular rival to Hamas. The area is host to many Jewish and Islamic holy sites and to towns like Nablus and Hebron, and most crucially, of course, Jerusalem, which are flashpoints for continuous violence.
However, whereas Murphy's Gaza account was powerful for its brevity, this book is bigger and looser. At almost 450 pages, it reflects her many different visits and the complexity and history of the region. Murphy gives us the origins of the dispute and the Zionist creation of a Jewish state in Palestine - or her version of it.
It is a dutiful and patient exploration, but speaking as someone who has lived in Israel and has read voraciously about the conflict, I found little here that had not been said before - many times. Murphy even acknowledges this possibility in an epilogue when she describes how others urged her to write this book, which she was initially reluctant to do.
Essentially, what we are reading is an account of Murphy's own curiosity and musings: she visits Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum, attends Arab demos and meets hardcore Jewish settlers. She also describes the Russification of Israel since the 1990s and the way the country has shifted to the right, making a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians now almost impossible.
The time for a peace deal was 15 or 20 years ago, and the West, and especially the US, is culpable in not pressuring for this to happen. The shame of it is that this bitter impasse exists in a culturally fascinating and often beautiful part of the world, as Murphy shows.
She was in her late 70s when she did the research for this book during six months in the cities and villages of the West Bank in 2009 and 2010. She spent most time in the teeming refugee camp of Balata and her description of life there alone makes this a book worth reading.
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