Jerusalem resident and Newsweek bureau chief Hammer aims to illuminate subtleties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by letting antagonists speak for themselves over the course of a year’s events in and around the town of Bethlehem.
The narrative culminates with the 35-day siege by Israeli forces of Palestinian gunmen in the Church of the Nativity, ending in May 2002 with the negotiated parole of those inside. The irony here, Hammer explains, is that Yassir Arafat—always convinced that the Israelis’ ultimate goal was to kill or jail all involved—was able to claim a “victory” by winning mandatory exile for them instead. In the morass of hatred, twisted motives, and incessant propaganda that these voices reflect, hollow victories can actually mean something. The majority heard here are Palestinian, which serves to expose the origins and extent of factionalism, as well as the deep divisions in this beleaguered society, which is by no means a monolith bent on Islamic fundamentalist terror as a way of life. In the town of Beit Jala, for example, Hammer notes that of eight Palestinian tribes based in the area since antiquity, seven were Christian, just one Muslim. Palestinian Christians have fled, principally to Latin America, for generations; returnees regularly speak and write Spanish. After more than three decades of Israeli occupation, however, Christians tell the author that Muslims now tend to regard them all as “spoiled children of Israel . . . unwilling to fight” for what is rightfully theirs. In the meantime, Palestinian hopelessness, attributed by the author to Ariel Sharon’s determination to achieve security through force alone, make adored, state-protected heroes out of the nation’s toughest, dirtiest, Bedouin-descended tribal gangs of arms dealers and car thieves, while school kids fill out forms listing “martyr” as their leading choice of occupation.
Notable for the author’s empathy with a tortured, misguided people, and the revelation of fanaticism’s deadly causes and effects.