Review of ‘A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza’ by Dervla Murphy (originally published in the London Magazine)

21 Aug

When the great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said was asked about his hopes for justice for his people, he paraphrased Antonio Gramsci: ‘I’m a pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the spirit.’ While it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the shattered landscapes and tragic encounters of Dervla Murphy’s remarkable new book about Gaza, there are reasons to be optimistic too.

Arriving in the shadow of Operation Cast Lead, in which the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) killed at least 700 civilians at the cost of 13 Israeli lives, Murphy’s worst fears about the plight of Gazans are confirmed. Wherever she turns are bombed-out ruins, shanty towns, desiccated lands, and malnourished and wheelchair-bound children. Shatti Refugee Camp has the worst human living conditions she has seen in seven decades of world travel. Everywhere on the Strip, the tap water is so contaminated that it can penetrate egg shells. The Israeli-Egyptian blockade has made ghost towns of once lively business districts.

The blockade is just one reason why Murphy comes to view Gaza as a prison, more literally than figuratively. Israeli soldiers make for sadistic wardens, brutalising and humiliating the inmates on the pretext of ‘collective punishment’. Farmers risk being shot by snipers from watchtowers as they walk through a free-fire zone to tend the crops their communities rely upon for survival. The enforced isolation of Gaza from the rest of the world has compelled its people to build a network of tunnels for the importation of essential food, medicine and equipment. Weapons are smuggled through “Tunnelopolis” too, but they are nowhere near as sophisticated or numerous as those at the IDF’s disposal.

Near the Israeli border, Murphy visits one particular family who personify this condition of national captivity. They are living a nightmare of perpetual harassment by jeeps, helicopter gunships, warning shots from snipers and taunts through megaphones. Seemingly for the IDF, it is not punishment enough that two of this family’s children have already been seriously injured by shelling.
A Month by the Sea skilfully segues between eyewitness travelogue and external analysis of the social, cultural and political complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Murphy eloquently deflates the myths of Israeli hasbara (propaganda) and its ‘confusing misinformation that makes outsiders feel that they can’t really understand what’s going on – so they lose interest’ (37). While the United States and much of the rest of the world accepts Israel’s disingenuous casus belli – that its very existence is threatened by Palestinian terrorism – the reality on the ground, as Murphy sees, is exactly the opposite: ‘For decades they [the Israelis] have been attacking defenceless populations through curfews, closures, sieges, house demolitions, olive-grove bulldozing, well poisonings, shootings, bombings, torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial’ (162).

In considering the international response, she accuses ‘the duplicitous Tony Blair’ (107) – now Official Envoy to the Quartet on the Middle East (consisting of the UN, US, EU and Russia) – of personally enriching himself by brokering business deals between the Israeli government and the ‘quisling’ Palestinian Authority, whose collaboration with Zionism has driven so many Palestinians into the arms of Hamas and even more extreme factions. The Quartet is nominally committed to a two-state peace process but, so Murphy argues, this is in fact a smokescreen behind which Israeli settlers continue to steal land from the Palestinians.

While Murphy records the testimonies of many Gazans – including the erudite Hamas politician Dr Mahmoud Al-Zahar – it would have been interesting to have heard the opposing view in a close encounter with, say, a leading Zionist. All the same, she is even-handed enough to criticise those tendencies within Gazan society that inflame the conflict and inhibit international sympathy for the Palestinian cause. For Murphy, Hamas’s rule has a ‘flavour of dictatorship’ about it, buoyed by strong currents of Islamic fanaticism and anti-Semitism that have been flowing since the secular Egyptian occupation ended in 1967. However, such immoderation appears to be stoked by Israeli false flag operations intended to divide and rule the Palestinians. When an extremist Syrian imam blew himself up in a Gazan mosque in 2009, the police found Israeli-made explosive vests in the rubble.

Murphy is also concerned about the rights of local women, a quarter of whom are reported to be victims of physical violence. One of the most poignant encounters in the book is with Yara, a twenty-six-year-old who has suffered public ignominy after escaping from a forced marriage and losing custody of her children. One comes away with the sense that, for many Gazan women, there are other kinds of prisons within the prison.

It is a testament to Murphy’s character that she remains brave and upbeat in the face of all this danger and misery. This eighty-year-old grandmother has no qualms about accompanying a group of protestors into a free-fire zone because she has been told that, for PR reasons, the Israelis are less likely to open fire when they see a Western face. Her positivity is more than matched by that of the Gazans themselves, whose philosophy of samoud is a ‘quality not understood by the Zionists, comprised of courage, obstinacy and a calm sort of pride’ (52). The bright young activists whom Murphy meets on Gaza Port’s breakwater believe that a combination of samoud, binationalism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel (in the mould of the global campaign against South African Apartheid) will finally achieve freedom and justice for all Palestinians.

(Originally published in the London Magazine)

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