By Rayyan Al-Shawaf
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict hardly lacks news coverage. Additionally, a range of opinions—from the moderate to the extreme—on all aspects of the dispute is widely published. This makes it nearly impossible for a book on the subject to be groundbreaking. The best that one can realistically hope for is a few original observations amid a mass of familiar reportage. And that is precisely what Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin manage in “This Burning Land: Lessons From the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” The book does not mark a milestone in Middle East journalism, but it is good of its kind, and avoids the two major temptations that often waylay Middle East correspondents and analysts: doomsday predictions of a major conflagration and facile solutions to complex problems.
Instead, husband and wife Myre and Griffin, both seasoned journalists, soberly posit that the conflict is intractable. Having arrived in Jerusalem in 1999, when Israelis and Palestinians seemed headed for peace, they witnessed then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in 2000, which ignited the second Palestinian intifada. The couple remained in Israel for eight years, during which time Myre was a correspondent for The Associated Press and later The New York Times and Griffin was a correspondent for Fox News.
Though the authors’ pessimism understates the crucial role of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its suffocation of Gaza in perpetuating the conflict, it is partly justified. For one thing, decades of Israeli government-sponsored Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza—illegal under international law—have ensured that ending the occupation, in the unlikely event a future Israeli government should wish to do so, would be no easy task. As the authors bluntly put it: “Israel cannot stop building settlements. Around 500,000 Israelis live beyond Israel’s 1967 borders, in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and their numbers are growing by up to 15,000 a year. There is no way to create a viable Palestinian state if all of these Israelis remain in place.”
And that is only part of the problem. Myre and Griffin enumerate other factors militating against a cessation of the conflict, including: “Too many Palestinian militants remain wedded to armed struggle. … [Hamas] looks set to control Gaza indefinitely, giving the Islamist group veto power over any peace plan. … The Israeli and Palestinian economies have been largely detached from each other. … For many years, under multiple administrations, the United States has too often been uncritically supportive of Israel and has acquiesced even when Israel pursued policies that damaged peace prospects.”
This Burning Land: Lessons From the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
By Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin
Wiley, 336 pages
These and other possibly insuperable obstacles to peace appear in a straightforward list compiled by both Myre and Griffin. Yet for the most part, their respective contributions to “This Burning Land” are indicated as such and remain stylistically distinct. The bulk of the book was written by Myre, who interweaves firsthand reportage with his big-picture analysis. Griffin’s segments consist entirely of firsthand accounts of specific incidents, sometimes with the aim of illustrating a general phenomenon described by Myre. This unequal division of labor works surprisingly well, and the narrative by and large emerges as cohesive.
There are, however, a few errors in this book. Myre attributes the expansion of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories over the decades to Israeli governments dominated by the Likud Party, but historically it was the Labor Party that aided this project the most. Myre also refers to Israeli troops firing “rubber bullets” at Palestinian protesters. In fact, they are rubber-coated metal bullets. Elsewhere, Myre writes that “Hamas has largely abided by a pledge to use persuasion, rather than force, in shaping social customs.” But whether it be banning male hair stylists from working in women’s hair salons or ordering female lawyers to wear headscarves and layered cloaks when appearing in court, Hamas has used its newfound political power to impose its will on people. Finally, in his chapter on the Hezbollah-provoked war with Israel in 2006, Myre insinuates that Hezbollah used civilians as human shields. In fact, following the 2006 war, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Hezbollah used human shields, confirming what journalists such as Mitch Prothero—writing for Salon—reported from Lebanon during the war itself.
Because they lived in Israel, the authors’ psychological perception of the conflict is more Israeli than Palestinian. Despite their repeated forays—some of them for extended periods—into the Occupied Territories during the height of the intifada, where they witnessed the dangers and humiliations the Palestinians are subjected to by the Israelis, Myre and Griffin remained physically a part of Israeli society. As such, their personal fears—quite understandably—revolved more around Palestinian suicide bombings than Israeli airstrikes, targeted assassinations and collective punishment. Yet their personal lives do not overshadow their professional responsibilities, and in a discussion on civilian casualties the authors register an important point: “The Israeli civilians tended to be killed in suicide bombings that attracted widespread coverage because of the spectacular nature of the attacks. Palestinian civilians often died in ones and twos. They were killed in places that were harder to get to, and the circumstances were often murky and disputed.”
In general, the authors should be commended for their consistency. To be sure, they highlight heartening episodes of tolerance and compassion by individuals on both sides of the divide—and well they should—but they do not allow these glimmers of hope to blind them to the norm. Indeed, their belief that the conflict will continue for a long time to come rests in part on the realization that “[t]he Israelis and the Palestinians hate one another. This often trumps all else. … Solid majorities of Israelis and Palestinians have to genuinely want peace, or it will not happen.”
Interestingly, Griffin, most of whose anecdotal stories enrich the book but do not prove essential to its success, makes the most potent observation on the conflict’s durability, one which she relates to her personal life. A couple of years after relocating to the U.S. with Myre and their two young daughters in 2007, she discovered a cancerous tumor in her breast, one she described to her friends in the military as growing “faster than an Al-Qaeda cell in Somalia.” After months of chemotherapy followed by a double mastectomy and radiation treatment, the cancer cells appeared to have been destroyed. Today, Griffin knows that she must accept the ever-hovering possibility of a relapse, but her experiences covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have prepared her well. “It can at times feel like a perpetual war, but life goes on. It is never an easy lesson to digest but one that I had already learned: some battles must simply be managed.”
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut. His reviews have appeared in Bookforum, The Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, Globe and Mail, Miami Herald, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, San Antonio Express-News, San Francisco Chronicle, St. Petersburg Times and elsewhere.