A serious travel book for today

A serious travel book for today
Andy Simons reviews Dervla Murphy's new book "Between River and Sea : Encounters in Israel and Palestine" (Eland Books, 2015).
4 min read
16 April, 2015
The author spent two months in Nablus' Balata Camp [AFP]

Dervla Murphy has spent over 50 years travelling to remote part of the world. Here we find this keen-eyed reporter navigating between black-hatted Jewish Orthodox immigrants, secular and self-interested settlers, and soft-Zionist sympathisers to the injustice meted out to Palestinians.

Murphy is well-read on the Palestinian dilemma and her bibliography of over 150 titles includes many avenues approaching it. She most obviously highlights an important

     This volume is almost bursting with things you probably don't know.

book, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel (1999), written by Shahak & Merzvinsky, Israeli Jews who soberly lament that Israel's young military conscripts automatically do the bidding of the illegal settlers, even covering up for the latter's violence on school children and olive pickers.

She always goes for the least expensive lodgings that are sometimes barely disguised squats, but it's all part of her desire to seek the backstage in this Holy Land drama, and concealing her reactions to people gets candid results. An Irish woman (with a non-British passport) in her late 70s is perhaps unique in the Occupied Palestinian Territories if not working for an NGO, and certainly rare inside Israel. Young Israeli army conscripts don't quite know what to make of her. And so the amiable "old lady" is a politically astute Miss Marple, leaving town with a rucksack full of insights.

The so-called 'development towns' of Israeli Jews in the Negev were left to deteriorate after Oslo as funding got diverted to the ever-increasing illegal settlements of the occupied West Bank. So it's no surprise for Murphy to observe the resentments of the poorer left-behinds in the regions subject to the home-made missiles fired blindly by Gazans in the only way of protest the latter have. Israel's own Jewish underclass may grumble, but they are ironically grateful to have Palestinians to despise.

Among the encounters are odd, unenlightened Christian visitors, whose support for peace-and-reconciliation talking shops provide the veneer of sincerity polished to a high gloss by the 'only democracy in the Middle East'.

She observes the relatively just-off-the-plane residents who strive to fit in to the Israeli jumble. Many are naïve Westerners from Europe and North America, who cannot fathom why much of the world looks down at them. communities of Black Hebrews, who are not only vegan and polygamous, but not deemed Jewish enough to be full citizens of the Zionist state.


I thought that my own one-day visit to Nablus' Balata Refugee Camp was enlightening, and online journalism has been elightening since. But Dervla Murphy, living there some two months, compares attitudes of residents and her own conflicting, worldly points of view. Most sociologically-minded travel writers would desire neat conclusions, but, in her late 70s, she's constantly questioning her own impressions. She sees that Western (white) women cannot fathom Palestinian women's appreciation of multiple births. And she can't convince herself any practical advantage – the morality aside – gained from the actions of martyred suicide bombers. And she kindly smiles at the sympathetic day-trippers who, as privileged foreigners, provide a degree of social protection for communities in fear of armed violence.

This travelogue confirms my impression that most people living under the Israeli military gaze respect the power of the Palestinian Authority over the population but nobody recognises it as a government. It ceased being an elected one and yet still sells fertile public land to the Israelis, the Germans, and the Turkish. And while Mahmoud Abbas's term has expired, he's still in office and his sons received large contracts from USAID, one of them "to improve America's image in the Palestinian territories". Tales of such corruption are unpacked to the author by lawyer-author Raja Shehadeh, of the Ramallah-based legal advocacy organisation al-Haq.

At over 400 pages, this volume is almost bursting with things you probably don't know: Rape is not yet a crime; an "International" can marry a Palestinian, but don't be surprised if the native spouse gets arrested on no charge and then held indefinitely; an Israeli judge can change his own verdict; and five legal systems coexist in the OPT, even Ottoman.

Dervla Murphy can't recommend conventional tourism in the Occupied Territories because "the Palestinians' sufferings and the landscape's despoliation complement each other". But if you want truth and insight, Between River and Sea is not only a serious travel book for today, for it will surely stand as a landmark assessment of life in the West Bank. In sheer scope, there surely can't be a better book.