Between River and Sea

Dervla Murphy


Between River and Sea

Dervla Murphy


Dervla Murphy describes with passionate honesty the experience of her most recent journeys into Israel and Palestine. In cramped Haifa high-rises, in homes in the settlements and in a refugee camp on the West Bank, she talks with whomever she meets, trying to understand them and their attitudes with her customary curiosity, her acute ear and mind, her empathy, her openness to the experience and her moral seriousness. Behind the book lies a desire to communicate the reality of life on the ground, and to puzzle out for herself what might be done to alleviate the suffering of all who wish to share this land and to make peace in the region a possibility. 

'‘There are no no-go areas for the wonderfully intrepid Dervla Murphy.’ - Donald Macintyre, Independent
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Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine
ISBN: 978-1-78060-070-3
Format: 442pp paperback
Place: Turkey


Extracts from Foreword

My personal memories of the creation of the state of Israel are opaque. For years the newspapers were full of related bombings, snipings, ambushes and occasional spectacular assassinations, interspersed with Commissions of Inquiry, Delegations, Conferences, International Reports and British White Papers, all seen through an ambiguous haze of public sympathy for and guilt about Jews per se. Pre-partition, as a juvenile Irish nationalist with rabid tendencies, I admired the anti-British Zionist militias and scorned as ‘traitors’ any Irishmen serving with the Palestine Police. However, by 1947 I had left the rabid stage behind and confusion was setting in. At that date the partition of Ireland still throbbed like an open wound and I remember my parents deploring the UN vote but I can’t recall having strong feelings of my own. Adolescents are notably self-centred and I’d other things on my mind like Shakespeare and long-distance cycling.

As the years passed I remained lazy and hazy about what was misleadingly known as ‘the Palestinian problem’; it seemed even more complicated than the various other twentieth-century problems. As a reviewer however, I gradually read more widely around the subject, and came to pay due attention to the Palestinian tragedy. I travelled to Israel for the first time in November 2008, and this book records three months spent there, and five months on the West Bank over the following two years. A visit to Gaza in the summer of 2011 has already spawned A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza (Eland, 2013).

Individuals may be anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, anti-Zionist – or all three, or none of the above. I confess to being anti-political Zionism, therefore anti-Israel as the state is at present constituted. ‘Political Zionism’ is generally used to describe the movement specifically founded in the 1890s to settle European Jews as colonists on Palestinian land. Its original leaders were not devout believers but hard-nosed secularists adept at using Judaism to attract massive funding and the support of such statesmen as Arthur Balfour and David Lloyd George.


Extract from Chapter One

On the evening of 4 November 2008, I boarded my night flight to Tel Aviv as Barack Obama was being elected – the first mixed-race President of the United States. All around me sat vocally Democratic young Americans, too excited to sleep, on their way to work with West Bank Palestinians. Such volunteers, known collectively as ‘Internationals’, may be of any age and are unpopular in Israel. Some undertake to protect schoolchildren from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or illegal settlers; and over the years a few have been killed and several seriously injured.

When we landed at 3.40 a.m., squeals of frustration filled the cabin; the Internationals’ cell phones, so eagerly switched on, had failed to connect. But they didn’t have long to wait; as we trooped into the vast Immigration Hall elevated TV screens were showing Barack Obama in victory mode. His devotees cheered and laughed and hugged each other: some even wept for joy. Most of the other passengers remained resolutely uninterested.

It’s said that Israeli officials are inconsistent when interpreting rules and regulations. Before choosing an immigration queue I studied the four women officers in their bulletproof kiosks. Two were young, attractive and apparently amiable, their colleagues were dourly middle- aged with an evident penchant for complications. In the queue on my left stood six Haredim – long bushy beards matching long ear-locks, wide-brimmed black hats and long black coats mentally anchoring them in some nineteenth-century shtetl. All carried the maximum of hand- luggage yet their clothes and shoes were shabby. Behind me a young Californian whispered, ‘See how poor they are? They won’t work. You’ll notice some begging at traffic lights!’ These government-subsidised ultra- Orthodox exasperate their tax-paying fellow-citizens. I wondered how the sextet would deal with female officials. Their Halacha (collected religious rules) forbids them to listen to women singing and their sacred literature, closely studied by every Haredi male, proclaims – among other things – that ‘A woman is a sack full of excrement’ (Tractate Shabbat, page 152). As they neared a kiosk one ‘sack’ was replaced by a man and the group at once exchanged their advantageous position for the end of his long queue.

Israel craves tourists but prefers them to arrive tidily packaged with pious or frivolous destinations: the Holy Places or beaches and discos. Solitary foreigners arouse suspicion and when my turn came the dialogue went like this:

Why you visit Israel? For a holiday. Which your group? I’m travelling alone. Who meet you outside? No one. You know who in Israel? No one. Tonight you stay where? In Jaffa.

Where else you go? I don’t know yet, I don’t plan ahead. You have occupation, job, work? I write books. Books what about? About travels in different countries.

Suddenly a friendly smile replaced the officer’s professionally stern expression. ‘Now I understand your travel method! I hope Israel for you is exciting! I have no good English or I would like to read your books.’

So much for all those warnings about Israeli authorities being automatically hostile to foreign writers.

A ludicrously spacious Arrivals Hall, its ceiling almost out of sight, stretches beyond the customs barrier. This glittering new airport, self- described as ‘ultra-modern’, cost US$1 billion – though the Haredim are but one among Israel’s several impoverished communities. In the far distance a brown-robed Franciscan was shepherding Spanish pilgrims to their coach. Then the Jerusalem-bound Internationals found their minibus taxi, leaving me alone.

Surprisingly, the Cambio office was open, staffed by a balding man with grey stubble, pale blue eyes, heavy jowls and a Russian accent. As my euros became shekels (at a rate of about 5 shekels to the euro) I asked about the US vote – by what percentage had Obama won? Frowning, the clerk consulted his computer but failed to find the figures. Then abruptly and vehemently he said, ‘We don’t like him, he’ll make trouble for the whole world!’ When I lingered, hoping to prolong our con- versation, he pointedly picked up his newspaper.