Under Siege: On Emma Williams

It’s Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street
A Jerusalem Memoir.
By Emma Williams.
Foreword by Brian Urquhart.
Olive Branch Press. 412 pp. Paper $16.
In October 2000 most of the children invited by Dr. Emma Williams to her son Archie’s seventh birthday party failed to turn up. Distance was not the issue, given that her house was only twenty minutes from the French lycée where her two boys were studying. The problem was location. In Jerusalem, living anywhere is a political statement with safety implications. Although Williams had found her rented house by chance when acquaintances moved abroad, her modern two-story villa lay just to the east of the “seam” between Arab and Jewish Jerusalem. The eastern half of Jerusalem was occupied territory, inhabited by Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jewish settlers. The west side was Israel, where most of her friends and her husband’s colleagues lived. When only two parents of the many children in Archie’s class allowed their kids to attend his birthday, a journalist whose children stayed away explained to Williams, “You just happen to live on the wrong side of the reality.”

Emma Williams, an English physician married to a United Nations diplomat, lived on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian “reality” for three years beginning in the spring of 2000. In It’s Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street, a poignant memoir of that especially turbulent time, she has recorded both the decisive events of the second intifada against Israeli occupation and her struggle to raise three children, while giving birth to a fourth, amid the violence and restrictions of a conflict that has steadfastly resisted resolution for generations. Williams’s husband, Andrew Gilmour, worked for the United Nations Secretariat in New York City. Although her academic credentials (BA from Oxford, MD from the University of London) outstripped her husband’s, Williams had already followed his career from their native Britain to Pakistan, Afghanistan and New York before the UN assigned him to Jerusalem. His job was to assist Kofi Annan’s personal representative to the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, Terje Roed-Larsen. The 1993 Oslo Accords had established the PA as representative and governor of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories. (Roed-Larsen had a vested interest in the accords, having been involved in negotiating them in 1993.) Gilmour already had what the British call “form” in the Middle East. His father, Lord Gilmour, a former owner of the weekly Spectator, had served as a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet and defended the Palestinians’ right to self-determination in Parliament.
Williams’s life afforded her a unique perspective. While living in the Arab quarter of Jebel Mukaber, she made regular forays to friends in West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. She worked as a physician in the West Bank, raised three (and then four) children on both sides of the divide, moved in Israeli and Palestinian circles and empathized as much with Israeli fear of suicide bombings as with Palestinian suffering under occupation. This book is her testament to the friends left behind when she flew out of Ben Gurion Airport on the night the United States began to “shock and awe” the people of Iraq as prelude to the invasion of March 2003. It is a period piece, documenting the transition from the illusion that the Oslo Accords would bring a just resolution to the desperation of suicide bombings to Israel’s erection of a twenty-five-foot concrete wall that divides Israel from the Arab-majority portions of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The wall created what Israeli Gen. Amos Gilad called “microcosms,” the Palestinian towns and cities separated from one another by Israeli checkpoints, fortresses and settlements. This strategy, he said, was for “this year and for all years.”
Williams’s first months in Israel coincidedwith the death throes of the Oslo process amid Israeli settlement building, Bill Clinton’s Camp David fiasco and Ariel Sharon’s notorious promenade through Jerusalem’s Muslim Noble Sanctuary, the Jewish Temple Mount. The latter two events prompted the first, hesitant stirring of the Palestinians’ second uprising – which would, in fact, make their lives worse, as the Israelis responded with armed assaults, forays into and renewed occupation of areas designated for nominal Palestinian self-rule and, later, the wall and more assaults on the West Bank and Gaza. Oslo, as Edward Said pointed out when its details were published, was a fraud that did little more than relocate the Tunis-based PLO leadership to Ramallah while allowing Israel to seize more Palestinian land for settlements. During the seven years of Oslo’s writ, Israel confiscated 100 square miles of Palestinian territory, from which the original owners were excluded. Every Palestinian inhabitant of the occupied territories was aware of this, even if the UN, the United States, the European Union and Yasir Arafat himself pretended all was well. To exacerbate the Palestinians’ anguish, they endured the corruption and incompetence of the Palestinian Authority – ostensibly “their” government.
An American at the UN, Rick Hooper, had told Williams before she left New York, “Seven years after Oslo and all the billions the international community has ploughed into the PA, what have the Palestinians got? Egyptian standards of bureaucracy, Syrian standards of human rights, Lebanese standards of accountability – and all to serve the interests of the Israelis.” The PA’s role, determined by Israel and the United States, was to control “terrorism” – that is to say, to arrest, hold without trial and occasionally torture any Palestinian who fought against the theft of Palestinian land and other oppressive acts of occupation. Ramallah, the putative capital of Palestine while negotiations foundered over the move to Jerusalem, played Vichy to the occupying power. By any measure, the “situation” was untenable when Andrew Gilmour arrived to take up his post with Roed-Larsen to defend Oslo.
While her husband ferried between Israel and the territories, Williams began balancing motherhood and work, juggling involvement in the “situation” with necessary escapes and steadfastly cultivating friendships among Jews and Arabs. It was no mean feat for her to endure long delays at the Israeli checkpoint outside Bethlehem, where she had chosen to give birth to her son Sholto at Christmas in 2001. Many Palestinian mothers had lost their babies or died while being denied permission to cross to maternity wards that could have saved them. Even Palestinian friends were astounded that she had not chosen the safer option of a hospital in Israel.
The “situation” that dominated her life and almost all conversation was not, she discovered, simply a straightforward conflict between two peoples over living space in one land. “In reality,” she wrote, “it’s a maelstrom, a tragedy of our times, a shameful failure of the modern world. And it looks so different from over there, on the ground, that the view from New York verges dangerously on fantasy.” Networks of friendship, artistic cooperation, trade, political solidarity and occasional intermarriage penetrated the sectarian divide. There may have been a war between the two peoples, but there was also mutual dependence. (Opponents of the socalled security barrier refer to it as the “apartheid” wall, believing its purpose is to end communication between the two peoples as well as to annex the richest land to Israel.)
I have rarely seen a mass demonstration for Palestinian rights in Israel or the occupied territories without the active participation of conscientious Israeli Jews. Whenever Israeli army bulldozers (usually Caterpillar D9s) demolished an Arab house in the West Bank, Israeli protesters stood beside the Palestinians whose house was lost. At least 24,000 Palestinian homes have suffered destruction since 1967. Their owners are more grateful to Israeli activists like Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (Williams wrote that Israeli troops often beat him up for his efforts) than to Arab states like Jordan and Egypt. Too many Israelis – among them Uri Avnery, Rabbis for Human Rights, B’Tselem and Combatants for Peace – have fought on behalf of Palestinians for them not to remain connected to Israeli society. Even more unexpected, some Palestinian prisoners who learned to speak Hebrew in Israeli prisons became friends with their guards, as Ha’aretz correspondent Amira Hass has written. And few foreign correspondents have reported on the occupation’s cruelty with more compassion than Israeli journalists like Gideon Levy and Danny Rubinstein.
Despite this cross-cultural solidarity, the simple question persists: who will live in the West Bank, settlers or natives? Settlers, with government subsidies for cheap housing as well as army protection and Jewish-only highways, are daily displacing Palestinians. The occupation has made life for them so unsustainable that many – particularly Christian Palestinians, to whom Western visas are more easily granted – have joined what Williams calls “the silent transfer” out of their country.
The Gilmours’ Palestinian neighbors, four generations of an extended family, welcomed the Britons despite their country’s unenviable record in the region. One told Williams shortly after she moved in, “You [the British] gave Palestine away – not that it was yours to give, but we forgive you.” He was facetious, but when a female neighbor tells Williams that two women keen to help her with housekeeping won’t be allowed by their men to work in another man’s house for cash, she wasn’t joking. The women helped Williams anyway, in exchange for favors. An Orthodox Jewish settler family nearby shunned the itinerant goyim entirely.
In the first weeks of the violence, a UN official informed Williams that her furniture and other belongings had finally arrived from New York. He added, “But do you really want to unpack it – why not send it straight back to where it came from?” She answered, “Of course I want to unpack it. This can’t go on.” It did go on, and it got worse. In the first ten days of the uprising, ninety-five people were killed – ninety of them Palestinians. Nonetheless, she was determined to stay – even when the UN evacuated family dependents at the end of 2000. She would still not budge when a suicide bomber’s head landed in her sons’ schoolyard. If you’ve read J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, you’ll know the type of sturdy British womanhood that Emma Williams embodied. She had already learned too much in Afghanistan to accept the expat aid workers’ judgments about “life for ‘these people’ being cheap.” While working in an Afghan hospital a few years previously, she’d heard other observers insist that Afghans had no regard for women in their families. She might have believed this nonsense had she not seen the father of an 8-year-old girl who had been killed in a car accident holding his dead child while he “rocked back and forth, tears slipping down his darkened face, muffled animal cries of pain escaping from deep inside his body. He didn’t fit the image. And now here there was more hard-hearted talk about Palestinian parents.” The myth circulating in Israel and certain American media outlets was that Palestinian parents deliberately sent their children to die in order to make propaganda points. The calumny directed at the father of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura, who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers as his father attempted to cover the boy’s body with his own in Gaza in September 2000, was an especially pernicious example.
Not all aid workers, however, were blind to the predicament in which Israelis and Palestinians found themselves. One told Williams, “One day, we will look back on this charade with shame and ask ‘how in hell was this allowed to happen?’ We dress it up in shades of ‘security’ – what are we talking about? That’s crap and we all know it. This is not about security. None of this is making anyone secure – the opposite is true, but we’re not going to say so, are we? This is about annexation of territory and slow ethnic cleansing. It’s making Israel less secure and a pariah nation on top of that. And we’re playing along with it, pouring billions of Euros and dollars into keeping the occupied going, keeping their heads above water while they’re boxed in like animals … Oh, but don’t let anyone hear you say it. My God, we’re in trouble if we say it like it is. No no, we must toe the line, but why?”
I should mention that I stayed with Williams and her husband for a few weeks in 2002, which allowed me to watch them live out the drama of which she has written so thoughtfully. Living in a political tinderbox, in which they lost friends to violence on both sides, put strains on their marriage. It could hardly do otherwise, but their family life emerged stronger. She would come home in the evening, after a day in a Ramallah clinic while Israeli tanks shelled Arafat’s headquarters, to bathe her children (often by candlelight, because of the frequent power cuts in Arab neighborhoods) and put them to bed. Her coping mechanism seemed to be writing up a diary on her computer, and the diary became the basis of this book. It is a woman’s – a doctor’s and a mother’s – tale, and she brings to it a sensitivity to suffering and humiliation that eludes those to whom every act of violence by either side demands an act of revenge. At that time, I wrote in my book The Tribes Triumphant, “Emma Gilmour, I was convinced, could do anything.” Having read this book, I realize I was right.