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Tom Payne is disturbed by John McCarthy’s insights into Israel in his new book, You Can't Hide the Sun.
It is hard to read this book, about the Palestinians who live in Israel, without thinking what Auden thought when he wrote: “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.” However well disposed one is to the state of Israel, and sympathetic to the idea that it should make itself secure, there is more than enough in John McCarthy’s account of his travels to make any reader worry that the government can protect itself with a rigour, or even relish, that is disturbing.
McCarthy begins his survey of this divided territory with some reflections on his own experience as a hostage of Lebanese terrorists. He reminds us of the ordeal from time to time, not to shudder at Islamic extremism, but to suggest he shares the Palestinians’ pain.
At one point, he goes further, to argue that, although he was held captive, at least he did not suffer the indignity of being a prisoner in his own home – a reflection prompted by the fences and walls that stray as far as possible into the land allotted to Palestinians.
Much of the story he tells begins in 1948, with the moment Israel became a nation, although he takes it a little further back than that: his father knew the area when it was part of the British Mandate, and John McCarthy blames the British for a failure to protect the Arabs when they could have done.
He recalls his own incarceration, and also the picture of General Allenby that hangs on the wall of his school at Haileybury near Hertford. Viscount Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe may have liberated Jerusalem and Damascus but, McCarthy muses: “I did begin to think that if he had stayed in Felixstowe, I might not be sitting in that hole in the ground.”
What McCarthy does best is to weave the subsequent history around the interviews he conducts. There is some dutiful colour writing, of the From Our Own Correspondent sort, with notes on the strong coffees or cool beers he drinks along the way, but lots of the colour begins to accumulate symbolism. Forested areas sound lovely enough in his description, and are a tribute to the government’s environmental policy, but they are also covering settlements that Palestinians deserted, and Israelis destroyed.
Israel is peppered with these spots, snappily called URVs – unrecognised villages – such as those in the Negev desert, where Bedouins can try living, so long as they are not expecting any water. But, we are told, had they been Jewish settlers… In response, the cactus becomes a symbol, too, of Palestinian rootedness and toughness, as if to say, however little water you give us, we’re staying.
The author registers the brutality that Israeli forces have meted out, while bringing out the consolatory argument that at least Israel is a democracy – at least Israel holds inquiries into these things, and condemns those wayward soldiers who shoot civilians. But the sentences, such as those passed on the troops who shot 49 civilians at Kafr Qassem in 1956, can go down with a ministerial fiat.
And anyway, McCarthy shows that the oppression Palestinians feel comes from not only fear, but also bureaucracy: the regulations that prescribe who really owns, or owned, what land; who can live where; who can marry whom; who is really a citizen of Israel.
You Can’t Hide the Sun: a Journey through Israel and Palestine by John McCarthy
308pp, Bantam Press t £20 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) Buy now from Telegraph Books (RRP £18, ebook £17.91)