'Enemies and Neighbours' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017

By Ian Black, Penguin Books, 605 pages

Given the sheer amount of literature already out there on what is, perhaps, the world’s most intractable conflict, setting out to write a book on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict might not seem a good idea. But in doing just that, Ian Black has actually added to our understanding of the subject. His book, Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017, gives the reader a broad overview of the last 100 years of the conflict — the consolidation of the Zionist movement; the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917; the so-called Mandate Period; the establishment of the Zionist state and the resultant dispossession of the Palestinians; the Arab-Israeli wars; the daily humiliation inflicted by the occupation; and the apparent permanence of the status quo.

Though the book does not offer any solution to the conflict, its strength lies in the fact that it is very readable. Black, a long time Guardian journalist and former Middle East editor for the paper, makes a conscious attempt to keep the focus on the Palestinian-Israeli dynamics, and generally avoids the international aspects of the conflict.

The book offers a crisp recap of events in the Holy Land in the past century, and traces the journey of how we got here through brief synopsis of events relayed via quotations from primary sources. To this end, Black relies heavily on archival research, and his book is the better for it. For instance, to highlight the bitterness between the two sides, he quotes from the memoirs of the British military governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, who noted how “two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the synagogue, while after an intense course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.”

The situation for Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, of course, was very grim. But as Black informs us, viewed from Palestinian eyes, and indeed from the neutral perspective, the persecution of European Jews was a European problem. An article in the Arabic language Filastin newspaper in 1934 noted: “Palestine needs neither fascism nor Nazism to arouse the feelings of her sons against Zionism and its designs in the Arab world.”

Black’s training as a journalist ensures that all newsworthy events — major attacks, assassinations, political developments — get a mention. But the book also offers us an insight into the day-to-day aspects of the struggle of the Palestinians against the Zionist movement, and interactions between Jews and Arabs in towns and cities throughout historical Palestine. He sheds light on relations between the early Zionists and the Arab population. He shows us how they employed Palestinians to build their colonies; the Palestinian workforce was a key aspect of the Israeli economy until recently.

The book highlights how the Zionists sought to co-opt non-Palestinian Arab leaders in the service of their project, directly or indirectly. Emir Faisal, for instance, made a deal in 1919 with Chaim Weizmann to back Jewish immigration to Palestine, in return for Zionist backing for his ambitions to be the leader of Syria.

The British Mandate period also comes in for strong criticism in the book, for its racism and its colonial overreach. A statement recorded in 1937 by a British policeman in Palestine describes how “running over an Arab is like a dog in England except we do not report it”.

The author has made a conscious attempt to retain focus throughout on the seminal developments in the conflict, from the 1930s Arab revolt all the way to the 1990s Oslo Accords (which, in retrospect, were doomed from the start). Black clearly illustrates the fact that the fanaticism of the Israeli regime, which truly came to the fore in the period that immediately followed Oslo, has well and truly destroyed all realistic hopes for an independent Palestinian state, given the 51 years of occupation and the jarring expansion of Jewish colonies on occupied land.

Black makes a dim conclusion: “There is no sign whatsoever that this conflict is about to end, so understanding it matters more than ever.” In fact, the last sentence of the book reads: “No end to their conflict was in sight.”

The quality of research, and the writing style, make Enemies and Neighbours an important addition to existing literature on this subject. If you follow the news, and wonder how we got to this point in this conflict, Black’s book is the one for you.