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Fascinating, funny, angry
on 2 May 2011
Mark Thomas is a comedian, an intelligent radical polemicist, British, and a keen rambler. In this book these four elements are brilliantly combined to provide an extremely funny, angry, well articulated, self depreciating, enthusiastic analysis, of the impact of the wall/barrier/fence built by Israel to separate itself from the Palestinians of the West Bank.
At the basic level, the book is a travelogue. Thomas, and his cameraman Phil (the hippy) set out to walk the entire length of the Wall. The initial intention is one of balance, to understand why the Israelis felt it necessary to build the wall and to understand how it has affected the lives of ordinary Palestinians. To achieve this balance the author walks on both sides of the barrier, meeting both Israelis and Palestinians. He is very honest about his own position, having been a long time supporter with the Palestinian cause, he lost sympathy with the suicide bombings of the second intifada, but then regained it with the Israeli white phosphorus bombing of Gaza.
Here, while trying to be equitable, the differences between the economic position of the two communities and their treatment by the Israeli authorities quickly fuel Thomas's anger, as does the fact that the barrier does not stand between Israel and the West Bank, but takes in around 10% of formerly Palestinian land on which settlements have been built. Thus we see Israeli settlers living in luxurious estates while Palestinians queue for hours to cross the border for work, Israelis in swimming pools while Palestinian children walk to school through sewage filled tunnels, or past rock throwing settlers.
However Thomas works hard to retain his balance, recognising the horror and consequent fear of suicide bombings (but questioning the effectiveness of the barrier in ending them) and seeing neither community as homogenous, taking the obvious view that ordinary Israelis and ordinary Palestinians just want to get on with normal life, away from the extremists and fundamentalists. One of the most telling voices comes from his Israeli "fixer", a lawyer who gets him out of scrapes and who says "I say all of this occupation and this wall has to end because we are better than this."
As well as being fascinating and slightly disturbing book, there is also a great deal of fun and enjoyment within it. Thomas's enthusiasm for walking and for the landscape through which he is walking is infectious. The main joy however is the parade of different characters with whom he walks or whom he meets on route. Itamar the Monty-Python quoting Israeli ex-soldier and Wael the Palestinian ex-fighter who are members of an organisation called combatants for peace. Arieh King, the scooter riding fundamentalist Zionist Estate Agent. Zayed the amateur taxidermist and zoo curator. Above all however, there is Richard Makepeace, British Consul General in East Jerusalem who is both very much a patrician, but also wonderfully subversive in a terribly British fair play sort of way.
In summary, while it is very much a book written from a particular political position, and thus won't be the taste of all, it is polemical in a very self-aware manner, and fundamentally fascinating, funny and hugely enjoyable.