A group of renowned authors has published a collection of essays about Israel's occupation of Palestine, hoping their grim firsthand perspectives will draw attention to what they say is an unsustainable situation that is harmful to Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Through the eyes of novelists and nonfiction writers, "Kingdom of Olive and Ash" highlights the day-to-day struggles of Palestinians living under Israeli control and the collective trauma inflicted upon both peoples.
The 26 authors involved in the project include Pulitzer Prize-winners Michael Chabon and Geraldine Brooks, celebrated Irish writer Colm Toibin and Peruvian Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. Chabon and his wife, American-Israeli author Ayelet Waldman, also edited the volume.
The writers visited the West Bank and the Gaza Strip last year to bear witness "in vivid and clear language" to the reality for Palestinians after 50 years of Israeli occupation.
The essays describe the segregated city of Hebron, the life in Gaza City, the hardships of businessmen in Ramallah, and the frustration of young Palestinians.
"They came with relatively few preconceptions," Chabon said. "They saw for themselves and they got to talk to people on the ground."
The project was organized by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization of former soldiers who speak out against the military's policy in the Palestinian territories. The group has come under heavy fire from Israeli leaders, who say it should air its criticisms locally instead of taking its message to foreign audiences.
Chabon said the book is aimed both at international and Israeli readers, though its affiliation with Breaking the Silence and reliance on foreign critics may limit its impact with the local audience. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, one of the most outspoken critics of the organization, declined to comment, as did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.
The book was launched on Sunday to commemorate this month's anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel took occupied the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Hebrew and Arabic versions are to hit bookshelves in Israel and the Palestinian territories later this week.
Speaking to reporters at Jerusalem's American Colony hotel, Chabon said the project seeks "to draw attention to the occupation, and especially to draw the attention of people who aren't paying attention."
Chabon, in his essay "Giant in a Cage," describes traveling from Ramallah to the northern West Bank city of Nablus with a Palestinian-American businessman. He talks of witnessing firsthand the seemingly arbitrary nature of Israel's military control over Palestinian lives — from checkpoints and permits to resource allocation and settlement construction.
"I was embarrassed and ashamed, both by my ignorance before seeing it and also that such things are being done with my money as an American taxpayer and in my name as a Jew," he said.
While Israeli settlers in the West Bank are subject to Israeli civilian law, Palestinians are subject to military law. The military court system is frequently criticized for its near 100 percent conviction rate and for meting out stiff penalties.
The authors say their work is not meant to be against Israel, only Israeli policies. Waldman and Yehuda Shaul, a founder of Breaking the Silence, consider themselves Israeli patriots.
"What we've come to see and believe is that the existence of Israel, which we feel very invested in, depends on ending the occupation," Chabon said.
Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War. The Palestinians seek all three territories for a future state — a position that has wide international support. Netanyahu has rejected any return to the 1967 frontiers.
Over the past five decades, Israel, citing security needs, has established a military bureaucracy in the West Bank that enforces movement restrictions on Palestinians through a complex permit system. Some 600,000 Israelis now live in illegal settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israel says it has been willing to negotiate an end to occupation, but that Palestinians rejected "generous" Israeli offers in 2000 and 2008. Netanyahu says he is open to talks, but negotiations have been frozen for over three years and most members of Netanyahu's government oppose Palestinian statehood.
Waldman said the essays do not address all the aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but focus on the impact of the occupation on ordinary lives.
"This book is not going to end the occupation," Waldman said. "The occupation is a vast edifice, and everybody's obligation is to pry loose their brick. And if enough bricks get pried loose, the wall will crumble."