Witness – Writing on the walls in the Holy Land

June 21, 2010

bethlehem wall 1

(Photo: A Palestinian near the Israeli barrier in the Aida refugee camp in the West Bank town of Bethlehem November 9, 2009/Darren Whiteside)

Alastair Macdonald has been Reuters Bureau Chief in Israel and the Palestinian territories for the past three years. As a foreign correspondent over the past 20, he has previously been based in London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin and Baghdad.  As he ends his assignment in Jerusalem, he reflects in the following story on how he has watched people in the region build an array of barriers, both physical and emotional, to cut themselves off from each other.

With one last exit stamp in my passport, I end a three-year reporting assignment in the Holy Land that has been marked by images of frontiers, by a sense of walls going up and fewer and fewer people finding a way through.

From the minefields of Israel’s frontlines with Syria and Lebanon to the fortified fences around the West Bank and Gaza Strip — much in this month’s headlines — to the walls, old and new, of Jerusalem, physical barriers shape the lives of the 12 million people cut off here in what was once called Palestine.

But those lives, and millions more touched by events that reach far beyond these borders, are marked, too, by less visible internal frontiers — religious, cultural, ethnic, political.

I’ve seen Israelis grapple with divisions among between descendants of early European immigrants and later arrivals from the Middle East, Ethiopia and the Soviet Union. Ultra-Orthodox boys hauling barriers around their expanding neighbourhoods in Jerusalem to protect their Sabbath observances from intrusion by secular Jews has also been a potent image.

Inside the Old City’s gates, Ottoman-era Quarters — Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian — map communal rivalries still alive today. Small battlefields marked by razor wire, flags and hurled garbage show where Israelis are settling in Arab areas.

As communities turn their backs on each other, I’ve seen the city’s trilingual street signs defaced: Arabic is blacked out in the west, Hebrew erased in the east. (The English is ignored.) I’ve also watched smaller groups like the Christian Arabs slugging it out in turf wars, in the church around Jesus’s tomb.

Read the full story here.

bethlehem wall 2

(Photo: Ultra-Orthodox Jews wait at the Israeli barrier for a bus to take them back to Jerusalem after praying at Rachel’s Tomb in the West Bank town of Bethlehem July 30, 2009/Baz Ratner)

Follow FaithWorld on Twitter at RTRFaithWorld

3 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I hate to sound negative here, but does this story do anything to illuminate readers (new or old to the issue)? Do they come away from this story with any new knowledge or understanding?

I see the reflections of a befuddled or overwhelmed journalist fresh off the plane and afraid of offending any ‘side’ in the ‘big complicated mess’, not the insights of a seasoned observer who has spent years in the region and developed a sense of the actors and power structures.

Of course, the politics of reporting on this topic are a story in themselves, which may explain the fuzziness. I wish though that I didn’t have to turn to sources like Mondoweiss or Israeli media itself (Hass and Levy) to obtain a realistic idea of the principles and principals at play.

(My comments apply to this story only; I haven’t looked at Reuters’ general coverage of this conflict in enough detail to form an opinion about it.)

Posted by Jalaluddin | Report as abusive

Jalaluddin, this sounds to me like one of those book reviews where the critic basically writes, “This isn’t the book I wanted to read!”

Alastair Macdonald wrote an impressionistic piece at the end of his assignment, something atmospheric to try to give a feel of the place to the widest possible audience. That audience includes large numbers of people for whom the Israeli-Palestinian story is an endless flow of headlines and soundbites. They’ve never been there, they have no personal stake in the issue and they may have some difficulty following all the details that Mondoweiss or Hass and Levy provide. In fact, they may have some difficulty following all the details that we provide in our daily coverage. One could say they should take the time to learn more about the issue so they can understand it, but one could also say the same about quantum physics or the intricacies of Wall Street finance.

Most of our readers have specific knowledge about a few issues in the news and general or little knowledge of the rest. They deserve our attention too, and they will come away from a piece like this with some new understanding. That more informed readers already know this is a secondary issue. Part of our job is to help less informed readers move closer to the more informed camp. If a story gets away from the latest headlines and gives those readers some insight into what’s behind them, it has achieved its purpose.

Alastair is anything but “a befuddled or overwhelmed journalist fresh off the plane and afraid of offending any ’side’ in the ‘big complicated mess’.” Instead, he is the “seasoned observer” you claim to miss. What you miss is a feel for the purpose and target of an article like this, which is specifically labeled a “witness” piece to distinguish it from the “analysis” article you wanted to read. There’s plenty of that around, in whatever flavour one wants. Sometimes it’s helpful just to stand back, like a camera, and give readers a feel for what these issues look like on the ground.

It’s disingenuous to declare a journalist “befuddled or overwhelmed” and then say this was based on one article whose purpose has been misunderstood.

“Jalaluddin, this sounds to me like one of those book reviews where the critic basically writes, “This isn’t the book I wanted to read!”” “one article whose purpose has been misunderstood.”

I agree that much hinges on perceived intentions and purposes. I also agree that impressionistic reporting is a valid and important component of journalism, complementing both detailed day-to-day headlines and wider analysis. I’d like to see reporters do this more often.

“they may have some difficulty following all the details”
“Most of our readers have specific knowledge about a few issues in the news and general or little knowledge of the rest. They deserve our attention too”

Again, I fully agree! I’m not complaining about the lack of detail in this article, but rather its strange detachment from any wider context. What makes Hass, Levy, and Mondoweiss worth reading is not their detail, but (a) an ever-present awareness of the key issues that loom behind the conflict and (b) objectivity rooted in some sort of principled, rather than semantic, framework. As discussed earlier, it’s Reuters which focuses (perhaps aptly) on the trees rather than the forest; the “Witness” concept would seem to be a way to go a little beyond the trees, as you suggest.

“gives those readers some insight into what’s behind them, it has achieved its purpose.” … “and they will come away from a piece like this with some new understanding.”

Here’s where I disagree. I don’t think that such readers will come away with some new understanding from this piece. They are just as likely (or more likely) to come away with the old and false understanding that the Holy Land is just a hopeless place where people have always hated one another along sectarian lines and continue to do so.

There simply isn’t enough phenomenological depth here for the piece to stand alone on impressionistic grounds, though I’ll bet that’s more to space contraints than to journalistic ability. (Looking back briefly into MacDonald’s archive of postings, I don’t see reason to doubt MacDonald’s ability or sincerity. Better than average, in my quick and humble opinion.) Some reflections on the hierarchy or causal elements of these divides could have easily compensated, and are necessary for a readership which is surprisingly unclear (judging by recent studies) on the most basic facts of the occupation upon which everything here hinges. Someone who “has been Reuters Bureau Chief in Israel and the Palestinian territories for the past three years” surely must have some reflections on this, and those thoughts would give the article depth and purpose and value, but from the article as is, you couldn’t tell whether he arrived there three weeks ago or three years ago.


Incidentally, I’m not someone deeply invested in the Middle East conflict; I’m probably not far off demographically from your typical readership. I turn to Mondoweiss et. al instead of the BBC or the NYT only because I feel that’s where I can get a quick and meaningful sense of what’s happening in that part of the world free of the semantic chicanery which plagues those two otherwise venerable institutions. (I do have more respect for Reuters, though of course its footprint is more diffuse.) Fisk alludes to this phenomenon near the end of a recent (and powerfully written) column: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/com mentators/fisk/fighting-talk-the-new-pro paganda-2006001.html

:-)

Posted by Jalaluddin | Report as abusive