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This Heated Place: Encounters in the Promised Land

By Deborah Campbell

Douglas & McIntyre,

164 pages, $22.95

The economy of the Gaza Strip, never very healthy, has been shot to hell by the current chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among the area's 1.2 million refugees, there is now at least a 50-per-cent unemployment rate, since Israel, terrified of suicide bombers, has virtually sealed the border so that Arab workers cannot get to their Israeli jobs. Workers from Thailand and Romania have taken their place inside Israel.

But Deborah Campbell, a young Canadian freelance journalist, took a close look and discovered that when one door closes, another always opens up. Gazans who own donkeys, for example, have seen their animals increase tenfold in value in the last two years, because Palestinians are forbidden to drive on certain roads and gasoline has become scarce and expensive. And Gazan youths can make money these days riding as passengers in cars. Roads that go anywhere near Israeli settlements are now off limits to single, male Palestinian drivers, who might have fireworks on their mind. Local boys can charge a shekel a trip to ride with them and ensure the benign nature of their journeys.

These are the sorts of tiny but revealing insights that a journalist can uncover in the Middle East when she doesn't have to conform to daily deadlines. Campbell, a secular Canadian who spent the Gulf War as a foreign student enrolled at Tel Aviv University, decided to return to the area 10 years later and just follow her nose for three months to see if she could catch glimpses of the stories behind the story we all see on the nightly news.

Here's one of her glimpses: In Hebron, on days when the West Bank town is under curfew, the skies are filled with kites. Unable to go outside to play, children climb to their rooftops and amuse themselves for hours with kites made out of sticks and plastic bags.

Here's another, this time with a little political freight added: Palestinian men who can't get to their jobs spend all their time at home, eating, playing cards and having sex with their wives. The Palestinian birth rate, which has always haunted the Israelis, is going up by leaps and bounds.

On the Israeli side, Campbell recalls that there were 100,000 pro-peace demonstrators in the main square of Tel Aviv that night in 1995 when Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by a Jewish theological student. Today, when she talks to both Arab and Jewish women who are part of the pacifist Women in Black movement, they estimate there are no more than 3,000 Israelis left in the active "peace camp." Meanwhile, the Jewish settlers, one of the most prickly thorns in the side of any potential peace agreement, have seen their numbers double to 400,000 in the past 10 years. (Although Campbell does make the important point that large numbers of these "settlers" are in the occupied territories not out of religious conviction but because of generously subsidized suburban housing.)

"I gave up trying to think or judge, and turned myself into a walking tape recorder with eyes." Campbell is quoting the U.S. Second World War journalist Martha Gellhorn, and says she is striving to do the same on her Middle East junket. In fact, her journey follows a rather typical arc for Western outsiders: initial sympathy for the embattled Israelis which slowly dissipates as she confronts the endless misery of the Palestinians. She tries to touch base with individuals in all sectors of the conflict, but mainstream Israelis are thin on the ground. Both the hard-line settlers and the peaceniks Campbell is emotionally aligned with get to say their piece, but how are "ordinary" Israelis reacting to the changes that the suicide bombers have made to their daily lives? We don't hear from many of them in these pages.

Still, Campbell remains admirably non-judgmental for the most part, and that leads the reader to get more critically involved. When she describes, quite humorously, how members of the Mennonite Christian Peacemaker Team based in Hebron practise non-violent resistance in their dealings with the Israeli military, one can't help thinking that this really is a tactic the Palestinians ought to have tried. And when she notes that all the money earned by Palestinians in Israel over the years has gone to buy refrigerators and television sets, instead of being partially earmarked to start creating an independent economic infrastructure, she exposes quite thoroughly the impotence of the Palestinian leadership over the past three decades.

Campbell ends her tour d'horizon by focusing with some hope on the growing number of Israeli soldiers who will defend Israel's borders but refuse to serve as occupiers in the West Bank and Gaza. It's not enough to bring about a lasting peace, but it's a start. Contributing reviewer Bronwyn Drainie wrote My Jerusalem: Secular Adventures in the Holy City in 1994.