Books: "Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East"

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TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Matt Rees has spent almost a decade living and working at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here he recounts how the internal divisions within the two traumatized societies inspired his new book, "Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East":


When I was a boy in Wales, my great-uncle Dai used to get drunk at Christmas and drop his trousers to show my scandalized aunts the scar on his buttock. A Turkish bullet struck him as he and his brother secured the road north of Jerusalem in 1917 with the Imperial Camel Corps.

A couple of years ago, I found myself on the same stretch of road where Dai got his wound, with gunfire all around. Thankfully my backside was saved the fate of my great-uncle’s rear-end, but it was a reminder that the bullets haven’t stopped flying since the Camel Corps rode through the Holy Land.

Those two brothers, who came from a Welsh mining valley, thought they were liberating the holy city. At the same time, their political leaders issued the Balfour Declaration, supporting a home for the Jews in Palestine. In England, when the news came of the Camel Corps’s success, church bells rang for the peace of Jerusalem.

So much for that. It’s often easy to imagine the firing will never stop. But none of the explanations and conventional wisdom about why the violence continues made sense. It was clear to me that the divisions within the two societies contributed to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians — in fact, they perpetuated it. Yet on both sides people told me they’d deal with their internal differences after they made peace with the other side. I realized they had it the wrong way around, and so I decided to write my book.

In my new book, Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), I write that “from Lawrence of Arabia to Bill Clinton, Westerners applied their apparently logical perceptions of the conflict to a potential resolution, colored by romantic notions of the noble desert Bedouin or an evangelical inspiration to succor the biblical Hebrews in their homeland. These solutions failed because they missed something — the terrible insecurity which afflicts both societies.”

Until Israelis can feel secure about their own ability to live together, they can't take the risk to make a real peace with the other side. The same is true of Palestinians, whose leaders find it impossible to turn away from violence as a way of pressuring Israel — and controlling their own people.

I began my book with the tale of a member of Hamas who is wanted both by Israel, for his hand in numerous attacks against Jews, and by the Palestinian Authority, for the revenge killing of a police officer who murdered his brother. It's a story of one man slowly learning that the straightforward realities he believed were at the root of his people's struggle are more confused than he thought, dirtied by the corruption of people at the top. In the end, the only solution he can find is to kill one of his compatriots. Meanwhile, for the first time anywhere in an independent source, I detail the way Arafat funded the gunmen of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades while failing to pay the salaries of his own police force.

Cain’s Field concentrates each chapter on one or two individuals with whom I've had personal contact, from an Arafat henchman to a bereaved Israeli settler and one of Tel Aviv's most popular rock stars. Their stories tell truths about the chaos at the hearts of these peoples. But my book also offers hope — that by turning the spotlight inward, these societies might heal their internal wounds, and move towards a peaceful future.

Most foreign correspondents roll through the Middle East for at most four or five years, and usually only a few months. By the time they start to sense the superficiality of most news coverage in the region and to understand the way historic injustices spread their tentacles through every layer of society, it's time for them to move on to another posting. I've been in Jerusalem eight years, working first for The Scotsman and for the last four years for TIME, and I'm still here.

I spent years in the dusty streets of Gaza and the noisy synagogues of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, documenting the divisions between Israelis and other Israelis, and the rifts amongst the Palestinians. From the actions of the people I met in those places, I realized that neither side of this conflict can make the other side change. But they can change their own societies and, in doing so, they can bring peace closer.



Cain’s Field: Faith, Fratricide, and Fear in the Middle East (Simon and Schuster's Free Press imprint) is available on amazon.com