At the start of this year, I began work on my next book, ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’.
The book is due to be published next year by Palgrave MacMillan. It is the story of the way the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, and has been, reported — particularly by British and U.S. media. I’ll be publishing more details on this site as the work progresses.
For interviews and other research, I travelled in January to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The day before I left, I chanced to see a war memorial in my local church in west London. It revealed a link between where I was going, where I had once reported from, and where I now lived.
I wrote the story of what I found for the BBC’s ‘From our own Correspondent’. It was broadcast on Radio 4 in the U.K., and on the BBC World Service, during the last week. You can listen to it here, and a version of the script follows.
At this time of year, the grass in the cemetery seems at its greenest – watered not by sprinklers, as in the summer heat, but by winter rain, and, unusually this year, snow. There are more than two-and-a-half thousand headstones. Standing out against the hillside, they rise in rows up a gentle slope.
In the distance, through trees and telegraph wires, you can see the domes and spires of the Old City of Jerusalem: the prize which brought to the Holy Land the soldiers who are buried here.
When I visited, a team of gardeners were weeding the flower beds which lie at the foot of the gravestones. I was looking for names I had seen in my local church in London the afternoon before my departure. Noticing a wooden cross above a book of remembrance, I had gone for a closer look. The cross turned out to have been carved from wood from the Mount of Olives. Soldiers from my area had, it seemed, served in Gaza and Jerusalem during the First World War. Having spent two years as the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza a decade ago, the connection fascinated me. So when I returned to the region last week to conduct research for a book, I decided to see if I could find their graves.
I wasn’t having much luck. Then someone behind me called out, ‘Hello! Where are you from?’ I turned to see one of the gardeners rising from his work. He introduced himself as Mohammed, and said that he had worked there since 1970. Four decades and more did not seem to have decreased his enthusiasm. His hair was white, and some of his teeth were missing – but his work seemed to invigorate him, and he had a moustache to make a patriarch proud. Had I been to other cemeteries? After I told him I had been to the ones in Gaza, we chatted about the gardener who had tended those for many years, and whom I had met when I reported on his retirement.
With Mohammed’s help, I was pointed in the direction of the graves of some of the men from my local parish. They had been killed a few days before Christmas 1917, as British forces sought to consolidate their hold on Jerusalem. Their occupation of the Holy Land then was part of the process – the defeat and dismantling of the Ottoman Empire – which would see the Middle East divided by borders we largely recognize today.
British forces stayed in Jerusalem until 1948. Their commanders came to use the King David Hotel, opened in the early 1930s, as their Head Quarters. This made the building a target for Jewish fighters seeking to drive them out of Palestine. In July 1946, bombers disguised as milkmen blew up the southern wing of the hotel, killing 91 people. Today the King David hosts Presidents and Prime Ministers. Guests in sitting the lobby on my recent visit seemed casually dressed, but snatches of conversation, and ubiquitous smartphones and tablet computers, suggested they were doing big business. It is not a place for the budget backpacker to the Middle East.
I had come to learn more about the experience of my journalist counterparts in the late 1940s. Some of them had narrow escapes from the explosion. ‘It was here,’ explained Maya Morav, the hotel’s PR Manager, flicking on the lights to a basement room. ‘Now it’s a hall for conferences and meetings.’ Then it had been a subterranean kitchen: the place where the bombers left the milk churns they had packed with explosives.
Less than two years later, the British Mandate came to an end. British involvement in the Middle East, of course, did not. When you are covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a correspondent, you need to have history at your fingertips: often, more than one version of it. One of my earliest experiences in Gaza was being welcomed, and then chastised, by an elderly Palestinian refugee. Because I was British, he saw me as bearing some of the blame for events of the previous century which had left his family in a shanty town in one of the most crowded parts of the world. Perhaps he had a point. As events remembering the First World War begin this year in Europe, perhaps the real focus should be on the Middle East, where decisions taken then helped to shape Jerusalem, Gaza, Israel, Syria, and Iraq as they are today.
All photographs © James Rodgers 2014