In 2004, Hilda Reilly became aware of how little she knew about the Palestinian people, apart from the images of conflict that are constantly in the news. She was shocked by a Glasgow University Media Group report which showed that, despite the constant coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most people had little understanding of the basic issues. Many, for example, thought that the occupied territories were occupied by the Palestinians. The majority had no idea where Palestinian refugees were from – some suggested Afghanistan, Iraq or Kosovo. Most thought that the Palestinians were the aggressors, trying to grab Israeli land, and that Israel’s military action was a response to Palestinian attack.

Reilly decided to spend some time in Palestine to try to provide a human perspective for the bewildered news consumer. She volunteered to work at An-Najah University in Nablus, helping to edit texts for a website, and contacted the London branch of the International Solidarity Movement (which provides non-violent support for Palestinians) for orientation and briefing.

She then set off for Nablus, starting her journey in Jerusalem’s Old City, visiting the sites of Christ’s route to Calvary. Reilly, raised as a Catholic, had become a non-believer, but she is moved by the Holy Land and feels that its ancient sites should be treated with reverence. This helps her understand how even the secular Jews that she is surprised to find living in Israeli settlements have a deep sense of belonging to this ancient land of the biblical stories of their childhood.

Most of Prickly Pears of Palestine describes Reilly’s time living among the students and their families and friends. She experiences a constant stream of generous hospitality and uses these opportunities to ask people, young and old, what they think of suicide bombers, of Hamas and Fatah, and of Yasser Arafat, who died while she was living in the occupied territories. The book is well worth reading for the answers to these questions alone, which Reilly relays simply and straightforwardly, giving us insight into the feelings and thinking of a wide range of Palestinians.

Young people tell her openly of how they admire Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. They know that Hussein was a cruel dictator, but they honour anyone who stands up to the Americans, whose unconditional support for Israel they hold responsible for their predicament. Blair is not liked or respected any more than Bush. The balance of opinion is critical of Fatah and Arafat because so much has been promised and so little achieved. There are discussions with young women students who are supporters of Hamas that make the outcome of the Palestinian election completely predictable. Reilly is surprised to find no anti-Semitism, but a strong sense of anger about the endless shootings, killings and imprisonment that are the everyday experience of all families.

Anxious to investigate alternative points of view, Reilly encounters some American Christian Zionists and finds them quite loveable, although their fervour and ignorance is truly frightening. But her contact with Jewish Israelis helps emphasise the Israelis yearning for peace, the fear the suicide bombings have caused and the reasons why Jews are drawn to live in Israel. Prickly Pears of Palestine gives a human face to the terrible suffering caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and makes thought-provoking reading for all who are concerned.

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