The Gun and the Olive Branch – The Roots of Violence in the Middle East

David Hirst – First published in 1977, second edition in 1984, and current edition (2003) – Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, New York


Frankly, I should have read Hirst’s history book years ago, but especially before I traveled to Gaza in 2004. My appreciation for what I was witnessing on that first trip — in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the West Bank, and Gaza — would have been so much greater. I’m chagrined by my naivety and IGNORANCE.  My only claim to an excuse is that I was an American who attended pretty good public schools in the 1950s-60s in Minnesota, but my total history lesson about Israel/Palestine could perhaps be condensed into 2 or 3 days of tidbits here and there from the Zionist perspective.

My education about the history of the Middle East has come in starts and spurts. A little bit of ancient history here, a tad of political drama there, thrown in with a morsel of religious fervor from all sides. I’m still not good with dates and names, but I certainly know the basics now. The Balfour Declaration. The Nakba in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967. The Oslo Peace Process.

Over the past decade, my reading list has improved, and especially so during the past 3-4 years since my most recent visit to Gaza (2012-2013). I count among the best, Professor Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006) (I read his book while sitting in Cairo in January 2013 waiting to reenter Gaza — and must still write a review for my blog about it).

Now, after finishing David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch, I feel many pieces of the puzzle have finally come together into a recognizable whole.

Gun and Olive BranchIn his Foreward to the Third Edition, the author not only brings the history lessons “current” to 2003, 25 years after his book was first published, but explains the nearly universal silence in 1977 when it first came out. The Washington Post, the only major newspaper to touch it at the time, was derisive. The New Republic called it ‘the most malignantly anti-Israeli book ever to be published in English by someone who claims to be a serious commentator.’ The New York Times had commissioned what “unexpectedly turned out to be ‘a favorable, indeed enthusiastic’ review. But on the point of publication it was withdrawn by order from on high.”

Potential readers might be put off by nearly 600 pages because so many of us want to be spoon-fed our history in easily digestible soundbites, but I had no difficulty keeping focused on this tale. Hirst has a knack of combining well-researched and notated facts with the major characters and the roles they played in these historical events —- all of which makes for compelling reading. I finished it in just over a week.

I encourage anyone who has a smidgeon of hope for a peaceful future in the Middle East to read this book. We can’t begin to understand what motivates the people on both sides of the Green Line unless we have a basic understanding of the history that got them to this place today. Americans, especially, owe it to ourselves (because of our ‘special relationship with Israel’) and to future generations in Palestine/Israel to take the time to read The Gun and the Olive Branch. This is a book I will carry with me on my trek as a nomad. One of those indispensible resources that I’m sure I’ll return to many times.

Friends in Gaza

Friends in Gaza

More than a decade before Israel’s New Historians revolutionized the study of Israeli history, English journalist David Hirst wrote The Gun and the Olive Branch, a myth-breaking history of the Israeli-Palstinian conflict. Hirst, former Middle East correspondent of The Guardian, traces the origins of the conflict back to the 1880s to show how Arab violence, although often cruel and fanatical, is a response to the challenge of repeated aggression.

Described by the New Statesman as on of “the great Anglophone correspondents of our times,” Hirst’s peerless reporting has earned him curses, expulsion and respect in virtually every country in the region. Kidnapped twice, banned from six Arab countries, he is the ideal chronicler of this terrible and seemingly insoluble conflict. The updated edition of this “definitive” (Irish Times) work has a new, lengthy introduction–almost a book in itself–which brings the story right up to date. Amongst the many topics that are subject to Hirst’s piercing analyis: the Oslo peace process, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the destabilizing effect of Jewish setlement there, the second Intifada and the terrifying rise of the suicide bombers, the growing power of the Israel lobby–Jewish and Christian fundamentalist–in the United States, the growth of dissent in Israel and among sections of America’s Jewish population, the showdown between Sharon and Arafat, and the specter of nuclear catastrophe that threatens to destroy the region.


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