When Pulitzer Prize-winning Australian author Geraldine Brooks returned to the frontline of the Israeli Palestinian conflict after an absence of 30 years she found it much changed.

Reporting from the contested territories for The Wall Street Journal until the late 1980s, there had been about 60,000 settlers in the West Bank; now there were more than 600,000.

Geraldine Brooks returns to narrative journalism to explore the human cost of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Photo: Supplied

''The huge workforce that used to enter Israel daily from Gaza no longer exists,'' she said. ''West Bank Palestinians need permits to enter Israeli territory and even if they get one, they must traverse arduous checkpoints where delays can take hours.

''Apart from settlers and soldiers, few Israelis venture into the Palestinian territories, so the societies have grown even more divided, with very little casual interaction even possible.''

Brooks is the only Australian among a group of prominent international writers to contribute to a new essay collection, Kingdom of Olives and Ash, published to mark the 50th anniversary of Israels occupation of the West Bank.


For the volume, US writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman teamed up with Breaking the Silence, an organisation representing former Israeli soldiers wishing to confidentially speak out about military operations in the occupied territories.

The collection, to be launched in Sydney on Wednesday, features Brook's account of two families, one Israeli, one Palestinian, brought together through a shocking act of violence in the so-called "children's intifada". Award-winning authors Colum McCann and Colm Toibin also contributed chapters.

As research, Brooks reconnected with lawyer Lea Tsemel, an Israeli she had once profiled, who has spent her legal career defending Palestinians.

''It so happened that she was in the midst of a high-profile and poignant case, defending a 12-year-old Palestinian accused of stabbing a 12-year-old Israeli,'' she said.

''So that case became the focus of my essay, the desperation of the perpetrator, the agony of the victim and the pain of the two families shattered by the attack.

''Its a haunting case on so many levels. I have sons so I felt for the mothers – the Palestinian who still cant bring herself to believe her little boy could have done such a thing, and the Israeli who now lives with crippling fear and concern for the long-term trauma inflicted on her injured son.''

Given the recent protests and killings at the border, Brooks says the White House's decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem had set back the Palestinians' claims for their own state.

''There was little enough incentive for Israel to end the occupation before this move, with the Arab states weakened by civil wars and not posing an existential threat,'' she said. ''Now theres one
less thing to put on the table.''

Having voted to establish Israel in 1948 after the Holocaust, Brooks believes Australia has a big stake in securing peace.

''It seemed to us to be the just thing,'' she said. ''Now the Palestinians also have a call on our inherent sense of justice and they, too, deserve a state of their own. I think its a mistake if we forelock-tug and follow lockstep with American foreign policy at any time, but in the Trump era its unconscionable and potentially disastrous.''

Linda Morris

Linda Morris is an arts and books writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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