In October 2000 most of the children invited by Dr. Emma Williams to her son Archie’s seventh birthday party failed to turn up. Distance was not the issue, given that her house was only twenty minutes from the French lycée where her two boys were studying. The problem was location. In Jerusalem, living anywhere is a political statement with safety implications. Although Williams had found her rented house by chance when acquaintances moved abroad, her modern two-story villa lay just to the east of the "seam" between Arab and Jewish Jerusalem. The eastern half of Jerusalem was occupied territory, inhabited by Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jewish settlers. The west side was Israel, where most of her friends and her husband’s colleagues lived. When only two parents of the many children in Archie’s class allowed their kids to attend his birthday, a journalist whose children stayed away explained to Williams, "You just happen to live on the wrong side of the reality."
Emma Williams, an English physician married to a United Nations diplomat, lived on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian "reality" for three years beginning in the spring of 2000. In It’s Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street, a poignant memoir of that especially turbulent time, she has recorded both the decisive events of the second intifada against Israeli occupation and her struggle to raise three children, while giving birth to a fourth, amid the violence and restrictions of a conflict that has steadfastly resisted resolution for generations. Williams’s husband, Andrew Gilmour, worked for the United Nations Secretariat in New York City. Although her academic credentials (BA from Oxford, MD from the University of London) outstripped her husband’s, Williams had already followed his career from their native Britain to Pakistan, Afghanistan and New York before the UN assigned him to Jerusalem. His job was to assist Kofi Annan’s personal representative to the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, Terje Roed-Larsen. The 1993 Oslo Accords had established the PA as representative and governor of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories. (Roed-Larsen had a vested interest in the accords, having been involved in negotiating them in 1993.) Gilmour already had what the British call "form" in the Middle East. His father, Lord Gilmour, a former owner of the weekly Spectator, had served as a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet and defended the Palestinians’ right to self-determination in Parliament.
Williams’s life afforded her a unique perspective. While living in the Arab quarter of Jebel Mukaber, she made regular forays to friends in West Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. She worked as a physician in the West Bank, raised three (and then four) children on both sides of the divide, moved in Israeli and Palestinian circles and empathized as much with Israeli fear of suicide bombings as with Palestinian suffering under occupation. This book is her testament to the friends left behind when she flew out of Ben Gurion Airport on the night the United States began to "shock and awe" the people of Iraq as prelude to the invasion of March 2003. It is a period piece, documenting the transition from the illusion that the Oslo Accords would bring a just resolution to the desperation of suicide bombings to Israel’s erection of a twenty-five-foot concrete wall that divides Israel from the Arab-majority portions of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The wall created what Israeli Gen. Amos Gilad called "microcosms," the Palestinian towns and cities separated from one another by Israeli checkpoints, fortresses and settlements. This strategy, he said, was for "this year and for all years."
Williams’s first months in Israel coincided with the death throes of the Oslo process amid Israeli settlement building, Bill Clinton’s Camp David fiasco and Ariel Sharon’s notorious promenade through Jerusalem’s Muslim Noble Sanctuary, the Jewish Temple Mount. The latter two events prompted the first, hesitant stirring of the Palestinians’ second uprising–which would, in fact, make their lives worse, as the Israelis responded with armed assaults, forays into and renewed occupation of areas designated for nominal Palestinian self-rule and, later, the wall and more assaults on the West Bank and Gaza. Oslo, as Edward Said pointed out when its details were published, was a fraud that did little more than relocate the Tunis-based PLO leadership to Ramallah while allowing Israel to seize more Palestinian land for settlements. During the seven years of Oslo’s writ, Israel confiscated 100 square miles of Palestinian territory, from which the original owners were excluded. Every Palestinian inhabitant of the occupied territories was aware of this, even if the UN, the United States, the European Union and Yasir Arafat himself pretended all was well. To exacerbate the Palestinians’ anguish, they endured the corruption and incompetence of the Palestinian Authority–ostensibly "their" government.