As Israel and her neighbours again teeter on the brink of war, Paul Willis meets two former Leeds families, each with their own religion, cultural customs and political perspectives…but sharing a common desire for peace.
People tell you this everywhere you go in Israel. It usually comes by way of explanation for the current conflict here – land is at a premium in the Holy Land, they say, therefore every acre is vital and must, when necessary, be fought over.
But when Dani Margolis tells me this is a small country he has a different point to make.
“Everywhere is just a few hours drive away,” he explains, as he pours us both a beer. “It means you are close to the sea and mountains and amazing landscapes. But it also means you’re never far away from trouble.”
We are sitting on the porch of Dani’s house in the Ramat Hashoste Kibbutz on a warm late summer evening. Dani lives on one of the 270 Kibbutzim in the country – the self-supporting, mainly agricultural, communities, which account for four per cent of the Israeli population. It feels a million miles from the “trouble” Dani is talking about, the kind regularly swamping TV news and newspapers throughout the world.
Inside the house his wife, Lilac, gets their two young children ready for bed. It is an idyllic scene, perhaps the fondly-imagined future Dani envisaged when he decided to emigrate here from his native Leeds 12 years ago.
But scratch the surface and the tension is never far away.
“You know I went to Jerusalem last week,” Dani says. “And for the first time since I can remember I took a taxi into the city centre – I avoided the bus.”
Jerusalem had been rocked a few days earlier by a suicide bomb attack on a trendy cafe in the west of the city. The attack followed one earlier in the day at a crowded bus stop in Tel Aviv, no more than an hour’s drive away from the Kibbutz.
Trouble, as Dani says, is never far away in Israel.
Brought up in Alwoodley, north Leeds, by a strong Zionist family, Dani spent most summers holidaying at the Kibbutz where he now lives, and where he and his wife first met as children.
This early immersion in the promised land together with the anti-semitism he encountered in Leeds led to a growing sense of ‘not belonging’ in England.
Eventually this translated into a desire to make ‘Aliyah’, the word that Jews use when they emigrate to Israel – it means literally ‘going up’.
Today the 36-year-old lives with Lilac, 32, who was brought up on the Kibbutz, and their two beautiful children Talia, five, and Ori, three. He works as the Kibbutz’s gardener.
The youngsters finally settled in bed, Lilac joins us on the porch. Having lived her whoIe life through the conflict, how does she deal with it?
“Well you get scared a lot, of course you do,” she says emphatically. “Sometimes I don’t sleep at night for worry. I hate it most when Dani goes to the army.”
As a fully-fledged Israeli citizen Dani is expected to serve in the army. He served for three years when he first arrived and has been called on every year since to do a month of reserve duty.
Since the break out of the second Intifada that has meant the unenviable task of enforcing the occupation inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
If he wanted to, he says he could probably get out of serving, but though he admits to hating the work, Dani claims it is necessary for the survival of Israel.
“I hate going to the army every year to do this, but I want to sleep safe in my bed at night. And the only way I can do that is if I know there are people out there patrolling our borders and checkpoints.”
The next day Dani takes the family to Daliat-El-Carmel, a nearby Druze village. The Druze are a religious sect descended from Islam who fled persecution in Egypt hundreds of years ago. They are Arabs, but live in peaceful co-habitation with the Jews.
The irony of this is not lost on Lilac. She tells me that before the latest Intifada they used to visit Palestinian villages like this one.
“We had Arab friends,” she says suddenly. “If you sit and think about it for a minute you want to run away, you really do. It’s an absolute tragedy for both sides.”
The town of Ramallah is a dusty, but bustling centre at the heart of the West Bank.
Home to the Palestinian Authority and the beleaguered Yasser Arafat, it is less strife-torn than other areas of the Occupied Territories. But with its bombed-out buildings and barbed wire this is nevertheless a world away from the affluence of nearby Jerusalem – a 15-minute drive to the south, minus the checkpoints.
Munir Quazzaz meets me at a bedraggled row of shop fronts in the centre of town.
“I got this in Leeds,” he tells me, smiling and pointing to the flat cap he has perched on his head and which, if nothing else, sets him apart from his Palestinian brothers.
Munir returned home from Yorkshire six years ago. A university professor, he completed a doctorate in physiology at Leeds University, living in the city with his young family for five years.
Now he lectures Palestinian students at the nearby University of Birzeit, where he has come from to meet me today.
We take a taxi to Munir’s flat on the edge of town, passing by Yasser Arafat’s compound on the way. The Palestinian leader is still under house arrest from the Israeli army, a situation which began in March 2002 when they launched a siege on the compound.
The compound, supposedly the headquarters for the Palestinian Authority, looks more like a junk yard than a centre of government. Buildings have been reduced to rubble by Israeli tanks and at the back of the complex burnt out cars piled on top of each other are all that remains of Arafat’s presidential cavalcade.
“I want to show you something,” Munir tells me as we arrive at his flat. He leads me to a window at the back of the seventh floor apartment. “Look at that. That’s the way I go to work every day.”
On the road below us a long line of people snakes into the distance. At either end of the line there are stone bollards blocking the road and beyond them taxis queuing up to ferry people away.
“This is the Surida Checkpoint. It was set up by the Israelis three years ago.”
I ask Munir what’s on the other side.
“My university,” he says, “and a few small Palestinian villages, nothing much. Most of the day it is unmanned so it serves no security purpose – anyone can cross as they please. It means we can’t take our cars to work and our lives are disrupted, that’s all. It is just a way for the Israelis to humiliate us.”
So many times throughout our interview Munir talks about the humiliation he feels at the hands of the Israelis. The daily grind of being told where they can and cannot go, of seeing their homes destroyed and their streets overrun by tanks has taken a terrible psychological toll on the Palestinians.
When Munir’s wife, Hadil, appears and offers Arabic tea her face looks drawn and anxious. As we talk about the conflict she grows passionate, struggling to contain her emotions.
“This effects everything for us,” Hadil, 36, says. “We can’t have a normal life. You know the Israeli soldiers came here at three o’clock one morning. They insisted on turning on all the lights and waking up our children. They said: ‘Where are your weapons?’ All we could do was show them our books and tell them my husband was a professor.”
The couple have three children, aged from four to 13. Hadil, who also has a PhD from Leeds University, works for a German charity in Ramallah.
Munir, 38, tells me his father is in a hospital in Gaza but because of the strict travel restrictions imposed on the Palestinians he cannot visit him.
Munir says: “He is 89 years-old and probably dying but it is impossible for me to get to him. You know I was in Leeds a few months ago – it’s crazy, but it’s easier for me to get there than to go to Gaza.”
I ask them if they would move back to England and flee the conflict if they ever got a chance.
“We had the chance,” Munir tells me, to my surprise. “Not long ago I was offered a job in London but I refused.”
“Because whatever happens this is my home, these are my people. Every day is difficult, but we have a duty to stay and help them.”