Emma Williams Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Emma Williams

Emma Williams

An interview with Emma Williams

In August 2000 Williams arrived with her three small children in Jerusalem to join her husband and to work as a doctor. A month later the Palestinian intifada erupted. For the next three years, she was to witness an astonishing series of events in which hundreds of thousands of lives, including her own, were turned upside down. Here she tells us more about those experiences:


In It's Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street you describe how you avoided areas where large crowds of people congregated such as the theatre, the supermarket or the cinema. How did you feel on living in such constant danger every day?

The dangers were the worst aspect of living in Jerusalem, but we were never a target for either side. We worried about being caught in the crossfire or a suicide bombing but we knew we wouldn't be singled out. I did envy the parents of consulate children who were escorted to and from school in armoured vehicles every day, and there were moments when I just felt angry at the situation that created, and perpetuated, the dangers. In general we did what others did. We tried to diminish the risk as far as possible, without letting fear dominate or dictate. As for coping with the risk, it grew slowly, starting at a minimal level just after we arrived and built up slowly. Perhaps if we had arrived in the middle of it we would have felt differently, but on a day-to-day basis it became a constant thing you get used to.


There were times when your husband's location was under siege and you couldn't contact with him. Did you ever fear for his life?


He was constantly at risk. I downplayed this in the book, but yes, there were many times when I was really afraid. 

His job, often in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, involved danger, but of a different kind to ours in Jerusalem. Our risk was that maybe we'd be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

His was constantly at risk of being hit by a sniper, helicopter missiles or other Israeli military operations. He was virtually the only person who made a point of going to see senior Hamas officials and other extremists in an effort to get them to stop suicide bombings, and in doing so he was at risk of being killed as 'collateral damage' in one of the IDF's many assassination operations against Hamas leaders.

After the lynching of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah the IDF launched a series of attacks all over the occupied territories. Andrew called me to say he was in Gaza watching IDF helicopter gunships hovering just out to sea, ready to strike. He had just taken a call from a senior Barak aide, telling him and the rest of the UN's international staff: "get out of the territories now" but Andrew insisted they could not leave the Palestinian staff who were not allowed out of the Gaza Strip to their fate and that they should go and see Arafat to try to stop them.

I had to wait by the phone, not knowing whether the IDF would strike or not (as it happens they did fire, 200 yards away from where he was). But this was his job, and though I urged him to avoid unnecessary risk, I didn't try to stop him. We both felt that this was part of the job description of being a UN troubleshooter - taking slightly more risks than others might do if it could help.


Were there ever times when you wanted to leave Jerusalem?

Only in so far as needing to get out of the madness of it all, and away from the injustice. There were moments when the cruelty of the situation, and the silencing process that wrapped around it, made me want to run away. We tried to get away from time to time, mostly traveling around Israel, seeing the amazing beauty of the Galilee or the solitude of the Negev desert, with occasional trips to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.


You lived on the border of East and West Jerusalem, working with Palestinians during the day and spending evenings with Israelis in Tel Aviv. Were you ever judged by your friends and colleagues for your political and/or personal sympathies?

Often people living in Jerusalem seemed much less judgmental than many of those abroad, people who were convinced that they knew what it was like and what should be done. Of course there were also people living there who took issue with what we were doing. There were Israelis who thought I spent too much time in the Occupied Territories, or that meeting any Palestinians was somehow a declaration of hostility to Israel. There were also foreigners who refused to talk to one side or other under almost any circumstances. But our closest friends on both sides were very understanding. Whether or not I was judged by Palestinians I don't know, but I always felt guilty that I could easily move about in their country - something they were forbidden or unable to do.


Are you still in touch with the friends you made while you were out there?

I telephone, email, and visit regularly. I was in Jerusalem two days after the recent Palestinian elections. These friendships are unaffected by my living far away, but I am affected: every time I go back, the sense of intense injustice - to both peoples - intensifies.

In many ways I now find it easier to see my Israeli friends, especially now that their daily lives carry so much less risk than they did when there were so many suicide bombing attacks. We can be normal, discuss things most other people discuss, and more or less forget the conflict. It is much harder to avoid the conflict when I see my Palestinian friends.


Do you have much hope that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will ever be resolved? In your eyes has the situation improved at all for the people still living there now?

The conflict could have been sorted out many times over. The majority of Israelis and Palestinians want an end to the occupation: the extraordinary efforts of many of them to make this happen, their willingness to put the past behind them and make the best of things, keeps me thinking that one day the situation will improve.


Throughout your life you seem to have always moved from place to place. Do you enjoy it?

I do enjoy it, but this is a bonus not a motivation. Moving is the inevitable result of one of us working in an organisation like the UN - it happens and we deal with it, enjoying it is a plus. We're about to make another move - this time from Senegal to New York, and so we're in the usual panic to pack up everything here and find somewhere to live and schools for the children at the other end. Somewhere in the disorder there is excitement at another new life. Part of me wishes the next posting was another new place, and part of me regrets leaving West Africa. Not much of me wants to be settled permanently - not yet.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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