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Fiashra Gibbons | The Guardian | 23 August 2003
Jewish pressure groups are calling on a publisher to withdraw a children's book about a Palestinian boy growing up amid the intifada on the West Bank.
A Little Piece of Ground, by the multi-award-winning author Elizabeth Laird, is a fictional account of how a 12-year-old called Karim - whose family's olive groves have been confiscated by settlers - copes when his father is stripped and humiliated by Israeli troops.
As the boy is swept up in the protest against the occupation, and his friends make a fake bomb, he dreams of developing an "acid formula to dissolves the steel in Israeli tanks".
Macmillan has received three demands for the book to be pulped, and many bookshops are worried about stocking it, lest it provoke further protests from Jewish groups. So far, most of the attacks on Laird have come from North America, led by a chain of Canadian bookshops which made the first "vitriolic" complaint to her publisher. It is understood that others have come from Jewish pressure groups.
The New Zealand-born novelist wrote her book after visiting Ramallah as part of a British Council scheme to encourage writing for children. She denies the story is anti-Israeli.
"I did expect comeback, but to say that any criticism of Israel is anti-semitic is doing Israel a disservice. This is an important story that should be told. It shows a child under military occupation. It's terrible for the occupiers, and terrible for the occupied. I hope I have shown how awful it is for the soldiers too," said Laird, who has lived in Beirut and Iraq.
"There is already a great deal of understanding of Israel. All western people have felt sympathetic to Israel, for good reason often; and I don't think that should stop. The voice of the Palestinian child, on the other hand, has not been heard."
Children's writer Ann Jungman, a member of the liberal Jews for Justice in Palestine group, said that she admired the book but still found it biased. "It's not what is in there that I object to. It's what has been left out. There should have been a broader picture. All the Palestinians are reasonable, and all the Israelis are monsters."
Laird, who has won the Children's Book Award, the Smarties Prize and been nominated three times for the Carnegie Medal, claimed A Little Piece of Ground was not meant to explain politics. "It's true, lots of Israelis are trying to come to an accommodation with the Palestinians, and many refuse to serve in the West Bank. But the book is written through the eyes of a 12-year-old who just sees men with guns. It would not have been true to my characters to do otherwise.
"The book is not so much about politics as about brothers, friendship, falling in love and football."
The title comes from a scrap of waste land that Karim and his friends turn into a football pitch and which later becomes a flashpoint in the violence.
Laird insisted that everything in the book was drawn from real events. "A lot of the incidents have come from the main Israeli human rights website", while others were taken from the experiences of her collaborator, Sonia Nimir, a lecturer at Bir Zeit university on the West Bank.
Laird said she "toned down" several parts of the book, but that the motivation for suicide bombing had to be tackled. "Suicide bombings are going on in the background, and in one scene I have Karim's uncle questioning his [Karim's] hunger for vengeance after his father is humiliated by the soldiers. He tells him: 'Does that make it right for us to go and bomb them?'"
Britain's children's laureate, Michael Morpurgo, has defended the novel. "Sometimes we need more than escapism. No one but Elizabeth Laird could have written this book. She has lived in the Middle East. She knows it, loves it, grieves for it, and hopes for it."
He urged parents to encourage their 11- to 14-year-olds to buy it. "Read it, and we know what it is to feel oppressed, to feel fear every day. And we should know it, and our children should know it, for this is how much of the world lives," he said.
Macmillan refused to discuss where the demands to pull the book had come from, but Kate Wilson, managing director of its children's arm, said the firm had no intention of withdrawing it. "We thought long and hard about whether it was responsible to go ahead. We were aware it might provoke a range of opinions."
She said Macmillan was not afraid of enraging Jewish opinion: "I do not think there is a powerful Jewish lobby in this country. Elizabeth is a remarkable writer, with an amazing ability to get under the skin of her characters - we see the perspective of the soldiers as well as Karim's."
Ms Wilson maintained that the book directly confronted Karim's support for suicide bombers. "Its central theme in many ways is his clash with his uncle, who opposes them."
Extract from A Little Piece of Ground
Karim has watched his father being dragged from the family car and stripped at an Israeli checkpoint...
He [the young Israeli soldier] is terrified, Karim thought, with surprise. He thinks we're going to attack him.
He could almost smell the soldier's fear.
"She didn't mean any harm," he said, hating the placating note he could hear in his own voice. "I'll take her back to the car."
The soldier shoved at him roughly. "Take her. If there's any more trouble from you, you go over there and join the other terrorists."
Karim scooped Sireen up in his arms and ran back to the car with her.
Lamia had half opened the door, but another soldier was alongside the car now, ordering her to shut it. Karim handed Sireen to her and jumped into the back seat.
"Oh, my darling," sobbed Lamia, her face in Sireen's hair.
Karim was trembling violently. He felt sick with the backwash of fear.
Farah moved across and leaned against him, her thumb firmly in her mouth. Her other hand clutching at his arm. This time, he didn't push her away.
I hate them. I hate them. I hate them, he thought, unable now to look at his father, who still stood, reduced to an object of ridicule, beside the bewildered old man.