Returning home to a place I left behind

Middle East correspondent Irris Makler tells of coming home to Australia, only to find a place she hoped she had left on the other side of the world. Photo: Getty Images

Middle East correspondent and the author of Hope Street, Jerusalem Irris Makler tells of coming home to Australia, only to find a place she hoped she had left on the other side of the world.

I love leaving Jerusalem , where I’m based as a foreign correspondent, and coming home to Sydney for the summer. Family, sunshine, Christmas parties, eating and drinking too much, all help me put down the burden of reporting from the Middle East . It usually takes a week to get over my jetlag, to ignore news bulletins, and to unclench my shoulders and relax.

On Monday 15th December, I felt I was finally on holiday. It was bright, warm and sunny after days of cool, grey rain. Summer at last, I thought, driving in Maroubra in Sydney ’s East. I was trying to decide between the beach and the gym when I heard the news. A hostage-taking in Martin Place . A chocolate shop. A black flag with Arabic writing held up by hostages. Toddlers being passed through a window from their child care centre to safety.

My first reaction, like most people, was shock. At his press conference, NSW Premier Mike Baird was pale and rattled. Four hours after the hostage taking began, the disbelief was still written across his face. “ Sydney is being tested,” he said. He looked as if he felt he was being tested.

This simply doesn’t happen in Sydney , and certainly not in the lead-up to Christmas, when everyone is rushing to finish work and to go for end of year celebrations with their colleagues. Nowhere in the northern hemisphere knows this kind of giddy mood; anticipating Christmas with the promise of your longest holiday and summer sunshine.

As the calls began coming in from broadcasters, I felt a flash of anger that this easy, lovely time was being polluted by something familiar to me from the Middle East - political violence. Within minutes there were hundreds of armed police in the CBD. Traffic was gridlocked, as roads, railway stations, and even airspace were closed. There were evacuations and lock-downs – the Reserve Bank, medical surgeries, legal offices – and for a short time, that symbol of Sydney , the Opera House.

Frightened faces at a window, innocent people being dragged into something they were not a part of, prompted an all too familiar feeling of dismay. Not here! It reminded me of everything I’d hoped I was leaving behind, at least for the summer. I don’t know about other journalists, who might be thicker skinned, but I never get used to reporting these incidents. Some part of the sorrow always stays with you.

There’s been more of that recently, as there’s seen a significant upsurge in violence in Jerusalem over the past few months. The increase in tension started with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in May this year. It was followed by the 50 day Gaza war, and then a campaign by extremist Jewish groups to be allowed to pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound.

During October and November, Palestinian attacks were occurring in Jerusalem , one following another, although they were unconnected and carried out mostly by “lone wolves.” Most of the attackers were not even affiliated to a militant group. And they were not armed, in the conventional sense, with guns or explosives.

Over the past 6 months, Israeli authorities saw that an angry man could grab a kitchen knife, and run out and attack civilians. He could grab a meat cleaver, and kill people at prayer. He could throw acid over someone who had stopped to give him a lift. He could use his family car, or his father’s car, to run people over, including soldiers and police, driving straight for them where they were waiting to catch public transport.

You would need a huge amount of pent-up fury to carry out any of these attacks … but it is much more difficult to police this frenzy of violence, or despair, when the perpetrator is acting alone. Israel has a widespread intelligence service, but it couldn’t predict or prevent these ongoing attacks. It couldn’t prevent Jewish attackers with no affiliation from murdering 16 year old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a grisly killing which depressed Israelis and further inflamed Palestinians. A lone wolf is harder to stop, no matter what side he’s on.

The hostage taker at the Lindt café, Man Haron Monis, also appeared to be acting alone, although we don’t know that for sure. In Australia , there is no festering political wound, like there is between Israelis and Palestinians, which fuels violence on both sides. One of the blessings of living in Australia is that this continues to be true, despite our being a nation of migrants.

It’s not clear if today’s siege in Sydney is the first of many. My fervent hope is that foreign causes, or the battles that Australia joins, won’t come home to us. And that we have a quiet, sunny, happy Christmas.