Gargantuan clashes like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are anonymous calamities.

We see on our screens people running, killing, weeping, read the statistics and analyses, hear the speeches, but the more we learn the less we understand on a human level. Who are these people? What are they really thinking?

Ghada Karmi's chronicle is like being given night vision binoculars. What had seemed impenetrable, too murky to interpret, comes into focus. People come to life: families, workers, politicians, officials and soldiers are human again, living regular lives - or trying to - in profoundly irregular conditions.

Karmi is in a perfect position to bring us these insights. She was born in 1939 (which surprised me - her prose, outlook, and lifestyle had struck me as those of a much younger woman) in Jerusalem, her family forced to leave not long after the formation of Israel in 1948, eventually settling in London. Her father Hasan was a highly respected intellectual, and continued to be an influential linguist and broadcaster until his death, movingly recounted here, in 2007. Ghada became a GP, an academic and founder of the first British-Palestinian medical charity. Her credentials to report on the country of her birth are surpassed only by the integrity and clarity of her writing. Despite the pain and degradation it deals in, Return is compelling, poignant and revealing.

She is honest to the point of confessional about her own family and Arabic family structures in general. Traditional patriarchy has caused problems, personally and philosophically, throughout her life yet she admits that unreconstructed family values have given her compatriots a certain solidarity and strength in the worst of times: "people under Israel's occupation managed to retain sanity and humanity under endless abuse". Her own more Anglified family have splintered, under cultural pressures. While Ghada became an independent woman and thinker, her sister moved to Syria and took up the hijab. Britain, the Karmis' home for over half a century, lies at the heart of their turmoil. Without its unstinting collaboration, she says, Zionism could never have succeeded so spectacularly, and her family would never have been expelled in the first place.

Return is illuminating on Islam and its place in the Palestinian struggle. Hasan Karmi disapproved of the hijab and the treatment of women, but he revered Islam as a philosophy. Yet many radical women have donned traditional dress as an act of cultural defiance and see in Islam an alternative to Western values - values, from a Palestinian perspective, that appear base, greedy and cruel.

What makes Ghada Karmi a reliable witness is her own sense of displacement. She can look at major events and daily occurrences in Ramallah or Gaza, as part-Palestinian part-Brit, a modern woman returning to her old world, understanding it in ways we cannot, yet still detached enough to scrutinize it, wonder at it.

In 2005 Karmi was appointed media consultant to the Palestinian Authority (PA). She relates her almost Kafkaesque experiences there with surprising candour. Her objective in this book is not to be partisan but to figure out, as much for herself as us, why the struggle of her people has suffered so many setbacks. Being pitted against one of the most militarized countries on earth, supported by the might of the West, tells its own story: Karmi does not feel the need to tell it again. Instead she analyses why the Occupation has often succeeded in demoralising its opposition. The constant humiliations, little acts of everyday aggression, road blocks, walls, identity cards, raids, the hideous hatred and attacks by extremist settlers in Hebron and elsewhere - the strategy, if it amounts to that, has been effective.

Karmi never needs to spell it out, but she is no anti-Semite. (One little insight among many: I had often worried that the Palestinian use of the term 'Jew' turned a political struggle into a racist one. Karmi points out that, even now, Palestinians have a pre-1948 mind-set, when there was no Israel, and therefore no Israelis.) She criticises Palestinian politics while trying to see behind Israeli stereotypes. Soldiers, some of them actually Russian Christians feigning Judaism to escape poverty; anti-Zionist Jews and Israeli comrades; complacent Palestinian leaders reduced to accepting "whatever Israel throws at them".

What she does struggle with is those who either cannot or refuse to see the evident injustice and continuing tragedy before their eyes. She recalls a meeting with Steven Erlanger of the New York Times. He was keen to photograph Karmi in the house her family were ousted from a generation before, but only so that she could own, and presumably cherish, the images. He had no intention of publishing them. Or telling her family's story. Karmi considers him a good journalist and a decent man, yet when they visit the new owners of the house he seems unmoved by the situation. "These things are difficult," he tells her. "Some things aren't right or wrong." Erlanger's position, like so many others', is that Israel cannot be judged by the same yardstick as any other nation. So compelling is the narrative of a state founded on moral need, as a response, a penitence, for vile earlier oppression, that today's oppression is ignored or justified.

It is in the depth and breadth of Karmi's inquiry, conducted and reflected through chance meetings, discussions, office politics, gossip between neighbours, that makes Return not only fascinating and beautifully told, but essential reading for anyone who wants to see behind the guns and walls and rhetoric.

Ghada Karmi is speaking at Aye Write! on Saturday April 25 at 3pm