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Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh: ‘All this solidarity from the world – yet nothing has changed’

Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh: ‘All this solidarity from the world – yet nothing has changed’

Raja Shehadeh is at his home in the West Bank city of Ramallah. In the six months since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza he estimates that he has not ventured further than 16km, which is a grim sort of house arrest for a human rights lawyer turned writer whose wanderings have underpinned his life’s work: to demonstrate the Palestinians’ deep relationship with, and entitlement to, the land of their ancestors.

“It’s a quiet existence, but it’s very confining,” he says, over video link from his book-littered study. “Travelling is dangerous, because the settlers are all over the place. And there are closures everywhere, which is a nightmare.” It’s not that he thinks that, as an eminent advocate and commentator, he is in any more danger than anyone else. “The Israelis are indiscriminate in this way … They just don’t care how well known I am or not well known. In so many places people have been killed and nothing has happened.”

What Does Israel Fear from Palestine? by Raja ShehadehView image in fullscreen

In June, Shehadeh, who is now 72, will make his first long-range wartime trip to promote his latest work in the UK. Even for a writer who has made a specialism of slim, succinct books, this one is short. It is written in two parts, the first of which is based on a lecture he gave at a peace conference in Kyoto in 2016, explaining the history that brought the region to this pass. The second centres on the brutal reprisals provoked by the horrific Hamas attack on 7 October last year. The book is provocatively titled What Does Israel Fear from Palestine? Why, he asked in 2016, did Israel not take inspiration from South Africa’s journey towards the abolition of apartheid? His conclusion, eight years later, is damning. “The very high human and material cost of the war in Gaza proves that what Israel fears from Palestine is Palestine’s very existence.”

One irony of the current situation is that he now talks more with an Israeli friend than with anyone in Gaza itself. “I had some friends and colleagues in Gaza, who were lawyers and human rights people. And I got in touch with them in the beginning to find out what’s happening. But they couldn’t take it and left,” he says. On the other hand, his friendship with the Israeli psychoanalyst Henry Abramovitch, which was the basis of a 2017 book, Where the Line Is Drawn, is still going strong.

He sends all his journalistic writing to Abramovitch before submitting it to international news outlets, including the Guardian, and Abramovitch in turn recently talked about their friendship in a podcast. “But when we meet, we don’t talk about politics, because it would dominate our conversations,” says Shehadeh. Their bond almost broke at the time of the first intifada in 1987 when, he says, “I became very angry”. But since then there has been no confrontation between them. “I realised that friendship is so valuable, it’s no use losing it because of anger, so I changed my stance.”

Abramovitch is a university professor in Tel Aviv, which plays a key part in the first section of the book, as the Israeli city built out of Jaffa. It was from this ancient coastal town that Shehadeh’s grandmother was forced in 1948, and to whose lights she would point on evening walks hand in hand with her young grandson. “Her eyes were always on the horizon,” Shehadeh writes, “and by following her gaze I too learned to avoid what was here … I saw Ramallah and its hills not for what they were but as the observation point from which to view what lay beyond, which was the Jaffa I had never known.” Part of the purpose of the new book, he says, is to explain this deep homesickness. “A lot of books have been written where people talk of visiting their old houses, but this doesn’t make sense to many, who say people lose their houses all the time. Why is it such a tragedy? I’ve tried to say, in this book, that it’s more than just the house: it’s an aggregate destruction of a whole people.”

We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I-View image in fullscreen

Since the moment of his birth, into a prominent Palestinian Christian family in 1951, Shehadeh’s life has been entwined with the politics of the region. His grandfather was a judge during the British Mandate for Palestine, which had ended three years earlier. His father, Aziz, was one of the first Palestinians to publicly support a two-state solution, after what would become known among them as the Nakba – the catastrophe – of 1948, when up to half of the Arab population were forced to flee their homes. In 1985, when Shehadeh was still in his early 30s, his father was stabbed to death on his way home from work, in a crime that has never been properly investigated. He remains haunted by the personal and political misunderstandings in their relationship, which he explored in his 2022 memoir, We Could Have Been Friends: My Father and I.

In an earlier book, Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, which won the Orwell prize for political writing in 2008, he described a previous schism in his family between those like his grandfather and father, whose intellect and ambition took them to university and on to the professions, and the uncles and aunts who remained on the land, leaving their mark in the stone shelters they built to store their crops or shelter their sheep.

The six “sarhas” – rejuvenating rambles – of Palestinian Walks span 26 years, all painstakingly recorded in diaries that he writes in English and which now run into hundreds of thousands of words. On the first walk, shortly after returning from studying in London, Shehadeh was shocked by what he found: “It was as though the tectonic movements that had occurred over thousands of years were now happening in a matter of months, entirely redrawing the map.” On another, he had to rescue his nephew from a piece of unexploded ordnance that the six-year-old boy had picked up. In one of the happier outcomes of their troubled family history, that nephew now runs the law firm that Shehadeh’s father founded and for which he himself worked for many years.

Even the house in which he now lives has historical memory embedded in its foundations. He built it with his American wife and walking companion, Penny Johnson, after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1995, which granted limited Palestinian self-governance over parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As a lawyer who had spent decades fighting for land rights on behalf of the dispossessed, Shehadeh was deeply opposed to the deal. “I decided that it’s going to be chaotic. So I’d better have a refuge and a place where I can retreat after the chaos of the outside. And so I started building.” The garden, he adds, “has been a saviour for me, because it’s a place I love. I sit outside and read and work in it. It has really saved me.”

From this “bubble”, he has been appalled to see the war unfold on television. But he has also been cheered by student protests across the world – particularly in the US, whose foreign policy he regards as a key obstacle to resolution. “You know, it has been great that there is such resistance to the Gaza war and the genocide.” he says. “But all the time, I’m thinking of the first intifada, when we also had so much support and solidarity from the world, and then it just fizzled out completely.”

He hangs on to the idea that this time it may be different, “because now the young people are understanding the Palestinian case, not only for its own sake, but because it is emblematic of what is happening to them in their own countries. In America, and in Britain as well, the police are committing violence against them. And this is waking up so many people to their own situation.” But then he slumps back into a seasoned wariness about the possibility of a happy ending, pointing out that “with all this solidarity, and with all this vociferous support, nothing has changed. The Israelis are continuing to bomb everything, and the settlers are continuing with their action, only now with the support of the army.”

What would his father make of all the history that has passed under the bridge since his premature death? “He’d say ‘I told you so’,” fires back Shehadeh. But that won’t prevent him from doing his bit, sending his slim, piercing books out into the world. Early in the millennium he wrote a memoir of the 2002 siege of Ramallah titled When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, in honour of a songbird that is regarded in cultures across the Middle East as a messenger of peace and love. He is pleased to report that, in his garden at least, the bulbul is alive and well: “He wakes us up every morning.” Next spring he will add to his literature of reclamation through walking, in a collaboration with his wife, Penny, titled Forgotten: Searching for Lost Places and Hidden Memorials. It will take them back to the land, scratching around for all the stories that have not yet been told, in the hope of making a new and restorative sense of it all.

Source: theguardian.com