“The colonial control by Israel of Palestine should come to an end”

“Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are not eternal enemies. They are in enmity because of political injustice. And not for any other inherent reason regarding who they are. I have no doubt that a time will come when it will all change”. These are the words of Raja Shehadeh, Palestinian lawyer and author of several acclaimed books. His latest, Where The Line Is Drawn: Crossing Boundaries in Occupied Palestine, is centred on the enduring friendship with Henry, a Canadian Jew who lives in Israel. He gave me this interview, on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 War. (Read more…)

Raja Shehadeh is Palestine’s leading writer. He is also a lawyer and the founder of the pioneering Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq
© dustandscratchesfilms.com

Hope that your friend Henry is feeling better. Has he read the book yet? Have you got the chance to discuss it with him? What are your expectations?

Thank you for asking. Henry is doing well. We met recently after he read the book. He told me he read it twice and cried. When I asked him how he felt about it he told me: “the book makes me feel there is value to my life.”

The book has given us the opportunity to talk about the past and bring up issues that we had always skirted over. In fact what we had on this last occasion was a more politically open discussion than we’ve ever managed in the past. I believe the book is doing what I had hoped and expected: bringing us closer together and increasing our understanding of each other’s lives.

Naomi [his former editor] also read the book. I met her on my last visit  to London in March and we discussed it. Afterwards she wrote: I think your book is truly extraordinary, and that sense grows as it lives in my mind. The balancing, through the years you describe, of love and tenderness, and humour, with anger and dignity, eyes wide open but not giving up hope. And so beautifully written and structured — a true feat. Thank you so much for yesterday. It was a great joy to have a chance to spend unrushed time with you. I was going to say that it is nothing short of miraculous how, despite not meeting very often over the many years that have passed since *The Third Way*, it could all feel so close and connected. But, of course, it is not a miracle, but down to you, and to your book. Not just a matter of memories, melting years away, though there was that too, of course, very wonderfully. More importantly, thanks in part to your book, a reconnecting of those memories with your current self, and with mine — everything from then alive and kicking, but wiser (hahah). So powerful from you, who unlike me, have lived through it all, and seen so much. 

In the first pages you say, “I began to be obsessed by a single question: why did we leave [in 1948]? (…) I wonder what it would have been like if we had stayed.” In the last pages you wonder “whether it would have been possible for the Israeli people to create a presence and a history for themselves here without negating [ours]. All evidence indicated it couldn’t.” In 2017, it will be one hundred years of the Balfour Declaration, 70 years of the partition of British Mandate Palestine, and 50 years of the 1967 war. How do you assess these anniversaries? Should the Palestinians insist on demanding apologies?

Let me first comment on the two quotes you mention above. The first was by a much younger, less experienced and less knowledgeable man who did not realize what the older man in time came to understand. When the much older person asks towards the end “whether it would have been possible for the Israeli people to create a presence and a history for themselves here without negating ours,” his answer was: “All evidence indicated it couldn’t.”

The answer is borne out of the knowledge that Israel’s propaganda and creation myth is based on the negation of the Palestinian people. So the Israeli establishment felt a real need not only to create an Israeli nation but to suppress the Palestinian nation and as much as possible its presence on the land by re-naming and giving Jewish names to the landscape, the hills, mountains, springs, wadis, lakes and rivers.

The three anniversaries that are commemorated by Palestinians as markers of catastrophes that destroyed our future in the land have a different meaning to us, Palestinians. To the Israelis, the Balfour Declaration is not considered as generosity by Britain rather an assertion of Jewish right in the land that Israelis consider is and always was their own. The Partition is considered by right wing Israelis as a catastrophe that forced them to lose some of “greater Israel” to Jordan. And the occupation is not called by that name but is considered the liberation of their land not its occupation and is celebrated as such.

An apology by Israel would be a recognition by it that the interpretation the country ascribes to these anniversaries is contrary to historical fact, and is but part of the myth-making that Israel propagates in an attempt to render Israel not the creation of historical events but an ahistorical entity with biblical roots and justification. Without such recognition there can be no possibility of peace. But whereas an apology would be a start, there also needs to be a recognition by Israel of the Palestinian rights of return and self-determination.

Despite the Nakba, the pain and dispossession inflicted to your family, you confess your admiration for so many traits of the early Israeli society: democracy and freedom of expression, independence of the courts, no fear of criticising the political leadership, a vibrant cultural life, the socialist kibbutz experiment, the way it forged, through the Hebrew language, a national personality. Was it ever possible for Palestinians to follow this path?

I am not sure what you mean by the question. If you mean whether or not the Palestinians could follow the path that the Israelis took and become part of the Israeli people, then it should be pointed out that there are Palestinians who remained in Israel after the Nakba who now constitute some quarter of the population of the state. Although they carry Israeli citizenship, they are discriminated against for being non-Jews. They have learned the language but retained their identity as Palestinians.

Those Palestinians living in the occupied territories have little contact with Israel which made no effort to teach them its language or bring them closer to the Israeli population. Except for those who work as laborers in Israel there is little contact between the two nations.

If you meant whether the Palestinians were able to forge a national personality as did the Israelis, then I would like to say the following:

The two cases cannot be compared. Israel is an example of a new nation, created out of immigrants from many parts of the world who had to learn a new common language and were integrated mainly through being drafted in the army. Over the years there were also systematic efforts to create an Israeli culture and build state institutions etc.

The Palestinians always had a sense of their identity as Arabs who spoke the language and shared a common history and destiny. Then after the failure to establish a unified Arab state their sense of themselves as Palestinian developed. Their national affiliation to Palestine increased as the threat on their existence as Palestinians increased over time. They have never been independent and so did not get the opportunity to forge national institutions and government.

The rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the mid sixties and especially after the occupation helped forge the new image of the Palestinian as a person who resists and fights for his/her rights. Whereas liberation has not yet been achieved the resistance continues and takes different forms. It now moved from a mainly violent armed confrontation with Israel to a diplomatic, non-violent struggle. This is in evidence now with the over 1300 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails on the 31st day of their hunger strike with widespread support amongst the population taking different forms of non-violent actions in support of the prisoners by civil society.

Where (and why) do you find reason and strength to be hopeful that, “one day”, there will be justice and forgiveness?

I have written so much in the past in books and articles about Israeli oppression and violations of human rights, I did not want this book to be another book of complaints or lamentations. When I was close to the end I read how the Prime Minister of Israel describes us, Palestinians, as wild beats, [which I quote in the book] and thought should I respond in kind and exchange insults with our enemy. I decided against it.

I wanted to show through the friendships with Israelis that I describe that it is not true that the two people are condemned to be eternal enemies. They do share a lot and can become the best of friends and have much to offer each other if the colonial control by Israel of Palestine should come to an end and the historic injustices recognized.

In other words there are no psychological grounds for the terrible situation that now characterizes the relationship between the two sides, but rather concrete objective factors that must be exposed in order for a new relationship to emerge.

Although at the center of the book are the many difficult crossings, walls, and distance, psychological and otherwise between the two sides, it is also about coming together, and about what will happen when the walls come down.

The book rejects the assumption that the two sides are born enemies by showcasing the friendship which persists despite everything that happens to challenge and stifle it. At a time of worst relations between the two sides I write about an entirely different relationship. About friendships, ones that have endured.

I have wanted and hoped that my book would be a hopeful book and that it would open debate which is what books should do.

“We shall not leave!” To whom, in particular, are you addressing this message?

To everyone who reads it and hears about it. Books, I believe are an affective means for making change. What most readers of news learn is of dark times and continuous enmity, I hope this book will convince readers that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are not eternal enemies. They are in enmity because of political injustice. And not for any other inherent reason regarding who they are. I have no doubt that a time will come when it will all change.

I’m not in politics but through writing of friendship over the years I hope to help readers experience how it was and that it was not always as bad as it is now and how it changed over the years and how despite everything the friendships lasted.

Where do you see future for Israelis and Palestinians – in one or two states?

In this book I have not proposed a political solution. It is not that kind of book. The important question is not one or two states but under which system to live, how to meet the needs of both sides concerning the land, security and rights- national and otherwise. There are solutions for all these, if there is the will. But so far Israel does not feel motivated to look for solutions and will not as long as it is benefiting from the existing situation.

Only if the United States and Europe decide it is in their best interest to devise a strategy to make it more costly for Israel to reject proposals for peace will the movement towards a peace begin.

Raja Shehadeh walking the West Bank on a wadi path
© Robert Macfarlane | Radio New Zealand

This interview, edited for clarity, was published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO on June 7, 2017

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