The Peregrinations of Raja Shehadeh

The Lights in the Distance

The peregrinations of Raja Shehadeh.


All my life I have lived in houses that overlook the Ramallah hills,” writes the Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh. This simple statement speaks volumes. It suggests the difficult achievement, for any Palestinian, of finding a fixed and livable position within the occupied territories. The verb “overlook” also encapsulates Shehadeh’s own role as witness and guardian. He is determined to keep his eyes wide open, trained on the horizon, looking for future openings and alternatives.

Shehadeh’s effort to find an opening with his Israeli neighbors is the subject of his latest book, Where the Line Is Drawn. As a pioneering human-rights lawyer, a writer, and an avid walker, Shehadeh has dedicated his life to exploring and exposing the landscape of the Israeli occupation. He has struggled to stay put, but also to be free—free of bitterness and delusion, of family expectations and the burdens of history, of hopelessness in the face of the settlements that today ring Ramallah like a “noose.” All of Shehadeh’s writing concerns how to find one’s footing on this splintered terrain, how to make one’s home in a world of loss.

Shehadeh’s family hails from Ramallah, but they had relocated to the more sophisticated seaside town of Jaffa, where his father, Aziz, worked as a lawyer and his mother’s family owned a hotel. In 1948, the Shehadehs, fearing the violence that would follow the UN-mandated partition of Palestine, closed up their apartment and returned to Ramallah. They expected to be there for only a few weeks, but they wound up joining the 30,000 refugees who were stranded in the city in the wake of the 1948 war. Raja Shehadeh was born there in 1951. For decades, his family remained focused on the life they had left behind. At night, Shehadeh recalled in his 2002 memoir, Strangers in the House, “the glittering lights of Jaffa sparkled in the short but unreachable distance.”

After the 1967 war, Israel annexed the West Bank, and Palestinians were allowed to visit the towns they had fled 20 years before. In an act of great literary conjuring—and one of the most memorable passages in Strangers in the House—Shehadeh reconstructs his father’s return to Jaffa. In a car with an Israeli friend, Aziz traveled down to the coastal plain: “As it opened up my father felt his heart open with it.” Aziz recognized the turns in the road, the views, the eucalyptus trees planted by the British, the citrus orchards surrounding the city. But once in Jaffa, he discovered how much the city had changed. The courthouse had been demolished and the cinema closed; the Ottoman clock in the center of the square had stopped running. “His house, his office, his favourite haunts, the shop where he had sandwiches for lunch, the newspaper stand, the little public garden…were all lost to memory,” Shehadeh writes.

The landmarks that survived—the old barbershop and bakery that Aziz’s father had owned, his mother-in-law’s house, the church where he got married—made it all the worse: “Why had something of the living past remained? Would it not have been easier if it had all gone, better still all crumbled and buried in the ground? Why this half reality, neither fully there nor fully gone?” But what Aziz was most shaken by was a different discovery: When his Israeli friend pointed out the bustling city of Tel Aviv nearby, “my father must have realized that the glittering lights to which his eyes had been riveted for all these years were not the lights of Jaffa but those of Tel Aviv.” This realization led to another: Aziz was now determined to make a break with the past, to focus only on what could be accomplished in the present. He refused the “shadow life, a life of dreams and anticipation and memory,” led by many Palestinian refugees and exiles.

His father’s refusal to accept this shadow life became essential to Shehadeh’s own moral and political outlook. Unlike other boys who came of age after the 1967 war and became fedayeen, he never felt the appeal of armed resistance. After earning a law degree in the United Kingdom, Shehadeh returned to the West Bank in 1976—the first Western-educated lawyer to return to practice there, he says, since 1948. He would find his own ways to support the national cause, focusing doggedly on what could be accomplished in the present.

In 1977, Shehadeh accompanied his father to a hotel in Tel Aviv, where they watched Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s televised speech to the Knesset offering peace with Israel. At the hotel, he met a young Jewish Canadian immigrant to Israel named Henry Abramovitch; the long friendship between the two is at the heart of Where the Line Is Drawn.

Shehadeh felt an immediate rapport with Abramovitch, a jaunty free spirit with bright eyes and a huge, straggly beard. The two shared an interest in literature and self-analysis. They visited each other, explored the country together, and talked endlessly. Abramovitch was a pacifist, critical of Zionism and interested in the spiritual dimension of Judaism. He was adventurous and fearless, and he expected the best from people.

When they met, both men thought of themselves as “not political,” although this is one of the book’s central questions: Is it possible for an Israeli and a Palestinian to be friends, outside of—or despite—politics? Shehadeh’s answer to this is unsentimental: He is honest about the resentment that nearly undermines their relationship and the compromises that salvage it. When he first met Abramovitch, he was still attempting “to relate to Israel and Israelis as if there was no occupation.” He and Abramovitch believed that the conflict would eventually be resolved and that the Palestinians would emerge with a state of their own. In fact, Shehadeh was even intrigued by the “active, adventurous and confident” citizens of Israel, envious of how they were building a new national identity and of the personal freedom of young Israelis. But his and Abramovitch’s youthful optimism and eventual four-decade-long friendship would be severely tested by the unfairness and brutality of the occupation. It is very difficult to keep a relationship free from a politics that colonizes the space around and between you. It is nearly impossible not to pick a side, or have a side pick you.

In the early 1980s, the Israeli government drew up a master plan that called for settling 80,000 Jews in the hills of the West Bank by 1986. Palestinian towns were forbidden from expanding in any direction. “We are going to leave an entirely different map of the country that it will be impossible to ignore,” declared Ariel Sharon, then the Israeli defense minister.

A few years earlier, Shehadeh, along with a few other idealistic young lawyers, launched Al-Haq, a human-rights organization that offered legal aid to Palestinians to fight land expropriations. In Israeli military courts, he witnessed his clients being dispossessed through dubious legal stratagems and, when all else failed, by fiat.

The Israeli military authorities in control of the West Bank after 1967 eventually adopted the view that all nonregistered land there was public land. Homes that Palestinians didn’t reside in and land that they failed to cultivate were now deemed abandoned. Nearly all of this property reverted to the Israel Land Authority and could then be leased or sold—but only to Jews. Often, it was used for settlements.

Even land to which Palestinians had a valid legal claim could be taken away from them. The office of the Custodian of Absentees’ Property and the Israeli military courts transferred lands from supposedly “absentee” owners to future settlements even when Shehadeh and his colleagues were able to prove the claims of the Palestinians who owned them.

Despite such defeats, Al-Haq grew, offering legal aid to thousands of people and documenting human-rights violations across the occupied territories. Its lawyers also raised awareness of torture in Israeli prisons and defended clients in cases where the evidence itself was kept secret from them. Shehadeh is both proud of this work and rueful about his and his colleagues’ belief that by using the law, they could successfully challenge Israel’s illegal land-acquisition and settlement policies. “The building of settlements in the Occupied Territories was a state project,” he wrote in his 2007 book, Palestinian Walks. “The government knew the decision it wanted out of these land courts. Higher national objectives overrode legal niceties.”

Today, there are an estimated 380,000 settlers in the West Bank. The settlements are fortified gated communities, surrounded by walls and security cameras. They dominate the hilltops and are connected to Israel by a growing network of highways and bypass roads that are open only to Israelis. In his methodical way, Shehadeh hammers away at one overarching point: that the settlements are the source of the violence in Israel and Palestine, the key to understanding the conflict. “For an occupier to take through legal chicanery the lands of the occupied,” he writes, “and in stark violation of international law settle its own people in the midst of the towns and villages of the hostile occupied population can only lead to violence and bloodshed.”

For Shehadeh, the settlements are also why he himself can’t help being part of the hostile occupied population and seeing his Israeli friend Henry Abramovitch as one of the intended settlers. “As the settlements advanced and more land was taken using means we were helpless to stop through legal action, I became more certain that the policy of the Israeli government was to throw us out altogether,” Shehadeh writes. “All this was to make room for Jews from the West, like Henry.”

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, where the Palestine Liberation Organization was based. Shehadeh quotes from a letter that he wrote Abramovitch at the time: “Inasmuch as you have made your choice to come to Israel and settle, by your silence you are acquiescing and participating in its evil…. The absence of your voice against what is taking place in Lebanon with the Israeli army has cut me deeply.” Abramovitch responded by accepting his friend’s criticisms: “as Enoch the Jew, I do feel that I am murdering your people here daily with frightening efficiency, and will I, can I, live up to those expectations of which you write so beautifully? For I think you are right. I have failed you—my demonstrations, proclamations, against the occupation don’t help you or your people a damn.” He then ended the letter by inviting Shehadeh to his wedding; Shehadeh accepted.

The meetings between the two men became more sporadic after the first intifada broke out and the occupied territories were sealed off from Israel. Yet each time they saw each other, Shehadeh found his resentment melting away in the presence of his old friend: “I still cared for him, as one child cares for another, without thinking why.” But after their meetings, on the long and difficult trip back to his home, Shehadeh’s anger returned, and he found himself holding indignant imaginary arguments with Abramovitch. “What did he mean when he said I did not want to see him because I was too angry?” Shehadeh thought to himself. “It was his way of explaining it all away as a flaw of my character. He had failed to take into consideration what had caused every Palestinian to be justifiably angry.” Abramovitch was a conscientious objector and joined anti-occupation groups, but over time his protestations of solidarity left Shehadeh “cold.” The truth, he admitted, was that “I couldn’t forgive Henry for coming to Israel.”

Abramovitch was free to choose whether to live there or not and welcome to come and go as he pleased. Despite his criticism, his presence seemed like an endorsement of the country and its policies, and those policies were designed to drive Palestinians out. Most Palestinians, meanwhile, were faced with choices that didn’t deserve that name. Most did not have the freedom to go home or, if they were sick of the occupation, to leave it. Their main form of agency and heroism, Shehadeh argued, was a “determination to stay put,” or sumud—“steadfastness.”

To bear up and hold on to one’s dignity and balance is a daily struggle in the face of settler violence, army incursions, and the petty and exhausting harassment and humiliation. This is a heroism that often goes unrecognized. When Shehadeh visits an Israeli artist living in an old Arab house in Jaffa, the artist asks him: “What is this holding onto the past? It’s despicable. Why don’t you get on with your life? It’s pathetic. Look at us, how well we’ve managed.” Shehadeh doesn’t argue back, only noting later that “I was shocked to hear what she had to say and how she failed to appreciate that for us Palestinians it was not only a question of material losses, but the denial of our very existence as a nation.”

Shehadeh’s tone is, as usual, remarkably measured here. Indeed, throughout his many books, he exercises just such a painful mastery and control. Elsewhere in Where the Line Is Drawn, he describes his fear of confrontation with the Israeli authorities, saying that he is less afraid of what they will do to him than of losing his self-control.

In Strangers in the House, Shehadeh describes himself as a “weak and vulnerable” child, often ill and shut up in his home. Yet he can also be strong-willed, turning his frailty into a weapon of sorts. His writing is sharpened and powered by what it leaves unsaid. It is also stretched taut by a movement in two opposing directions: the desire to cling to Palestine, to dig in and not budge an inch, and the desire to escape. Shehadeh can find life in the West Bank stifling; his lifelong habit of walking is a means to be alone, to roam physically and mentally. More than once, he describes his elation at traveling abroad, arriving in a vibrant foreign country, escaping the pressures of a conservative and intrusive Palestinian family and society, and especially the burden of being his father’s son.

To his sensitive offspring, Aziz Shehadeh has always loomed larger than life. He was freethinking and decisive, capable of starting from scratch after enormous personal setbacks, and willing to challenge political orthodoxy and the authorities. He was also distant and critical, “an enigma” that his son spent his life trying to impress, to emulate, and to rebel against.

From his father, Shehadeh also inherited a sense of himself as an outsider. Bright and awkward, the young man often felt estranged from his classmates—he writes, touchingly, that “I wanted so much to belong but interpreted my failure to do so to be evidence of my uniqueness and superiority.” Members of an Anglican minority within the Palestinian Christian minority, the Shehadehs were skeptical of Arab leaders who inveighed against Israel but offered little real assistance to the Palestinians when war broke out in 1948 and again in 1967. They also took a dim view of the local political leadership. “The prevailing local Palestinian politics were of the crudest kind,” Shehadeh writes in his memoir. “In essence they involved control—at any cost.”

After 1967, Aziz Shehadeh was one of the first and only Palestinians to call for recognition of Israel and the immediate implementation of a two-state solution. The day after the war ended, he drafted a memo listing 40 prominent Palestinians and outlining a provisional Palestinian government that would sign a peace treaty with Israel. The Israeli authorities never responded. Meanwhile, on “The Voice of the Lightning Bolt,” a Damascus radio station broadcasting communiqués in support of Palestinian revolutionary groups, Shehadeh’s father was denounced as “a traitor, a despicable collaborator. You want to surrender and sell our birthright. We know how to deal with the likes of you.” But Aziz wasn’t intimidated, and he never stopped insisting that only a negotiated settlement would provide the Palestinians with a homeland—and that 1967 had been a missed opportunity for brokering such a deal.

In 1985, an unknown assailant slit Aziz Shehadeh’s throat as he parked his car in front of the family home. The Shehadehs offered a $10,000 reward for information, hired a private investigator, and held press conferences, but the murder was never solved. The family came to believe that Israeli investigators weren’t pursuing all the available leads, probably because the murderer was an Israeli informant. For Shehadeh, the world was emptied and flattened by his father’s death: “he was the fire, the energy, the anger, the conflict, the explosion, the troublemaker, the instigator, the energizer. It would all be meaningless without him.”

Yet Shehadeh still cared enough to be devastated, a few years later, by the Oslo Accords. He held the unpopular view that Oslo was a fool’s bargain, “a mere repackaging of the occupation,” because it did not require an end to settlement construction. Political expediency and arrogance, he believed, had led Yasir Arafat and the PLO leadership, which was eager to return from exile and govern, to dismiss the warnings and experiences of Palestinians like himself, who had lived under the occupation.

Coupled with his father’s death, the accords turned out to be the low point in Shehadeh’s life. “Oslo buried my truth,” he writes in Palestinian Walks. Labeled a “rejectionist,” he watched impotently as settlement construction accelerated after the accords and the second intifada inevitably broke out. Just as his father had in 1967, Shehadeh found himself lamenting a missed opportunity for the Palestinian cause.

After this double loss, Shehadeh dedicated himself to writing. It became his refuge, a way to manage his despair and reckon with the dead end that his life’s work seemed to have reached. If it was hopeless to fight the settlements through legal activism, at least he could ensure that the relentless theft of Palestinian land under the occupation wasn’t camouflaged by untruths. Since 2002, Shehadeh has published seven works of memoir and journalism.

These books not only document the spoliations and violence of the occupation; they chart its insidious nature. In Palestinian Walks (subtitled Forays Into a Vanishing Landscape), Shehadeh recounts a late-afternoon hike to the small village of A’yn Qenya. On his walk, he observes the terraced hills and orchards, the deserted stone houses and enormous oaks and pines; suddenly, he decides to race the setting sun to the top of a hill. “I got there just in time,” he writes. “The air was dry and fresh. Lower hills spread below me like a crumpled sheet of blue velvet with the hamlets huddled in its folds. There was Janiya, Deir Ammar and on the highest hill the attractive village of Ras Karkar, all spread below me…. I tried to hold my breath until the last sliver of the orange sun disappeared and all that was left was the pink light reflected by the clouds that scattered in the big sky all around me. At this moment the wind began to pick up as it always does after the sun has set.” This was the last time that he would take in this view. “Shortly afterward the Israeli authorities expropriated the land and used it to build the settlement of Dolev.”

The book contains many such vivid accounts of the landscape that Shehadeh has traversed, admired, and gradually lost over the course of four decades. His descriptions, as detailed as photographs, lay claim to the terrain he knows so well, even as it becomes the land of others. When he returns to a hilltop near A’yn Qenya in Where the Line Is Drawn, he discovers that the hill is now covered in the remnants of an illegal outpost, Yad Yair, that had been dismantled because the army would not protect it. Reaching down to pick up an abandoned sign, Shehadeh has a panic attack. Shaking and trying to breathe, he is overcome with a feeling of defeat: “I realized that I could no longer walk on this land without feeling that I was crossing into forbidden territory.”

Writing has allowed Shehadeh to continue crossing into these territories, even as they become increasingly off-limits to him. His books are maps, painstakingly pieced together, of regions lost to senseless division, to bad choices, and to lies. The process of assembling them lets him know where he stands. It also allows him to continue to practice sumud. Through them, he can fill in the gaps in his own family history and make whole the open landscapes of his youth. He can revisit friendships damaged by the occupation and affirm the connection and proximity between Palestinians and Israelis—as well as the need to approach one another again with curiosity, patience, and honesty.

His honesty toward himself is also unflinching. Shehadeh is 66 now, and in Where the Line Is Drawn he is primarily taking stock of his losses. Looking at himself in the mirror, he sees the impish face of a “rebel son” replaced by that of an older man, lined by tension and disappointment. Most of us worry in middle age that we have wasted our efforts, that our life’s work hasn’t amounted to enough. But Shehadeh’s loss is particular and staggering. “I am doomed to feeling the need to justify my existence through writing and speaking,” he admits, “while assuming the burden of and responsibility for the failure of all I see around me as if it were my own.”

When it comes to his friend Henry, Shehadeh is much more generous than he is to himself. The two eventually reconnect, and find a new forbearance born not of any improvement in the political situation, but of the passage of time and an awareness of their own mortality. Shehadeh doesn’t want to add their friendship to everything he’s already lost. “Henry and I will continue to disagree,” he writes. “I know there will be more times when I feel disappointed with him and he with me, and perhaps there will be some anger. I was tempted to ask him when we last met, ‘Now that you have seen what Israel has become, do you ever regret coming to live here?’ But this would have been the wrong question to ask…. [H]ow could someone who has built his entire life here feel that it was all a mistake?… We cannot unpick our life or the history of our nation.” After all, he adds, if Henry Abramovitch hadn’t come to live in Israel, the two would never have met.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It takes a dedicated team to publish timely, deeply researched pieces like this one. For over 150 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and democracy. Today, in a time of media austerity, articles like the one you just read are vital ways to speak truth to power and cover issues that are often overlooked by the mainstream media.

This month, we are calling on those who value us to support our Spring Fundraising Campaign and make the work we do possible. The Nation is not beholden to advertisers or corporate owners—we answer only to you, our readers.

Can you help us reach our $20,000 goal this month? Donate today to ensure we can continue to publish journalism on the most important issues of the day, from climate change and abortion access to the Supreme Court and the peace movement. The Nation can help you make sense of this moment, and much more.

Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy