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Raja Shehadeh on Israel's memory and the Nakba


It is over 50 years since Israel occupied the West Bank and began seizing Palestinian land and building Israeli settlements, illegal under international law. Peace and justice in the region seem further away than ever. The question arises, how is it possible to live under occupation and maintain hope? For Palestinian writer, lawyer and human rights activist Raja Shehadeh, the answer is a tenacious refusal to be denied the joys of life and also in ‘exposing the ills inflicted on my own society. Not in the distant yonder but in the dirt, pain and suffering of the here and now’.

Shehadeh’s family were driven out of Jaffa following Israel’s founding in 1948, and he currently lives in the West Bank. In 1979 he co-founded the respected human rights organization al-Haq, and in 1991 he was adviser to the PLO delegation at the Madrid peace negotiations. His books include Strangers in the House, an account of his childhood, and Palestinian Walks, winner of the 2008 Orwell Prize. In his most recent work, Going Home, he cites as an inspiration Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a film imbued with memories and loss.

From his home in Ramallah he gave me his response to the idea that remembering is the duty of those oppressed while forgetting is the luxury of the oppressor. ‘So true in the case of the Palestinians. We carry the memory of the Nakba [catastrophe] year after year like a duty and a burden because forgetting would be like abandonment of a right we’re still struggling to realize. In contrast most Israelis have the luxury of not only forgetting about the Nakba but that it happened at all.’

Throughout his writing, Raja has returned to the concept of sumoud or steadfastness as a tool of resistance. He told me how this expresses itself on a day-to-day basis. ‘For a long time it has been Israel’s objective to drive the Palestinians out of their land and take it over. Building homes, establishing new businesses, and making life more tolerable for the Palestinians is a way of opposing [this]... Every person who returns after a period of study abroad to establish himself/herself here feels like a victory for sumoud.’

Under conditions of oppression, the simplest act speaks of resistance. Walking in his landscape, bearing witness to his community, is an ongoing dialogue for Shehadeh. He told me that he agrees with Rebecca Solnit’s idea that ‘the history of walking is a history of freedom and of the definition of pleasure’. He writes evocatively about the tended spaces encountered on his walks around Ramallah. You can, he says, always tell when a garden is the product of a hired gardener or the loving hands of the owner. Ramallah, once surrounded by vegetation, is now hemmed in by Israeli settlements and for Shehadeh the cultivation of green spaces is an important component of sumoud: ‘The openness and access to the surrounding countryside have been severely compromised by the presence of the settlements. This has also diminished the knowledge of and attachment to the land which adversely affects sumoud. Those of my generation would miss the land more than anything else when we leave here even on short vacations.’

I strongly believe that the Middle East should not be fragmented and is bound to be united.

In Occupation Diaries, published in 2012, Shehadeh wrote that ‘the veneer of civilization and decency in Israel is getting thinner’. I asked him if he saw this process as irreversible, with Netanyahu, emboldened by Trump, brazenly disregarding international law. His reply encompasses both legal and moral dimensions: ‘Unless Israel’s flouting of international law is checked, getting away with the illegal annexation and gross violations this country is committing will seriously contribute to the demise of this body of law to the detriment of all. Israel is doing its best to ensure that this process of illegal annexation is seen as irreversible but this then is part of the psychological warfare it is waging: why continue the struggling, if all is lost and the process is irreversible. We cannot afford to succumb to this.’

Raja’s tone has, understandably, become increasingly melancholic with the passing years but never bitter or defeated. He has written of his belief that a just settlement in Palestine could eventually lead to a regional confederation of states. I asked if this remained his hope for the future: ‘With age one begins to see things in perspective and take the longer-term view. We must not stop insisting on ending the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state even if as a transitory measure for a future regional confederation. I strongly believe that the Middle East should not be fragmented and is bound to be united. You could call it geographical determinism. We, in this region, continue to suffer from the effects of the colonial meddling in our region that has lasted for a very long time. But there are fundamental changes that are coming. Perhaps a time will come when the only option will be co-operate or perish.’

Going Home: a walk through fifty years of occupation by Raja Shehadeh has just been published by Profile Books.

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