It’s about telling it forward

Raja Shehadeh, interview

Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer and a writer


Writing brings him freedom. He does not need imagination for that. In his works reality is turned into literature. 


Ramallah, November 2010


Places are of pivotal importance in your works. Can you explain where we are?


We are in Ramallah. In the northern part of the city, overlooking the costal area further North. From our roof at night you can see the lights of the coast, although less now because buildings are so numerous. But you can also see the settlements, which have been on the rise in the north of Ramallah. We are in the second highest part of Ramallah.


Was it a strategic decision to live here?


The house I was born in is not far from here, simply because Ramallah is a very small city. But that house also overlooked the hills and had the same view. We later moved out of that old house to the centre of the town. When I first moved to my own apartment, I lived in a very small house on the same street and we stayed on that street also after we got married, just further down. It was an apartment building while I like to live on the ground floor and have a garden. Also the settlers from Dolev used to pass through our street to go to the other settlement, Beit El. Once they shot at our house. My wife, Penny, was on the window and the bullet barely missed her. It was the time of the Oslo accords and I knew there was going to be chaos. I was not very hopeful. Unlike most people, I was not hopeful at all. I have been following the legal situation for a long time and knew how to read the Accords and how to put them in the context of the past.  I knew it was not going to work and that there will be a lot of chaos and disruption. I thought to myself if I am going to have chaos outside the house and in the house, it will be too much. Also the apartment was beginning to be problematic and noisy. I had never thought of building a house because my parents lost their house in Jaffa. I did not want to get attached to a land and a house like they did. But I knew that I better find myself a quiet place to where I can at least escape. We owned a land opposite to where I was born. We started to make initial plans to build there but then I thought to myself: “When I am an old man, I will look back and say: ‘I was born across the street and all I did in my life was to move across the street.’ That will be too much!”

This was one consideration. The more important one was that my brother wisely said, that the land we had was too close to the center of the town, that the city will spread and the neighborhood will become very noisy. He knew I do not like noise so he said I better found something further out. So we found this plot. We were very fortunate. It is a dead end road and so it is a quiet place. I am very sensitive to noise. I can not stand noise. We have quiet neighbors, it is clean, a very good place. It has served us well ever since we moved here in 1997. We had a few years of quiet before the 2002 invasion (of the Israeli army) came. At that time we were really stuck in the house. To be in a house you are comfortable in, that you like and where you have a garden is not too bad.


This is where you write?


Yes, I write here. But when you’re a writer, you write all the time. I always take notes. Yesterday and the day before we were out walking and I took so many notes. It was almost as if I was writing as I was walking. When we travel I take lots of notes. If trip takes longer, I also write. But most of my writing is done here. Here is where the notes are turned into the text.


So something we do not learn in your books is that you always carry a notepad and a pen with you?




Do you start your walks from here?


I used to. Also all other houses I lived in were starting points. The first house after I left my parents’ house was in the northwestern valley and we literally left the house and walked down to the valley. I describe that walk in my book Palestinian walks. The second house was overlooking the eastern valley and again, we just stepped out to start the walk. From this house it is not so easy. When we came there were not many buildings around and it was easier to reach the valley and just go out on walks. It was a starting point. Now it has become more complicated. You can not take the solitary walks easily anymore. You have to go with a group and then somehow walk together. For many of these walks we need to take a car and drive to the start, which is not my favorite way.


But you always write in English?




How come?


Arabic is my first language, no question. But I went to a school where we studied English as a second language from early on and I liked the language. I was encouraged to experiment with the language more at English than at Arabic and that was what I enjoyed. When I tried to experiment in Arabic teachers were very strict and said: “No, that is not Arabic.”

My handwriting has always been very bad and early I learned to type. I always typed in English, my exams were in English and many subjects we took later at the university were in English. The typing stayed with me and after 1967 war I began to keep a journal. There was never a question in my mind in which language to write it. It has always been English. As a lawyer my work has been in Arabic and English, but my writing is almost entirely in English. I really like it. It is a language that agrees with my temperament. I like the understatements, the structure of the sentences, their smallness. I feel for the language. Arabic is a very beautiful language and you can do all kinds of things with it but I never had the interest to develop my ideas in Arabic. With Arabic there is also the problem that some very good authors manage somehow to overcome but I think always partially. The gap between the classic language and the spoken language. This problem does not exist with English. When you write a dialogue in Arabic you always write as if you are writing in a foreign language because you cannot replicate the words. If you did it, it would be difficult to understand, since every region has a dialect. There is this problem of artificiality as I feel it. But I can not say anything about the language. It is an excellent language. It has a great vocabulary. The problem is with me.


But your works are translated into Arabic?


Most of them. I have many books also on the law, which have been translated into Arabic. I used to write lots of books on the law. When I was with Al Haq we wrote a lot. The last book I wrote on the law, I have been writing articles and chapters of the books since, was in the 1997 on the legal interpretations of the Oslo accords and putting it in the context in the legal structure and background. This was also written in English, From Occupation to Intern Accords.


Is language connected also to people you write for?


No. In most cases you write for yourself to begin with, then it becomes for others. And my books have been translated into many languages so it is not a problem. But, no, I am not writing for a Western audience, I try to write, especially the latest books, to get things off my chest in order  to be able to write other books. If you have just finished one book you put off  what you had been carrying  as a burden. And you do it in order to move on.


How do you then relate to writing? You said from the beginning on that it is something you want to do together with law practice.


I studied English literature before I went to study law and I was always very interested in literature. My family has writers. My paternal grandfather was a poet and a journalist and the editor of one of the major weeklies at the time. Also my maternal grandfather had a PhD in psychology and published some good writings. But when I started with literature I was very influenced by James Joyce. He might not be the best model going later on into great complex styles but I was interested in his ideal of how to make art out of the stuff of life. It is not about fantasizing and separating art from life. When I was young I used to write a lot of poetry and it got to the point when everything became poetic. I would hear people speak and thought to myself, this can be turned into poetry. I had written prose poetry that had made music out of ordinary things. And I like this very much. The diary has been in a way a record of how I have kept up with life, the developments in my mind and in my consciousness, making of  small things  bigger ideas. The first book I published called The Third Way was my first attempt at this. It was subtitled A journal of life in the West Bank. It consisted purely of journal entries. Starting with simple stories, statements and observations I tried to come to a larger message. That for me was the ideal.

At the same time I was very passionately involved with human rights. I did not want to stop being an activist in human rights and just write. I thought I should be fully involved in life and write. So for quite a number of years I was a lawyer, a human rights activist and a writer. Being a human rights activist in my case meant running a big organization with its own administration. It was heavy going. I was writing all the time. I produced several books, short stories and articles but never had the time to do it really well. After Oslo and with Al Haq becoming an established organization, I felt the organization can stand on its own and I can leave. I wanted to dedicate more time to writing. Today I realize it was the right decision. Anybody can write in his or her free time, on the side but to write in a way that would satisfy me, I needed more time. I started giving myself this time. In that time I wrote From Occupation to Intern Accords, but that was not a literary work and I wrote it rather quickly. The first literary book that was a product of more dedicated time, although the office was very active at the time, was Strangers In The House. It took time. To see how to write it … I had so many drafts, so many. It was very difficult. Emotionally as well as stylistically. To find my own way. There were so many possibilities how to do it and I tried many. Of course you also have to read a lot as a writer. You cannot not read. So the experience of writing that book … it was also the first really commercially published. The Third way and The Sealed Room were published in a way that did not really do them justice. But Strangers In The House was my first properly published book. I went through the experience of really working hard to get it to the high standard. At a certain point you feel you can’t look at it again, you can’t take it any more because it is one draft and then the next and the next … and then the editor’s comments, and the copyeditor’s … it is like learning a new language where you come to a point when you can either stick with the project and take a grip of the language or give it up and forget everything. I stuck with it and knew it was what I have wanted – I’ve wanted to write a good book. One of the proofs of a good book for the author is that once you finish it, it is over. You do not think, oh, I should have done that and that. You do not go back to it. It is finished. You move on. And I did move on. Before I felt I had to write it. It was compulsion for me to write it. I believed that once I write it, I would be free to write other books. And it turned out to be true.


It is interesting that while all your books are personal, Strangers In The House is the most intimate, it touches your family, your life in very intimate moments. Did you stop and think how much to open the doors to the reader into this personal sphere?


I do not think of this while I am working on the first draft because for me it is still like writing a diary. I do not censor myself writing a diary and I do not censor myself when I write the draft. You have to put everything down. Most of the books I have written were reduced to maybe one tenth of the size of the first draft. I write so much more and I know it is not the final version. There will be numerous self-editing phases and editing. Only later do I think what should be in the book. What is always present, though, is a question what am I writing about? What am I really saying? That is often a question I start with. I am groping in the dark not sure where I am going and then in the process of writing slowly, it becomes clearer.


Today you only write?


No, I still have my law office and work as a lawyer.


How do you distribute your time?


I do not have a strict schedule. I do a lot of work from home. I do not go regularly to the office. My time today is divided unevenly. I spend it more on my writings than on the law. And in these days writing entails also a lot of traveling, to go to the festivals, to the lecture tours. This takes time.


In your latest book, A Rift In Time you write how archives, libraries of Palestinians were in 1948 burned, many transferred to Jewish archives. You feared that you will have to go look into Israeli libraries to search for some of the documents. Do you feel that with your writing you are again putting the history of Palestinian people in the hands of Palestinian people?


One outcome might be this. But there has been so much written and is being written about various historical aspects, biographies, on certain periods, more archives are being opened every day. I do not consider myself in the least a scholar. I do not do proper research. I let myself go and it is always very fortunate, surprising even how I come across interesting stories. If you are a good listener you can hear a lot. People tell you things. And if you are in a process of thinking of something or working on it then you are more receptive. You are like a sponge. That is how I go about it. I never interview. Of all the people whose voices appear in the book, I have never interviewed any of them except for the old man. And he screamed at me and told me that I am a terrible interviewer. I did not seek these people. They came my way. I took what they gave me. This last book is not a biography of Najib Nassar. More than anything else it is a story about the land. When people are in a crisis they cannot see very well out of the crisis. I think we are in one of the very low points in our history when our life, if looked at objectively, is very strange and peculiar. There are walls, there are checkpoints, there are obstacles and borders. Slowly with time we have come to accept them as true and real and everlasting. I think the writer’s role is to inspire people to look beyond these realities. To see the land. To re-imagine it. This is what I try to do with this book. It is what has happened to me in the process of walking and writing this book. I try to convey this experience. When I had left the Central Hills in Jerusalem and gone down, towards Jericho, to the beginning of the Rift Valley, I had crossed a number of checkpoints and there were still numerous ones to cross and further on there was the river Jordan which has  itself become a border. All so confining. But then I looked and saw. I saw the Rift Valley and it was a revelation. I saw the land for what it is – one big Rift Valley that extends without any borders. All the borders are artificial and new. Through the story of Najib and his escapades in these lands I show the alternative and how things were, not too long ago, less than hundred years ago. He crossed the river Jordan on horseback without any notion that he might be crossing any kind of a border. Today we stand at the Allenby bridge to cross to Jordan. There are so many humiliations, delays, problems, questions … some people can never cross at all. By juxtaposing these two trips, mine and his about a hundred years ago, I try to evoke the changes and show how ludicrous the situation today is. I am not trying to expound or lay out a political program.




No. What I am saying is that if people are inspired to see what now seems impossible they will have something to work towards. They will be inspired to get out of their present situation. It is not feasible or endurable. Eventually the land will reclaim its own and become reunited. It is what we should all inspire for because our lives would be so much better. Whether for Israeli Jews, Arabs, Lebanese, Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians… Just imagine. By showing how difficult it was for me to imagine it, how I have internalized today’s geography… It was at  Lake Quaroon  in Lebanon, looking towards the Golan Heights that I realized I could not imagine that all that land in front of me used to be one … that I could have crossed it in a matter of an hour. I have completely internalized our distorted geography. By revealing and engaging the reader into these two geographies, external and internal, past and present, real and physical, I want to help the reader break away or break out of the oppression we live in. Ultimately, borders become borders, if we accept and internalize them. True, you can stop me and prevent me from moving but I can still look and see things for what they are and realize that I am a free man. It is like freedom. If you compromise your freedom and accept bondage, you compromise your humanity. However, human beings ultimately do not do that. We (re)assert our freedom. It is what this book is in a way, an assertion of my freedom. I only hope that it can help readers assert  their freedom in the course of reading it.


Because they adjust?


Of course. We all adjust. Human beings,  are very adaptable. But we have to be shaken out of our adaptations. Hopefully this book can do a little bit of shaking.


You write of this in the end of the book but the book also starts with a quote from Brian Eno that by imagining what is possible in art becomes thinkable in life. But is it also possible? Is what you propose realizable?


We live at a time when governments and population and businesses conspire to make us believe that we are disempowered. That we do not have a way of  changing anything. We are made to believe that we do not have the power, that all is in the hands of the governments, the superstructures, the global organizations… It is not really true. Now it is important to believe that we have the power. Ultimately it is like in South Africa. The Apartheid to a large degree fell because of the work done by the people all over the world. Governments were the last to come through. Likewise in our case. The governments are not going to bring the change because they are conservative and are not going to lead the way out. People can. However, they have to believe in their power. I believe we have the power. The problem is that it is difficult to reclaim our power unless we have the imagination. If all we want is to have a quiet, interim period imagining this is not very exciting. We need to excite ourselves with something that now seems impossible.


The moment you mentioned before, when you look towards and across The Golan Heights you write that you realize how you remain trapped. It is not just divided territory that is your trap, is it?


No. In the course of the book I struggle against this entrapment. I am one of the people and we all remain trapped by these forces and the situation. We are today habituated to it. I remember, because I am old enough, how 20 years ago there were no borders between West Bank and Gaza and Israel. We did not think there would ever be borders again. But they were reinstalled and not only with Israel but borders between various parts of the West Bank and we got more and more trapped. It is a constant struggle just to feel that this is our place. It is a struggle when I go to Jaffa to realize that my parents lived there. There is so much to work against all the time. It is like a psychological war. A constant struggle. I struggle against the entrapment. In a sense in the course of the book I do just that. At the same time this struggle is also very real because it is very difficult to get to Lebanon or to the Galilee. But you do it. You work against the entrapment.


Do people here still work against it?

It is easier not to. Much easier. It is very unfortunate but there are people who have stopped wanting to leave the town. Some have not left Ramallah for years and years. They do not want to confront the checkpoints, the soldiers. Some people keep having their world shrunking until they stop to even leave their houses. If you started asking around you would find many people like that. It is safer to stay in the house. And the world becomes ever more confined and small.


Do you believe this book has the potential do pull them out?


Every time I write a book I have great hopes. In the past I believed one book could make all the difference. Now, I have realized no one single book will make all the difference but it is always surprising and pleasing to hear from people who have for example read Palestinian Walks and say: “Ah, now we finally understand the situation.” Or people who are walkers and responded to the book because they do hikes in the hills themselves or people who say how they have never realized how beautiful are the lands I describe. Unlike other forms of art or literary works a book is something you write and then it is no longer in your hands. There is a relationship between the reader and the book and sometimes some readers write a letter and tell what the book meant to them but most times I never learn. A few times when I do hear from the readers I get encouraged. You can never know how the book will strike the people and what its fate will be. I had never thought  Palestinian Walks would end up doing  so well. I have always wanted to write the book about the walks and the land but never thought it possible. Yet, it has done so well, beyond any expectations. People who have read A Rift in Time have responded very well to it but I do not know if it can live up to the very ambitious aims I have for it. I want it to make people aspire for a new life, a new region, a new Middle East. The least I hope for it is that people will enjoy reading it. Maybe feel some relief, even if only temporarily.


In A Rift In Time just as in The Palestinian Walks you fight the ideas foreigners have and project onto this land.  Land of wars, blood, a barren, unfriendly land. What do you see out there?


I am very fond of this land. For me this is the paradise on the Earth. There is a beauty that is very varied. It has everything one can hope for. If peace came, it would be literally a paradise. I am very attached to this land. I like the dessert, I like the Jordan Valley, the hills… I am less attached to the sea. I am not a sea person. I stand by the sea and feel it is nice for a change, but there is no attachment. I wonder if my parents had never been forced to leave Jaffa, how I would have felt about the sea … probably differently. Since I have grown up here in the hills I do not like the humidity. I like to live in these hills in the quiet. I do not like the bustle of the city. I am very fond of this land. It has been a place that has had so many conquerors, so many cultures and so many ruins can be found here. This attempt to force onto it that it is a Jewish only land or only a Palestinian land is wrong. The beauty of this land has been in its being a place of the mixture of cultures, of the hybridity. This matters. Its religious aspects have been the curse for this land. The attempt at biblical geography, finding where Jesus was or where Moses was, has had a terrible effect on the land and on the people as well. In my last book I quote an apostle who said that god is everywhere. If one believes in god, I believe one should believe that god is everywhere. Not necessarily located here.


Can you tell about the almonds?


I have always wanted to live on the ground floor to have a garden and have been interested in agriculture. I have had almond trees therefore, I know that they do not grow on their own. We are talking about the experience of the walk in the Galilee … a beautiful area where there used to be a Palestinian village overlooking the huge vistas … Standing there I was able to see only the ruins of the village. Yet, I have gone there following Najib’s route and it was clear that he started from Haifa towards Nazareth. Then he continued to the Galilee and stopped in the villages and in Bedouin encampments. I had a map with these places and I wanted to follow his footsteps. I looked down from where the village used to sit and all I could see were the green hill-slopes all the way down to the valley. They were covered with clover or wheat. Everything was cultivated and there was not a single remnant of any village-life. Before I started to work on this book I have traveled to the Galilee many times and accepted the land as it has become. I try to challenge this in the book and help people see with new eyes. Before I had looked with today’s eyes, a very different look from how my father would have looked at the place because he would have remembered it as a place full of villages and life. So it was a rather disappointing sight. I could not figure out where the villages in which Najib took refuge were. So we walked. There was a paved road from the Mandate time or maybe even from the Ottoman times, which was in a total disrepair because it has not been used for decades. Next to it was a dirt road for the tractors that work the land. I thought maybe I can at least see some stones, cactuses … It is the cactuses that are famous because people used them as fences. Often where you see cactuses it is a sign that a Palestinian village lay there. But there were no cactuses, nothing. It was on the way back that I saw a single tree. I wondered what it was. I suspected it could be an almond tree but I was not sure. I was curious and left the dirt road. Having walked to the tree, I examined its leaves and flowers and it was an almond tree. Standing there I thought to myself that an almond tree must had been cultivated. Who would cultivate an almond tree in the midst of a field? And then came the realization. This must have been where one of the Palestinian villages used to stand. As I looked around again there were indeed stones that might have been building blocks used in the village. So I experienced how once you look with new eyes, you see things that have completely escaped you before. I looked at the old map and compared where I was standing, trying to give the village a name. As I gazed down the valley, having realized the meaning the almond trees might carry, I suddenly noticed other almond trees that had completely escaped me before. I had simply not looked with eyes to see them. Seeing the almond trees, the locations of other villages came into view. The place was being transformed in front of my eyes. I compared my old map, the locations of almond trees, the pictures and photographs I had seen, the descriptions I had read by Najib and tried to recreate it in my mind. Suddenly there was life in a place that just few moments before seemed barren of any possibility of a human habitation, just a long field of green. It is a process of looking and a way of re-imagining the land. Being in the present yet seeing the past. Being in two levels, in two stratas of time.


You mention present and past. But how to make the connection to the future without falling into the trap of nostalgia? Can we rely so much on the past, since present is so different?


Many people are stuck in the past. Many still live in their minds with the old Jaffa and the old Palestine. They are stuck and that is a problem. But the only way to liberate ourselves from the past is not to deny it. Israel denied the past for a very long time. It denied the ethnic cleansing during the Nakba, how they forced people out of their villages, how they killed, how they blew up and ruined the houses. This made people insecure therefore, they held onto the past even more. Books like this one help people revisit the past and maybe break away from it and look for the future. The past is not going to return the way it was. There is no point in going back to square one. Yet we can not go on into the future unless we recognize and acknowledge and come to terms with the past. By we, I mean we the Palestinians and they the Israelis, both of us. That is important.


You said they have for a very long time denied what they did in 1948. When have they admitted it? Have they?


Today there are so many more books. There are numerous writings translated into Hebrew but also by the Israelis that speak about the Nakba and how people were forced out of their homes. I have no scientific proof but I believe that most Israelis today recognize that during the war in 1948 they forced the Palestinians out of their homes and feel guilt. But at the same time they say it is something that happens in wars. They have not come to terms with the consequences of it, though. They have to pay for what they have done. They have to acknowledge it and make recompense. I would be surprised, if the majority of the Israelis today still deny that they forced out the Palestinians.


But is it not that they are still doing it and not admitting it?


Yes. They have never made the fundamental change. They have never revisited their original ideas. They still think and their declaration of independence and their ‘law of return’ are still based on the idea and talk about the ingathering of the exiles. Both are problematic and questionable. The exiles and the ingathering. Yet the idea that all Jews should eventually come here is still actively pursued although it is a rather ridiculous idea. The major complication has been the revival of the religious. I have seen it. Zionism, the strongest Zionists were secular. Even Jerusalem was not that important for them. But in the course of the last few decades, certainly since the occupation in 1967 there has been a tremendous confirmation of the Biblical ties and attachments. With many Israelis you can not argue about  international law. They say that none of it matters because everything is written in the Bible. If somebody says that, how do you respond? You cannot argue with that. That is a very big problem.


In your book you very nicely show how religion used to be seen in much more pragmatic terms. Najib changed from Protestant to Orthodox so he could remarry, and he married a Baha’i woman. How did this religious speak become so powerful?


I do not fully understand it. What puzzles me most is that to any explanation you find for what is happening here someone says: “But you know, the same is happening in Indonesia.” Or somewhere else. This greater and greater emphasis on religion, on fundamentalism, on Islamism … it is a general trend. The American Christian Zionists, the American Christian Evangelists, who have come to the nearby illegal settlement of Dolev to pick olives and grapes in the vineyards, because they believed it was god’s will. Imagine, on  confiscated land! And they were not rich people. They paid out of their own pockets to come here because they really believed this was god’s will. There are crazy things happening. I do not understand them. In a way perhaps, in the case of Israel this is a natural development. The Israeli education system is a major factor in the increased fanaticism of Israeli society. It is the schooling that has given rise to a generation, who are told distorted views of the history and they do not know any better. In the early eighties an establishment Israeli, a friend of my father, was going to the Israeli schools and did research on the education system. He warned my father: “You must realize that in a number of years there will be much more fanaticism and you will have a much harder life as a Palestinian in this land.” He was right. More than one generation by now have been raised on the ideas of Judea and Samaria as ‘our land, the land of the Bible, the land of the Israelis, the Jewish tribes’. They know the Biblical names of the places and they feel the attachment. They are taken on walks and have it explained that this is where this and that walked and this incident from the Bible happened here. They are raised with these ideas and with the notion that the Palestinians came because Zionism made it financially better to live here, that the land was empty and Arabs came from the countries around because the Zionists have revived the economy. Many believe it. Education has played a very negative role in this regard. Of course they complain that Arab and Palestinian parents teach their children anti-Semitism. Yet, their own education is just as, if not more dangerous.


Can a legal language here do anything?


I worked on a number of land cases and tried every possible way to find legal arguments. In the end even if you have the will you cannot defeat them because you have the means to interpret and change the law. This is what they have been ultimately doing. As long as they believe that if the land is public its beneficiary should be the Jewish public you have nowhere to go. But this is entirely contrary to the international law.


Can you explain how this taking of the land took place – you saw it coming already in the early 1980s?


From the very early days of the occupation the Israelis went to the land registries, took the registers and began to analyze them. They stopped the land registration that started under the British Mandate and continued under the Jordan rule. About a third of the land was properly registered. The rest was registered in other ways, but not in a final way. The settlement process began quite early on. However, they did not know how to go about taking the land and organizing the settlements internally and in relationship to Israel. It took a number of years for the strategy to fully develop. They started by confiscating the land. Soon they realized that by this they imply that the land was not theirs but someone else’s. In the first legal challenge to the confiscations, in the case of Beit El settlement near here, the court said that occupation cannot be long-term while confiscation is long-term. Therefore, they said, you can take  the land only if it is a public land. So they started making surveys. Because the process of land registration had not been completed they began to declare large areas from the two third of the unregistered areas as public lands. This shifted the burden of proof. If you claimed that the land was not public but private you now had to prove it. With a felt-pen they delineated large areas and said, this is public land. They published it and said, whoever has an objection can submit it to the objection committee. At first we objected. But then they realized that there were too many objections. So they made the process more difficult and more expensive. To accept an objection they demanded that  it must have appended to it a survey map of the area. If you were defending an order against  3000 dunums of land that  you claimed are  private ownership you had to put a lot of money into creating a survey map. Some people could afford it others could not. Then there were lawyer fees and court fees. It was ever more difficult. And the possibility of winning grew smaller and smaller because every time we found a loophole they stitched it up. After they declared large areas of land as public lands for the use of the settlement building, they started working on the land-use planning. This was a very important process, that started in the early 1980s. It was as important as land acquisition because by determining the use of the land they constricted and restricted the development of the Palestinian areas and left the majority of the land for the Israeli settlers. It was the reverse process, a mirror image of what they have done in Israel. When you travel in Israel today the Palestinian villages look crowded and artificial. As if they do not really belong to the land because they are all cramped and not like real villages any more. Our villages are beginning to look the same way. Cramped. You never had apartment blocs in villages but now because they cannot grow naturally, beyond the area allocated to them by Israel, based on the restrictions of land use more and more people build apartment blocs because there is no land to build on. So the villages are beginning to look strange. Not like villages at all.


You have always used law to fight. In the book you write that you overestimated it just like Najib overestimated journalism. You were both against a war strategy. Do you today know what kind of strategy could work?


At every stage and with every person there are different ways of resisting. I believe it is always better to resist than not to. I knew the law, I had the means to fight using it and being young I thought it will be all and everything. I believed we could win the battle by proving the falsity of the legal ploys Israel used. I overestimated my possibilities and the possibilities of Al Haq. I thought we could make all the difference and stop the process of land acquisition and settlements. Not unlike Najib. He saw the land being sold to the Zionist Jews and thought this must be stopped. He believed that if it stops there is going to be no possibility for the Jews to establish their state here. Both of us were wrong. Ultimately what makes the difference is the violence. Even by 1948, with all the money they brought, the Jews bought only about 7 percent of the land. The rest was taken  through war. Likewise here. They used their power, their force. But still, within the structure and the legal framework that they created, 40 percent of the land where the settlements stand today, are private lands. This is known and written in the report commissioned by the Israeli government. However, it does not matter. This land is not returned to its rightful owners. It is stolen, stolen without any compensation. Because they, their government have the power. However, I believe it was important to do the work we did. It is important to assert for the Israelis and for the Israeli settlers that they live on the stolen land. I was very pleased when both Strangers in the House and The Palestinian Walks were published in Hebrew. So the Israelis who might have thought otherwise will at least through reading these books know that there is no justification whatsoever for what they are doing.


I am sorry, but your opinion does not matter, even if it is true. You are a Palestinian.


You are right. But there is a difference. I have learned this the hard way. I say it in my new book, when I cross the Allenby bridge and I lose my temper and talk to the Israeli soldier. I write that whatever I say it does not matter because I do not exist. When you are a racist you do not hear the other side. This is true and a very difficult lesson to absorb because it goes against the grain of being a human. Human beings do not like to believe it is possible not to be perceived as other than human. We believe in a common humanity. It is very difficult to go against this belief and see that it does not exist for some. But people who read books … nobody forces them to read. Not everybody reads books and I suspect that people who chose to read my books … Well, no, there was a reader, an Israeli director of the archive, who read The Palestinian Walks because a mutual friend sent it to him. He wrote his reactions in his blog and it was very very disappointing. Although he is an intelligent person, an intellectual it proved your point. How people can read the same text and read it from a completely different, point of view. Yet, there are others who respond otherwise. When my new book was launched in Ramallah three Israeli journalists from Haaretz were there. They came up to me and told me that they have read the other books, felt strongly,  and accepted  what I have written. There are all kinds of readers… But we always have to hope. Decision makers, opinion makers, they are the intellectuals. They are the people who read so we can not give up. I was challenged why I publish my books in Hebrew and the reason is that I think you have to try, you cannot give up. After all we are going to live together in this land and even though it is very bad now, someday it might change.


Writings of Ilan Pappe about the Nakba, your writings, the work you have done all your life seem to be documentations that call to be put in front of a court of law to decide, to rule, to bring justice. Is there a venue you can turn to?


You know the answer. The world is not a fair world based on justice. We believed and tried so many venues. Our last one was the International Court of Justice in Hague (that ruled on the illegality of the Wall Israel has built through and around the Palestinian lands in the West bank). It was a very good decision but it had no effect. Israel is at this point beyond the law. It is outside the law and does not enforce judgments. It does not allow any international investigations. They are yet to allow an investigation from an international body to come and investigate in Israel. They have always said no. They are so aware of their power they use it to the hilt. This is creating arrogance, which borders on the dangerous. It means that even their friends cannot deter them from what they are doing to themselves because they are so confident and arrogant. As a person who has thought a lot about the rule of law and believed in its importance I have believed that Israel was successful in its colonial project because it observed the law. Not the international law but the law they put up. They complied with it. Now this process of observing the law is breaking down. There are many examples of Israel within its own system violating its own law. Another development is the politicization of the army. Their own laws are breached when the army refuses to enforce the decision of their High Court. These are the things that to someone like me, who knows about the importance of the rule of law in making a country work, show that a country is in danger. Israel is on a slippery slope. They are slipping down.


You still believe in the rule of law?


Yes. From the beginning Al Haq was an organization with an objective to promote the rule of law. Not just to fighting the occupation but promoting the rule of law within the Palestinian society. No society can survive without observing the rule of law. It is fundamental. Once you have the system that observes the rule of law you can have freedoms, rights, you can have people being creative, living and doing things. Otherwise it is oppressive, chaotic, insecure. I absolutely believe in the rule of law. The country that does not have it is in danger.


Do you live in a place where there is a rule of law?


It has been extremely difficult. For many, many years not only did we not have the rule of law we had no functioning police force to protect the local society. You lived with the fear that if something happens you cannot resort to the police, you can not file  a complaint. So it was a very insecure life we lived. As a result people become very careful. I remember how I noticed on the street that if you touched someone by mistake, the person would turn around and say: “Excuse me, sorry, sorry!” They did not want to make trouble. I realized that a society that does not have police tries  to self-police itself. It worked. Imagine if there was no police in a place like New York. Even for just 48 hours. It would be chaos. But here we learned to manage ourselves without police. But managing  does not mean that you can be creative, have investments, development … it means that at the best you can have things quiet as they are. Driving is a good example. If you have traffic laws, then you can have confident drivers who can go very fast, who can get to work very quickly, because they know there are rules everybody observes. If you do not have rules you have to be very careful, always on your nerves. There might not be any accidents because everybody is so aware that nobody follows any rules, but you can not get to work on time. You spend a lot of energy, time and attention to figure out just how to manage without getting into an accident or running someone down. You manage but it does not run well. It does not run efficiently. It does not get you to places on time. It does not make it automatic so you can go and do other things. It takes a lot out of you.


This situation has in a way changed with Oslo agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian authority. In the beginning of A Rift in Time you write how you were warned that you might be arrested. You write, Jericho, the site of the new Palestinian security prison and the old Israeli military government headquarters can get cold at night. Is this description to be understood broader, as a metaphor of the situation enlarge?


It is. And certainly things have changed since then and there is much more personal security. But now we have the opposite problem. There is fear there might be too much control and the possibility it might turn into a police system.


Is it happening?


It is something I worry about a lot. I am a member of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, which works like the ombudsman. It is partly subsidized by the government to observe the civil and human rights, the workings of the government and its interferences in the civil life of the population. It is a very active group, which publishes annual and monthly reports. For the past two years our main concern has been that security forces are not sufficiently controlled and are getting away with torture and violations of personal freedoms. We are very worried about that.


You were part of the very first Palestinian delegation in 1990s for peace talks. Where have all these peace talks brought the Palestinian society?


I try to explain this in the book From Occupation to Interim Accords. It was a very negative development. The Israeli occupation has been establishing a system of occupation, which meant a system for Palestinians and a parallel system for the Israeli settlers in the West Bank. They had created a huge set of laws in the form of military orders, which constituted this system and all this took time to work out. It is worth mentioning an Israeli, Joel Singer, who was the head of the international law unit at IDF before the civilian administration was established in 1981. It was when at Al Haq we prepared The West Bank Rule of Law, which was our very first publication published together with the International Commission of the Jurists. Singer at the time wrote the rebuttal, in the publication called The Rule of Law in the Areas Administered by Israel. Later at the time of when  the civil administration was estabished we published a small publication on the civil administration and how it is in violation of the international law. He again wrote the rebuttal and published it in an Israeli Yearbook of Human Rights, arguing that it is not in violation of international law. He then left the Army and worked at a law firm in Washington. He understood very well the system of the West Bank occupation and was brought in by Prime Minister  Rabin to advise the Israeli government at the Oslo Accords. He proposed some key things that really spoiled any possibility for Oslo being a good arrangement. So in the negotiations Israel used the people who were part of the construction of the system of the occupation. And to my mind the Oslo Accords have only consolidated this system of occupation rather than broken away from it. Because I have followed the development of this system of occupation I could see, when I was involved in the Washington talks, where the Israeli negotiators were leading the talks. And I could see that the problem began from the terms of reference of the negotiations themselves, which were very restrictive. From then on I could see and I said that this will lead to an apartheid system of two systems of law and administration and land-use planning in the same area, namely the West Bank, one for the Israeli settlers and the other for the Palestinians. Oslo was a very serious drawback because we have been going into a certain direction, opposing the ways of the occupation and the violations of the international law that this entailed. All these changes of the law that Israel was making were unilateral. Oslo meant that they became part of a bilateral agreement. In a way the Palestinians were giving their approval to some of the violations and they were allowing themselves to be trapped in a system from which it would be very difficult to get extract themselves, especially since it was sold to the world as a first step towards peace. So I was very depressed after Oslo.


Do you feel that you are finally getting out of this trap?


No, I think we are still trapped. Israel is now ruled by the government and figures, who were opposed to Oslo to begin with. What they are doing now is while keeping talks within Oslo, they violate their part of the agreement. So we are getting the worst of all possibilities. We are stuck by Oslo but getting no benefits out of it.


These reservations, your analysis was there already in the 1990s. How come this has not been embraced and realized by the Palestinian leadership?


This is a difficult question. I felt that I had to try. Even during the negotiations in Washington I composed a big memorandum that I sent to the leadership explaining what I knew and what I feared. I published it as an appendix to the book From Occupation to the Interim Accords. No response. The leadership I think did not worry or care about the legal aspects. They were fighting for their political survival and made a political bargain. This I understood later on. They were worried about their survival, the competition from Hamas, and from what they saw as internal leadership of the Palestinians in the Occupied territories. But they were not really a rival at all. It was a political bargain and a very unfortunate one.


You mentioned before that even to generate creativity you need a rule of law. Your book and your work speak of rich, creative society, but nonetheless, what kind of society is it today that you come from?


I was just thinking today how would I have turned out had my family not been forced out of Jaffa. Jaffa was a very commercial city. Very successful city commercially, a hierarchical society with very rich people. My family was doing well and they owned a lot. Had they stayed, would it have been a better life? In some ways it might have been an easier life but tragedy and difficulties if they do not destroy you, can strengthen  you and make you a more creative person. I was thinking that maybe I would not have been the kind of person, the writer that I have become. Maybe it was a mixed blessing to have gone through all these very very great difficulties. I was born after the Nakba but at a very difficult time for my family so I grew up with great insecurity. Then it was from one tragedy  to another. But it has not destroyed me. Whereas I did say that chaos and not having a society living under the rule of law and having insecurities may not lead to creativity I should maybe correct myself. At this moment in our society there is a lot of creativity in various forms of art. In drama, art, dance, quite a lot of writing is being done, some very good visual artists have emerged. It is not unusual that society in crisis can produce culture. I am not a cultural critic so maybe I should stop …


Is today Palestinian identity still something that exists and connects different people?


I think so. Whenever you meet a Palestinian anywhere in the world you immediately click because there are many common experiences, common enemy, common hardships. I think there is still a feeling of identity, yes. But I do not like the idea of a narrow identity and I think we should explore our larger identity connected to the broader region. One of the tragedies of the time we live in is that it can force you into looking inwards and being defensive. Maybe I am fortunate that I am able to move out of that somehow, to some extent.


Who are you then?


I am certainly … I think that I am ultimately a very private person. What is important to me is my subjective self. At the same time my place in society, in this region, as a Palestinian saves me from arrogance because I am a nothing at the checkpoint and in this system. This is in some ways a good thing. I have a sense of my potential, which gives me the sense of freedom. I have a feeling that I can connect to people anywhere else in the world with similar  experiences , aspirations and feelings and creativity. In that sense I feel I am a part of the world. But at the same time I feel very at home here, I’m well  integrated. But then I am also comfortable living outside and I am part of the outside world. I suppose I am a mixture of all these things. The important thing to me is that I am a person defined by my experiences but not confined by them. I try to understand what I experienced in order to universalize it, to grow out of it. Writing is an important part of this process. Of freeing myself and being able to connect and to understand. Because of what I have been through I am able to understand of the experiences of others around the world which otherwise I  would not have been able to grasp had I  not gone through what I have gone  through here. It is important to work on these experiences in order to surpass them in a sense, to free myself from them but not to deny  them.



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