March 2002

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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

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Palestine -- Father and Son: An Interview with Raja Shehadeh

Born in 1951 in Ramallah in the West Bank, Raja Shehadeh attended the Quaker school in Ramallah and the American University of Beirut. He was called to the bar in London, then returned to Ramallah and private practice with his father, Aziz Shehadeh, a lawyer well-known in Palestine for advocating a two-state solution decades ahead of its time.

After founding Al Haq (Law in the Service of Man), a non-partisan, West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists, Raja Shehadeh wrote several books including the memoir, The Third Way: A Journal of Life in the West Bank and Occupiers' Law. In 1985, shortly after the latter appeared, Aziz Shehadeh was murdered. Despite all his son's efforts, including attempts to enlist the help of the Israeli occupation authorities, the murderers were never apprehended.

In Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine, the story of Palestine evolves through an intensely personal narrative of Raja Shehadeh's relationship with his father. Favorably reviewed in the New York Times and the Financial Times among other venues, it occasioned Shehadeh's recent US tour. The interview below is "personal," but in the sense of the adage of the women's movement of the late '60s and early '70s, "The personal is political." Through Shehadeh's narrative about his relationship with his father, as through his autobiography, the personal relationship is a photo developer for a portrait of the Palestinian tragedy as a whole.

Ellen Cantarow, who conducted this interview with Mr. Shehadeh for Peacework, reported from the West Bank for The Village Voice, Mother Jones, Grand Street, and other publications through the 1980s.

What do you feel is most important about Strangers?

The book is unusual because it is written from the point of view of a Palestinian who stayed. There have been accounts by Palestinians from the outside who were part of the liberation struggle or who lived their lives yearning for Palestine in exile. But this is the experience of someone who stayed in the part of Palestine left after 1948, yearning for the part that was taken; and then experiencing the takeover of that part, all the difficulties of the settlements encroaching, and of a military regime which was trying to do everything to force us out. But it is not a political book. It is a personal account. The book is centered on the father-son relationship, with Palestine as the context.

  Raja Shehadeh
Raja Shehadeh © Dan Porges
I remember watching my father in his work. He would be trying to call the court in Nablus [a major northern West Bank city]. The telephone line would just not work. He would keep trying and trying, sometimes for one, even two hours. My father was not somebody who would sit and complain. If the telephone lines were not working he started working on establishing a telephone company. The problem with everything he did was the opposition. The [Palestinian] political leadership saw everything in political terms. Even establishing a phone company meant accepting occupation. They would say, "No, this is not the time to establish a telephone company: we are under occupation" So it became a question of enduring these difficulties without being given the chance to do anything about them. That was the worst formula for somebody like my father, who was a doer. With such obstacles he was tense and unhappy. I was also tense and unhappy, but I was younger; I was trying to do something about it. [By 1982] my father was telling me it was already too late, there are too many settlements. And I'd say, "If it's too late, why am I here? I'm just starting."

When I came back from my studies in London and started my work as a lawyer I realized that the Israeli claim that they were conforming to the law and observing human rights was simply not true. At the same time no one was saying anything about it. I thought, if we are working towards a Palestinian state we must be ready. I contacted a few people, and we started with a completely volunteer project [Al Haq, which documented and addressed human rights abuses]. It took off and gave me a role alongside my legal work. This created even more friction with my father who believed I was wasting my time. Unless there was a political solution, all these violations were [still] going on, the settlements were being built at a very fast pace. Before we know it, there would be nothing left for a Palestinian state and our lives would be ruined.

Another aspect which I must also mention was that my father was under pressure by the Israelis for the work I was doing. He was constantly being called and told that he must put me under more control. Fathers control their sons, so he must control me and not allow me to go on writing and speaking about torture and all these embarrassments to Israel. Of course he was not going to do anything of the sort, but it was difficult for both of us.

In Arab society you respect your father, which means that you nod your head in agreement, you don't argue back, and then you go and do whatever you want. You always call him "the old man." You don't expect an old man to understand you. I told him, "I want us to have a special relationship, to speak together. When I argue back, it's a sign of respect." In the course of writing the book, I discovered letters that confirmed how I had been hoping for this special relationship. He, too, had written back some letters which were very touching, in which he, too revealed that he was aspiring for something different between us. My father, I suppose, would have liked to take off and do something crazy. He responded a lot to music, and he always thought that he would have done very well in music. But instead of having any artistic outlet, he was stuck with the law and all the difficulties of occupation.

There was a period I describe in the book, the summer of 1985, when we fought. I decided I would give up, leave the house, the office. He was extremely hurt. A month later I came back and went to his office. We kissed, and I told him that I respected him too deeply to give him what other children give--respect, obedience--with no meeting of minds. I left in October of 1985 on my book tour [for Occupiers' Law]. When I came back, he had been assassinated. I knew that I would have to write about my relationship with him. For almost ten years I postponed. But then I began to literally hear his voice, as though he was bidding me to pay attention. He was criticizing my life and saying, "Your life makes no sense. Look what has happened! We fought for an end to settlements, but they are still going on." The first draft was entirely the dialogue between us. It was only because of writing this that I was able to go on and finally write a book in which I had worked out the anger, the relationship.

Can you describe your feelings about the world your parents left, and about Ramallah?

In my childhood the important world and reality was portrayed to be not Ramallah but the life left behind. I deferred to the elders to tell me about the better world, the world of fun, my father's world in Jaffa and Tel Aviv; it was all painted in their words. By writing about it I claimed back my own world and my right to decide to live as I wanted. Perhaps many Palestinians are still stuck in that position because they have never lived in the villages and towns they were forced out of in 1948, but they still speak as if these are their natural homes.

bulldozed home
Bulldozed home in Rafa refugee camp, April 2001. Photo: Cathy Hoffman
Ramallah is a place I have never left. All the people I see around me I have known all my life; how they were, how they've become, how their children are. The town itself has gone through great transformations since before the occupation, through the first intifadah, the visual changes that occurred during the intifadah--all the grafitti on the walls, streets that were blocked, all the houses that were demolished. We went through the Gulf War; through a period where there was a semblance of peace, a lot of construction and development of the town; and then we got second intifadah. Throughout, I've continued to walk in the hills and watch the changes that have occurred in them.

The present period is terribly depressing. What hope do you see?

The hope is that the society is there, refusing to budge. The struggle is just, essential. The Palestinians are struggling for a bare minimum--a state of their own. The settlements are preventing this, but Israel is not dependent on them. The rational and natural thing would be for the settlements to be evacuated and there to be a Palestinian state. What prevents that is ideology. But at the end of the day a time will come when Israeli will be unable to afford it. It is too costly.

Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine, Raja Shehadeh.
Steerforth Press, South Royalton, VT

This book is remarkable in several ways, starting with its moving portrait both of the author in his earlier years and of the times and events that so shaped his life. It was not easy for his family, living in occupied territory so close to its former home in Jaffa, living between nostalgia and the growing recognition that their life must be made fresh. Surely it was not easy for the author, struggling at the private level to deepen and later escape the relationship with his father, and at the political level to speak as a professional lawyer against the injustices he observed, none more pervasive or saddening than the ravaging of the beloved land.

But the book growing out of these experiences is a book of self-development and self-reflection, not a polemic, not bitter in its memories or attacks. Shehadeh is a gifted writer. He tells his story in superb and compact prose, sometimes almost poetry. He finds solace in thought and in nature, and he shows us how a person living through these angry and destructive times can comment on them from the perspective of a person who has maintained both integrity and humanity.

--Henry Steiner teaches at Harvard Law School, where he directs the school's Human Rights Program

Dispatches from Israel

--Benny Barbash, from Ha'aretz Magazine, 15 February 2002

My son Assaf is a year and a half old. Last week, when he came down with a bad case of the flu, we took him from our home to a clinic on a nearby moshav. It was a very brief trip, but his anguished crying and feverish appearance made the way seem much longer. At about the same time, the mothers of Suleiman Abu Hassan and Mahmud Zakin, two newborn infants, were trying to go from the village of Yamoun to the hospital in Jenin. The distance between the village and the city is no greater than the distance that separates our moshav and the neighboring one, but unlike us, they were unable to complete their short journey. They were stopped at IDF checkpoints and sent back the way they came. Both babies died. Or, I should say, were murdered.

--10 February 2002: Gila Svirsky, Jerusalem, Coalition of Women for a Just Peace:

We knew there would be a big turnout for the peace demonstration last night just from the deluge of pro-peace ads in Ha'aretz the day before - page after page of statements and petitions, all critical of the occupation. Some excerpts:

  • "There is a choice!" An expanded new list of 200 combat officers and soldiers who refuse to serve in the army of occupation.
  • "There's a limit!" Support for the new soldiers, and the names of others who have consistently refused to serve, placed by Yesh Gvul.
  • "We support the soldiers who refuse to serve the occupation" petition placed by civilian supporters.
  • "Peres, you are a collaborator in war-crimes!" placed by Gush Shalom.
  • "Do not say 'we did not see, we did not know' -- the price of keeping the territories" placed by the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions.
  • "A Recipe for National Suicide" placed by a private citizen.
  • And a huge, blood-red ad, "The Occupation is Killing Us All", signed by the 28 organizations that came together to hold last night's impressive rally in Tel-Aviv.

This was the largest pro-peace rally since this Intifada began in September 2000, with an estimated 10,000 participants--Jews and Arabs from all over Israel filling the large Tel-Aviv Museum plaza. The mood is clearly swinging in Israel, and the homemade signs of people who had not attended a demonstration for years reflected the new thinking: "Stop Sharon before he kills us all" "More conscientious objectors!" "Occupation itself is a war crime" and all permutations of "Share Jerusalem" "Dismantle Settlements" and "Bring our soldiers home."

....There were many moments that brought tears to my eyes last night. I will tell you of two: Famed singer Ahinoam Nini (known as "Noa," I believe, to her American fans) took the risk of alienating her Israeli right-wing fans, and sang to the crowd a Hebrew, Arabic, and English version of "Imagine" by John Lennon: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one; I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one."

And the other was the transformation of a beloved Zionist song Ein li eretz aheret. Reciting this song in two languages, Hebrew and Arabic, suddenly infused it with new meaning: "I have no other country to go to. And even if the land is burning under my feet, this is my home." For the Arabs in the crowd, the song suddenly became theirs, too, and for the Jews, it meant a land we both love deeply.

I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one.

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