Why Raja Shehadeh sees hope for Palestinians despite current ‘disenchantment’

“A country is powerful only as long as its legal system is intact and strong and there are many signs that Israel is breaking down in that sense,” says Raja Shehadeh, lawyer and founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq.
Saturday 12/10/2019
A shift from romanticism. Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian author, lawyer and human rights campaigner.                   (Courtesy of Raja Shehadeh)
A shift from romanticism. Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian author, lawyer and human rights campaigner. (Courtesy of Raja Shehadeh)

Raja Shehadeh is a lawyer, the founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq and the author of several acclaimed books, including “Strangers in the House” and “Palestinian Walks” in which he intertwines his personal history with that of the West Bank. His “humanity and wisdom are invaluable,” said the New York Times.

Shehadeh, 68, studied law in London. He worked as an adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation before the Madrid peace negotiations but he resigned and was highly critical of the Oslo Accords of the 1990s that granted only limited self-rule to the Palestinians.

His book, “Going Home: A Walk Through Fifty Years of Occupation,” describes his walk through Ramallah’s streets over the course of one day — the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war in which Israel won control of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. He describes the changing face of the city now surrounded by Israeli settlements and the story of his family. He spoke with The Arab Weekly via telephone.

The Arab Weekly (TAW): Israel has just had elections in which Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister, and Benny Gantz, opposition leader, were deadlocked. How much difference might a new Israeli government make?

Raja Shehadeh (RS): “It doesn’t really matter because for both [Israeli] parties, the occupation, the conflict, how to end it and relations with the Palestinians are not an issue. They’re not on the agenda of the Israelis.

“Both sides are competing to show how much they can appease the settlers but, at the same time, I think Netanyahu is destroying Israel in so many ways, I think his presence has cast a dark shadow over everything. His removal would be welcome. There hasn’t been a happy day since he took over. Not that Gantz is much better.”

TAW: You write that your generation has failed to liberate Palestine and it is up to the next generation. How do you view young Palestinians?

RS: “There has been a total disenchantment with politics and there’s been a move towards culture. It’s quite amazing how much cultural output by young people there is and how sophisticated young people are becoming.

“Yet, it is a very confusing time because when I was young it was clear-cut. There was an occupation and we wanted to end the occupation and we saw signs of possibility for ending the occupation so it was clear. Now, with the Oslo agreements, it’s so much more complicated. They stay away from politics because they see no usefulness in being involved in politics.

“On the other hand, Israel has become dominated by the right wing and by the settler lobby. I think their power came from observing the rule of law as far as their project was concerned, not as far as the Palestinian community in their midst but as far as enabling their project and the settlements to be carried out and justifying everything in their own way under international law. Now this is breaking down.

“The high court in Israel has two judges living in settlements and sometimes they don’t bother [legally] justifying what they do. They just say: ‘God gave us this land’ and that’s the end of it. I think their power is being challenged. A country is powerful only as long as its legal system is intact and strong and there are many signs that Israel is breaking down in that sense.”

TAW: What made you decide to describe the occupation that you grew up with?

RS: “One of the motivations for writing was every time I came upon a certain checkpoint in the outskirts of Ramallah… I was aware that somebody like my nephew, who is 23, doesn’t see it except for what it is now and he doesn’t know what it was before. It’s the same with the Ofer prison [an Israeli jail near Ramallah], which used to be a beautiful place and where there were lots of plants growing there — tomatoes, cucumbers, delicious things.

“Also, the experience of the first intifada [1987-91], which I assumed was the experience of everybody, is, of course, the experience of very select people because the generation of the first intifada is growing old. People don’t talk about it that much and, if they do, they talk about it in a romantic way and young people are fed up with romanticism and they don’t want to hear any more.”

TAW: What hope do you have for the future?

RS: “I’ve been observing this for long enough to know that when change takes place, it comes very quickly and it comes from unexpected quarters. If you look at the situation just for what it is now, it looks all closed up; all the windows are closed but this can change.

“I think the most hopeful thing is the fact that Palestinians have proven their resilience and, despite everything, they have not packed up and left. They are here. They are getting more sophisticated in so many ways. They are doing what they can and that gives hope for the future, because as long as we’re here, that’s the main thing.”