Raja Shehadeh

My first book of diaries covered 1980, a few years after I returned from studying law in England and began practising as a lawyer in the occupied West Bank. I was fascinated then by the notion of sumoud – ‘perseverance’. I saw the perseverance of ordinary Palestinians who were determined to remain on their land as the best antidote to Israeli policies aimed at ridding the country of its Palestinian inhabitants. Sumoud was the way I felt I was challenging the occupier. But I had also become involved in human rights work and believed that by documenting and exposing the Israeli Government’s violations of human rights I would help bring an end to them.

I started my second book of diaries just before the Gulf War.[*] There was a lot of excitement: many Palestinians believed the war would bring an end to the status quo that enabled Israel to pursue its oppressive policies against the Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories. There was also the fear that Saddam Hussein might use chemical weapons against Israel, which would mean against us, too. But although every Israeli was provided with a gas mask, we weren’t. Instead, we sealed ourselves in one room of the house, plastering over all the windows, closing every possible opening and placing wet rags soaked in chlorine underneath the doors as we had been advised. There was no attack, but many of us, myself included, suffered chlorine poisoning.

Just after that book was completed peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians began in Madrid and continued in Washington. I attended these negotiations as a legal adviser to the Palestinians, believing in peace based on compromise. I left after a year, having lost all hope in the possibility of properly conducted negotiations that might lead to a real peace. When I read the Oslo Accords I felt that years of hard work on the Palestinian legal case had been in vain. I decided to leave human rights work and for the first time seriously considered leaving Palestine permanently. But it’s my home, and difficult as life here has always been, it’s where I want to live.

When the most recent Israeli reoccupation of my home town, Ramallah, began on 29 March, I realised how differently I felt this time. In the past I had risen to the occasion, seeing meaning in my suffering. This time, when the second Intifada began, I had tried to ignore it. Then I became depressed. I had seen how badly our leadership had managed earlier struggles and saw no reason for things to be any different now. I was opposed both morally and politically to the suicide bombings in Israeli cities, and had no faith that there was a clear Palestinian strategy. I was especially concerned by the excessive militarisation that was evident all around me. I felt that Israel was dragging us to war and that this was the one thing we should have resisted. Why go to war with the fourth largest army in the world when you don’t have an army of your own?

Since the Oslo Accords I have been increasingly worried about the number of armed men in the streets. An arms culture develops as quickly as a drug culture, and once it takes root is difficult to eradicate. It has its own economic logic and beneficiaries, and its victims are civilians. During the first twenty-five years of occupation before the return of the PLO, the armed struggle was waged outside the country. Now it had moved inside.

Just after the Accords were signed, my law firm employed a bright young man to do the cleaning. He was overqualified, but had lost his job in Israel when the West Bank was closed off. One day he broke an antique pot that I kept on the shelf behind my desk. I angrily explained to him the pot’s archaeological significance. The next day I found it back on my shelf: he had collected the pieces, taken them home and glued them perfectly together. Impressed, I tried to find out more about this talented man. I assumed that he, like most young men, belonged to a faction of the PLO, but I was wrong. He belonged to another clandestine struggle, committed to principles that were foreign to me. Throughout the first Intifada I had felt a sense of togetherness: we were all working together for a common cause, the end of the Israeli Occupation. It mattered little who was the employer, who the employee; before the oppressor we were all equal. Now the false peace of Oslo had divided us, shattered us like the pieces of that old pot.

This was clear when I paid a condolence visit to a man who used to work in my office. His 25-year-old son, Ahmad, had died in the last Israeli incursion into Ramallah. He had been doing well as an insurance clerk, and was married with children. When he was 14 I had defended him in military court where he was being charged for protesting against the Occupation. Because he was a minor, the court fined his father. As I was walking out of the court I heard shouts from the narrow window above the door of the room where Ahmad was being held. ‘I warn you,’ he called to his father, ‘don’t pay the fine. You hear me. I don’t want you to pay any fine to these Zionist occupiers.’

I asked his mother what had happened. She sounded as though she was reading from a prepared text. ‘Ahmad was first shot in the leg,’ she said, ‘but he wanted to go on fighting. Then he got the bullet that made him a martyr.’

I was later told that after her son’s first injury an ambulance came for him. But they would not let him take his gun. He refused to leave it behind and was shot again in the stomach, and died. I wondered who had given him the gun and under what conditions. What would it have meant if he’d left it behind? Wouldn’t he have been able to get another? The only thing I was sure of was that this gun meant so much to him that he was willing to risk his life for it.

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[*] The two books of diaries are The Third Way (1982) and The Sealed Room (1992).