Diary

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.

The father seemed resigned to the loss of his son. As I sat in Abu Ahmad’s guest room, decorated with the usual symbols of Palestinian pride – large uncomfortable sofas, Palestinian flags and a miniature Dome of the Rock in mother of pearl – I tried to imagine what it must be like for a father to have his son, who is not even a soldier, killed while fighting a regular army. He didn’t want to talk about it. Instead, we spoke about the general situation. He turned to me and said: ‘Do you remember what I always said about Oslo? Wasn’t I against it from the first? Didn’t I tell you it would not bring us peace? We shall never see peace in this country.’ During the silences our eyes rested on the poster of Ahmad that covered half of the wall in the room where we were sitting. It was a gift from the Fatah.

For weeks before the reoccupation, a reconnaissance helicopter could be seen in different parts of the sky above Ramallah. It is an ominous sight, a helicopter stationed for hours above your head, photographing everything. The Oslo Accords gave Israel the right to fly over the Palestinian territories. They must know every detail of the town.

The morning the Israelis invaded I woke up to the creaking of Israeli tanks driving past my house. Then Samer, my younger brother, called.

‘Israeli soldiers are in my house,’ he said. He told me that he was forbidden to use his telephone. He described what had happened in low halting whispers, pressing his mobile phone close to his mouth. ‘Israeli soldiers came early in the morning, broke the kitchen window and occupied the whole building. They forced the neighbours down to my house and locked us in three rooms.’

I asked him whether they had an order to impound the building. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Nothing of the sort. They forced us at gunpoint to obey their orders. I’ll give you more details later. I don’t want them to know I’m talking to you. Can you do anything to help me?’

I racked my brains. What could I do? I used to know people in authority, who to call, what to do, how to raise a storm, how to apply pressure, how to use the media to make a case. Now I know no one. My brother’s only advantage, I thought, was that he holds a US passport. Perhaps the US consulate in Jerusalem could help. But then again I knew no one there. A well-connected friend called from the States to inquire about me after he heard news of the reoccupation, and I asked his advice. He gave me the name and number of the US Consul General and the number of an assistant. He said he knew the Consul General well and would speak to him about Samer.

I called the assistant because I could not get hold of the Consul General. A woman answered. I told her about my brother’s situation. I said that the Army had stormed his house without an order. Perhaps the consulate could use this as a reason to intervene.

‘No,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t matter that they had no order. It doesn’t matter at all. The order comes later.’

‘I am a lawyer,’ I said. ‘Orders cannot be made after the fact.’

The woman accused me of confusing reality with politics. ‘We can do nothing,’ she insisted.

I should have known better. We are on our own.

Then I began to tell myself that my brother is a strong man who will be able to endure this. I must have faith in him. And likewise my mother. I must trust that she will be able to endure. What choice have I got? I cannot reach them. I am powerless. I had thought it would be possible to be left alone in my country to live my own life, without the need for contacts, for support from influential relations. I told myself that this, too, will pass. I must use the lessons that I have learned. I must not lose my cool. I must lead as orderly a life as possible. Yet my life here is constant trauma, tragedy, catastrophe, violence and stupidity.

The telephone hasn’t stopped ringing. Everyone is inquiring about the safety of family and friends. My mother reported a lot of shooting around her house. My brother said that the soldiers had allowed his neighbours to return to their apartments but were staying in his. All day, soldiers remained in his living-room guarding the front and kitchen doors. My brother and his family were allowed in the living-room, too. The soldiers watched as Samer attempted to distract his six-year-old son with the PlayStation.

I can’t see how all of this can ever be turned into something heroic. To me it has revealed only utter chaos and desperation. What sort of political authority leaves its people, both civilians and officials, stranded? The decision not to resist the Israeli attack was sensible. Why did some violate it? And why were no arrangements made to shelter our armed men? There seems to be no strategy for war or for peace. We are expected to endure in silence, and to pronounce every defeat a victory.

The electricity went off on the day the Israelis invaded. Without electricity the house began to die: the water pressure, the central heating (the weather was bitingly cold), the lights, the computer, the telephone, the comforting sound of the BBC news. I could hear a lot of tank movement around the house and wondered nervously if the Army had switched off the electricity in our neighbourhood in preparation for a ‘special operation’.

On the second day of the invasion I was called by the New York Times and asked to submit an article for their op-ed page. As I thought about what to write I realised how angry I was. The Israeli Army does not recognise our humanity. The Arab world doesn’t know what we’ve been through. They are not attuned to the shades of grey, to the times when there was potential for a different sort of relation with our enemies. They are helping to bring back the heroic rhetoric: watching Arab satellite stations reporting on what was happening to us, even I was sometimes taken in by the empty talk. Only with the TV switched off, with just the sound of the guns outside, was I able to understand my double role. Being in danger myself I was a subject of the TV coverage. Yet I found myself following that coverage as though it were happening to other people. The more I reflected on my double role the more annoyed I felt at the way the war was being turned into the stuff of drama for Arab viewers.

There is more rhetoric than ever, more bravado. People from Arab countries are screaming to phone-in programmes that they are willing, clamouring, praying to die for Palestine. One man started weeping. ‘How long will this go on? Where is Salah Ed Din? How can we stand to see what is happening and not act?’ Once again Palestine is being turned into a symbol.

Samer and his family had a terrible time. They were in their living-room watching television with Israeli soldiers by the door pointing their guns at them when there was a news flash: another suicide bomb in a restaurant in Haifa. The anger of the soldiers was palpable. Samer held his breath. His first thought was that if these soldiers had lost anyone in the attack they would exact revenge against his family. Neither he nor his wife said anything. Only later did he ask the soldiers if they knew anyone who had died and was relieved to hear they had phoned their families and none had been hurt.

On their last night in my brother’s apartment, twenty soldiers slept in his living-room. One of them was a paramedic who may have had doubts about the Army’s operation. He had earlier told my brother that he thought well of the Palestinians, but felt they were badly led. My brother had told him what he thought of the Israeli leadership. Before the officer left he told Samer: you know, both our leaders are lousy, it is only because of them that we are fighting each other. The soldier also told my brother: ‘When we first arrived in this neighbourhood three men shot at us. It didn’t take much to find and kill them. They had no chance against our tanks. I can’t understand why they do it. Do you know that I went through rigorous training and learned how to shoot to kill in 21 different positions? How could these men have expected to beat us?’

Samer had one question for this soldier. He wanted to know whether his house would be visited every time the Army invaded Ramallah. ‘Your house is marked on a map with a number. We will come to it every time,’ the officer told him. Samer and his wife have started to think about emigrating.

Arafat meanwhile is holding on, besieged in his office. We see him in candlelight. We hear his food is running out. Our food is running out too but that doesn’t seem to matter. It is more important that we are provided with heroic stances than with food or medicine. This says something about us, about our role in the story.

Al-Jazeera is showing a programme called Under Siege. The outside world is doing its best to interpret what I’m going through. The Palestinian is both to be pitied and admired, to be helped and to help other Arabs by providing inspiration to those who feel impotent in their restricted world. He both accentuates their feeling of helplessness and relieves it. His life is both soap opera and reality. The enemy, the bad guy, is Israel and the devil is Sharon, who is hated without reservation. The way he speaks is hated, the way he looks, his arrogance, his smile that reveals the gap between his front teeth, his being alive and victorious. The Palestinian is at his mercy, and yet is also a match for him, standing up to him and winning the admiration of the viewer.

I have always insisted on thinking and speaking for myself, and it is odd now to have commiseration and pity and words of condolence directed at me, determining my experience before I’ve had a chance to say my bit. It is expected that I should be available at all times to respond to phone calls. When I become unhappy about this no one considers the possibility that I might be tired of the endless disruptions to my work. My situation is representative of Palestinian politics. Everyone feels that they know what is good for me but no one thinks to ask.

I spent one night listening to the Israeli bombardment of the Palestinian institutions founded after Oslo. The next morning in my unprotected home I heard Palestinian officials with fancy titles – brigadiers, generals and ministers – trying to put an honourable gloss on this dishonourable defeat. The problems that have been evident for many years of this conflict persist. The armed struggle is waged for its nuisance value; it is not a serious threat to Israel’s existence. Israel, however, uses it to justify extreme measures against the Palestinians. The political negotiations are not conducted with any sense of strategy. The wide international support and sympathy for our cause is never mobilised. We are a society at the mercy of those whose actions are governed by their feelings of anger, frustration and hate.

In early April I heard a rumour that the Palestinian Authority had declared the beginning of summer time. What difference would it make, when there is no work, no school and no employment? The only time-bound activity is the lifting of the curfew, and this is determined by the Israeli Army.

The Army’s entry into Ramallah was practically unopposed. They knew they had not come to fight another army but to abrogate, de facto if not de jure, the arrangement under Oslo that placed Palestinian cities, known as Area A, under the full security control of the Palestinian Authority. The withdrawal of territorial jurisdiction happened gradually. The Israelis needed to determine the response of the international community. The tanks came to the periphery of the town and there was no condemnation. Then they began to make deeper incursions and still there was no reaction. The Israelis got the message that they could occupy the whole place without any other countries objecting. But who was going to provide for the population? As long as Israel was in effective occupation the Palestinian Authority couldn’t, and the Israeli Army wasn’t interested. It seemed to want full control without the concomitant responsibilities and duties that any occupier under international law is expected to fulfil.

I thought of the Israeli officer who was head of the Legal Unit during the last years of Israeli military government in the West Bank. I used to describe to him, in English, the effect on the civilian population of the collective punishment his Administration was imposing, the deprivation of education, health and work. I told him that both peoples would one day have to live together in this small area of land and that he should be concerned about the effect of these policies on the future. He remained silent, which I took as sign that he was listening. Then suddenly he bared his teeth in a cold smile and calmly told me: ‘I like speaking to you. It helps improve my English.’

No wonder the emotions of the first Intifada are returning – the anger at the Israelis, at their violence and brutality, at their arrogant Army. How did Israel produce so many obdurate and insular people in such a short time? And so many thinkers and writers who are willing to repeat such propaganda as: let the Palestinians convince us they want peace; there can be no peace as long as the terrorist Arafat is in power; it is all the Palestinians’ fault because they didn’t accept the generous offer at Camp David to be confined to bantustans. I know some of these people. How can they allow themselves to believe that they are right to repeat this propaganda to foreign journalists? Israeli spokespeople repeat the word ‘terror’ a million times. They are the ones who have suffered and we are the terrorists to whom anything can be done with impunity. They say this while our entire society is terrorised, placed under a 24-hour curfew, our lives brought to a halt. Worst of all is the claim that the Israeli Army has done all it can to avoid civilian casualties.

In the rubble of the Muqata, the Foreign Minister of Egypt greeted Arafat. I watched it on TV. There is something admirable about Arafat: he could have betrayed his people and accepted the offer made at Camp David and ended up a head of state (of a sort). And yet why do I think that his regime looks like those typical of the Arab world? It must be because we are expected to feel proud of our leadership because it is still able to carry on with the diplomatic game, even if none of our daily needs has been provided for. Symbolism has brought our society to ruin. I pace around the house and think of these matters. It is a good thing that I have a large house.

I was joking when I told a friend that we should be paid for acting in this soap opera that the whole Arab world is watching. But tonight I was vindicated when Saudi television appealed for donations for Palestinians. Piles of jewellery were displayed on a large table. Next to it was a table covered in money which was being counted by four people. And numerous contributions were being promised by fax, including four mules, land and a kidney, ‘or any other part of the body needed by a Palestinian’.

Mother told me she wants to see the end of this story. It is fortunate that she is fortified by her interest in narrative.

Many Israeli friends have been calling. They are all involved in political action against the Occupation, they distribute relief and go on demonstrations. None of them usually does such things, but they have been forced to act politically: they’ve been left with no choice. Eva kept saying how ashamed she felt. Should she be? I don’t identify with my own group so closely as to feel ashamed of their actions. Why should she?

I’m getting better at managing under difficult conditions. I don’t exhaust myself by indulging strong emotions. I’ve learned how to create small spaces of my own in which to live. I’m continuing to exercise for half an hour each day by vigorously walking around the courtyard with music blasting. Today it was Shostakovich quintets.

One night we heard lots of explosions. I didn’t think they were bombs. Penny said, looking out of the window: ‘I can see sparks in the sky.’

The next morning I learned that there had been firework displays celebrating Israel’s Independence Day in the settlements of Psagot and Givat Zeev to the east and west of Ramallah. Years ago Yitzhak Rabin named Psagot as one of the settlements which should be evacuated. There’s no need for a Jewish neighbourhood next to Ramallah, he said publicly. The Prime Minister who was willing to make certain compromises for peace was murdered. The settlement stayed. Then a Prime Minister was elected who was willing to jeopardise the future of his country in his determination to preserve all the settlements.

During the last lifting of curfew I saw one of the more rumbustious shopkeepers sitting in the sun on a low wicker chair next to his shop. Three tanks were parked opposite. Beside them were a number of heavily armed young Israeli soldiers. The old Palestinian shopkeeper wrapped in an ancient cardigan knitted by his wife sat sunning himself, seemingly oblivious to their presence.

Our shopkeepers have all spent long days sitting outside their shops as the world around them changed. A few have been here since the rule of the British, and the slightly younger ones since the Jordanians ruled this area. Then Israel imposed military rule. Even this they survived. When they were ordered to open their shops they complied. When they were told to close they closed. They did business when it was possible and sat on their low chairs in the sun when it was slow. Some joined the resistance; the others would bring their chairs together and discuss their former colleagues’ exploits. They always had opinions on everything.

Most of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories resemble these men. When we can, we sun ourselves in direct view of Israeli tanks, acting as if they were not there. This is how we have been able to survive these past 35 years. What these soldiers destroy we repair, when they close roads we find detours, what they deny us we find alternatives for.

28 March-20 April

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