Reviewed by Hala Nassar
(Raja Shehadeh: Occupation Diaries. Profile Books Ltd, London 2012. Pages 208, Illustrations.)
When Raja Shehadeh writes about Palestine, he makes sure that we walk with him the valleys, the mountains and the wild hills and prairies of the occupied land. As in his previous book, Palestinian Walks (Scribner 2007), which won the Orwell Prize 2008, Shehadeh’s Occupation Diaries, we continue to smell the first rain on the thirsty earth, touch the stones, hear the gurgling water from the brooks, admire cyclamens, and contemplate the history of the land of olive trees. Shehadeh in Occupation Diaries, also being nominated for the Orwell Prize 2013, does not only take us for walks to the villages near Ramallah in the north and all the way to the south in Jericho to observe the continuous brutal Israeli polices to disfigure the landscape, but also walks us to the streets of cities like Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Haifa. Shehadeh the human rights lawyer and a founder of al-Haq in the 1980s has been relentless in criticizing Israeli colonial policies on the land and its people.
To write about Palestine is never an easy topic for a Palestinian who has to witness and experience daily the brutality of the occupation destructing the fabric of the society, it’s livelihood and landscape. To deal with the trauma of living under occupation, Shehadeh kept a journal. Occupation Diaries, is based on selected entries (December 2009 to May 2012) from that Journal. However, In Occupation Diaries, Shehadeh marks a departure from Palestine Walks, though he continues to point finger at Israel, he courageously does not shy away from observing and commenting in great detail on the Palestinian National Authority policies and practices, which also influence Palestinian urban life, society, and landscape.
The book starts by taking the reader on a picnic to Wadi Qelt ravine between Jerusalem and Jericho. As in Palestine Walks we are instantly put in the immediate scenery of the place. Vivid Description of Wadi Qelt is not what Shehadeh aims in this December entry of his journal, rather he sets the tone of the book as a commentator on the social, religious, political and economic life in Palestine. During the picnic Shehadeh and his group were not alone, there were “different worlds Palestinians now inhabit. One group is devoutly Islamic, while the other is demonstratively secular, liberal and ever concerned about being dominated and not allowed to get on with its way of life” (6). However, in April’ entry watching Easter’s Sbat el-Nur, the Procession of the Light, in the streets of Ramallah Shehadeh has a “wistful yearning” for the times when it was “so normal for Christians, Jews and Muslims of this land to participate in each other’s religious feasts and celebrate together and feel enhanced,” instead of threatened (31) since the Israeli occupation of 65 years.
Raja Shehadeh also comments on the transformation of Palestinian cities after the Palestinian Authority took control of Ramallah in 1996. Nowadays Ramallah is a booming city with many banks offering credit, billboards of limitless dreams, and USAID projects as part of a policy of “anti-insurgence not dissimilar to that pursued in Northern Ireland” (43). In addition, the Ramallah post- Oslo- bubble consists of opening many restaurants, as part of its flourishing nightlife. Restaurants with western names, English speaking waiters and where Palestinian dishes on an English menu are offered with a western style of cooking. Such an increasing trend not only restricted to Ramallah but to other cities as well, makes Shehadeh concerned about “the up-and –coming- class living in our bubble with most worrying sense of what constitutes trendiness” (43) and is that what the Palestinian are in dire need of.
The Palestinian National Authority policies are not restricted to cities like Ramallah or Bethlehem, but reach the rural areas as well. Walking to the village of Ajoul, Shehadeh comments on how Israel is increasing its settlements policy on Palestinian lands by confiscations, and building on hills tops thus destroying the landscape and now the Palestinians are “mimicking the Israeli ways” (93). Among many examples, the author writes in length about building the new Palestinian city of Rawabi funded by Qatari investors instead of developing already existing villages along with the contours of the geographical space.
As the Israeli occupation policies of devouring, and disfiguring Palestinian landscape continues, Shehadeh observes the ugly changes that the city of Beit Jala and Bethlehem had forcibly went through. Building the separation wall on agricultural land, separating people from each other and from their lands to accommodate Israeli road travelers’, tunnels were carved in the hard limestone mountains, brooks dried up, olive trees uprooted so that the Israeli settlers “willingly place themselves where they are not wanted” (200). Thus, the settlers by forcing their will on the land and people they negate any vital paths for peace. Same urban amputations of Palestinian land continue to happen past the outskirts of Hallhul, Hebron and Yatta in the south. As for the coastal cities such as Jaffa where the Shehadeh family is originally from is now an example of how Palestinian cities have been gentrified. The coastal city with its flourishing economy, culture and life pre 48 is virtually non-existent.
Shehadeh is relentless when it comes to those “ugly Fatah people” (117) and voices his fear of becoming a police state (86) especially when demonstrations in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution of January 2012 had been restricted in Ramallah and Gaza. While the Palestinian Authority is making sure that the Palestinians do not criticize or demonstrate against oppressors in Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab World, the Palestinian authorities target the international scene. In the September entry, Shehadeh observes how Palestinians are anxious for the bid of statehood in the UN. Ramallah’s center, the Manarah Circle, is suddenly decorated with an oversized replica of the UN assembly blue seat written under it “Palestine deserve a seat (185). Overnight the West Bank is decorated with large billboards announcing that “Statehood is our right, Freedom is our destiny, and it is time for Palestine 194”. Palestine has become country number 194 to join the UN, and Shehadeh reminds us of the UN resolution of 194 on December 11th of 1948 on Palestinian refugees and the right to return to their homeland. The ramification of Palestine bid for statehood at the UN confirms the popular acceptance of the partition of Palestine between two states, Israel and Palestine.
The Occupation Diaries May entry of 2012 ends with the death of seventy- three years old Sabri Garib from the village of Beit Ijza. Sabri was the first affidavit that Shehadeh took for al-Haq in 1982 to defend 112 acres from being “expropriated by the new Jewish settlement of Givon Hahadasha”. Sabri who wants to leave his acres to his ten sons, fought the settlers for years only to see it devoured acre by acre by the Jewish settlement. What remains of the land is Sabri’s house surrounded by settlers and barbed wires. Sabri fought alone, went to prison many times and repeatedly appealed to Israeli High Court. Sabri’s case marks a new era in Shehadeh’s opinion were the law that could save Palestinian land from Jewish settlers is no longer an option. A new geography is in now place. Yet, the case of Hafez activism and resistance in the village of at-Tuwani nine miles south of Hebron is what the new generation of Palestinians needs to save what is left of Palestinian land. Without any help form the Palestinian National Authority, Hafez along with others managed in spite of Israeli Civil Administration evacuating them in 1999 and declare their village an area for live-fire-exercise zone, to return to at-Tuwani, build a road, install electricity and open a school for children. Hafez and his friends activism against the harsh and unjust rules of the Israeli settlers, stands for the Palestinian “we” who have no choice and no other place to go to. They are here to stay.
– Hala Nasar contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.