Raja Shehadeh: Strangers in the House
Book: Raja Shehadeh: Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in
Occupied Palestine (Penguin Books)
Aziz Shehadeh was a prominent lawyer in Jaffa up to 1948, when
Britain relinquished control of Palestine and Israel was born. He
was an Anglican Christian. His wife's family was well to do, owning
a hotel in Jaffa, and a summer house in Ramallah. Like most residents
of Jaffa, they fled under fire by the Irgun. In their case, they were
able to go to the summer house in Ramallah instead of having to flee
to a refugee camp. (The British shipped a great many residents of
Jaffa to refugee camps in Beirut, which have since had particularly
sad stories.) Raja Shehadeh was born into this Ramallah exile. He
grew up much like his father, but also different -- a generation
difference marked by exile and occupation. He followed his father
into law, studying in Beirut and London before returning to work
in his father's law practice in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank.
Both father and son are notable, in their own rather distinct ways,
for the moderation of their political views -- in particular for
their strong belief in the essential rule of law. I'll return to
the father's own efforts to promote peace, but first we need to
pay some attention to the son's efforts to promote the rule of
Although not central to this book, it seems to me that Raja
Shehadeh has done two especially noteworthy things during the
period of this book. One is to have patiently and meticulously
documented the everyday overhead of Israel's occupation on the
West Bank. The other is how he, again patiently and meticulously,
has worked out the legal underpinnings of the occupation (aside
from its much more famous extralegal operations). That neither
of these were done in a conventional political framework only
adds to their impact -- in particular, it doesn't allow them to
be easily ignored. This is not the same as saying that he comes
to no political conclusions, but he is clearly outside and well
distanced from the dominant political frameworks. What he does
ask is that we take the rule of law as a fundamental requirement
for any civilized society, and he does a very effective job of
showing how the rule of law has been subverted by the politics
of occupation (and, for that matter, of resistance).
Given recent events, one particular description seems especially
worth quoting at length. This came from an interview with a young
man, Khalid, whose had been detained and whose mother had hired him
to help out. From pp. 153-154:
"After my arrest," Khalid told me, "I was blindfolded, thrown into
a jeep, and brought to the Tegart [Israeli prison, originally built by
the British]. It was late at night. I was brought before interrogators
who concentrated their blows on my face and chest. I was asked to
confess. I said I had nothing to confess. But they said they knew
everything about me. I said if this was the case why are you
asking. They did not like this and continued to beat me until the
early hours of the morning when I was returned to my cell. I then
heard an electric motor, which I eventually realied was turned on
every morning at daybreak. This became my way to keep track of time,
because my cell did not get any light. Part of the strategy was to
disorient me by depriving me of sleep and food.
"'If you don't want to confess,' I was told, 'we will keep you here
until you change your mind.' But they didn't know who they were
dealing with. Judging by the times I heard the motor turned on, two
days and two nights had passed before I was given food. Then they
shoved me into a dirty toilet with shit smeared on the walls and floor
and there I was made to eat my miserly meal. I did, anyway, because I
was very hungry. I had hardly finished when I was taken to another
room and subjected to a cold shower. While still wet I was put under a
fan. I tried not to shiver; I did not want to give them the pleasure
of seeing me suffer. But I could not control my body. It shivered,
like a leaf, as it had never done before."
"'Now will you talk?' they said.
"'What about?' I answered.
"'You think you are too smart for us,' they said, 'we shall see who
will have his way at the end.' They dragged me to a corridor where
other prisoners were handcuffed and hung by the hands to a peg in the
wall with a coarse stinky burlap bag placed over their heads. I joined
their line and became another suffering body denied light and clean
air, concerned only with the excruciating pain in my limbs. At one
point I called the guard and asked to use the toilet. I got no
response. Eventually I could not control my kidneys and the urine
trickled down my dirty trousers making me stink. When it splashed on
the floor I was slapped and cursed and called a filthy animal."
At this point Khalid turned to me and asked: "How long have I been
at the Tegart?"
"Eighteen days," I said.
"It feels like months. After the first week I lost count. I had
thought I was in for months. But you say it's only been eighteen
I'm not sure when this occurred (late '70s or early '80s seems
likely), but it reads like yesterday's newspapers. We hear much these
days about how U.S. MPs in Iraq were inadequately trained, but from
this it sounds like they hadn't missed a trick. One of the more
peculiar things about the U.S. occupation of Iraq is how, as the
occupation sours and we are ever more desperate for good will from
Arabs, Bush has moved even more stringly to embrace Sharon. Any
remotely sober analysis of Israel's occupation techniques must by
now conclude that brutal policies of dominance have undermined
Israel's security and welfare while spoiling its few victories.
So the notion that the U.S. has anything to learn from Israel is
The other quote that I want to register is the description of Aziz
Shehadeh in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, as he pushed
a peace plan that nowadays seems remarkably astute. From pp. 49-52:
My father listed the names of forty Palestinians from different
parts of the occupied territories. He believed that these forty
dignitaties should convene and declare the establishment of the
provisional government of the state of Palestine. They would declare
their willingness to sign a peace treaty with the state of Israel on
the grounds of mutual recognition and the immediate cessation of all
acts of hostility. Negotiations would then immediately begin to
resolve all aspects of the Palestinian problem. This would silence the
Arab states, which never saved us from the disasters that befell
us. If this was the will of the largest concentration of Palestinians,
what was left for others to say? We, the Palestinaisn, who lost our
lands in 1948 and remained in this part of Palestine despite the
misery and deprivation. We, who were now resolved to come to terms
with our history and to determine our future life in peace and
reconciliation with our bitterest enemy. What right would any of the
Arab states have to denounce such an action taken by the Palestinians
The legal foundation for the initiative would be United Nations
Resolution 181, which had called for the partition of Palestine into
two states: one for the Arabs and another for the Jews. This was how
my father thought the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis would
It was a simple plan, one that he had worked out in full and
believed must be implemented immediately if it were to succeed. The
two Israelis carried his proposal and wrote their own memorandum,
which they presented to the Israeli coalition government headed by
[ . . . ]
But in 1967 he was 55 years old. While others were paralyzed with
fear, he was clear headed. He saw this misfortune as a repeat of an
earlier round. In 1948 he had abandoned his fate to the Arab armies
and ended up on the other side of the border having lost everything,
defeated and destitute. Once again he had counted on the Arab armies
to fight his war in 1967, and again the result was defeat as well as
the occupation of the rest of Palestine. Now was the time, he thought,
for the Palestinians to draw the correct conclusions, to take their
fate in their own hands.
Those who did not want a Palestinian state, he believed, included
the Arab countries. They wanted to keep the Palestinians in bondage
and continue to have the threat of war as a justification for not
making long-overdue political changes within their own countries. He
knew the odds were not in favor of the Palestinians' actions. He
predicted that this defeat would be followed by stirred emotions and
bravado. And then people would wait for the next round of war, which
would decidedly be another futile war, because he now believed that
war was not the way Palestinians would achieve their national
He also believed that Israel must be concerned about the prospect
of controlling the million Palestinians now under its jurisdiction. He
did not think that there would be any meaningful resistance by the
Palestinians in the West Bank, but Israeli apprehensions of possible
civil disobedience -- or worse, street fighting in the narrow lanes of
the old Palestinian cities -- could be used as a factor to persuade
Israel to agree to the final politial resolution he was now
proposing. For all these reasons time was of the essence. It had to
happen now if it were to happen at all.
He seemed to have found an answer that satisfied him and he did not
look back. He was a decisive man who hated hesitation. He was brave to
the point of recklessness. He took no precautions. He published
several articles in local and international journals statin gthat the
only resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was through the
peaceful establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the
Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. He made himself available to
journalists and gave interviews to the many who flocked to our
house. But most important, he drafted the declaration for the
establishment of the Palestinian state, which he circulated to other
Palestinian leaders in the area and then presented to the Israeli
leadership. He knew that if he could garner enough support for his
ideas among both Palestinians and Israelis, history could be
changed. He believed this was a unique opportunity.
But the Israeli government leaders to whom the plan was presented
didn't even respond. They just let it pass. They, and we, missed
another opportunity for peace.
Dan [Bavely, one of the two Israelis mentioned above] wrote a book
called Missed Opportunities and Dreams. Talking to Dan helped
me see the events of that time in their proper historical
perspective. I told him that I didn't believe my father was a
politician. He was instead a visionary. A politician assesses events
and takes what actions he thinks he can get away with. How could my
father have possibly thought he could get away with this one?
Dan disagreed: "Aziz was a strategist. He was shrewd and meticulous
and had thought of every angle: the legal, the political, the
"But do you really believe it could have worked?" I asked.
"Yes," he said emphatically.
"And what about the PLO?"
"It was not until 1968 that the organization came into prominence,
after the battle of Karameh. At the time your father made his
proposal, the PLO was not in the picture."
"Jordan wanted the whole thing back. In Israel we had no interest
in returning the territories to Jordan."
"Was East Jerusalem to be included in the Palestinian state?"
Jerusalem was not a problem then. Everything that you hear now
about Jerusalem and the way it is presented as a central issue that is
among the most difficult to resolve did not feature then. Yes,
Jerusalem was part of the deal."
I said, "You were willing to agree to a full Palestinian state."
"A full Palestinian state."
Obviously, this proposal didn't fail only on the Palestinian side.
In particular, it was just a matter of days until Israel annexed East
Jerusalem. It's harder to read just what the situation with Jordan was.
In 1947-48 Israeli leaders negotiated with King Abdullah of Jordan to
cede large parts of the West Bank rather than allow them to become
part of an independent Palestinian state (Golda Meir, who soon replaced
Eshkol as Prime Minister, was personally involved in those negotiations),
and the "Jordan option" remained a favorite of Shimon Peres (also a
prominent figure in the Israeli government of the time) until King
Hussein eventually killed the idea. The coalition government also
included people like Menachem Begin, whose idea of Israel's proper
borders didn't stop at the Jordan River.
Still, the prediction that time was of the essence -- that such a
proposal had to be moved on quickly in order to make it successful --
was clearly correct. One thing that I think that proposals like this
do is to show, by their very reasonableness, that Israel's oft-stated
desire for peace was less than met the ear. Israel accepted the initial
U.N. partition proposal, but didn't implement its proposed borders,
and rejected every subsequent mediation proposal -- going so far as
to assassinate the U.N.'s first mediator. It's easy now to fault the
Arab committee's rejection of partition, but it should be recalled
that the rejection took place before the nakba -- the refugee
crisis -- at a time when many Arabs lived in areas allocated to the
Jewish partitions; also that Britain itself did nothing to implement
the U.N. partition boundaries, and conspired to bring Transjordan into
the West Bank. Israel consistently refused to negotiate peace treaties
following the U.N. brokered armistice agreements. Over the next 20
years Israel provoked many border disputes, especially with Syria,
as well as attacking positions in Gaza and the West Bank (e.g., the
Sharon-led attack on Qibya in 1953, generally cited as his first
major atrocity). Israel waged aggressive wars in 1956 and 1967, and
has continued to occupy territory seized in 1967 to today. One can
cite many more examples, especially regarding the Palestinians.
It is worth noting that even under the many insults and injustices
of military rule in the occupied territories, it took 20 years before
the Palestinians inside the West Bank and Gaza raised a significant
level of resistance. Therefore, it's hard to see that there would
have been a problem forming a Palestinian state in 1967 that would
have recognized Israel, and it's clear that that would have undercut
any anti-Israel positions among Arabs elsewhere. There would still
have been the refugee crisis to resolve, and that would have been
thorny, but it doesn't appear to have been a precondition. It is
likely that the resolution then, as now, would have been for the
refugees to move to the Palestinian state, and that would have been
easier done then, with much less longlasting damage. Moreover, with
the Palestinians happy, about all that Egypt and Syria could have
done was to sue for peace, with Israel returning the conquered lands
in exchange for demilitarization and normalization of relations.
On the other hand, what did Israel gain by ignoring this proposal?
More wars, much hatred, a legacy of imperialism, and a thoroughly
militarized society increasingly dominated by religious maniacs,
increasingly ostracized by the rest of the world.