Sunday, October 3, 2010

Reflections on Palestinian Walks

David asked me a while ago if I'd perhaps read Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, by Raja Shehadeh. I hadn't. David is a bit of a lapsed Zionist, or a disappointed one or something, and he and I disagree regularly about Israel's policies. He was of the opinion that it would be healthy for me to read Shehadeh's book, and perhaps go one day to visit him: David lives very far away, but Shehadeh lives a mere 15 miles from here. I'm not certain David is aware that it's much easier for both Shehadeh and myself to visit him than each other. Anyway, he sent me the book for my improvement.

Alas, I fear I haven't been improved. It's a very interesting book, but I expect I read it differently than David hoped.

Shehadeh is a Ramallah lawyer in his late 50s, so he's only a few years older than I. He loves walking in the hills and the idea of the book is that he describes a series of walks he's taken from the late 1970s until earlier this decade, each more hemmed in than the previous one by the Israelis, who are literally stealing his land; indeed, the power of the book is that we see how there's ever less land for him to walk on. No-one should be surprised that it was widely acclaimed, well reviewed, and was awarded the George Orwell Prize.

The book starts out badly.
When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago, I was not aware that I was traveling through a vanishing landscape. For centuries the central highland hills of Palestine, which slope on one side towards the sea and on the other towards the desert, had remained relatively unchanged. As I grew up in Ramallah, the land from my city to the northern city of Nablus might, with a small stretch of the imagination, have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ.(p.xi)
Oops. And who, pray tell, was Christ? Of what group? Assuming his contemporaries might have recognized the hills - a plausible assumption - why choose him and not, say, King David, or Jeremiah, or Isaiah? A couple pages later we're told that
In Palestine every wadi, spring, hillock, escarpement and cliff has a name, usually with a particular meaning. Some of the names are Arabic, others Canaanite or Aramaic, evidence of how ancient the land is and how it has been continuously inhabited over many centuries(p. xviii).
Oops again.

The first chapter describes a walk in Spring 1978, and here I warmed towards Shehadeh. Not only because his love for the hills is palpable and a-political, but because he describes things I've also often seen and enjoyed. Indeed, the years between 1974-1982 were the heyday of my own hill-walking times, as my friends and I explored the hills, wadis and, as we gained confidence and experience, went out in lengthening arcs to the deserts; I've taken some of the same walks he has. Not since many years, though: it would be too dangerous.

In spite of the book's title, the walks rather recede into the background, as the double themes of Israelis stealing land and desecrating it move ever to the foreground. So let's think about them.

There is truth to the first theme: indeed, Israeli settlements have been taking over land. If you read carefully you'll note that no Palestinians are losing their homes in the process, and certainly not their lives; the Israeli occupation is far less brutal than many such exercises worldwide. The settlements are on the hill-tops, which were previously empty, yet they and the land confiscated for road-building often belonged to Palestinian individuals, who lost them in the process. Shehadeh represented many Palestinian land owners, and his descriptions of the legal machinations which have enabled Israel to set up settlements are, sadly, true. He is of course correct in saying that the settlement project has been engineered to dominate the terrain and cut the Palestinian territories into segments.

It's also hard to argue with his perspective that identifies settlements as a long-term Israeli policy. I think it isn't, not only because many Israelis such as myself have been consistently against if for decades, but also because my reading of the story is that after the mid-1980s at the very latest there was never any strategic government project of settlement. Yet this doesn't convince Shehadeh, who sees the settlements growing, and correctly understands from close up that this couldn't be happening without the connivance of many government agencies. To my mind, this demonstrates how adept the settlers have become at manipulating the system - but perhaps it's a moot discussion. The settlements are growing, in spite of the fact that it has been decades since they enjoyed broad public support.

The story of the disappearing countryside as Shehadeh tells it is wrong. He would have us believe that it was pristine and untouched, along came the Israelis with their bulldozers and constructions companies, then with their fences and walls, and now the hills are effectively gone. Not so.

Shehadeh was born on a Jordanian-controlled West Bank that had about 500,000 people. By the time the Israelis arrived, in 1967, it had something like 700,000. Today there are maybe 2,500,000 Palestinians, and 300,000 Israelis. Do the maths: it's a vastly more crowded place than it used to be, most of the added population are Palestinians, and the picturesque but primitive little villages he and I both remember from our youth are gone forever, with or without Israeli settlers. As for the roads, not long ago I was driving along Route 60, the main north-south artery of the West Bank, which in its present form has been paved by Israel. About 90% of the vehicles had Palestinian license plates, and I doubt their drivers were complaining that the road is much better than the original one paved by the British in the 1920s. If ever both sides manage to agree on partition, the Israelis will leave the infrastructures for the Palestinians, and probably also the settlements.

At one point he bemoans the ugly growth of Jerusalem, no longer a picturesque town in his mind. In 1967 there were 250,000 people there, 70,000 Palestinians; today there are 670,000, 270,000 of them Palestinians. Again, do the maths.

Also, I might add, the statement that settlements of Jews are always esthetically uglier than Arab towns is racist. No author could get away with making such a statement unless it be about Jews.

Then there's the matter of the violence. The meta-narrative, the atmosphere of the book, is all about the violence Israel is committing on the Palestinians.Yet when you read the book, the actual violence - shooting at the author, threatening to arrest him or kill his companion - those incidents are all committed by Palestinians, never by Israelis. Israelis use those legal machinations to take land, but they don't shoot or arrest hikers. That's done by Palestinians: the author implies they've been brutalized by Israel, but it's an unconvincing implication. Even odder, there are repeated cases in the book in which the author encounters settlers. Close up, they turn out to be just as human as anyone else. Shehadeh doesn't like their presence, but he's honest enough to admit that they're just people.

Finally, there's the context. If you know how to look - I did, but most English-speaking readers won't - you'll find that even Shehadeh alludes to Palestinian violence against Israeli hikers. But it's only an allusion or two. Nowhere in the book will you come across any of the following pertinent ideas: There has been a mutually waged war going on between Palestinians and Israelis for almost a century, a war in which both sides are actors, and both sides bear responsibility. This war has carved borders, and borders have consequences. Reaching peace will not make the borders go away, on the contrary, it will mean that they're permanent and mutually recognized. Most of the present security measures - walls, armed settlers, mutual suspicion when meeting - were never an Israeli policy but evolved as responses. The fact that most non-settler Israelis haven't been walking the hills of the West Bank since the late 1980s is because they're afraid (and consequently, they've written off the entire area and wish the Palestinians would take it already). Nor will the reader find any mention in this book of Israeli offers to dismantle most settlements, of their dismantling of settlements in Sinai and Gaza, and of repeated offers to partition the land between both peoples, nor of Palestinian violence that has followed such Israeli moves. (The book was first published in 2007; the Israelis left Gaza in 2005, and Hamas won the elections in 2006).

Ultimately it's a depressing book. Shehadeh comes across as a moderate, reasonable man, non-violent and rational. Yet there's no acceptance anywhere in his book - not that I could see, and I looked for it - that this very small place is the homeland of both our nations, each with legitimate claims to all of it, each with an urgent need to reconcile themselves to the loss of parts of it. He accepts that Israel is powerful and implicitly here to say, but gives no inkling of recognition that there's justice in that. The Israelis are aggressors, the Palestinians are victims, and that's the whole story.

It's hard to see how any of this will lead to reconciliation and peace.


Barry Meislin said...

Orwell Prize, eh?

Most appropriate....

Anonymous said...

I've had glimpses of the Orwell Prize being given to people who I feel sure make Orwell roar with outrage in his netherlife - I've never had a close look but decided on the face of it that the Orwell Prize is a sham.

I've taken some of the same walks he has. Not since many years, though: it would be too dangerous.
what a sad sad thing to have to say.

Assuming that there is a long term strategy of any such endeavour like creating whole cities is an attempt to create a myth, there never is. Even if in anything there was a grand plan at the beginning life's shenanigans take care that there are so many amendments and adjustments to the plan over time that granting anybody with planning it is ridiculous. I remember one military to have said something to the effect that you can plan a war/an attack/a battle as careful as you want to, once hostilities start it is as likely as not that only unexpected stuff will happen.

The Israelis are aggressors, the Palestinians are victims, and that's the whole story.
and even if that were true, wouldn't I opt for the society that gives me a better chance at a good life?
as for example this guy seems to do–-part-one/

and yes writing as if the changed numbers didn't exist is a favourite of nostalgianists of all colours and makes me suspect them of dishonesty right away. Remember Orwell did a most meticulous math on what people used their income for in Wigan Pier - he would have never ever respected a writer who disregarded numbers.


Anonymous said...

The Economist reviewed this book, unfortunately the review is behind a pay wall, and I don't feel like digging out the back copies at the moment (the E-site doesn't even give the date for the review). However, I don't recall it offering any criticism of the book or even mentioning the trouble Shehadeh had with his fellow Palestinians. Perhaps someone could check?

Anonymous said...

T34 - thanks for the hint - here is an excerpt of the review
Lost land -- Walking in Palestine -- Jun 12th 2008 from The Economist print edition
A sad and beautiful account of a much changed landscape
IT IS something of an irony that a land whose timeless beauty has survived basically unchanged since biblical times is being transformed by a people who base their claim to it on biblical history. Ugly, ever-expanding Israeli settlements sprawl on the West Bank's hilltops; great roads splice their way through its undulating, terraced hills; wildernesses have become national parks that are barred to Palestinians; and Arab villages that once blended organically into the landscape are little more than besieged ghettos.
Raja Shehadeh, a lawyer and writer living in Ramallah, used international and Israeli law to fight Israel's seizure of land belonging to Palestinians. He struggled tirelessly in the courts for years even while recognising that successive Israeli governments, determined to establish possession of vital parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, were not listening. In the end it was his own people who forced him to acknowledge defeat: the 1993 Oslo accords, he believes, gave the game away. He argues that in signing those accords Yasser Arafat put the principles of recognition and a possible two-state solution ahead of the need to stop the process of Israeli colonisation which was shredding one of those two states to ribbons. In his words, "the hollow language of peace" ran on as "our land was being transformed before our eyes."
Mr Shehadeh's delight at all times of stress was to ramble in the wild countryside. "Palestinian Walks", a short, superbly written book, recounts six such walks taken between 1978 and 2006. It was published last year in Britain (but only this month in the United States) and recently won the Orwell prize, an award for political writing.

which proves to me again that our be me admired host has admirably beautiful manners.

the excerpt is to be found on this website


NormanF said...

This is the way even moderate Arabs think.

The Jews have no rights a collectivity, as a nation.

They only have rights at best as individuals belonging to a religion.

This is the reason peace is not going to happen in the Middle East in our lifetime.

The Arabs are still unreconciled to the existence of another nation alongside theirs, which exists in which what was always its homeland.

Y. Ben-David said...

Although I think you are doing good work, you are absolutely wrong about the settlements. The ONLY possible way to real peace is for Israel to keep building the settlements. Dismantling them or handing them over to the Arabs only proves to them that we are weak and it will only be a matter of time until we go under. The settlement enterprise will eventually prove to the Arabs that their war against Israel is hopeless. Destroying settlements gives the Arabs hope in their struggle to eradicate Israel. When the Arabs lose this hope, then it will be possible to reach an agreement giving the Arabs a political window WITHOUT infringing on Jewish rights throughout ALL of Eretz Israel. But it will not happen before this.
Soviet Communism collapsed, and Nasserite Pan-Arabism, which at one time seemed to be unstoppable also collapsed. The current radical Islamic war against Israel will collapse as well.

L. King said...

I read Shehadah's book a few months ago. I also do a fair bit of hiking near where I live in Southern Ontario.

Just like Shehadah I've noticed the extent to which civilization has been encroaching on the natural world. A few years ago I took my family on a paddle up to Ragged Falls just SW of Algonquin Park. Like I did as a kid we walked up the Oxtongue River, wading through water and winding our way through the boulders to reach the top of the falls and marvelled at nature's power. What I didn't have the heart to do was point out that on the other side of the falls was now a short path to a parking lot and the highway and you could have driven up in comfort to see the Falls.

The creek at the end of the street where I grew up and caught tadpoles has long since been paved over and gone underground. When I go along the Bruce Trail I bring a garbage bag to pick up water bottles and other refuse that people leave behind.

It's not an uncommon problem and it's one I'm sympathetic to. The only difference here is that Shehadah blames the occupation. The real problem is modernity, and you can find the same thing everywhere.

SafeinUSA said...

From the safety of the US, I have known and/or met three generations of a Palestinian Christian family. The grandfather told his children to get out of the West Bank because from his experience working in the Jordanian civil service, Muslims would always be promoted over Christians. He told this to his children before the Six Day War in 1967. Several of his children went to the US and did quite well, as they were bright and well-educated.[One of his children was working in Kuwait during Gulf War I , and suffered the consequence of Palestinian support for Saddam.]

One of the grandsons who was raised in the West Bank went to the US for graduate school. After getting his graduate degree, he alternated between working in his profession and political activism in both the US and back in the West Bank. All his vitriol was directed against the Israelis, even when some of his cousins in the West Bank were the victims of Muslim violence.

I also note that he was vehement against the Israeli "invasion" of the West Bank, but had no answer when it was pointed out that Israel had pointed out to King Hussein that if no hostile fire came from the West Bank, it wouldn't be touched.

From this I conclude that there is a certain amount of brain-lock among Palestinians.

4infidels said...

Ah, yes, the good old economist...the land was perfect and unchanged since Biblical times until those awful Jews returned and blighted the landscape.

If "Palestine" really never changed over the years, what happened to all the trees during Muslim rule and why was it necessary for the Zionists to "redeem" land during the early years of Israel?

Perhaps Mr. Shehadeh would have preferred that the life expectancy remained at 46, as it was when the Israeli "occupation" began rather than 70-something that it is now, so that he wouldn't have to live through the humiliation of witnessing the horrors of Jewish return and survival. And I'm sure things were better before the tremendous economic growth during the 1970s and 1980s. Oh, yeah, they were perfect back when there were no universities and illiteracy was prevalent.

Other than Khaled Abu Toameh and a few high profile apostates from Islam, how many Palestinians can you think of for whom the entire story isn't one of Israeli crimes and Palestinian victimization? How many books written by Palestinians don't depict pre-Zionist Palestine as a paradise and everything since as heart-break, humiliation, dispossession, cosmic injustice and worse persecution than the Jews faced in Nazi Germany (which, by the way, was fabricated or greatly exaggerated by the Jews to win sympathy for their crimes in Palestine)?

I'm not saying that the "occupation" has been something that the Palestinians have no right to oppose (peacefully); it just seems to be extremely rare for even the most advanced and educated Palestinian to acknowledge what it might be like to stand in a Jew's place or that compromise might be best for all involved. Even those who have benefitted most from contact with Jews or been persecuted most unmercifully by their fellow Arabs give the impression that only the eradication of Israel, through a triumphant and bloody war with lots of slaughtered Jews, could ever make them whole, quiet their rage and ease their sense of victimization.

Then they can go back to killing each other and carrying out blood feuds between families and clans, like they did before the Zionists arrived and as they still do today.

AKUS said...

This immediately rang a bell. Of course, where else would this author write except in the Guardian? - a real tear jerker The blue velvet hills of my youth have been destroyed in July 2009, carefully designed to appeal to the sense the British seem to have of the romantic Arab on his camel, striding across the trackless vistas of the Middle East.

"A gazelle leapt ahead of me. When I reached the top I could see hills spread below me like crumpled blue velvet, with the hamlets of Janiya and Deir Ammar huddled between its folds. "

All, all destroyed by the evil Israelis.

As anyone who has spent any time on the WB will tell you, those "blue velvet" hills exist only in the author's mind in place of dusty, rocky slopes that only turn green in the spring and then remain a dusty brown for the rest of the year, or he is confusing them with the Smokey Mountains of Eastern USA.

As for gazelles leaping out - if there were any gazelles, which I doubt, it was due to Israel's determined effort to reintroduce species decimated or made extinct by Arabs living on the WB and in the Negev.

The very first commenter pointed out what yakov has here - that the demographics have made the changes, with or witrhout the Israelis:


6 July 2009 9:27AM

The Palestinian territories, as with much of the Third World, has seen a massive population expansion. That has lead to massive development of lands in Israel and Palestine, mostly around pre-existing settlements. These also destroy the flora of the region. These also cover hills in housing. These also irrevocably change the landscape.

Shehadeh has written a few more articles for the Guardian since - one about "walking in the Scottish Highlands, and their unexpected parallels with his homeland"

Anonymous said...

My greatgrandparents made aliyah over 100 years ago. My grandfather's recollection of Jaffa 100 years ago? Poverty, heat, dust (and interestingly) Arabs stricken with blindness. So much for paradise.

Anonymous said...

this thread reminds me of all the stories I've read about Marie Antoinette and her companions playing at shepherds. I can't remember it being described anywhere explicitly but I feel entitled to guess that servants took good care to not let the ladies and their gents be inconvenienced by "droppings". The poor nostalgic intellectuals of today have to delude themselves into conjuring up that better past always neglecting the one point that probably really made it better, i.e. that there were a lot fewer of us. 1930 we were 2 billion 2005 we were 6,5 billion. Anywhere else the fact that something has more than tripled is considered worth mentioning but not when it comes to back to the roots phantasies about once undulating hills.

As I have shared for 2 years the working life of a Greek islander I assure you that he, his family and his friends had only disdain for the fancy notions of the "well-educated" of how desirable their life was. It was a good and a decent way to make a living but it had no back to something purer or better to it and all of them were happy to upgrade whatever was upgradable ... and those I met who had moved to Athens became urban in no time whatsoever not hankering back to the padded house coats their mothers wore at home in winter to keep the cold at bay as lost treasures of better days having gotten destroyed by civilization. And I spare you stories about the suffering caused by the dentures available for the islanders

Also I have lived to the age of 13 under occupation and thereafter under quasi-occupation. It was a good life, a free life, a prosperous life, a life in which for a long time every year was better than the preceding one but then we didn't waste our time on resisting what our forebears had brought on us but concentrated on making the best of a given situation - unpatriotic? maybe but very enjoyable and humane as it didn't compel us to maim and kill


Anonymous said...

" In Palestine every wadi, spring, hillock, escapement and cliff has a name, usually with a particular meaning"
How many of them are from the Bible ? even the word for village in Arabic comes from the Hebrew. And how many family names of Palestinians show that they came from all over the middle east [after the Jewish migration] and not from "generations' in this area ?

I want a two state solution I am against the settlers and so on, but whenever I read their account of the reality I see how difficult it is to find some common ground.

Shimshonit said...

Shehadeh's nostalgia trip is typical of the way Arabs tend to think: that the good ol' days were the best, and that it's been all downhill since then. Modernity pales in importance to what was written or done in ancient times, so it stands to reason that the march of progress across this land (including as it does the increased population and continued building by Arabs across the West Bank) is unwelcome and needs a scapegoat.

Thank you for this thoughtful review. It's helpful to have someone who knows the situation on the ground review a book like this, to be able to critique it knowledgeably.