Tales from the West Bank: Palestinian Raja Shehadeh chronicles life during occupation

The author and lawyer has kept a diary since the 1967 Israeli invasion of his homeland.

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The Independent Online

13 December 2009

I'm just back from a lovely day spent in Wadi Kelt, the ravine on the way between Jerusalem and Jericho. This is one of the few places in the West Bank where one can be sure of finding water even after the drought of the past eight months. Turned out we were not the only ones who had the idea of an outing there. Just after we put down our rucksacks and stretched out on the rock in the sun, a Palestinian family of nine arrived. They were disappointed to find us there but settled for the second best slab of rock on the opposite side of the pool. Their smaller group included two bearded men and two young women with hijab, another of undetermined age with the niqab and four children. We, on the other hand, were a mixed group of Palestinians and foreigners, photographers and teachers, all of whom live and work in the West Bank.

As soon as I saw them I wondered how they had managed the rocky path without falling in the water. The women in our group invariably wore jeans and colourful shirts. I had been thinking as we passed the Israeli checkpoint of how clothes distinguish the various groups in our tiny land… the Israeli women soldiers wore tight khaki trousers with a low waist emphasising the contours of their hips, bedecked with mobile phones. They looked at us through their dark sunglasses giving us orders with their hands while exchanging flirty looks and sexual innuendos with the male soldiers with whom they conversed in loud Hebrew. To them we were mere specks on the terrain that belonged exclusively to them, where they could move us around with a flick of their small finger like pieces on a chequers board.

From the way we looked and dressed, the sombre-looking family at the picnic must have suspected we were Israelis, but our fellow picnickers were within earshot and could easily hear us speaking Arabic. Unfortunately we did not do what would have been normal a few years ago, perhaps because we drew an imaginary line between us, with them, the suspected Islamists on the one side, and us seculars on the other, with the fresh water pond between. No one from our side either greeted them or went over to their side to invite them to join us on our side of the rock which was large enough to accommodate them as well. So a distance was established between us from the beginning, much wider than the natural divide, the small pool of water that separated us.

4 January 2010

Penny and I went today to Bethlehem to look at the work of Banksy, the British street artist, on the Annexation Wall there. This conflict and the methods Israel uses to repress Palestinians are producing responses in many parts of the world. Banksy is one artist – but not the only one – who has come to express his feelings about the situation using his wall as the canvas.

We took the Walajeh Road heading f southwest on a circular route to Bethlehem which is directly south of Jerusalem, all in order to avoid the checkpoint between the two cities. We were stopped at the Walajeh checkpoint which I had heard also checks whether those crossing have paid their taxes to Israel, just to make life more complicated. But there was no big delay. The road meandered along the hills overlooking beautiful valleys with ancient villages spread around. One of these, Battir, which lies further east, is famous for its eggplants, and has one of the earliest examples of terraced agriculture. The planned route of the Annexation Wall will destroy these fields that have been cultivated for many centuries. So extensive would the loss be that in a rare case of coordinated action Israelis and Palestinians are working together to prevent the wall from being built there.

As we drove through the narrow winding road skirting the beautiful hills overlooking the forested valley and listening to music, Penny and I reviewed the last decade. We found it replete with wars. We counted five that took place in our immediate region (which does not include Afghanistan), each more brutal than the last.

17 July

Out with Alex and Maha who we hadn't seen for a while. Alex said that the last time he went through the Israeli airport they made him strip and did a thorough search, even looking between his toes. He had a scratch on his head and they removed the plaster to look under it. In his soft kind of way Alex then asked the young man conducting the search: "Why are you doing this?" The young man gave him the usual answer. "Orders and security." Still speaking gently Alex said: "For security there are machines to search the bags. Security cannot mean looking between my toes. I am as old as your father. Does it not embarrass you to do this?" The young man must have felt so bad that he ended up trying his best to help Alex, taking him through to the pilots' line for passport control so he would not have to wait.

19 July

I took the shared taxi to the office this morning. Walking down from the last stop I saw that the Grand Hotel gate was open. It was a hot day. The air was totally still and the sunlight seemed to be beaming straight down in white-hot, stifling rays. The only cool shaded place in Ramallah would be under the trees in the large garden of this lonely place that has been closed for the past 28 years. I expected the main gate would be locked but I was surprised to find it open. Maybe there had been some emergency and they took Aida, the proprietor, now in her late eighties, to the hospital, omitting to close the gate. Should I go in? I did.

Our old house was a few minutes' walk from the Grand Hotel, where my grandmother Julia used to spend most of her summer afternoons. I walked through the empty car park and into the driveway that circled around the oval garden. I hadn't done this for a long time. I was looking carefully to see what had become of the place; this is where I had played as a child, studied for my exams as an adolescent, and learned to love plants. It is the only part of Ramallah that has remained frozen in time.

I could see that the garden was kept in top condition. Beneath the pine trees in the front garden were the asters that I remembered, the geraniums, and the chrysanthemums. What I did not remember were the amaryllis with their wide shiny green leaves spreading like a fan. Out of this profusion shot the most gorgeous bell-shaped flowers with variegated petals of orange, red and yellow, as exuberant and flamboyant as their owner, Aida, had once been, with her beautiful, intelligent blue eyes.

In the 1960s she had opened the first nightclub in Ramallah. It was called the Casino. There the Palestinian and Jordanian middle class came to dance to the tunes of the live band Aida brought from Italy every summer. I walked across to see the state of the open-air dancefloor. A single chair, one of those old-style wicker chairs with the rounded brown armrests, stood forlornly on the bandstand. The perfectly round piste de danse in the centre of the Casino was still as I remembered it, light pink in colour with a smooth surface that now was covered by a thin scattering of pine needles. In one of the corners which used to be reserved for large groups, where wrought iron, pale green tables and chairs used to be set, there were five hens and a rooster. They remained solemnly in place, refusing to honour my presence. It was a sad, eerie scene. My young friends and I used to go to the rink in the afternoon and mimic the trumpeter as he bent backwards and forwards blowing on his instrument, and we would peek into the dressing rooms where the musicians disappeared between numbers.

It was here that I saw my first trapeze show, my first belly-dancer, and my first magician. I never got to dance though. By the time I attained the age when it was proper in conservative Ramallah for a young man to go out in f the evening, the 1967 war had begun and the Israeli army had occupied the town – eventually making the hotel their headquarters.

What terrible timing on my part. I was born at the height of my parents' miseries and impoverishment in 1951, barely three years after the Nakba [the Arabic word, meaning "catastrophe", used to describe the day after the anniversary of Israel's independence, in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes or were displaced]. The tension afflicting their life then affects me to this day. And this dancing rink closed just as I turned 16 and could have begun frequenting it, so I never got to dance and enjoy myself. I was stuck at home with a 24-hour curfew just when I needed to be out experiencing life.

21 July

Just back from the Popular Arts dance show in the grounds of the new Ramallah Cultural Palace. Ramallah night-life is flourishing now that Israeli jeeps have stopped haunting the streets at night, making one think twice before leaving the house. With the extensive Palestinian police presence it has also become as unlikely to be accosted by armed civilians in the streets as it is to have one's car stolen. While our security forces have a troubling record, the local police are doing a good job of keeping law and order. Many more police cars, donated by some European country or other, patrol the streets. Policemen are generally well-behaved. They are now uniformed and equipped with radios. It was entirely different when Yasser Arafat was alive. He kept everything in flux, and disorder reigned. This helped create the impression that Palestinian society was corrupt and undeserving of a state.

Who would want to live in constant fear of having his car stolen? Better build a wall that keeps out the hooligans and makes it possible for us to live in peace thought the Israelis.

24 October

Yesterday we went for a walk with our friend the Palestinian photographer Bassam Almohor ending in the village of Ajoul. We passed by the area where the new Palestinian city of Rawabi is to be established. When there are over 100 villages around Ramallah what is the point of establishing a new one? Why not expand existing ones, keeping the development in line with the contours of the hills? By acquiring land, chopping off the tops of hills, destroying the landscape we are only mimicking the Israeli ways which for decades we have been criticising.

We spoke to one landowner from Ajoul who doesn't like the new development and worries that they will end by destroying the spring from which he irrigates his small farm and grove. "We have lived next to the settlement for 40 years and have had no trouble from them. But these investors will destroy our life," he said.

1 December

It appears from documents recently released by WikiLeaks that Israel wanted Hamas to take over in Gaza so it could wage a war on Gaza as a hostile state. Which is precisely what it did.

A group of brave and honest former Israeli soldiers have formed a group called Breaking the Silence. This organisation has published testimonies by its members that reveal what they were made to do during their military service. In one such account the soldier describes how he forced a well-dressed man to leave his car when it was raining in order to humiliate him, and how glad his fellow soldiers were when he did this because until then he was acting kindly towards Palestinians. It was like an initiation rite which the soldier later seems to have regretted. Perhaps I was that Palestinian.

20 December

I have just written to the people at the Khan, [state-sponsored] Theatre in Jerusalem to say that I refused their proposal to dramatise my book.

Attempting to convince me to grant them the rights, they kept on repeating how important it was for their audience to see this play. I agreed and this is why I publish my books in Israel; but the fact of having the play performed in a state-sponsored theatre speaks for itself and constitutes a clear violation of the boycott which I firmly support.

But this rejection has been more painful than I expected. It has brought home to me how far apart the two sides are. In the past I used to celebrate Seder at the homes of Israeli friends, and here I am rejecting this offer to have my work presented to an Israeli public. It was a dream when I wrote the book that I would be able to hold a mirror up to their faces.

29 January 2011

At long last there is hope. Lots of hope. Egypt has finally revolted. And a change in government would be a blow to Israel, which has so far been comfortably cushioned by the defeated regimes along its borders.

We Palestinians have long been deprived of freedom but we have not been deprived of our dignity. It is different for Egyptians who are oppressed by one of their own, not a by a coloniser as we are.

3 May

My return trip from the US, for a short but tiring book tour, was harrowing. For nine hours I was in a window seat with an obese man in the middle who used a CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) machine with tubes that made him look like an Indian elephant god.

And before we landed, Continental made us watch an absurd film about Israel and its claim to be a continuously existing state from thousands of years ago. They showed Bethlehem, and the map and description were entirely consistent with Greater Israel. They are shameless.

So there I was, ostensibly returning home, with the American airline carrying me there fully collaborating with Israel in brainwashing me and my fellow passengers into totally denying the existence of my country. What a welcome!

15 May, Nakba Day

The Arab Spring has indeed emoboldened Arab Youth. Today thousands of Palestinian and Syrian youths marched from Syria to the border with the occupied Golan Heights. I was overwhelmed.

There is no denying the young marchers' immense courage. Thousands of Palestinians whose parents had been forced out of their country in 1948, along with Syrians whose parents had been forced out of the Golan Heights in 1967, marched to the Syrian-Israeli border, waving Palestinian flags.

When they reached the fence, the Golani Arabs on the other side called out: "Stop! Mine Fields!" But nothing could stop them – not the fence, not the danger of mines, not the Israeli guns.

As they landed on occupied Golani soil, those on the Israeli side began repeating, "May God protect you!" No mines exploded; there were none. Everyone was stunned: for over four decades they had been deterred from crossing by what proved [to be] a flimsy wire fence and an area of combed earth, which was supposed to be planted with mines but seems to have had none.

Israel and Syria had convinced everyone of the impregnability of this border when all along, as these youths discovered today, one could walk across unharmed. The psychological barrier had proved more effective than any explosives, and once it was overcome no barrier was left. This is the most important lesson of this Arab Spring. Without vision we can never get anywhere. This is the first step.

Today I waited at the Kalandia crossing on my way back to Ramallah from Jerusalem. Driving past the high wall with the barbed wire which separates Arab homes and neighbourhoods from each other, I thought of that wire fence between Israel's Occupied Golan Heights and Syria. There a fence, here a formidable wall.

15 July

Two weeks ago Tony Blair was quoted as saying that to ask Israel to give up Jerusalem is like asking Britain to give up Westminster to Germany. I think this alone should disqualify him from his post as the Quartet's special envoy to the Middle East. With Blair heading the Quartet and Dennis Rose leading the US team, the chances for a negotiated peace are nil.

18 September

Just back from the annual Muwatin conference. For many years now the conference had to do with our own small world of Palestine. This has changed. This one is concerned with the effect on Palestine of the Arab Spring, and the effect of the Palestinian cause on the Arab states. So our horizons are widening and our links to the rest of the Arab world are waxing.

22 September

Today the UN discusses Palestine's bid for UN recognition of full statehood, and schools are closed for the day off. A carnival atmosphere is in the streets. Penny went to the celebrations while I stayed at home. They looked better on television and in any case they were staged, mainly with TV in mind.

23 September

Penny and I dutifully sat before the television screen to hear our leader give his speech to the UN General Assembly.

So often during the speech we would experience cuts in the transmission. Abbas would start saying "a state in…" and the sound and the picture would go. And Penny would shout "but a state where?"

It was reminiscent of the 1988 Arafat speech at the national council declaring a Palestinian national state, when the Israelis cut off electricity and we played Scrabble by candlelight.

After Netanyahu finished delivering his speech I heard Penny calling me. She was sitting on the roof. "Come and join me," she said. "There are lovely clouds in the sky."

I grabbed a sweater and climbed up. With the noise of the television off and my eyes cast on the sky I felt my head begin to clear. I could see stars shimmering and shining brightly then dimming when the clouds drifting over our planet veiled them. Lights from the coast shone in the distance but I didn't look at them. I looked straight up and was lost in the vastness of the universe, trying to clear my head, an essential exercise in this conflict which I am sure will continue to plague us for many more years to come.

Postscript, 6 May 2012

Walking home today I passed the old Abu Rayya school. The building evokes painful memories. During the direct Israeli rule it served as the vehicle licensing department. Now it is nothing but a dirty, windswept, miserable place that only reminds people like me who have lived through the old regime of the miseries that used to take place there, with the military authorities using their power to extract favours and torment petitioners.

The one saving grace of this place is the glorious almond tree in the courtyard that blossoms every winter without fail. From bare branches almost black in colour, it becomes covered with celebratory white blossoms adorned with a single pink spot at the base where the petal and stamen join. It holds on to these flimsy flowers resisting the strong wind of the cruel month of February with its persistent rain until the blossoms turn to fruit.

Winter's gloom will eventually pass and the glorious spring that will follow will lighten our spirits and bring hope to our burdened present. Is there not enough heaviness in the world to favour the celebration of beauty with its promise of happiness?

This is an extract from Raja Shehadeh's 'Occupation Diaries' (Profile Books), published on 2 August. To order a copy at the special price of £9.99 (usually £12.99), including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030