PIJ: Under the current circumstances of the Israeli occupation, do you feel secure in your ability to practice human rights law?

Raja Shehadeh: Obviously, once again we are dealing with the Israeli occupation. The Israeli occupation is not the responsibility of the occupier alone, but also of the international community. According to international law, the international community bears the responsibility for the upholding and the enforcement of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which applies to occupation. And they are not taking these responsibilities seriously. It is a very strange outcome. When you think of the case of olive picking, for example: The Palestinians have no rights, no ability and no security to go to their own olive orchards and pick their own olives. They need to have the protection of the Israelis and foreign nationals who come all the way from the far ends of the world to be with the Palestinians, to protect them against the settlers and to help them pick their olives. Their governments, on the other hand, do nothing to stop Israel from allowing this great inhumanity and travesty to continue.

So, if you owned an olive orchard, you would not feel safe to go pick your own olives.

Well, it depends where your orchard lies, but there are many cases now where the Jewish settlers stop the owners of the land in order to claim that the land was not used for 10 years and it has become their property. It is a distortion of the law that is so ludicrous, and the fact that it is possible for things such as this to happen in this day and age should be worrying, not only to us Palestinians - who are constantly suffering from this - but to the region and the world as well. Because, as I said, a violation of the law has consequences, and international law recognizes the right of the individual to enjoy a very important development in human civilization: the fact that all human beings are considered equal. This was not always the case. It was natural during colonial times to look at the "natives" as a lower level of humanity. And then the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in 1948, according to which all human beings were declared equal. It took many years and two world wars before legislation for equality became the only way to protect humankind.
The Jewish people had, of course, a major role in the development of human rights and international law. And for Israel to be so cynical about the law, and so disrespectful, is a fact that will affect Israel and Israelis as much as it affects us.

In your practice, and those of some of the people around you, do you think that there are still people on the Israeli side who think that the Arabs are a lower class than the Jews, and that the Palestinians don't deserve the same rights as the Israelis or the settlers?

There are times when certain instances seem to suggest that this is the case. For example, the Palestinian Wildlife Society was having an event in the Jordan Valley; they were stopped by the Israeli army and asked what they were doing there. When they explained that they had come to save some fledgling birds, the soldiers could not believe it. In their minds, Palestinians could not possibly be concerned about the lives of wild birds. Another instance, which is very indicative, is when a young man was going through the Qalandia checkpoint. He was carrying his violin. The soldiers would not believe he was a musician until he was forced to play his violin right there at the checkpoint! I think Israelis tend to be so full of themselves that they believe they are of a higher level of development - which is all the more shocking because we live in such close proximity. I have no doubt that some of what the Palestinians experience under Israeli occupation is better known in other parts of the world. Europeans know so much more about what is taking place in Palestine than the Israelis who are living next door.

Do you think that the Israelis are not interested in knowing what is happening?

I think the Israelis have adopted a view of how things are, and they are secure in their view and don't want to know. I think that the policy of the closure of the areas has certainly not been a clever policy. It is shrewd, but in a very negative way. Before the closure, it was possible for the two sides to move back and forth so they could find out for themselves about one another, the good and the bad. But with the closures, the only thing they know about the other side is whatever the government tells them. So it seems that they are getting entrenched in their views of the other side, and we don't have an opportunity to test these views. Of course, there are Israelis on the left who are taking risks to find out for themselves, to come on solidarity visits, to do solidarity activities, and this is very, very admirable. But they are the minority.
I'll give you a personal example. The first book I wrote on law in the West Bank - an Israeli responded to it by publishing another full-length book. Then I published a literary book called The Third Way, which was also published in Hebrew, and I got so many letters from Israeli readers who said: We did not know how things were; we are shocked to know. They read and responded, and made their responses known. And then I wrote two books in the late 1990s and [in 2003]: Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine and When the Birds Stopped Singing: Life in Ramallah Under Siege, and both were published in Hebrew and reviewed. The last book, Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape was reviewed in Haaretz, but there was no interest in translating it into Hebrew.

Why do you think this is?

I think there is a sense of bad conscience. Israelis don't want to be disturbed in their minds; they want to think of themselves as part of the West. They are more interested in learning about the West than they are about the Palestinians. They want to block the Palestinians out, put them behind the wall and forget about them. It is wishful thinking - which is very disturbing.

Does it have to do with the idea that if you humanize your enemy and then you wrong him, you hurt yourself? But if you don't, you can justify everything you are doing, because they are abstract; they are not human beings.

Exactly. It is easier to hurt, kill, bomb the houses and destroy the families, the life, of the abstract rather than of human beings. I think the efforts that we use to humanize the other side, trying to reach out to Israeli society are of vital importance. I think that anyone who believes that Jews and Arabs are, ultimately, in this land to stay and to live together must search for and contribute to building bridges. Otherwise there will be a disaster.

Whose voice is louder among the Israelis these days?

I can't speak for the Israelis.

Do you hear more clearly the voice of the fanatics, of the settlers, or the voice of the moderates, of the peace camp?

I read Haaretz in English, but it is totally unrepresentative. There used to be plenty of dissenting voices among the articles, those who protested about what was happening and asked why the settlements were being built. But I think if you ask the average Palestinian who doesn't read Haaretz either in English or in Hebrew, then the voices they hear are not those of the intellectuals. They hear the voices of soldiers coming to harass them and to violate their rights. They hear settlers who are taking their land and who are manning the roadblocks. So it is a very, very negative view. And you hear more and more Palestinians expressing attitudes towards Israeli Jews that I find unacceptable, but their experiences of the other side are so dismal that you understand why they say the things they say and have the attitudes they express.

What do you think about the concept of national security when it comes to the Palestinian people?

I actually think, in the long term, nationalism, which has been the curse of our times, is going to take a new form. These tiny states of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were the creation of the colonial powers only after the First World War. Before that, the whole area was one under the Ottomans. Ultimately, and unless we find a way of cooperating as a region, for the good of the region, none of us will survive. To think in terms of the way that Israelis think, to place ourselves behind walls, to protect ourselves with weapons, and to make sure that we can bomb the hell out of anyone who touches us, is not a viable position. And I hope that Palestine doesn't take this path: to want to have security through weapons and militarism and so on. That's not the way to go. I think it is a short-term view that would only contribute to [shortening] the future life of humans on this beautiful planet of ours. In the Middle East there is a scarcity of water resources. We must find a way to share water if we are to survive here in the long term.

But some people think that the national security of the state goes beyond the borders of that state, that the duty of the state is to protect its citizens and their interests, even when they are outside its national borders. Here you are insecure inside your own land, and you don't find anyone to protect you. What do you think about this need?

I think the Palestinians have come to have very low expectations of any authority. Certainly for most of my life, and I believe this goes for most Palestinians living today, we have not had a sympathetic authority. The Palestinian Authority, which is now in charge of many of the civilian affairs, is a weak authority and doesn't have the means to provide protection and to secure for us freedom of movement, to control the borders or to supply any of the basic needs. So the Palestinians have survived because they do not wait for help to come from others. In my view, there is something empowering about this, even when it is regrettable. But it certainly has become a way of life, a way of survival. And that's why Palestinians, in general, do very well in the world. We find many successful Palestinians; we find a high interest in education. They have grown up with the feeling that if they did not take care of themselves, no one would. And I think it is a very important message.

So, it's a kind of orphanage, with no one to care for them?

The negative consequences of this - which I think Jews have experienced, certainly Zionism has, although, by and large, you can't generalize - is that the world is against us, that everybody in the world wants to destroy us, and you have to be very strong to survive. This is how many Zionists believe it was possible to establish a state. I don't think that the Palestinians have gotten to this point. I don't think they believe that the world is against them. At the same time, they don't feel that the world is doing very much to help them. Orphans? Yes, in terms of the inexistence of an authority to really take care of us. But at the same time, there is a strong societal solidarity. When you think of a place like South Africa and the problems they have among the blacks - a huge proportion of the society not knowing their parentage, there is such a tearing apart of societal norms and structure, a modern breakdown. We never got to this point. So, even though we have been bombarded and put under tremendous pressures, still the society has held together and has not broken down. But there is no guarantee that it will continue that way. This is not only a political question, but also one of social attitudes. There's no guarantee that things will not deteriorate.

The world is facing an international economic crisis. Many financial institutions, companies and banks are facing severe troubles, and governments are rushing to bail out these institutions. If something similar happens here, do you think that there will be an authority or government that will rush to help the institutions and companies, take them by the hand and protect them, and enable them to survive?

I cannot really comment on an issue with which I am not really familiar. But I think that we are beginning at a very low level. We've only recently had our own banks. The possibility of taking out a mortgage is relatively recent. The banks have been reluctant to give loans. Ours is not a developed economy, with the concomitant consequences and risks, as in more developed economies. At the same time, I think that there are some good institutions that have evolved in recent years and that might efficiently supervise the existing banks and large corporations that exist. So, maybe, they will do something to protect the public, should the situation arise. Obviously, ours is not an independent economy, and we do not have the means to control how matters evolve.

Allow me to go back to your last book, Palestinian Walks. What inspired you to write this book?

Well, I have always enjoyed walking and I have always enjoyed the landscape, and I wanted to combine my greatest interests and activities. I am a lawyer and I work on land cases. I am a writer interested in writing and in invoking the beauty of the land. I also wanted to express that what is lost is not only the political aspect of the future, but a very special landscape that is one of the great treasures of the world. It has a special beauty and it is being destroyed. And also I have been hill-walking for about 26 years, and some of the areas where I have been are no longer there. I thought I would at least try to preserve in words how these places once looked, so that future generations would see through the writing, through the words, what they missed and what was. The book is a series of seven walks spanning a period of 27 years in the hills around Ramallah, in the Jerusalem wilderness and through the ravines by the Dead Sea. Each walk takes place at a different stage of Palestinian history.

And the message you wanted to convey?

Well, it is not a message. As a writer, I wanted to create a book about beauty, not convey a message. I was not trying to generate propaganda; I wanted to express my emotions - how I feel about the land, how I feel about my life, and to do it in a book which I hope will engage readers and help them realize the destruction that is being wrought upon the landscape by the Israeli policies of settlement-building and the construction of discriminatory roads and walls to hem in the Palestinian communities.