Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape
By Raja Shehadeh
Paperback, 224 pages
Simon & Schuster
List price: $15.00
An Imagined Sarha
Much has happened since the walk described in the last chapter. My hope that I would find refuge in my stone house was dispelled in the spring of 2002, when the Israeli army invaded Ramallah, entered my home and broke the sense of sanctuary I had ascribed to it. The ostensible reason given by Israel for invading West Bank cities was to defend the country. Such was the power of ideology that in the eyes of most Israelis, "Israel" had come to mean "the Greater Land of Israel," including most of the settlements. In fact, maps used in Israeli schoolbooks had done away with the pre-1967 borders between Israel and the Occupied Territories. To defend their "country" also meant to defend the settlements in the Occupied Territories. In its decisions the Israeli High Court confirmed this. The settlers, it ruled, had a basic right to be protected by the state. The fact that they were on illegally acquired land made no difference.
When the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, formulated his ill-fated plan in 2006 to annex the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank to Israel, he called it the Convergence Plan. The old Israel of the pre-1967 borders was to converge with the new Israel in the occupied West Bank to form "Greater Israel." Thirteen years after Israel had committed itself under the Oslo Agreement to negotiating with its Palestinian neighbors the fate of the Jewish settlements during final status talks, the government announced that it was planning to determine their status unilaterally by annexing most of them to Israel and redrawing the borders of the state without further negotiations. After the annexation the Palestinians would be left with scattered, noncontiguous areas of land that could not possibly constitute the basis of a viable state. So powerful had Israel become, and such was the unlimited support it was getting from the United States and its British ally, that it felt it could renege on earlier commitments to the Palestinians with total impunity.
A number of these settlements had been established after commando operations against Israel by Palestinian resistance fighters, with the Israeli government claiming that their establishment was "the proper Zionist response." Over the years the Zionist ideology never evolved to the point of believing that the only policy that would ensure its long-term survival would be to seek peace with its Arab neighbors and integrate in the region, rather than proceed to antagonize further the Palestinians by taking more of their land and planting foreign enclaves within their territory. Just as Israel remained in a state of enmity with the people and states around it, so the settlers were living in total isolation from the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of the land. Israeli leaders were fond of repeating that they wanted to "sear into our consciousness" the Jewish presence in our land. In other words, to make us surrender our rights to it.
The invasion of Ramallah was followed by drastic measures that continued long after the army withdrew. Using security as a justification, entrances to all the cities and hundreds of villages were closed. Use of most roads in the West Bank was prohibited to Palestinians, forcing us to use unpaved roads that had to be traveled in secret, mere tracks that went over rocks and took dangerous bends, damaging the cars that traveled them.
The large number of checkpoints and obstacles placed by the Israeli army on West Bank roads complicated our lives immeasurably. Even after the bombing in Israel had stopped, they increased in number from 376 in August 2005 to 528 by October 2006. We now moved in our own country surreptitiously, like unwanted strangers, constantly harassed, never feeling safe. We had become temporary residents of Greater Israel, living on Israel's sufferance, subject to the most abusive treatment at the hands of its young male and female soldiers controlling the checkpoints, who decided on a whim whether to keep us waiting for hours or to allow us passage. But worse than all this was that nagging feeling that our days in Palestine were numbered and one day we were going to be victims of another mass expulsion.
The residents of Ramallah, the center of the Palestinian Authority, did not escape the constraints of the ghetto life experienced in other West Bank cities. All entrances to the city were controlled by the Israeli army. At the Beitunia exit, southwest of Ramallah on the road leading to Beit 'Ur, where Albina's land is situated, a prison that began as a temporary tent facility for incarcerating juvenile offenders had now become a permanent, ever-expanding fortress, with watchtowers and high walls topped by barbed wire where the Israeli military court was convened. A highway cut through the low hills going from east to west, restricting Ramallah's expansion in that direction. It was reserved for the use of Jewish settlers traveling from Jerusalem and the settlements around its northwestern borders to Tel Aviv and the coastal plain. Passage through this exit was prohibited to Palestinians.
Those settlements around Ramallah that existed at the time of the Oslo Accords had been enlarged and more than ten new ones added, some on land that even the discriminatory Israeli legal system recognized as Palestinian. One of these, in the northwest of Ramallah, bore a similar sounding name to Abu Ameen's summer farm, Harrasha. When I look at night from the roof of my house at the horizon I can see the yellow lights of these illegal outposts creating an illuminated noose around the city.
But the most destructive development, which boded only misery and spelled continued conflict for the future, was the wall being constructed by Israel. This stretched in a jagged course that was determined not only by Israeli military considerations but also by the special interests of settlers and land mafia lords, slicing through the hills, destroying their natural shape, gulping large swaths of Palestinian areas. Only in part did it follow the 1967 armistice's internationally recognized border between Israel and the Palestinian territories, which has now been deleted from official Israeli maps. The "settlement blocs" Israel planned to annex, which thrust like daggers into the Palestinian land, were now sheathed by the wall.
Still, I was determined that none of this was going to prevent me from taking more walks in the hills. Not the military orders closing most of the West Bank, not the checkpoints and roadblocks and not the Jewish settlements. Weather-wise that spring of 2006 was one of the best for many years. The rain had been plentiful but also well distributed. It even continued to rain through April, giving vital sustenance to the wildflowers that by the end of the month usually begin to shrivel and die. I could not let this season pass without a walk.
A slight damper on my audacity was my desire not to repeat a terrifying experience I had a few months earlier when, driving back from the Jordan valley, I got lost. I must have taken a wrong turn and found myself in the midst of new settlements and industrial zones, vast open spaces that made me wonder what country I was in. I told myself not to panic and that if I continued driving westward I must eventually emerge in an area I would recognize. But the farther I drove the more lost I became. All the signposts pointed to Jewish settlements. I could find none of the features that used to guide me on my way: that beautiful cluster of boulders, those cliffs just after the bend that dips into the valley and up again onto the road with the attractive village to the right. "Where am I?" I kept asking myself. At first I tried to pretend that it was just a game. I had enough gas in my car and eventually I would surely be able to find my way out of this maze. But as time passed and I was not seeing anywhere I recognized, panic struck. As a child I had a recurring nightmare in which I found myself in a strange place unable to find my way home. I would try to shout for help only to realize that I had no voice. This felt like a similar situation. I began to sweat. Where was I? How would I ever get out of this? It began to get dark and with the twilight the land became even more unfamiliar. My driving was getting reckless. I was not stopping at crossroads. Circling around without any notion of where I was going had induced a mental trance. There were no other cars on these roads. I seemed to be the sole traveler in this never-never land, experiencing a waking nightmare entirely alone. "Perhaps I should stop and try to calm down," I told myself. But how would this help? Penny always advises me to take a deep breath when I'm caught in such situations. But this was different. I did not know where to begin to extricate myself from the mess I had got myself in. I felt I had finally been ensnared in the labyrinth of settlements I had long been pursuing in court and would never be allowed to escape. After my gas ran out I would have to remain here until someone came to save me. But who other than armed settlers roamed this new world in the midst of my old familiar surroundings? I was utterly exhausted when, in the end, I finally managed to find a way out. How I did so, I will never know.
Excerpted from Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh Copyright © 2008 by Raja Shehadeh. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.