Interview: Raja Shehadeh Discusses What It's Like Living in Ramallah Under Israeli Occupation

Fresh Air: June 11, 2002

Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and writer whose latest book is...


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Later in the show we're going to hear an interview with Israeli historian Michael Orrin, who has written a new history of the Six Day War, the war in which Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, as well as other territories.

First, we're going to hear from a Palestinian writer and human rights lawyer who lives in the West Bank, in the town of Ramallah. Raja Shehadeh is the founder of the human rights group Al-Haq. His book "Strangers in the House" is about coming of age in the occupied territory of the West Bank. In late March, as Israeli tanks rolled into Ramallah, he began keeping a journal of life during the incursion. The incursion was part of the Israeli operation to root out terrorists in response to the suicide bombings. Shehadeh is currently visiting the US, where he was invited to participate in a conference held by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. I spoke with him yesterday.

Welcome back to FRESH AIR. Apparently, you woke up to surprising news this morning. What happened?

Mr. RAJA SHEHADEH (Writer/Human Rights Lawyer): I called my brother and heard from him that they hadn't slept all night because--and I was sorry to hear that also his six-year-old was also awake. His four-year-old slept through it, but the six-year-old woke up, and they heard tanks rolling into Ramallah. And, you know, tanks make very loud noises. So tanks rolled into Ramallah, and then in the very early morning they heard on the loudspeaker that curfew is imposed, and now Ramallah is once again occupied and under curfew and arrests are taking place. And demolitions and sounds--when you're in your house, it's difficult to determine what is exactly happening. You just hear sounds and you don't know what is really taking place. But they're under curfew.

GROSS: Your wife was at a conference in Egypt when Israeli tanks moved into Ramallah a month ago, and it took a few days, I think, before you were united. Is she with you now in the United States or is she in Ramallah?

Mr. SHEHADEH: No, she is with me in the United States visiting her family in Quincy, Illinois. In the first instance, she happened to be away. We knew that something was going to happen, but Anthony Zinni was still in the area, and naively we thought the Israelis cannot possibly occupy Ramallah while he's, you know, going back and forth to Ramallah. So she was invited to a conference, and it was important for her to go academically. So I said, you know, `Just take the opportunity and go,' and then the occupation began and I knew we made a mistake.

I mean, obviously eventually she'd be able to come back, but being a Palestinian and having endured years and years of families split and long operations of family reunion which very often never materialize, I was very disturbed. And at the same time, I was alone in the house during this last occupation for two weeks, so it was literally like solitary confinement.

GROSS: During the incursion you got a phone call from your brother that Israeli soldiers had taken over his house. What did he tell you?

Mr. SHEHADEH: This was a most shocking thing because I got this phone and he was whispering, and I said, `Why are you whispering?' and he said, `I have Israeli soldiers in the house.' I said, `In the house?' He said, `Yes. They came in the morning, broke the kitchen window, opened the door, and I found them inside the house.' And he lives in a building, apartment block, and he's on the ground floor. So the soldiers took him and he acted as a human shield. And they went up to all the families in the building and brought them down. And then they put everybody in my brother Samuel's(ph) house in three rooms. And then they started searching the apartments.

In one apartment they found shells, and they came down furious. They said, `You were the people who shot at us,' and the owners of the apartment said, `We didn't shoot at you.' They said, `Yes. Here's the proof. These are the empty shells.' So they said, `Will you just let us show you something if you allow us to go back to our apartment?' They went back to the apartment. The soldiers had been in their apartment in a previous invasion and they had made a mess. They broke a plant pot and the floor was full of the soil. And one soldier had written them a little note saying `Sorry for the mess. I hope we meet in better times.' He wrote this in English, and it was on IDF paper. So they told them, `Here is what happened. Soldiers had come to our building. They left this note. They shot. The children found these empty shells in the garden and collected them.'

GROSS: And the Israeli soldiers accepted that as an explanation.

Mr. SHEHADEH: Of course. They had to accept it when they saw the note and they realized it couldn't be forged because it was on IDF paper. But...

GROSS: Well, let me ask you, does that give you any more of a sense of confidence or respect for the Israeli soldiers? One Israeli soldier left this nice note of apology, hoping to meet again in better times. The other Israeli soldiers accepted that these shells were from Israeli soldiers from a previous incursion. I mean, you know...

Mr. SHEHADEH: You know, one clings to moments like these...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SHEHADEH: ...and examples like these to find humanity in the other side. And it has been a process of dehumanization. You know, we started with an entirely different relationship between the occupier and occupied, and it has been deteriorating and deteriorating. And the deterioration then began to speed up because the soldiers who had come just a few weeks ago to the building and left this note had the decency to apologize for the mess, which is a very nice thing to do. Now the next time the soldiers came, they let the people out and stayed in an empty apartment. The last time, they literally stayed in the apartment of my brother and his family with them. So while they were watching television, the gun was pointed at them.

GROSS: You describe your own experiences during the occupation as being like under solitary confinement in prison. Describe a little bit about what it was like in your house. How long were you confined to your house?

Mr. SHEHADEH: The confinement continued for the entire occupation, which was about four weeks. And we were let out every four--between four to five days to do the shopping. And the first two times, Ramallah was not replenished with food, so we couldn't find fresh fruits and vegetables, and everybody was rushing about. And, of course, the destruction in the town was quite dramatic because they had used tanks all over the place, they had gone into buildings and so on. And, of course, you heard a million stories about what was happening and who was killed and who died a natural death and couldn't be buried. That was another problem. You know, there were people who had, you know, corpses of family members who had died and they could not be buried, and they had to live with them for days.

And then we would be, again, put under curfew after a few hours of lifting the curfew. And it was both a painful physical and psychological experience because the entire day and often the entire night you would hear shelling and sounds of bombs exploding, and you wouldn't know what is happening. And, of course, they did random searches of many houses, and so you were constantly under threat of your house being searched. And also there was a lot of looting, unfortunately, which is a new phenomenon that we hadn't experienced in the past with the Israeli army. And then, of course...

GROSS: Who was doing the looting? You're saying the army was doing the looting?

Mr. SHEHADEH: The soldiers.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SHEHADEH: The soldiers. Yeah. And then, of course, you heard all the explosions taking place, and you heard from people that they were entering offices and taking the hard disks from computers and doing a lot of destruction. And so, of course, you were wondering all the time whether your own business--in our case, our law office--was going to be entered into or not. I have several friends--actually Al-Haq, the human rights organization which I helped establish in '79, was taken over. Offices of two friends were entirely destroyed. Large number of institutions and clinics and places where there were, you know, data for all kinds of things, including patients' information, you know, were destroyed and information taken. Cultural centers were entered into. So you sat in the house and you wondered, are they going to come into your house? Are they now searching your office and destroying it?

In the beginning, of course, I was very worried about my brother and, you know, the others sort of manage. The problem is the young, and he has a four-year-old and a six-year-old, and with the soldiers with them day and night, it was a violation of their world that afterwards they continued to have nightmares for a long time.

GROSS: Did any Israeli soldiers enter your house?


GROSS: And did any close friends or any members of your family suffer any injuries?

Mr. SHEHADEH: Fortunately, they didn't, and although I have--my uncle is an old man and he lost his sight a few years ago, and my mother is an old woman, nobody needed any kind of medical care throughout the period, in my family, so I was very fortunate.

GROSS: When you were confined to your house and the only way you had of getting information was through the telephone or the television, when the television was working, or radio, I suppose, what was it like for you to watch the story unfold on TV while you had to stay in your house?

Mr. SHEHADEH: I tell you, the first day, which was a Friday, I watched the television all the time. And we have now the Arab satellites and they were reporting everything. And in the beginning, the journalists were allowed to have--you know, to move around, so they were reporting everything. It was very, very weird because we were experiencing in real time along with all the Arab world, because everybody else was watching. And it was, I mean, very strange because it was happening in Ramallah, in my town, but I was seeing it on television.

And it was extremely scary, of course, because in one case, for example, we saw the reporter from Nile Television, an Egyptian station, and suddenly he was shot. And you realized what was happening, and then suddenly he was on the ground and his--the journalist next to him was trying to revive him, trying to call an ambulance and screaming for an ambulance, and all the time the photographer was continuing to photograph. So, I mean, it was nerve-racking, absolutely nerve-racking.

In a way, I was saved by the fact that the electricity was cut and so I stopped watching television. And then I realized I cannot go back to watching television all the time. I started watching only twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, and nothing more. And then in my case, I decided regardless of everything around me that is happening, I am going to go on with my work, and I just became fanatic about work. I sat...

GROSS: What kind of work did you do?

Mr. SHEHADEH: Well, I was working on a manuscript editing a work of fiction that I was doing, and I had the program of when I was going to finish. I finished in time. And then I got an e-mail from The New York Times--they wanted an op-ed, and I started working on that. And then I got all--I was working on the diary, and then I was asked for other articles. I was constantly busy with work and actually worked more than I ever worked because I had all day and all night to work, and I was alone in the house, so there was no distraction.

GROSS: If you're j...

Mr. SHEHADEH: But for me it was a challenge. I wanted to defeat the purpose of the Israelis, which was to dehumanize me, to reduce me, and I decided I will do exactly what they don't want. I will continue to be productive. I will not be a man reduced.

GROSS: My guest is Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian writer and human rights lawyer. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Raja Shehadeh. He's a Palestinian human rights worker and lawyer. He's an author. His latest book is called "Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine." He's also been keeping a journal of what life was like since the recent Israeli incursion into Ramallah, where he lives.

As a Palestinian human rights activist, what do you think about when a fellow Palestinian becomes a suicide bomber? What do you think about when a teen-age man or a woman blows themselves up to kill Israelis?

Mr. SHEHADEH: Well, I think there are several aspects to the problem. There is first the aspect that I've had to struggle with a lot, which is: What kind of rage has brought a human being, and usually a young human being, to the point that he's willing to give up his life and blow himself up along with people who he has no right to decide should die? You know, very often it's old women, young women, young men, children. I mean, it's haphazard. Who on Earth has the right to decide that the lives of a number of people should end at a certain point? That--I mean, it cannot be acceptable. At the same time, the question is: What kind of experience has brought him to the point when he is able and willing to do this?

Usually, he is in his early 20s and sometimes younger. His experience has been of oppression at every point, no possibility to think of a future. Probably he has seen the army kill or maim or do an action against his family, his friends or something. He has also not had an experience of Israelis as human beings, because since the Oslo, the occupied territories have been closed off from Israel, which wasn't the case before. And the first suicide bombing took place in 1994. There was none of this before the Oslo, and Oslo is 1993. So in the past, there was no restriction on movement. Everybody could go in and out. Israelis came, Palestinians went to Israel and there was an experience of the other as a human being. But somebody who does an operation now of this sort would never have encountered Israelis except as soldiers, except as oppressors, and so he would be full of rage.

GROSS: Now you say that you think Israel's motivation in the incursion into Ramallah is to dehumanize Palestinians and prove to them that they have no future in that land. Israel says its motivation is to end terrorism, to tear apart the terrorist infrastructure and stop the suicide bombings. What do you think of that part of Israel's motivation, what Israel says it's about? Do you see the Palestinian suicide bombers as being part of the cause?

Mr. SHEHADEH: No, I don't see it that way simply because I don't believe for a minute that Israel is really defending itself by these incursions, because it's the fourth strongest army in the world fighting in the streets of Ramallah against commercial centers and against houses full of civilians who are unarmed. And I don't believe for a minute that Israel's fight is really for defending itself because Israel is not under threat of going away. I mean, we've never heard of a country in recent history being destroyed, and certainly a power such as Israel is not going to be destroyed by a few angry young men who blow themselves up in civilian areas.

At the same time, I think that the way to prevent the extremism is by preventing its cause, and to remove the cause, we have to remove the Israeli presence, which has stifled our life and made it impossible. Otherwise, we're not going to finish with this. There's no two ways about it. And we look for countries such as the United States, who has a stake in Israel and a stake in the region. We would hope that sanity would come from a country like the United States, who would say--I don't know how they can muster the political will to say, `Enough is enough. We have to end this problem.' And ending this problem can only be by dividing the country into two states and dismantling the settlements and giving the Palestinians their rights. I mean, it's quite simple and straightforward.

GROSS: Have you had any disappointments in the Arab leadership?

Mr. SHEHADEH: Well, you know, I don't know about Arab leadership, because I would speak about Palestinian leadership.

GROSS: Palestinian leadership, yes.

Mr. SHEHADEH: Yeah. Yeah. I've had disappointment with the Palestinian leadership, of course, because I don't get the cue from what the Israeli or the US administration is saying about reform. We the people in Palestine have been speaking about reforms for years and years and years. And it's not something that we would want in order to please anybody else. We want it because it's important for our life. I am a lawyer, and I can say the judiciary under the Palestinian Authority has been in the worst state than ever before. There's no justification why it should be that bad. I also think that if we had a strong leadership able to make policy and implement policy, we would avoid the interference of so many other parties who do not have necessarily our interests.

So, yes, I am disappointed with the Palestinian leadership, but I also appreciate that what Israel is putting forward, which is that reform of the Palestinian leadership is a pre-condition to getting into--is just another obstacle which Israel has put in the past--you know, I mean, they put various obstacles and this is just another one of them, so I don't buy that. And I see the two things as separate. We need reforms, but we also need negotiations.

GROSS: You're in the United States for a brief visit to do some speaking, to participate in a convention. Are you anxious to get home or would you just as soon stay away for awhile? I'm wondering if you ever think about leaving Ramallah, moving someplace else so that you wouldn't be subjected to this.

Mr. SHEHADEH: I'm very anxious to go back. I'm, of course, anxious to go back and see my house intact and not destroyed. You know, Ramallah and Palestine is my place. It's the place where I feel comfortable. It's the land which I like. It's the people I've always lived with. And, yes, life has been very difficult in Ramallah. It's--I mean, I've been under occupation--lived under occupation for 35 years. It's never been as difficult and as dangerous as it is now and as frustrating as it is now. But, no, I will not leave.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And I hope you stay safe. Thank you very much.

Mr. SHEHADEH: Thank you. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian writer and human rights lawyer. His latest book is called "Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, Israeli historian Michael Orrin discusses his new book "A History of the Six Day War,"(ph) in which Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, as well as other territories. And linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the expressions `moral equivalence,' `moral relativism' and `moral clarity.'

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