16 December 2014
The Orwell Prize is Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing. Every year, the judges award a prize for the book which comes closest to George Orwell’s ambition ‘to make political writing into an art’.
This book won the 2008 Orwell prize. Accordingly the prize website has a page dedicated to it from which some of the chapters can be downloaded and which has additional information about the book and the author.
I bought the book in December 2012 for my wife and after she had read it, she insisted that I must also do so. I read it during the summer.
The book is a short paperback of 217 pages. It is structured as seven walks through occupied Palestine spread over a period of 27 years. I have set out some details below.
The author uses these detailed walks to give the reader an appreciation of what it feels like to live in the Palestinian landscape and to enable the reader to get underneath the skin of people watching their country being stolen, year by year, due to the brute force of the occupying power, Israel.
Raja Shehadeh’s Wikipedia entry informs us that he was born in 1951 into an educated middle-class Palestinian Christian family. He himself is a lawyer and was one of the founders of the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq. However one of the themes that flows through the book is the author’s increasing despair of his hopes that legal action could successfully defend Palestinian land in view of the one-sided way that Israeli judges apply law in occupied Palestine.
Although this chapter also details a walk through the landscape, it is essentially a detailed account of one case that the author fought as well as he could, regarding the land of a client, François Albina, which the Israeli authorities were seeking to expropriate.
The author gives us some background to the issues:
“Europe, and later Zionism, has endeavoured to rescue the historical significance of the region in its search for ancient Israel: a search for its own cultural roots which in the process has silenced Palestinian history and relegated it to prehistory, paving the way for the modern state of Israel to take control not only of the land but also of Palestinian time and space. Unlike Jerusalem, Jericho, Nablus and Hebron, Ramallah was fortunate among West Bank cities, in escaping any mention in the Bible. It was a parvenu village, historically and religiously insignificant. How I rejoice at this omission. We have our Jewish settlements on the outskirts but at least we have been spared the terror of fanatic fundamentalists squatting inside our town claiming that it belongs to their ancestors on biblical grounds as has happened in the old city of Hebron.
In 1888 the Palestine Exploration Fund produced scale maps of Palestine of 1:100,000. These were the basis for land registration, which began half a century later during the British Mandate period and continued under Jordan in 1955. It was suspended by Israel after it occupied the West Bank in 1967.
Land registration operations covered all the hills to the south-west of Ramallah, including the village of Beit Ur, where the land of my client, Albina, on whose case I was working that morning, is situated. But in this area the very last step in the protracted process could not take place. The Schedule of Rights was prepared and signed in Amman, Jordan, where, until 1967, the headquarters of the Land Department were situated. The Schedule then had to be brought back to Ramallah, where the results would be entered in the local register and the process made absolutely final. The war that started on 5 June 1967 prevented this from taking place. The exact borders of Albina’s land were delineated on a map and given a number but the Certificate of Registration could not be issued. This formality was the loophole the settlers used to question my client’s ownership of his land.”
It is not feasible to summarise the details of the case and the court procedures in this review, but the author shows us with this concrete example how the Israeli authorities apply the law in a biased and one-sided manner.
Although at one stage the author was involved in giving technical support to the Palestinian delegation in the peace negotiations and even travelled to Washington, he was very sceptical about the Oslo Agreements and has little faith in the negotiating ability of the leadership of the PLO.
“I soon discovered Yasser Arafat, the head of the PLO, instructing the delegation from Tunis, had different concerns. His main aim was to secure recognition for the PLO. Three years later, in the Declaration of Principles, this was achieved at the price of keeping the settlements out of the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. This authority also had no power to change the village and town zoning schemes or repudiate Israeli claims over the land acquired for the settlements. I was dismayed and horrified. With one blow, political expediency led to the acceptance of all the illegal changes we in the Occupied Territories had been struggling to nullify for over two decades.”
The author summarises the effect of the Oslo Agreements as follows:
“My mind strayed again to the Master Plan, [explained earlier in the chapter as the Israeli government plan for settlements on the West Bank] as it sadly is wont to do at moments when I’m enjoying the landscape. Israel had planned to settle 80,000 Israeli Jews in the central region of the West Bank by 1986. Despite huge economic incentives only 6,000 had been convinced to settle by the target date. But under the Oslo Agreements the PLO agreed to keep an area equal to about a third of the West Bank, referred to as Area C, outside the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. It did so without questioning Israeli claims that most of this area was public land. Israel presented this to its public as tacit recognition by the PLO that the land, most of which Israel had already registered in the same Land Authority where Israeli state land is registered, would remain with Israel. This gave the settlement project a great boost. The average Israeli citizen came to believe that agreement had been reached with the PLO to designate Area C for Israeli settlements. They felt safe enough to invest in the settlements, and move their families with them.”
Many of the author’s friends and colleagues were more optimistic about the Oslo Agreements. The author writes:
“For the first time I felt like those Palestinians who stayed in Israel in 1948 must have felt when they argued with us after the 1967 war. They would tell us: ‘you don’t know a thing about Israel. We can tell you what is coming: land expropriations, biased zoning that will strangle your towns, and unfair taxation that will impoverish you.’ And we would look with condescension at them and think they had lived for so long under Israel that they had become colonised, unable to think beyond their narrow claustrophobic reality. They probably think Israel is a whole world, we would comfort ourselves. Not only have their lands been colonised but their minds as well. Who wants to listen to the vanquished?
For twenty-five years I had studied the development of the Israeli sovereign legal language in the West Bank. I monitored how the Israeli state was being extended into the Occupied Territories through the acquisition of land and its registration in the Israel Land Authority. How large areas were being defined as Israeli Regional Councils and included within Israel. How the planning schemes were changed, how one area after another became to all intents and purposes annexed to Israel, and our towns and villages were left as islands within those Israeli extensions, fulfilling Ariel Sharon’s promise made in the early eighties that Israel was going to leave ‘an entirely different map of the country’. It was all done ostensibly through ‘legal’ manoeuvres, using the law enforce in the West Bank because formally speaking the West Bank was not annexed to Israel. To understand and fight this was my war.”
I found the book very easy to read albeit quite painful as it brings home the continuing experiences of West Bank Palestinians since 1967 as their land has steadily been expropriated by force.
My knowledge of West Bank geography was not sufficiently detailed to enable me to properly follow the walks. While writing this review I have used Google maps. Although that helps, I suspect it would be quite challenging to follow the walks using the Google maps due to some lack of detail. Also some of the locations appear to have changed their names under the impact of Israel's settlement project. However Google Earth has some beautiful photographs of the countryside covered by the maps which make it very easy to understand the sense of loss that the author feels as his country is expropriated.
I encourage people to read the book as it gives one a much stronger understanding of how Palestinians relate to their land and how they feel about it being expropriated. While the subject matter of the book is fundamentally political (hence the Orwell prize) the text is primarily devoted to describing the author’s walks through the landscape itself as well as his struggles with the Israeli legal system.