Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer and founder of the human rights organization Al-Haq, is a lifelong and passionate hiker in the rolling hills of the West Bank. Palestinian Walks is a wide-ranging and thoughtful recounting of seven of these walks, taken over some thirty years, in this starkly beautiful region that has become less and less accessible to him as settlements are constructed on hilltops, highways that Palestinians are not allowed to use are bulldozed through the hills, and walls, checkpoints, and barbed wire increasingly obstruct the landscape.
His walks take him to ancient historic sites, places connected with his family history, and parcels of land whose appropriation Shehadeh fought in court. Some of them are disrupted by incidents reflecting the ongoing conflict between the two sides claiming the land. Nearly all are inseparable from the recent history that impacts where he is allowed to walk and what he sees along the way. But his constant companion is his appreciation of the beauty that remains, and his constant undertone is one of sorrow – the sorrow of a man who deeply loves the physical landscape of his country, and mourns its loss.
Israel began building settlements in the Occupied Territories not long after the 1967 War, and by 2009 had established 121 settlements, as well as over 100 additional unauthorized outposts.1 Over a half million settlers now live in these communities, which are walled off from the surrounding territory and connected by highways that, unlike the former roadways that followed the contours of the hills, are designed for straight and fast travel. Many Palestinian farmers no longer have access to their land or their olive trees; many valleys and pathways are restricted for security reasons; others have become too dangerous to walk in, especially recently, as incidents of violence have increased.
The United Nations and the global community consider these settlements to be illegal, a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It is argued that the land was acquired illegally and that much of it is privately owned; that a discriminatory legal system has been put in place; that the presence of the settlements prevents the growth and economic development of Palestinian cities, interferes with Palestinian agriculture, and undermines the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Israel counters that many of the settlements were established at a time when there was no diplomatic arrangement in place to prevent them, and that the lack of a peace treaty made it necessary to put in place strategically located population centers to protect Israel’s security. The dispute has come to seem intractable, as endless rounds of negotiations start up and fall apart.
In the meantime new settlements continue to be constructed, and old ones are rapidly expanded. Population growth in the settlements of the West Bank approximately doubled between 1995 and 20052 – Dolev, for instance, a nearby settlement that Shehadeh repeatedly encounters in his narrative, more than doubled during these years3 – while growth in the Ramallah governorate increased by only some 30%.4 As the settlements have become more entrenched, many in the global community have pulled back from insisting on their complete dismantling as a condition of peace, citing “new realities on the ground.”5
The sprawl that has afflicted so many places around the globe, replacing wildlands with highways and housing tracts, though it contributes to the losses in the West Bank, pales here next to the other components of the problem. The long history of hostility, violence, and injustice, and the mutual belief in the malevolent intentions of the other side, often make the possibility of a satisfactory resolution seem as remote as ever. Yet the leap of empathic imagination that Shehadeh makes when he recognizes his opponent’s love of the landscape points to a way forward. In this passion for the land lies a common ground that could be a starting point to an acknowledgment of the humanity of the other.
1 BBC News online. “Palestinians shun Israeli settlement restriction plan.” 25 Nov 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8379868.stm
2 Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. "Localities and Populations, by District, Sub-district, Religion and Population Growth."
3Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. “Population in Localities, 1994, Demographic Characteristics, by Geographical Divisions (S.P. 1026);” “Israel in Numbers 2004.”
4Palestinian Bureau of Statistics. City Population (web): Palestinian Territories. http://www.citypopulation.de/Palestine.html
5Kessler, Glenn. “Israelis Claim Secret Agreement with U.S.” Washington Post (web): 24 Apr 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/04/23/AR2008042303128.html