“I am tortured by this olive tree,” Raja Shehadeh sighs, gesturing to a shrub on the terrace of a Ramallah restaurant. Palestine’s foremost living writer—and keen gardener—prefers the thicket of untidy trees on the surrounding hills to the overly pruned one in front of us. But the view was even better 10 years ago, he says, before buildings started to spring up among the olive groves. “Ramallah, like all other cities and villages, is confined to its own area,” he tells me. “It cannot expand beyond what Israel allows. And so… it becomes more crowded, and less attractive.” On the horizon, the evening sun lights up the settlements encircling the city.
Shehadeh has spent much of his life contesting Israeli land seizures in the West Bank. After training as a barrister in London in the 1970s, he co-founded the human rights organisation Al-Haq, which monitors violations of international law, including Israeli attacks on civilians in Gaza and human rights abuses committed by Palestinians.
In July, I meet Shehadeh and his American wife Penny in Ramallah. As we walk through the city in the afternoon, he points out the Israeli outposts on the hills. “The settlements are connected to roads, and the roads cut through the land,” he says. “They make them not along the contours of the land, but so they cut through hills and structures—much more than would be necessary.” He and Penny recently tried to visit a Sufi shrine which they planned to write about. But after villagers warned that armed settlers would harass them, they abandoned the journey.
Shehadeh advised the Palestinian negotiation team in Washington DC in the early 1990s. After the 1993 Oslo accords did not secure a firm commitment from Israel that it would not expand its settlements further, he felt he had failed. “I realised that all my work for many years was for nothing,” he says. “And so I had better concentrate on my writing, which I can control and nobody can take from me.”
His father, Aziz, was also a lawyer, who campaigned against Jordanian and Israeli occupations of Palestine. In 1985, Aziz was killed by a Palestinian who collaborated with Israel. He and his son had not been close. During the pandemic, Shehadeh finally read Aziz’s papers. “I felt as though my father was calling me beyond the grave to do something,” he says. The papers became the basis of his new memoir, We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I.
He and his father shared a sense of duty. “In a sense, it’s Calvinist,” he says. “We have a feeling that we have to work as hard as we can. Certainly, when I was working in human rights, I was tortured because every case that came to the Al-Haq office I felt we had to take, and we had to do our best with it. That was like my father. My father would take up anything that came to him, and he would try his best.”
In August, while Shehadeh was on holiday in Scotland, Israeli forces raided Al-Haq and six other NGOs it labelled as “terrorist.” (Nine EU member states, including France and Germany, said they have seen no evidence of extremist links.) Al-Haq is still operating. Over email I asked Shehadeh, who was co-director of the organisation until 1991, how he felt seeing footage of the raid. “It was painful for me,” he replied. “Yet no Israeli attack can silence the organisation and stop its struggle for human rights and the rule of law.”