Alas, I fear I haven't been improved. It's a very interesting book, but I expect I read it differently than David hoped.
Shehadeh is a Ramallah lawyer in his late 50s, so he's only a few years older than I. He loves walking in the hills and the idea of the book is that he describes a series of walks he's taken from the late 1970s until earlier this decade, each more hemmed in than the previous one by the Israelis, who are literally stealing his land; indeed, the power of the book is that we see how there's ever less land for him to walk on. No-one should be surprised that it was widely acclaimed, well reviewed, and was awarded the George Orwell Prize.
The book starts out badly.
When I began hill walking in Palestine a quarter of a century ago, I was not aware that I was traveling through a vanishing landscape. For centuries the central highland hills of Palestine, which slope on one side towards the sea and on the other towards the desert, had remained relatively unchanged. As I grew up in Ramallah, the land from my city to the northern city of Nablus might, with a small stretch of the imagination, have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ.(p.xi)Oops. And who, pray tell, was Christ? Of what group? Assuming his contemporaries might have recognized the hills - a plausible assumption - why choose him and not, say, King David, or Jeremiah, or Isaiah? A couple pages later we're told that
In Palestine every wadi, spring, hillock, escarpement and cliff has a name, usually with a particular meaning. Some of the names are Arabic, others Canaanite or Aramaic, evidence of how ancient the land is and how it has been continuously inhabited over many centuries(p. xviii).Oops again.
The first chapter describes a walk in Spring 1978, and here I warmed towards Shehadeh. Not only because his love for the hills is palpable and a-political, but because he describes things I've also often seen and enjoyed. Indeed, the years between 1974-1982 were the heyday of my own hill-walking times, as my friends and I explored the hills, wadis and, as we gained confidence and experience, went out in lengthening arcs to the deserts; I've taken some of the same walks he has. Not since many years, though: it would be too dangerous.
In spite of the book's title, the walks rather recede into the background, as the double themes of Israelis stealing land and desecrating it move ever to the foreground. So let's think about them.
There is truth to the first theme: indeed, Israeli settlements have been taking over land. If you read carefully you'll note that no Palestinians are losing their homes in the process, and certainly not their lives; the Israeli occupation is far less brutal than many such exercises worldwide. The settlements are on the hill-tops, which were previously empty, yet they and the land confiscated for road-building often belonged to Palestinian individuals, who lost them in the process. Shehadeh represented many Palestinian land owners, and his descriptions of the legal machinations which have enabled Israel to set up settlements are, sadly, true. He is of course correct in saying that the settlement project has been engineered to dominate the terrain and cut the Palestinian territories into segments.
It's also hard to argue with his perspective that identifies settlements as a long-term Israeli policy. I think it isn't, not only because many Israelis such as myself have been consistently against if for decades, but also because my reading of the story is that after the mid-1980s at the very latest there was never any strategic government project of settlement. Yet this doesn't convince Shehadeh, who sees the settlements growing, and correctly understands from close up that this couldn't be happening without the connivance of many government agencies. To my mind, this demonstrates how adept the settlers have become at manipulating the system - but perhaps it's a moot discussion. The settlements are growing, in spite of the fact that it has been decades since they enjoyed broad public support.
The story of the disappearing countryside as Shehadeh tells it is wrong. He would have us believe that it was pristine and untouched, along came the Israelis with their bulldozers and constructions companies, then with their fences and walls, and now the hills are effectively gone. Not so.
Shehadeh was born on a Jordanian-controlled West Bank that had about 500,000 people. By the time the Israelis arrived, in 1967, it had something like 700,000. Today there are maybe 2,500,000 Palestinians, and 300,000 Israelis. Do the maths: it's a vastly more crowded place than it used to be, most of the added population are Palestinians, and the picturesque but primitive little villages he and I both remember from our youth are gone forever, with or without Israeli settlers. As for the roads, not long ago I was driving along Route 60, the main north-south artery of the West Bank, which in its present form has been paved by Israel. About 90% of the vehicles had Palestinian license plates, and I doubt their drivers were complaining that the road is much better than the original one paved by the British in the 1920s. If ever both sides manage to agree on partition, the Israelis will leave the infrastructures for the Palestinians, and probably also the settlements.
At one point he bemoans the ugly growth of Jerusalem, no longer a picturesque town in his mind. In 1967 there were 250,000 people there, 70,000 Palestinians; today there are 670,000, 270,000 of them Palestinians. Again, do the maths.
Also, I might add, the statement that settlements of Jews are always esthetically uglier than Arab towns is racist. No author could get away with making such a statement unless it be about Jews.
Then there's the matter of the violence. The meta-narrative, the atmosphere of the book, is all about the violence Israel is committing on the Palestinians.Yet when you read the book, the actual violence - shooting at the author, threatening to arrest him or kill his companion - those incidents are all committed by Palestinians, never by Israelis. Israelis use those legal machinations to take land, but they don't shoot or arrest hikers. That's done by Palestinians: the author implies they've been brutalized by Israel, but it's an unconvincing implication. Even odder, there are repeated cases in the book in which the author encounters settlers. Close up, they turn out to be just as human as anyone else. Shehadeh doesn't like their presence, but he's honest enough to admit that they're just people.
Finally, there's the context. If you know how to look - I did, but most English-speaking readers won't - you'll find that even Shehadeh alludes to Palestinian violence against Israeli hikers. But it's only an allusion or two. Nowhere in the book will you come across any of the following pertinent ideas: There has been a mutually waged war going on between Palestinians and Israelis for almost a century, a war in which both sides are actors, and both sides bear responsibility. This war has carved borders, and borders have consequences. Reaching peace will not make the borders go away, on the contrary, it will mean that they're permanent and mutually recognized. Most of the present security measures - walls, armed settlers, mutual suspicion when meeting - were never an Israeli policy but evolved as responses. The fact that most non-settler Israelis haven't been walking the hills of the West Bank since the late 1980s is because they're afraid (and consequently, they've written off the entire area and wish the Palestinians would take it already). Nor will the reader find any mention in this book of Israeli offers to dismantle most settlements, of their dismantling of settlements in Sinai and Gaza, and of repeated offers to partition the land between both peoples, nor of Palestinian violence that has followed such Israeli moves. (The book was first published in 2007; the Israelis left Gaza in 2005, and Hamas won the elections in 2006).
Ultimately it's a depressing book. Shehadeh comes across as a moderate, reasonable man, non-violent and rational. Yet there's no acceptance anywhere in his book - not that I could see, and I looked for it - that this very small place is the homeland of both our nations, each with legitimate claims to all of it, each with an urgent need to reconcile themselves to the loss of parts of it. He accepts that Israel is powerful and implicitly here to say, but gives no inkling of recognition that there's justice in that. The Israelis are aggressors, the Palestinians are victims, and that's the whole story.
It's hard to see how any of this will lead to reconciliation and peace.