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Where the Line is Drawn: Can a friendship survive the politics of Israel-Palestine?

Orwell prizewinner and Palestinian human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh on his new memoir. 

In the early 1980s, while crossing the border from Jordan to the West Bank, Raja Shehadeh met someone he had recently shared a convivial dinner with, a man called Eldad. This time, Eldad was an Israeli soldier and Shehadeh was the Palestinian he must search.

In his new book, Where the Line is Drawn, Shehadeh describes the bitter surrealness of the situation:

“The search was humiliating and, throughout it all, he didn’t even pretend not to know me. He talked about the dinner party, how he enjoyed meeting me there and then ordered me to take off my belt and shoes, lower my trousers, and turn around.”

But Shehadeh was not merely upset by the indignity of it. The incident, and others like it, would convince him to break off a friendship with the man who had invited them both to dinner, Henry, a Jewish Canadian who had settled in Israel. 

This is the emotional faultline running through Where the Line is Drawn, which began as a story of crossing borders. Shehadeh, who won an Orwell Prize for his previous work, Palestinian Walks, tackles a simple question: Can you sustain a friendship that crosses political boundaries? And should you? 

When I meet Shehadeh, a human rights lawyer, in the hotel lobby of a London backstreet, it’s hard to imagine him at a checkpoint. A soft-spoken man in a purple jumper, he immediately offers me tea. It’s somewhat easier to picture the scene where he first met Henry, among a crowd of academics in Tel Aviv listening to a speech by the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1977. 

The two young men discovered they both liked the outdoors, and Shehadeh invited Henry to join him for walks in the hills behind Ramallah. At that time, it was relatively easy to travel between Israel and the occupied territories. East Jerusalem was only 10 miles away. 

 “We used to rush back and forth several times a day, and for the minutest reason, go across and from Ramallah to Bethlehem,” Shehadeh remembers. “It takes hours now.” 

Initially, both Henry and Shehadeh proudly described their friendship as something above politics, although Shehadeh sometimes worried he was being used as a token Palestinian friend.

“You come across Israelis who say ‘I have a good friend who is Palestinian’,” he explains. “And they only met him once.”

He also imagined confronting Henry about his collusion with a state that oppressed Palestinians. In his book he writes:

"Henry was not born in Israel. He had come of his own free will. Didn’t he need to make known his objection to what his adopted country was doing to the Palestinians? He insisted he would never join the army, but was this enough?"

I ask him, why, then, whenever he met Henry in person, did he push these doubts aside? Shehadeh smiles. Henry, he says, is simply “a very nice man”. 

As the 1980s wore on, though, the politics became impossible to avoid. Shehadeh wrote to Henry in letters what he hadn’t managed to say in words. Then he broke off contact. 

“I couldn’t have done it otherwise,” he says quietly, three decades on. “My wife said: ‘You’re very harsh on Henry.’ He would call, write and say ‘I miss you’. But I was very angry with him.”

Like any good friendship, Where the Line is Drawn is set over decades, a time period in which walls and checkpoints have formed a tough skin over the landscape both Shehadeh and Henry loved. Israeli settlements and urban sprawl have turned journeys that once took minutes into endless, frustrating, hours. Could Shehadeh have made friends with Henry today? 

“It would be difficult,” he admits. “Our friendship was formed on common interests, and one of these was walking in the hills.” Henry had a beard, a fashion associated with Jewish settlers. “I couldn’t ask him to come to Ramallah because of his beard after the intifada.”

Today, Shehadeh worries that Israelis and Palestinians never meet, except at checkpoints and the outskirts of illegal settlements. He points out that Israelis and Palestinians could easily learn each other’s languages - Hebrew and Arabic are very similar - but instead exist in separate language worlds. 

As for his friendship, Henry’s persistence, and his pledge to campaign for human rights, ultimately led to a reconciliation. However, it was only complete when, in 2006, Henry was diagnosed with a type of lymphoma.

“I think my feelings about friendship did change because of the illness,” Shehadeh says. “I realised nothing else mattered -  I just cared for Henry, the human being, and I felt very sad to think he might not survive not be able to walk and talk. 

“I realised politics notwithstanding, there is a human being I care about and that is the only important thing.”

Talking to Shehadeh, I realise how headlines about Israeli-Palestinian politics have made me imagine a vast, expansive territory, when in fact this conflict is incredibly local.

Shehadeh's book is full of these reminders. Eldad was not the only Israeli Shehadeh encountered in more than one context - many of the Israeli lawyers he knew also spent time serving in military courts. On another occasion, he drives to Jerusalem for an evening concert, and then worries he won't be allowed back into the West Bank. Henry invites him for dinner at a cafe where a Palestinian suicide bomber recently carried out an attack. At a low point in their communication, they bump into each other. Fear and friendship jostle each other in the street. 

While holding up his cross-border friendship as an example of what can be achieved, Shehadeh is quick to admit that such a relationship demands work. When he decided to write the book, he went to see his old friend with the intention of asking him the question he had turned over in his mind many times: Do you regret coming here?

But it didn’t work out like that. “We sat together and then I thought, ‘What a wrong question to ask,’” Shehadeh says. “How could someone regret his life? Wish they’d never met their wife, had their children? You don’t say that. I have to accept him and accept his limitations.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

Photo: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.