Show Hide image

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. 

Show Hide image

Emmanuel Macron's "moralisation of politics" comes at a heavy price for his allies

"Fake" jobs in French politics, season 3 episode 1.

Something is rotten in the state of France. No political party – at least none that existed before 2016 – seems immune to the spread of investigations into “fake” or shady parliamentary jobs. The accusations sank centre-right candidate François Fillon’s presidential campaign, and led to Marine Le Pen losing her parliamentary immunity in the European parliament (and proxy wars within her party, the National Front). Both deny the allegations. Now the investigations have made their way to the French government, led by Edouard Philippe, Emmanuel Macron’s Prime Minister.

On Wednesday morning, justice minister François Bayrou and secretary of state for European affairs Marielle de Sarnez announced their resignation from Philippe’s cabinet. They followed defence minister Sylvie Goulard’s resignation the previous day. The three politicians belonged not to Macron's party, En Marche!, but the centrist MoDem party. Bayrou, the leader, had thrown his weight behind Macron after dropping his own presidential bid in April.

The disappearance of three ministers leaves Emmanuel Macron’s cross-party government, which includes politicians from centre left and centre right parties, without a centrist helm. (Bayrou, who has run several times for the French presidency and lost, is the original “neither left nor right” politician – just with a less disruptive attitude, and a lot less luck). “I have decided not to be part of the next government,” he told the AFP.

Rumours had been spreading for weeks. Bayrou, who was last part of a French government as education minister from 1993 to 1997, had been under pressure since 9 June, when he was included in a preliminary investigation into “embezzlement”. The case revolves around whether the parliamentary assistants of MoDem's MEPs, paid for by the European Parliament, were actually working full or part-time for the party. The other two MoDem ministers who resigned, along with Bayrou, also have assistants under investigation.

Bayrou has denied the allegations. He has declared that there “never was” any case of “fake” jobs within his party and that it would be “easy to prove”. All the same, by the time he resigned, his position as justice minister has become untenable, not least because he was tasked by Macron with developing key legislation on the “moralisation of politics”, one of the new President’s campaign pledges. On 1 June, Bayrou unveiled the new law, which plans a 10-year ban from public life for any politician convicted of a crime or offence regarding honesty and transparency in their work.

Bayrou described his decision to resign as a sacrifice. “My name was never pronounced, but I was the target to hit to attack the government’s credibility,” he said, declaring he would rather “protect this law” by stepping down. The other two ministers also refuted the allegations, and gave similar reasons for resigning. 

Macron’s movement-turned-unstoppable-machine, En Marche!, remains untainted from accusations of the sort. Their 350 new MPs are younger, more diverse than is usual in France – but they are newcomers in politics. Which is exactly why Macron had sought an alliance with experienced Bayrou in the first place.

0800 7318496