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15 March 2017

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. 

By Julia Rampen

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? 

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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.”