What Does Israel Fear from Palestine? by Raja Shehadeh review – in pursuit of peace

<span>Displaced Palestinian children carry water in a makeshift camp in Khan Yunis on the Gaza Strip, May 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Eyad Baba/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Displaced Palestinian children carry water in a makeshift camp in Khan Yunis on the Gaza Strip, May 2024.Photograph: Eyad Baba/AFP/Getty Images

Can books help at times like these? In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks on 7 October, many of us reached for the works of Edward Said and David Grossman, Ghada Karmi and Amos Oz. This is how we have been taught to approach the unimaginable – by turning to great minds operating closer to the heart of the catastrophe. Eight months on and it’s hard not to feel that all the words written about this endless war mean nothing when weighed against the unspeakable horror, the cruelty, the intransigence of the politicians who claim to represent their people.

Raja Shehadeh, the 72-year-old lawyer, peace activist and author of 12 elegant and nuanced meditations of life in Palestine, has written his first book since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war and it feels like even he, whose writing is usually so generous, so optimistic, so even-handed, might be losing hope.

I discovered Shehadeh’s work when an Israeli friend pressed his 2017 book, Where the Line Is Drawn, on me, saying that it had shaped his thinking about the future of Palestinian/Israeli relations. It tells of his 40-year correspondence with an Israeli, Henry Abramovitch, and is characteristic of Shehadeh’s work: calm, poised, analytical (he is also a co-founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq) and fuelled by the hope that books such as his may eventually change the narrative. It showed how the particularities of this specific friendship – not always smooth, occasionally confrontational, but always returning to a common sense of decency – might serve as a model for a rapprochement between the two populations and their political representatives.

Now he has published the provocatively titled What Does Israel Fear from Palestine?. This short, agonised book is split into two sections: the first, How Did We Get Here?, is an edited version of a talk he gave at a peace conference in Kyoto in 2016; the second, The Gaza War 2023-24, records in awful, anatomical detail the horrors of life in Gaza, the author’s tone cycling between anger and despair.

He lists the hospitals destroyed, the universities turned into rubble, the dreadful numbers of dead and wounded

There’s a marked divide between the first and second parts. The first section is recognisably a work by Shehadeh. He begins by asking a question: why was it that, in the wake of the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995, the world didn’t put its weight behind peace in the region the way it had sought to bring an end to apartheid in South Africa?

In his measured, lawyerly but always very readable way, he goes about identifying what he claims led many Israelis to forge a vision of themselves that enabled them to largely ignore the suffering of Palestinians. He goes back to 1948, the year that the state of Israel was established. For Palestinians, this is the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, when around 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and whole swaths of Palestine, including Shehadeh’s ancestral hometown of Jaffa, were taken by Israel. Now, he writes, Israel has taken on the role of coloniser, and Gaza has become “an open-air prison where there is nowhere to run to or hide”.

The second part of the book feels like the work of a different author, one finally worn down by the brutality of the Israeli response over the past eight months. He meets an unnamed Israeli friend and asks him about “the inexcusable behaviour of his country’s citizen army”. He is met by an unbreachable wall of certainty. “Every time I mentioned an atrocity committed against Palestinian civilians by the Israeli army in Gaza, he brought up a criminal act committed by Hamas on 7 October. Then with a sad voice he assured me that the Israelis are suffering from trauma and are grieving… ”

There’s a bitterness in Shehadeh’s tone as he attempts to understand how Israel and its international supporters could continue to ignore the devastating scenes that are unfolding daily on the streets of Gaza. He lists the hospitals destroyed, the universities turned into rubble, the dreadful numbers of dead and wounded. Then, as the book comes to a close, as if summoning a last reserve of strength, he manages a message of hope. Perhaps, he writes, the utter nightmarishness of the past few months may achieve what decades of war and negotiation have failed to resolve: a lasting peace. “Amid the darkness in the course of this devastating war I have had one hopeful idea. What if this war should end, not by a ceasefire or a truce… but with a comprehensive resolution to the century-old conflict between the Palestinian and Israeli people?” The world, he believes, will understand through the horror of what they are witnessing in Gaza an inevitable truth: “that only if a Palestinian state is established will there ever be peace in the region”.

He ends with lines by the Palestinian poet Refaat Alareer, recently killed in an Israeli airstrike. It’s a message of resistance and belief: in the spirit of his people and the power of their voices.

What Does Israel Fear from Palestine? by Raja Shehadeh is published by Profile (£7.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply