Thanks to Romaric, my friend who works at French publisher Galaade, I had the chance to meet Raja Shehadeh for an interview he kindly accepted.
Leopold Lambert: The particularity of your actions is that you are a lawyer. Despite the fact that law is violated every day by the State of Israel, what may be some naivety from me makes me think that it is the one domain that can save Palestinians from oppression. Would your expertise agree with that?
Raja Shehadeh: When I started as a lawyer, I had an exaggerated view of the importance of law. I took very seriously that law was a weapon. I still consider seriously that law is a way of preserving civilization. I have great respect for and belief in International Law, because it came as a result of wars, terrible devastating wars. In the beginning, the International Law for the protection of civilians came from people who did not think that they could stop wars with law but that within the reality of war and hostilities, there could be some protection for civilians and that there could be limitations on conquest the acquisition of territories. So something as basic as the Geneva Convention and the Hague regulations say very simply that no gain should be made through belligerency. So if a war takes place, regardless why and who started it, and territories are occupied, the occupier may transfer its civilian population to the occupied territories. It’s very logical. It does make sense and it should be preserved, this is a very important principle.
At the same time, there are things that derived from this principles. If the situation lasts, the occupier may do certain things and may not do other things: he may not change the law, he has to care for the welfare of the occupied population and so on. When I came back from my legal studies, I saw that the basis of these principles were being violated and that no work was being on done on this in the late 70’s. Very little work was being done. Verbal condemnations of Israel were being made but not real studies which were really important to do.
So, yes, I do believe in law. And I also believe in taking legal actions to test the possibility of how far you can go and what was the legality of the Israeli actions. The Israeli government and politics were telling the Israeli settlers that they were not taking anybody’s land because this was state’s land. Of course we must not forget that even if it were state land, the occupier may not take it to use to established settlements for its own population. The whole project is wrong. The Israeli supporters of settlements tried to show it is done through proper legal means, I and my colleagues showed there was no legal basis for taking Palestinian land. It was tantamount to stealing land.
At the same time, it was not really clear to me how the Israeli legal apologists were thinking and what was the nature of the legal arguments they were employing to justify their other policies in the Occupied Territories. So it was a process of discovery in a sense. Then, after going through quite a lot of case work, in court, by thinking, by reading and exploring the legal aspects, I began to understand that what underlies the Israeli position is religious ideology. Ultimately, what they are saying is: “This land belongs to us. God gave it to us”. How do we get to appropriate it, is a mere detail.” In furthering this the Israeli High Court played an important role. For example in the very first challenge to the High Court, the military had used the method of expropriating the land near Ramallah. When the Palestinian owner of the land challenged this order, the Court said: “Expropriation is not a proper way of taking the land because expropriation implies long term and the occupation can not be for a long term…” They didn’t say taking the land of the occupied population for building settlements for the occupier’s population is wrong. Just that this way of doing it is not right. What they were also saying was that if you use expropriation to take the land, the implication is that the land is not yours because you can only expropriate other people’s land.
Later on, in another challenge, which was in Nablus where there is now the settlement of Elon Moreh, they said that expropriating private property was illegal but also that if the land were to be declared “State’s Land,” then that it would be possible to take it for establishing a settlement. So since that case, the Israeli military government has been “expropriating” the land by declaring it State’s land. To carry this out they changed the local law. One of the principles of the International Law is that you cannot change the local laws and there are local laws about what constitutes State land and who can make such a claim and who has the burden of proof and what it takes to lift it. They changed all of this and reversed it. They said: “Anybody who claims that it is not State’s land (that is challenges an order the military makes that a certain land is State Land) has the burden to prove this.” So instead of the takers proving that the land belonged to the State, it was to the other party who had to prove otherwise. The burden of proof was shifted. And they went further by restricting the definition of private land to land which is actually used continuously for ten years and so on. They made it more and more difficult for Palestinians to succeed in holding on to their land and protecting it from being taken by the settlers. Every time we managed to break through, they raised the bar and made it yet more difficult.
In the beginning, we thought that we could burden the system by bringing many cases and through applying moral and psychologically pressure by essentially proving that it was but a process of large scale theft of the land. But we were dealing with a government with seemingly unlimited resources and they started to make it more difficult and more expensive for us to pursue these cases. For example they made it necessary that we had to submit along with the case, survey maps of the entire area under consideration which sometimes included scores of acres, What the government making the claim should have done was shifted to the private owners.
It became clear to me that the basis for the actions of the Israeli government was not legal but ideological, namely that the whole of the land in their view was public, that the only legitimate public was the Jewish public, that the Jewish public had this land 2000 years ago then they left, and meanwhile other people, non Jewish, came and used the land, now those people are on parts of the land so the part where they actually using will for the time being be left to them, but only these areas, all the rest will be “returned” to its rightful Jewish owners.
Then, a very important process started at the beginning of the 1980’s, which is the land use planning. The British had made statutory regional plans for the central and southern region of the West Bank; and the Israelis decided to revive these plans which were done in the Mandate times and were still being enforced in Jordan. Jordan had also passed a Planning Law in 1966. Through military orders this law was basically massacred. Where the law had involved the community in the course the planning, this was canceled and all the members of the Supreme Planning Committee became Israeli military personnel. Most of the lower committees were cancelled. Then they took those original plans and they simply unilaterally amended them. Of course those plans did not include any settlements because they were created before 1967. So the Israeli military planners placed settlements in the middle of these region and started making local zoning plans, town and village plans for all the Palestinian villages in the West Bank. The just drew a circle around the built up areas and declared this to be the border of the village for the next forty years. When negotiations seemed to be on the horizon this process was speeded up so that by the time that the Oslo Accords were signed statutory zoning plans for all the villages had been completed which the Palestinian Authority is not allowed to amend. The confinement of the Palestinians was achieved and the bulk of the land was left for the establishment and expansion of the Jewish settlements.
Again, I and other lawyers and planners started in the late eighties to take objections against these plans. A good number of objections were submitted. Sometimes they accepted to revise the plans but it was very difficult. This is why now, when you travel in the West Bank, you notice how the villages do not look so much like villages anymore. Traditionally the villagers built one floor with a garden and there was a sense of space because villages like cultivating the land around their house. Now, most villages have houses of several floors and they look cramped. That is because they are not allowed to go beyond the set borders. When they do the Israeli army come with their bulldozers and demolish this “illegal” homes.
Not only was Israel taking Palestinian land, they were denying the Palestinians from expanding on what was left for them. The process, interestingly enough, follows that of Israel; of Galilee mainly. In Galilee, you notice the exact same phenomenon. The Arabs’ villages, towns and cities (Nazareth for example) are all very cramped. The villages would own land, outside of these, but they would not be allowed to build on it. Same process here. Not as severe as in Israel but with the same pattern.
And there was also a plan for the roads which was published in 1984. Not only did they plan for the settlements but also how the settlements would relate to Israel and how they would be connected to each other; connected in such a way as to disconnect the Palestinians from each others. It is all part of a total vision. It actually started very early on and that is why I felt it was very important to work on the legal aspect. Through the legal aspect, you can explain, reveal, describe, expose how this works.
Leopold Lambert: Even if the suspect is pretty much the same person than the Judge?
Raja Shehadeh: Yes; because as long as they say: “You have the means to appeal, to object.”, then you have to use it in order to use all your options. Your case will be a very much stronger case if you have done this. I was able in 1985 to publish my book Occupier’s Law in which I was saying that I, not only know that it is a case, but I have tried to go through the Israeli set channels to object and to challenge. The result was that the case became stronger by going through those processes.
Leopold Lambert: If we attempt to focus a little bit on architecture itself; as Eyal Weizman wrote about the notion of urbicide as being not included enough within the International Law which is not specific enough to architecture; maybe an extremely useful project here would be to redact a law that focus very precisely on architecture: its construction but also its destruction.
Raja Shehadeh: Actually, a good case to compare with would be South Africa. Also there they used architecture and town planning to implement their apartheid laws. It was very much part of the policy. I don’t know how it all looks now but it is not easy to undo.
Leopold Lambert: But in this hypothesis of a new law, architects and lawyer should work together to make it happen. Do you believe yourself that there would exist any way to implement it on the international scene?
Raja Shehadeh: We have to distinguish between a situation where the state has sovereignty and one where there is occupation. In the case of the Occupied Territories international law says that: “Regardless of how the building takes place or how the appropriation of land takes place, it is illegal.”
In the case of South Africa, it was also covered because apartheid was a crime against humanity. Perhaps in the Israel of 1948 it would be more appropriate in the sense that the Palestinians were Israeli citizens, and as such they were subjected to a process in which urban centers are done in such a way as to oppress them. It might work better in the framework of a sovereign country in which one group of the population is submitted to urbicide. In the case of Gaza and the West Bank it is already illegal.
Leopold Lambert: So does that mean that you don’t believe so much in this architectural international law?
Raja Shehadeh: I would not be against it as such. I would not say it is a bad thing for example to describe the situation here as one akin to apartheid because it helps people to understand the situation. If there is an international law that looks at architecture, that’s a plus! But it is just an addition to an illegality that is already implied.
Leopold Lambert: My point would be that if one observes the current situation in which Israel violates the law on a daily basis but the International Community do not take the measures against that, then one could think that fragmenting the law into series of very precisely described cases of violation through architecture that could ultimately lead to several recognition of these situations.
Raja Shehadeh: Yes, that’s true. I also think that when you are developing an international law, you obviously do it for more than one case, for more than Palestine and Israel; so perhaps, by focusing on this case and showing how an aggressor implements policies, you can also prevent it from happening in less typical cases; in urban centers for example or with gated communities.
I think it is an important development, it is a departure. The International Law has not moved in this direction, it is a good direction to move to.