The author is a Palestinian human rights activist & lawyer specialising in land law. He has been extensively involved in trying to prevent Israeli expropriation of land for settlements for many years. He tells the history of the impact of Israeli settlement development through the medium of a series of walks undertaken in the West Bank over a period of almost thirty years. The book is beautifully written, lyrical, evocative. It is intensely political but not polemical which for me makes it all the more powerful. He describes the changes in the physical landscape over the years - the settlements, the new roads constructed on Palestinian land that Palestinians are not permitted to use, the silence of the hills & valleys now disturbed by the incessant sound of construction, the walls, the pathways destroyed by rubble thrown down from settlement & road building. "Throughout our walk in these hills we had not come across a single soldier or settler and yet we felt their presence all around us as they continued to build new settlements, enlarge existing ones and connect them with roads."
At times I sensed profound disillusionment, loss of self-confidence and sense of purpose. He writes:
"For many years I managed to hold on to the hope that the settlements would not be permanent. I had meticulously documented the illegal process by which they came to be established, every step of the way. I felt that as long as I understood, as long as the process by which all this had come about was not mysterious and the legal tricks used were exposed, I could not be confused and defeated and Israel could not get away with it. Knowledge is power. I had to keep up with the Israeli legal manoeuvres and expose them to the world. I had perceived my life as an ongoing narrative organically linked to the forward march of the Palestinian people towards liberation and freedom from the yoke of occupation. But now I knew this was nothing but a grand delusion."
Shehadeh does not spare the Palestinian leadership from criticism. Throughout the book he shares his anger at the Palestinian leadership's failings in the negotiations that resulted in the signing of the Oslo accords, which excluded the settlement issue. He attributes this to the desire of the PLO to be the recognised representative of the Palestinian people, internal political expediency taking precedence over ensuring a just and viable agreement. He believes that part of the problem was that the PLO factions guiding the Palestinian negotiators had been living in Tunis and before that in Beirut, and had little real experience of the lives of Palestinians living in Palestine, many never having lived in or visited Palestine until after the signing of the agreement. In one telling story he heads to the Dead Sea for a walk with a woman of Palestinian origin recently arrived in the country after growing up in Beirut and later, when the PLO were ejected from there, Tunis. She is surprised that the settlements look so permanent and that Israeli soldiers can stop cars on the roads in the Territories. She has no idea that the agreement allows this even though she worked for the chief Palestinian negotiator in the Oslo talks. "Like Selma the PLO negotiators did not have a real sense of what the settlements were about."
The epilogue to the book describes a walk Shehadeh attempted to make with an Englishwoman who came to Palestine as a volunteer. They are stopped on their way by two young Palestinians. They are suspicious of the woman because she is English and they associate the British with both the creation of the state of Israel and with killing Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They seemed to define themselves more in terms of Islam than as Palestinian nationalists." Somewhat shaken, the pair are allowed to walk on. As they reach the end of this truncated walk, he looks back down the hillside: "As I stood in the ruins of one of my favourite places in the valley, this valley near where I was born and have always lived, I felt the hills were not mine any more. I am no longer free to come and walk." You feel his sense of loss, the unbearable sadness as he realises that he will not walk this way for many years to come.
This immensely moving, desperately sad book speaks volumes.