Language of War, Language of Peace — Palestine, Israel and the Search for Justice

By Raja Shehadeh – Profile Books, Ltd. (2015)

Raja Shehadeh

Raja Shehadeh

This book springs from the material the author prepared for the Edward Said memorial lectures he was invited to give at Columbia University in October 2013 and later at the British Museum in March 2014. The Guardian provides his short bio:

Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer, novelist and political activist. He is a founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq, an affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists and the author of several books about international law, human rights and the Middle East. In 2008 he was awarded the Orwell prize for political writing for his book, Palestinian Walks.

Language of War

Language of War, Language of Peace is a short, yet powerful, read. I purchased it in Paris and nearly completed the 130 pages on the four hour flight to Cairo.  Although much of the historical facts about the Nakba, the Six Day War, and the negotiations leading up to the Oslo Accords were not new to me, the author’s framing of the legal issues surrounding this history is very enlightening.

This book will certainly interest lawyers, but I suspect his audience is much broader. Raja Shehadeh puts himself, his family and his personal history into this volume. The author and his father have first-hand experience in the highest levels of government and so I found his frank assessment of the shortcomings of the Palestinian leadership, as well as the duplicitous nature of the Israeli leaders, very credible. He writes:

Immediately after the 1967 war, and before a single Jewish settlement had been established, my father and a group of some fifty Palestinian leaders made a proposal to the Israeli government for the resolution of the conflict that included (and I quote from the document I typed for him and he presented to the government) the following:

  • The formation of an independent Palestine State to be admitted as a member state in the United Nations.
  • The territorial limits of the Palestine State shall be along the lines of the 1947 Partition Scheme with such necessary modifications as may be agreed upon by further negotiations.
  • The Old City of Jerusalem surrounded by the ancient walls shall be under the joint sovereignty of the State of Israel and Palestine and ruled in accordance with a special agreement to secure free access to all Holy places.
  • The capital of the Palestine State to be the Arab section of Jerusalem.
  • Economic and non-aggression treaties shall be concluded between the two states.
  • The independence and territorial boundaries of the Palestine State shall be guaranteed by the United Nations.
  • Subject to any agreement as may be reached between the two states under the economic treaty referred to above: all rights of Palestinians in movable and immovable properties existing at the termination of the Mandate in both states shall be settled by mutual agreement. In case of dispute, however, such rights shall be settled in accordance with the principles laid down in the UN resolution of 12 December 1949.

Not only did local Palestinian leaders offer Israel peace, but so did King Hussein of Jordan. Yet faced with two actual options, Israel deferred making a decision. According to the Israeli historian Avi Raz, author of The Bride and the Dowry, a scrupulous analysis of the first two years of the Israeli occupation after 1967, Israel did not want to give up any territory. Instead, it resorted to delaying tactics, which, Raz argues, later developed into a foreign policy of deception, claiming to want peace but arguing that there was no one to negotiate with. Over time, there has been no change to this policy.

Language of War, Language of Peace includes the end of the negotiations in 2013 with John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy between Netanyahu and Abbas. The author writes that he was optimistic at first, which surprises me. He wanted to write about the terms of the peace agreement and hoped the title of this volume would be “Language of Peace.” Sitting in Gaza in the Spring of 2013, I was watching the news reports about the negotiations closely and found nothing about which to be hopeful.

The author documents the events leading up to Israel’s military operation (war on Gaza) in the summer of 2014, as well as the aftermath. His earlier optimisim now dampened with a reality that the leaders and governments will not find peace or justice. It must come from below, from the people.

The initialed sustained resistance to occupation during the first Intifada was mainly non-violent, but it was suppressed with such brutality that the sons who saw their fathers humiliated grew to be more violent. And the trend has continued ever since, with greater and greater levels of violence being used as Israel tries out more and more advanced and sophisticated weaponry that leads to more victims and more violence. Neither my father nor Yeshayahu Leibowitz was being naive when they proposed that the occupation should end and a political solution be found immediately after 1967, knowing as they did that time was of the essence. They realised that matters would only get more complicated as the years passed. New forces would arise and become entrenched and have vested interests in preserving the status quo. This is why they warned against waiting.

After reading Palestinian Walks, and now his latest book, Language of War, Language of Peace, I’m going to make an effort to meet the author, whom I admire very much. He’s on my personal bucket list.

Anyone who wishes they could sit down with a wise, knowledgeable, thoughtful Palestinian over a cup of tea to discuss current events in Israel and Palestine, should pick up a copy of Raja Shehadeh’s book.


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