Shehadeh, Raja (1951–)

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Shehadeh, Raja

A Palestinian lawyer, Raja Shehadeh is also an author. Raja Shehadeh was born on 6 July 1951 in Ramallah, Palestine, into a family of sharp intellect with a strong and a long established tradition in the practice of law. His father, Aziz, began his legal practice in the city of Jaffa in 1935 when Palestine had not been partitioned yet. The 1948 War forced Shehadeh to leave his home in Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast and retreat with his family, similar to scores of other Palestinian families, to a summer house in the West Bank hills of Ramallah. Because Israel had gained control of Jaffa along with many other coastal cities, they had no access to their home and could not return, so the temporary home in Ramallah became permanent in the aftermath of the 1948 War, and the family became refugees along with approximately 750,000 other Palestinians.


As a youngster, Raja Aziz Shehadeh (also Shihada) attended the Quaker school in Ramallah and later graduated from The American University of Beirut in 1973 with a BA in literature and philosophy. In 1976 he was called to English Bar and became a member of the Lincoln's Inn. Since 1978 he has been in private practice in Ramallah and also began writing. Today, he practices law along with his cousins and Fouad Shehadeh, his uncle. Together, they have one of the most prestigious law practices in Palestine. Shehadeh and his uncle have over the years made significant contributions to shaping the legal profession and system in Palestine. At the same time, Shehadeh fell naturally into a writing career; he is the author of several books and anthologies about human rights, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Palestine's status under international law, the Palestinian-Israeli peace accords, and the Middle East. He has also published his personal diaries and a memoir.

Following his return to Ramallah from England as a promising barrister with great vision, Shehadeh established Al Haq (Law in the Service of Man) in 1979, a non-partisan, West Bank-affiliate of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists which he co-directed until 1991. Al Haq was one of the first politically independent Palestinian human rights organizations and became an important group under his strong leadership. He led Al Haq into producing a solid number of reference books and publications on the Israeli occupation and the ensuing violations of international law. It gained repute as a powerful and credible research center, and a cogent critic of Israeli legal and military practices and abuses in the West Bank. After leaving Al Haq, Shehadeh served as an advisor to the Palestinian peace negotiating team in Washington, D.C., from November 1991 to September 1992. He is a member of the International Advisory Council of the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights and of the Human Rights Advisory Group of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches, Geneva.


Shehadeh's early years were colored by the tragic impact of the 1948 and 1967 wars that led, respectively, to the partition of Palestine and the subsequent Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. These were difficult periods for Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular; he found himself growing up in the midst of a wounded Palestinian population existing within a complex web of politics, conspiracies, and a quagmire of tragedies and externalities—the story of every Palestinian.

In 1985, Shehadeh experienced a great loss with the murder of his father that occurred as Raja was on a speaking tour abroad. Some accounts record this as a politically motivated crime. However, Shehadeh's own account is rooted in a conviction that his father's murder was unrelated to the politics of the time. He made every attempt conceivable to find out the truth and even anointed himself a criminal prosecutor where he probed the murder. He challenged the Israeli police and pushed them to engage more effectively in the investigation. The murderers remained at large and the file was never closed. Shehadeh's relationship with his father and subsequent murder occupied a large part of his psyche and eventually culminated in the writing of a personal memoir titled: Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine.


Name: Raja Shehadeh

Birth: 6 July 1951, Ramallah, West Bank

Family: Wife: Penny Johnson; no children

Nationality: Palestinian

Education: American University of Beirut, 1973, graduated with honors in literature and philosophy, called to the English Bar as member of Lincoln's Inn, 1976


  • 1978: Joins Shehadeh law firm, becomes senior partner in 1985
  • 1979–1991: Founds and co-directs Al Haq, the West Bank affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists
  • 1979–1995: Lectures extensively and attends many international conferences on the legal and human rights aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • 1983: Receives the Issam Sartwai Peace Prize
  • 1986: Receives the Rothko Chapel Award for Commitment to Truth and Freedom, presented by President Jimmy Carter
  • 1991–1992: Acts as legal advisor to the Palestinian Delegation to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington D.C.
  • 1995: Full-time writer and legal consultant

Before his father's murder, Shehadeh had the opportunity to work as a lawyer in Ramallah. Israelis occupied the city, so his introduction to the practice of law was under challenging circumstances, especially because Israel ruled the Occupied Territories with a strong hand, issuing military orders that were never published. These orders affected every facet of Palestinians' lives and dealt a strong blow to their ownership of land and property, impacted their water rights, and denied their right to reside and return to their homes in the Occupied Territories. Under his father's tutelage, Shehadeh began to survey and catalog every military occupation law and order in the West Bank. He noted the meticulous way in which Israeli military lawyers had canceled, amended, and supplemented all existing West Bank laws as they saw fit. He also understood how, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, those moves contravened international law.

However, this was during a period most Palestinian lawyers refused to engage with the occupation and so no one was protesting. Shehadeh's father, by contrast, did protest. He was able to recognize that he could use the Israeli legal system and court to speak out against the occupation. Other Palestinian lawyers chose to boycott the Israeli legal system and went on a long strike from 1967 until 1994, when the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established and along with it came a Palestinian judiciary. Shehadeh's father paid dearly for seeing differently and for working within the Israeli legal system itself by defending Palestinians against land seizures and arbitrary treatment at the hands of the military. For his efforts, his own union disbarred him for life. Shehadeh felt torn at this injustice against both his father and the Israeli violations. His contribution to make amends was the establishment of Al Haq.


At this juncture in Palestinian political history and as a consequence of the occupation, Shehadeh became a leader in developing legal means to assert Palestinian rights. He utilized his legal skills and writing abilities as a tool directed against the occupation. His first public legal study was an examination of the impact of unpublished Israeli military orders on Palestinian rights, especially with respect to land and property. These articles and legal studies appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, the Review of International Commission of Jurists, Journal of Palestine Studies, and Middle East International. As a result he earned international recognition for trying to stop the disintegration of Palestinian law and its legal system, and also was recognized for his human rights work. The hardships of the occupation continued to play a major factor in his early to mid-career. His first book of diaries covered the 1980s. During this period, he was fascinated by the notion of sumud—perseverance. Palestinians persevered and the 1967 War made them more determined to stay on the land and never repeat the mistake of 1948—where they took refuge elsewhere, thinking that they could return home when the war was over—only to face the refugee problem that now lies at the core of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Shehadeh saw Palestinian determination not to leave their homes and land as the best antidote to Israeli policies aimed at ridding the country of its Palestinian inhabitants. Sumud was the way he felt he was challenging the Israeli occupier. He also became involved in human rights work and believed that, by documenting and exposing the Israeli government's violations of human rights, he would help bring an end to them. In later years, he turned to narrating the history of Palestine and the Palestinian tragedy as a whole through his own personal story.

Another factor that compelled Shehadeh's writing was the eyewitness accounts of how, soon after Israel occupied the Palestinian Territories, Israel began to confiscate large areas of Palestinian land to build Jewish settlements. This led him to write his seminal book Occupier's Law in 1988. Since then Israeli governments of both the left and right have gone on building these settlements and the number of settlers has doubled since 1993 when the first peace accord was signed between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel—the Declaration of Principles. Slowly, he saw how this country was no longer his. He always commented with deep disappointment how everybody who was able to was leaving Palestine for other countries. He often pondered that maybe this was another purpose behind the Israeli settlements.


Raji Sourani (1953–) was elected to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in April 2003 and to ICJ's executive committee in April 2006. Sourani is an international board member of the International Federation of Human Rights and an expert member of the International Council of the International Human Rights Law Group. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights in 2002, a human rights prize awarded by the Republic of France in 1996, and a joint laureate of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial for Human Rights Award in 1991. Sourani studied law at Beirut and Alexandria Universities.

The legal practice of Anis Fawzi Kassim (also Qasim) (1939–) has crossed much of the Arab world. He has an LL.M. degree from George Washington University in Washington, and worked in Kuwait for fifteen years prior moving to Amman in 1993. Operating out of Amman, Anis Kassim is an internationally recognized authority on Palestinian law and issues. He founded and is the editor in chief of the Palestinian Yearbook of International Law, has advised the Palestinian Authority on numerous matters relating to new legislation, and was in charge of training the Palestinian Authority's legal department from 1998 to 1999.


As peace initiatives commenced between Palestinians and Israelis, Shehadeh was initially a supporter of the talks that took place in Madrid and Washington in the early 1990s, and he worked on the Palestinian negotiating team as a legal adviser. He left after a year, recognizing that the talks stood no chance of establishing a meaningful peace.

Upon reading the Oslo Accords, in which the Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank remained in place, he became despondent and for a while gave up his human rights work. The course of negotiations left the issues of the settlements, among other issues such as Jerusalem refugees and international borders, to final status determinations. He felt that the Palestinian leadership had abandoned many of the issues on which he had worked for years in their attempt to strike a deal with the Zionist state.

In 1997, Shehadeh wrote a book titled From Occupation to Interim Accords: Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In this book he analyzed the overall context for the negotiations process. The late Edward Said wrote the foreword and noted that Shehadeh was the only one to point out how the negotiations were conducted in a manner that allowed Israel to consolidate its legal, strategic, and political hold over the Palestinian territories. Said noted that Shehadeh understood Israel's negotiating strategy that caught the Palestinian leadership unaware and led to an irreversible situation.

In 1991, Shehadeh published The Sealed Room, a diary that contains many vivid accounts of what Israeli soldiers did in the West Bank, such as the shooting of a journalist by an Israeli sniper for reporting the Israeli army's atrocities; Palestinian homes bulldozed with their inhabitants still inside; and family homes invaded by rampaging Israeli soldiers.

Yet, Shehadeh has always been a longtime advocate of peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, and for having a state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. He often expressed his support for a two-state solution and believed that the Palestinians and Israelis could have learned to coexist in two separate states side by side. However, he understood and expressed in writing that a Palestinian state that is impoverished, unviable, and without borders or access to markets will have no chance to survive.

Shehadeh went back again, in 2002, to chronicling the pains and experiences he saw around him in another diary titled When the Bulbul Stopped Singing. It is the diary of Ramallah during the Israeli military re-occupation of the city in 2002 following the eruption of the second Palestinian Intifada. Shehadeh's account offered more than a simple description of a litany of tragic events. The diary sought to explore why things have come to such a point and analyzed the motives of the Israelis and the shortcomings of the failing strategies of the Palestinian leaderships. The reader is able to gain a sense of what it must have been like to live under foreign occupation, with its murderous and dehumanizing consequences. He captured Palestinians' human endurance and relied on black humor to communicate his message.

He also described his anger at the Palestinian Authority (PA) for allowing Palestinian civilians, officials, police, and militia to be killed as it continued to pursue failed methods. He pointed out that the leaders never appealed to the existing huge international support and sympathy for the Palestinians. The diary also states that no effort was made to appeal to the antigovernment sentiments in Israel itself, despite the expansionist colonialist policy of the government causing suffering to Israelis and to Palestinians. The diary was recently adapted for stage and premiered at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. David Greig, the book's adapter, did not alter the original text—he only edited it into monologues for the solo protagonist. Greig, who has written a number of plays for theatre and radio, stated in the program notes that he wanted to present Shehadeh's story because it "cut through the forest of newsprint" about the conflict in Palestine. He felt that the diary offered a richer, more complex view than that of "the stone throwing rioter, the bereaved mother, the angry crowd, the martyr, the terrorist"—the usual media images of the Palestinians.

In his memoir Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine, Shehadeh writes about the conflict between father and son. The memoir is suffused with the tumultuous politics of the Middle East and the Palestinian issue forms much of the fabric of the relationships that Shehadeh describes. This contributes to the multiple meanings of the title, which echoes his feelings about his family as well as the situation in Palestine in general. Strangers in the House is personal and political. The personal relationship is a photo developer for a portrait of the Palestinian tragedy as a whole. It is filled with metaphors for what was wrong with Palestinian political culture. Instead of picking themselves up and rebuilding after 1948, instead of analyzing their defeat and understanding their adversaries, they have spent the decades whining and pining, composing poetry to a lost world, believing that a rejection of compromise was evidence of virtue and wisdom.

"All that remained was a shadow life," Shehadeh writes, "'a life of dreams and anticipation and memory.'" His memoir derives its power from his willingness, rare among Palestinian writers, to probe the emotional and political limits of his own society. The story of Shehadeh's father and himself, the son, is a rare tale of principle, conviction, and kindness operating in harsh circumstances. But it is also an exceptionally sad one, as Shehadeh shows how his efforts and the efforts of his father had minimal impact—the Israeli military walked all over them, ransacked their offices, threatened their staff, and repeatedly delayed their court dates. Meanwhile, his father was ignored and condemned by the Palestinians.


Mahdi, Abdul Hadi, ed. Palestinian Personalities—A Biographic Dictionary. Jerusalem: Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, Jerusalem, 2006

                                                Hiba Husseini