|| Israeli and Palestinian mark Six-Day
June 6 marks the 30th anniversary of the Six-Day War in the Middle East. A decisive Israeli victory over several neighboring Arab countries resulted in, among other things, the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
One ironic twist finds an Israeli, Neve Gordon, and a Palestinian, Jihad Hamad, both attending Notre Dame University. To mark the anniversary and throw light on the Middle East situation, the two got together and shared memories of their very different lives, which in turn illustrate the very different fates of two peoples back home.
This feature was arranged by Gordon, a doctoral candidate in the department of government at the University of Notre Dame.
On June 6, 1967, the first shells fell on the kibbutz, killing one of our members. I was just over two years old, and it is my mother's recollections that I now rely on. She was with us in the shelter, caring for the children my age, and still has vivid memories of the sound of bombs hitting the ground.
A few months after the war, I was born in Beit Hanun, a refugee camp just north of Gaza city -- not in a hospital like Israelis, but at home with a midwife. I am a sandwich kid, a robust sandwich with eight brothers and three sisters. We lived as an extended family, 25 people in a small house. I shared a bedroom with four brothers. We had a small orchard, and until the outbreak of the intifada my father worked as a tailor.
At the age of 5, I went to the Beit Hanun elementary school, built by the United Nations shortly after the occupation. I was the best student in my class, and my mother vowed that if I continued to get good grades, she would kill a goat at the end of each school year and give the meat to the poor people of our village in thanksgiving.
My first political memory is from when I was about 8. I was playing outside, above Wadi Beit Hanun, a valley that stretches across the Gaza strip. Suddenly I heard loud explosions and shots. Frightened, I ran home. Later, after the Israeli military imposed a curfew, it became clear that what I had heard was a clash between soldiers and the Palestinian resistance group Guevara Gaza, named after Che Guevara.
I can't say I really understood that we were living under occupation. Children were not allowed to go outside, and I remember a sense of animosity toward Israeli soldiers, but the full significance of these memories came later. The older people did not talk about the occupation those years, and therefore I can't recall to what extent my parents were politically aware.
When I was 10, we moved to Beer-Sheva, a city located in the Israeli Negev, about 75 miles from Jihad's village, Beit Hanun. My father had accepted a teaching position at Ben-Gurion University.
Despite the fact that no other Arabs worked inside Israel, during the early 1970s the word Palestinian was almost totally erased from our vocabulary. For instance, we referred to work that Palestinians did as "Arab work." I was only aware of the word Arab. Former Prime Minister Golda Meir had denied the existence of a Palestinian people. Yitzhak Shamir and Arik Sharon followed suit, maintaining this position through the 1980s.
Replacing the particular word Palestinian with the generic term Arab was indicative of the attitude prevalent in Israeli society: Arabs were our enemies and belonged to a different species. Over the years I came to see that degrading "Arabs" was a necessary component of Israel's draconian policies. It desensitized Israelis and helped justify the state's treatment of "Arabs."
In 1978, the peace process with Egypt was in progress and my father began teaching a series of seminars called Education For Peace. University students visited our apartment regularly, and during this period I first met Palestinians. Not Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the territories occupied in 1967, but Palestinians who lived inside Israel and held Israeli citizenship. At the time, I did not know the difference.
Most Palestinian university students were working as elementary and high school teachers. I can still remember them describing the interference of the Shabak (Israeli secret service) in their daily life and work. For example, it was common knowledge that the Shabak "influenced" decisions concerning the promotion of Palestinian teachers. Any teacher politically active was putting his job on the line.
I first became aware of the occupied territories as a distinct entity in 10th grade. A group of friends, all about 15 years old, had joined the organization Peace Now. Every few months we went to the West Bank to demonstrate, particularly against the establishment of new settlements. We discussed political problems relating to land even while I remained blind to the plight of the Palestinian people living in the occupied territories. I now realize that the demonstrations were directed against the Israeli government, and did not highlight the predicament of the Palestinians. On a beautiful ridge overlooking Nablus, I remember shouting "money for the neighborhoods and not for the settlements," meaning that money should be allocated to the impoverished Jewish neighborhoods within Israel rather than to Jewish settlements in the territories.
I was already in middle school, another school built by the United Nations, before I realized I was living under occupation. In 1979, I was chosen along with one or two classmates to go to a U.N. camp in Beit Sahour, a couple of miles from Bethlehem. There we joined kids from all over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. One day some of the kids began singing songs. I didn't recognize the tunes and began listening to the words: "Palestine is for Arabs," "no to the occupation, yes to freedom," and "victory for Palestine." I asked the kids what they meant, and they explained. From that moment, I became interested in politics and could even say that a song had awakened my consciousness.
Back in school, we demonstrated from time to time, but my first real encounter with Israeli soldiers occurred in 1982, when I was in high school. It was during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. We protested the war, particularly Israel's ongoing aggression and terrorist activities directed against the Palestinian refugees who live in that country. Soldiers stormed the school, catching me inside the classroom. They began screaming, and then they beat me and four other kids, using both their hands and clubs. I didn't have an identification card at the time and they didn't want to arrest a minor, so I wasn't incarcerated. The other four were arrested, interrogated for 18 days and then released. While I still have a scar on my left hand from that incident, I consider myself lucky.
My second direct experience with soldiers occurred the following summer. This time it was in our house. Since the age of 14, I had worked in Israel every summer. I would get up at 4 in the morning and by 5 arrive outside Ashkelon city. There we would stand at the side of the road, about 100 young men and teenagers from Gaza, while Israeli contractors would drive up and choose the workers they needed.
I was a painter and carried a paint brush. The days were long -- from 5:00 to 5:00 -- which explains why I preferred school to summer "vacation." Compared to Gaza standards, I was paid well. Israelis, however, earned twice as much. I saved my earnings to buy clothes and books and to help out with the family bills.
On one occasion I painted rooms in an Israeli's house. When I completed the job, he said he didn't have money to pay me. I looked around and saw a guitar in the room, and asked him whether I could take the guitar instead. He agreed. That night, at around midnight, soldiers entered our house. The women were put in one room, and the men in another. My brother Faiz and I were taken to a third room where we were interrogated. They searched the house, took the guitar and some political magazines, and, before leaving, warned us not to be troublemakers.
I began learning the difference between Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP, the Democratic Front, DFLP, the Peoples Party, PPP, and so forth, during the last two years of high school. While nobody in my family was politically active, we understood the basics. I knew our land had been occupied and was told that we as a family owned property that had been confiscated by Israelis, which made us refugees. I also realized that within Gaza there were hardly any jobs, especially ones that paid livable wages. Thus, I became aware of our poverty.
My political consciousness grew also after I joined the Beit Hanun El-Ahali club, which had a library. This library had many revolutionary books -- Marx's manifesto, War and Peace by Tolstoy, Lenin's basic writings, and Trotsky's The Russian Revolution. I began reading and exploring the ideas I found in these books. While I did not join a political party, I was drawn to George Habash's organization, the PFLP.
When I was 17, in 12th grade, I received an "invitation" from Shabak in Gaza city to be interrogated and was asked to appear at their headquarters. The Shabak also contacted the muchtar -- the head of the village -- and told him that they wanted to talk with me. This was while I was in the middle of the final exam period, but since such "invitations" cannot be refused, I spent the morning at school taking exams and the afternoon with the Shabak. They questioned me for several hours over three consecutive days, and it all boiled down to one thing: The interrogator told me that he was aware that I was a good student and said that the Shabak could help me financially if I wanted to continue my education at a university. I told him that we had an orchard and that I was going to be a farmer. It was my way of saying that I was not for sale.
Like all Israelis, after high-school I joined the army, volunteering for a paratrooper unit. After six months of basic training, my brigade was sent to Lebanon. It was 1984, the aftermath of the Lebanon war, and the company I belonged to was stationed in the northern part of the coastal city Sidon. We were there for three months before returning to Israel to resume training. During three years of military service I spent a total of nine months in Lebanon, in three-month intervals. The second time we returned to Lebanon -- the company was stationed just outside of Nabatiyah -- Yitzhak Rabin was defense minister, and it was the Iron Fist period. It was then that I learned the rudiments of occupation.
During the day we would walk the streets, enter houses and conduct random searches. Sometimes soldiers would vandalize the homes, breaking furniture, dropping TV sets on floors, or "accidentally" busting windows and vases. Anything made of glass was fair game. Soldiers would get bored after hours spent at roadblocks checking passengers and cars. Some stole cigarettes, others mindlessly slashed tires. And then, of course, there was the serious work.
Upon notification that there would be a night mission, a soldier would confiscate four cars that attempted to pass through the roadblock -- we chose the very best, usually Mercedes. The drivers were tied up and put in a tent at our base. At around 10 p.m. a group of 16 heavily armed soldiers, accompanied by two secret service agents, would leave the base using the confiscated cars for transportation (although no other cars traveled at night, these were considered to be our camouflage!). We would park the cars a few miles from a village and walk quietly to the designated house. Most of the soldiers would stay outside and surround the house, while four or five entered accompanied by the secret service agents. The women and children were separated from the men while the secret service agents interrogated the latter. I couldn't understand what was said, yet it was obvious that the people were terrified. Once an agent shoved the barrel of a gun into a person's mouth. Sometimes we took prisoners, though occasionally the person we were looking for had escaped. We returned to the base from such missions at around 5 in the morning and by noon we were expected to be on duty at the roadblock.
Why, I have since asked myself, did I participate in this occupation? I knew we had no business in Lebanon. I had protested against the Lebanon War during my last year of high school. And yet I had become an accomplice. I remember telling my officer that the next time I was sent home for vacation, I wouldn't return. He argued with me, saying that the army needed conscientious soldiers in order to ensure that other soldiers wouldn't violate the rules. I knew he was wrong but let myself be persuaded.
My last period in Lebanon was the most difficult. Israel had withdrawn its forces to what is now called the buffer zone, and my company was stationed on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, 15 miles north of the Israeli border. We didn't have contact with the local population and spent the days guarding our base and the nights in ambushes trying to stop terrorist infiltration into Israel.
One night we were alerted by the radar station at the Israeli border. An empty rubber boat had been sighted on the rocky coast, and it seemed that an infiltration attempt was under way. A group from my company drove back to the border, where troops had already surrounded the area. We were to go in, to find out whether terrorists were hiding in the burrows. It was an ugly business and ended badly on all sides. Four terrorists were killed, but only after they had killed two Israeli soldiers and wounded 11 more, including me. One of the dead soldiers was a good friend. He was 20 years old.
I graduated from high school in 1985, and my father wanted me to go to Abu Deis College of Science and Technology. This isn't the best university, yet it was known to be apolitical. Because I had been interrogated by the Shabak and was a "politically hot" teenager, my father insisted I go to a college where I could concentrate on my studies. Abu Deis College is located in East Jerusalem and is affiliated with Jordan and Kuwait -- that's where the money to run the school comes from.
During my second year, I moved off campus and became politically active. One struggle, for example, was to cancel the school holiday celebrating King Hussein's birthday. But more important, we formed a group of students to fight the administration's decision not to allow a student senate. We also organized demonstrations against the Israeli occupation.
Like other universities, Abu Deis College had students who collaborated with the Shabak. Occasionally, during their nightly excursions, Shabak personnel knocked at my apartment door. They would threaten and warn me against any kind of activity. I believe the objective was to break down trust. Following a demonstration at which I spoke, students clashed with soldiers. At the end of the year about 50 students were expelled. My name was on the list. Fortunately, all the other universities in the West Bank offered to admit us. I chose Bethlehem University, a larger campus that had a student senate and allowed freedom of speech on campus.
On Oct. 28, 1987, four weeks after I had arrived at Bethlehem University, the student body held a demonstration commemorating the victims of the Israeli massacre at Kfar Kassem, which had been orchestrated by Israeli Gen. Arik Sharon. Several hundred students marched while holding a number of empty coffins in their arms and shouting slogans against Israel and the occupation. Soldiers stormed the campus and attacked us with tear gas. We responded with stones. A friend, Yitzhak Abu Srur, was shot, and dropped dead a few yards from me. After the demonstration I became a "wanted" Palestinian. Collaborators had seen me throw rocks and informed the Shabak.
I was arrested on Dec. 18, nine days after the beginning of the intifada. I was living in Beit Sahour, and on that day some teenagers had thrown stones at a settler's bus that was passing through. The whole village was sealed, and soldiers accompanied by the Shabak searched every house. I was living with two friends, one from Hebron and one from Jerusalem. Capt. "Maradona" and Capt. "Jack" (undercover names) entered the house at around midnight and arrested us. I must admit that we were a suspicious bunch -- each one had a different identification card. From Gaza, I had a green one, my Hebron friend's was orange and the Jerusalemite's blue. The captains were elated about their catch, thinking they had nabbed a terrorist cell red-handed. The story in the following day's paper read: "Leaders of West Bank uprisings captured." Even an aunt in Saudi Arabia heard about my arrest.
They took me to El-A'Mara prison, the Shabak's central interrogation compound for the entire Hebron area. I was put in solitary confinement. The following day the interrogation began. I was tortured by Capt. "Adam," and Capts. "Abu Haitham" and "Abu Yusef," who claimed they had come from Gaza especially to interrogate me. For the first couple of days, they brutally beat me. On the third or fourth day they put me in the middle of a room with the usual filthy sack on my head.
It was quiet, until suddenly the interrogators began cursing, threatening and screaming at me, and from time to time beating me. I sensed there must have been about 10 interrogators in the room. I was terrified, but I didn't cry. Only when I was returned to the cell did I let myself cry. One day someone spoke to me from outside the metal door: "Crying will not help you. If you want to end the interrogations just tell them what they want to know."
That whole first week they played with my mind, through physical and psychological torture. They told me they would bring my mom and torture her, but I didn't break. After 20 days of solitary confinement, brutal beatings, constant intimidation, sleep deprivation, subjecting me to cold air and depriving me of regular meals, they produced a confession made by a Palestinian that implicated me as a member of the PFLP and of throwing Molotov cocktails during the October demonstration at Bethlehem University.
The fact that these were mere allegations with no proof didn't stop them. They were determined to produce a confession. They threatened to lock me up for 10 years and to kick me out of the country. Finally the psychological impact of the torture triumphed. I broke and signed the document that they had prepared. It was irrelevant that the statement was false.
Attorney Lea Tsemel took my case and saved me. Instead of the nine years imprisonment asked for by the prosecutor, she reached a compromise, and I was sentenced to two and a half years, most of which I spent in Gaza Central Prison.
It was in prison that I began studying sociology, reading Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and others. I also studied Hebrew, the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the history of Zionism. All classes, of course, were given by other inmates. While I don't want to romanticize prisons, I learned a lot there.
Following my release, I returned to Bethlehem University, transferred from the sciences to social studies, and completed my B.A. The intifada continued, and I began working for the St. Yves Society, a Catholic human rights organization located in Jerusalem. Through St. Yves, I learned about Notre Dame and applied to the Peace Institute. A month after I graduated, in August 1994, I flew to the United States.
During the years that Jihad had been imprisoned, I had also spent a few days in an Israeli jail after having illegally protested the demolition of a house in Kalkilya. A 16-year-old Palestinian was suspected of throwing a Molotov cocktail, and his house was to be demolished. Such injunctions were based on draconian laws inherited from the British mandate and are still applied to non-Jews living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
With 26 Israelis, I intended to sit inside the house to interfere with the demolition. We walked through orchards until we reached the center of town where we were arrested by the national guard. We sat in jail for five days waiting for the judge to release us on bail. Our trial, which lasted for months, ended in acquittal on a technicality. The house was destroyed.
I completed my B.A. in 1991, and although the intifada continued, it was out of the public's sight. I volunteered to work for the Gaza Team for Human Rights and began going to the Gaza Strip on a regular basis in order to file complaints of human rights violations. For security reasons, we would enter the strip in cars with Palestinian license plates.
I can still remember my first visit and the sense I had of crossing from a First World into a Third World country. We drove through the streets of Jabalia refugee camp on our way to Gaza city. Sewage was running in the street and the stench coming from giant heaps of trash was appalling. The driver told us that large segments of the population did not have access to running water. In Gaza the average income per capita is 10 times lower than in Israel.
But it was only after I had conducted hundreds of interviews with Palestinians, listening to their stories, that I began to comprehend the real suffering of the Gazans. Through these stories of violation and abuse, a picture emerged in which the Shabak was the king of the land. It used soldiers to intimidate and beat the population. It tortured and harassed and, like every secret service, it bought people and later abandoned them. Despite what most Israelis think, I learned that the collaborators were used not merely to gather information but perhaps primarily in order to fragment the social structure. Solidarity was considered a threat to Israel's ongoing attempt to control the population.
The following year, I was hired by the Association of Israeli and Palestinian Physicians for Human Rights. I have become acutely conscious that while Jihad and I grew up an hour's drive from each other, we came from different worlds.
After I had been accepted to the Peace Institute at Notre Dame, I applied for a visa at the American consulate in East Jerusalem. But because of my time in jail, my application was rejected. I thought it was all over. I called the Peace Institute, and they told me to wait a few days and that they would try to do something. Someone from the institute called the State Department and convinced them to give me a visa. The first year here was wonderful. It was the first time in my life I could live normally, with no fear and not in poverty. I was accomplishing my dream and the prayers of all the people who loved me. Last September my wife and I had a baby boy. I called him Salaam, meaning peace, after the Peace Institute in the hope that one day my son will be able to carry the message of justice and peace.
National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 1997