Occupied Voices: Hearing the Human Side of Conflict

Occupied Voices: Hearing the Human Side of Conflict

AFTER FOUR and a half years of violence that has claimed the lives of some 5,600 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis, the world is heralding an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire. The current moment has inspired both optimism and uncertainty about what the future will bring.

Before we look forward, it is important to look back. If we are to understand what it means for the second Intifada to have ended, we must remember how it began. If we want a new peace process to succeed, we must understand why the last one failed. If we want to see a true termination of violence, it is essential to appreciate the manifold forms of violence that are built into a situation in which one nation rules over another.

One valuable way of gaining this understanding is to listen to the stories of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Every Palestinian man, woman, and child in the West Bank and Gaza has a story to tell about how his or her life has been affected by die Israeli occupation in general and die second Intifada in particular. Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada presents interviews with a few dozen people whom I have met while living and traveling in the Palestinian territories. The photographs and reflections relayed in die book offer one window into die pain, dreams, and resthence of real people enduring a terrible conflict

Recorded in January 2001, these stories also recount the suffering and the degradations that Palestinians endured during the first critical months of the Intifada. They remind us that Palestinians endured an intense mUitary assault for weeks before the first suicide bombing of die year 2000, and endured it for months before suicide bombings became frequent The lesson should be clear to those aspiring to make peace today: violence, in all of the various forms implicit in the denial of national self-determination, breeds more violence. The only way to ensure that the current “lull” in hostilities endures is to make swift progress towards the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital and a just resolution to the plight of the refugees.

Any person with a hand-held tape recorder and a good supply of batteries can visit the Occupied Territories and record other voices. While the particular stories will vary, I am confident that the core message – a nation’s cry for the right to live with freedom and dignity on its own land – will remain the same.


… The main theme in Palestinian art is usually Palestine, as if it were illegal to talk about anything else. That is because it is the main issue, the main priority. But human lives should never be unidimensional, so this is very unhealthy. Maybe when this whole issue is settled we can start to be self-reflective and think about our own identities and own culture. We need the space to think of new things.

I always laugh because liberal Israelis call me and say, “We’re looking for Palestinian films that do not talk about the political situation, you know, films that talk about day-to-day life.” I laugh because we don’t have anything like that What are they going on about? We don’t have day-to-day life apart from the political situation. I want to have day-to-day life.

For example, you should watch Palestinian candid camera. Candid camera is done all over the world, and they did a Palestinian version on Palestinian TV. They want it to be funny, but it is about Palestinians and Israelis. One of the episodes is about a Palestinian guy who is running from the soldiers and he goes from house to house and says, “Can you hide me?” And this is supposed to be funny! The point is that candid camera is supposed to be about dayto-day life, and this is day-to-day life for us.


I was in the fourth grade when the first Intifada started. So you can say that my whole childhood was spent during the Intifada. And I suffered, as all Palestinians suffered. Because I was a child at the time, most of my experiences revolved around school. I can still remember how it felt to sit in class and hear all of the shooting and screaming coming from outside. You just tried to close your eyes and concentrate on the lesson, but it was so hard to do. There is something else that I will never forget My school was in an area where there were confrontations, so the Israelis set up barriers to block the road that led to the school. We were able to move the lower barrier but we couldn’t move the top one. This made a little open space, sort of like a tunnel.

So everyday, we got down on our hands and knees and crawled through the little tunnel. This was the only way to pass through and reach the school. It was so humiliating. Can you imagine? You and your teacher and your classmates – everyone who has to get to school – crouching on their knees. Everyday we had to do it Our hands and knees would get dirty. Our uniforms and socks would get dirty … What more do I have to tell you than that? . . .

Because of all of this, I have a hurt inside of me, and I don’t think it will ever go away. The hurt is called Palestine.


He had a good life and he loved people. He never hated anyone and he never really got angry with others. When he did get mad, he wouldn’t express it. I would say to him, “Is something wrong?” and try to get him to talk about it He was a dear spirit and he had pride in himself. If someone asked him to do something for a little money, he would say, “I don’t want your money, but I’ll help you if you want.”

He never told me, “I want to go and become a martyr and die.” He was a normal kid and never thought about dying. He loved life and growing up, and he wanted to stay with his mother and his brothers and sisters. Who wants to die? Impossible I still can’t imagine that he’s dead. I feel that he’s here with me in the house. Even now I can’t believe it It’s like he has just gone on a trip. I just can’t believe that he won’t return home again…

There was just one thing I used to worry about He was more daring than he should have been. He liked adventures. I used to worry about this because I knew him. He wasn’t a weakling, and he might take risks. That’s what would always make me worry. I used to tell him, “Don’t go to this place or that place.” For example, he used to want to go to Ramallah on his bike. I told him that it was difficult for me to see him go alone, even when it was just to go to school on his bike. At first I used to hold on to the bike because I was afraid he would fall off. I wasn’t able to let him be on his own . . .

He was killed on a Sunday. That Saturday, we worked together in the little garden behind the house. He helped me prune the trees and tend the crops. We worked all morning. I made him the breakfast that he liked, fatat al-hummus. I made the food that he loved and I made it as a surprise. When I was preparing it I said, “Please God, don’t let Mohammed come into the kitchen and see me,” so that it really would be a surprise. I don’t know why, I just had this sense. And it was a surprise, because Mohammed was just sitting in front of the TV. So I came in and put the plate in front of him and he was so happy! He said, “You made the dish that I love, fatat alhummus. It’s so delicious!”

His dad left for Kuwait the week before in order to renew his residency visa. He called on Sunday because there were clashes going on here and he wanted to know how the kids were. I said, “Thank God. Hammouda is here, and so are his brothers and sisters, and they’re fine. Don’t worry about them. Everything is OR.” Mohammed asked his dad to bring him new pajamas, a jacket ana clothes for school.

And later that day, Mohammed was killed. He was killed before his dad got back, before he saw his presents. His dad came back the day after Mohammed was killed and on the third day we buri ed him…

According to our religion, our son is now with God in heaven. He eats, drinks, and lives his life. But he has been taken from me! If he had grown up and was a believer and prayed and knew God, then he still would have gone to heaven. They took away life, they took my son’s life away. The hardest thing in the world is to lose a child. You want to demand from the whole world that those soldiers be brought to justice, because these children are not dangerous . . .

We are people. We are human beings. We raise our children and we are tired … Palestinian women love their children; they are dearer than anything. We Palestinians don’t have anything else besides our children. They took our land, they took our country, and we don’t even have weapons with which to fight Our children are our land and our lives, we’d do anything to protect them.


As an actor, my first major production was Romeo and Juliet. It was a joint production between the Palestinian Al-Kasaba Theatre and a theater in Israel. I don’t think that I am ready now to make another co-production of this sort At that time, back in 1994, it was possible. Everyone was talking about peace, and I also believed that real peace was possible. We in theater thought that we had an important role to play. If genuine peace is going to be a reality, culture can be more important than all of the meetings between political leaders.

And we believed that the other side also respected peace and respected how we think. We respected them. We made a big effort and worked together with them. And they also worked with us. And we all agreed that theater should reflect reality. What happens on stage has to be in sync with what is happening on the streets.

It was a very big and expensive production. But we agree that it is not right to continue with the production right now. Romeo and Juliet love each other. Romeo is Palestinian and Juliet is Israeli. But if they see each other on the streets today they are not going to love each other. 1 don’t want actors to be liars. As an actor, I cannot lie.

Doing Romeo and Juliet was a nice experience. I have many close friends from the production, people that I like very much. For example, there is one Israeli actress with whom I became very close. When Israel bombs us, she calls me to see if I’m OK. And when there are problems in Tel Aviv, I also call her and other friends to say that I hope that they are all right There are good people on both sides, just like there are bad people on botii sides. The important thing is that we learn how to respect each other.

In the future, if there is real peace, it might be possible to do such a production again. Here there is one land, and two people are living on it In order for there to be peace, we don’t have to love each other, but at least we have to respect each other. This means that they have to accept me as their equal. They can’t look down at me tike something inferior to them. I have to have my freedom. I have to feel that I have my land and my country. I have to be able to stand up and be strong, and not feel like I have to bow my head before them.

Real peace will only come when I feel that I, as a citizen, can exercise my everyday rights. Peace in not just words on paper. If we cannot see those words actually applied to our lives, it’s not peace. For example, if I teach in a school in Jerusalem and I can’t get there, this is not peace. If my theater is in Jerusalem, and I can’t get there, this is not peace. My radio program is in Ramallah, and for three months now I have not been able to get there to do the show. Children are waiting to hear my voice, and I’m waiting to hear their voices and learn about their news.

I don’t tiiink that Palestinians’ hearts are filled with hate. Their hearts are filled with sadness and anger. We just want our rights. Give us just one chance to experience living IUe with our basic rights. Humans don’t live on bread and water, alone. We want our identity and dignity. And Israelis are not the only ones worried about their security. We want our security, too. We want to be safe from them.

We’re not terrorists like they say about us. I think a terrorist is someone who thinks he can bomb a theater – a children’s theater that is well known not only in Palestine, but throughout the world and in Israel, too. The fact that this theater was bombed is a very sad thing.

We have children who come to me Inad Theater to do ballet This is the first time in the history of Beit Jala and Bethlehem that we have ballet People here don’t know what ballet is. Palestinians have debka, a traditional folkdance. We don’t have ballet But people see ballet on TV and tiiey see that it is something beautiful. So we brought in a ballet instructor, and people loved it This is culture. It’s learning about other people and other ways of life.

So one day die children were at die theater practicing, and then boom! Boom! Boom! They started bombing outside. All of the girls got scared. Two of my co-workers were at the theater at the time, and they took the girls to take cover in the kitchen during the shelling.

Another time they started bombing when we were in the middle of a drama class at the theater. So you see that Israel is not only bombing buildings and the outside of things. They are destroying our insides, too. They are destroying how we work and the strategies we use to go about our lives. Now children are scared to come to die theater. We have to think of alternative ways to encourage the children to come again.


We’re really scared when we get trapped in the school and there is all this shooting going on outside. The principal will go try to reach an agreement with die Israelis so they let us go home. She’ll ask them to stop shooting for long enough for us to be able to go out and cross the street. If they don’t let us pass, then we end up trapped at school for a long time. If they do agree to let us go, tiien they won’t shoot at us while we’re crossing the street But as soon as we get to the other side, they start shooting again. So then we all just have to run.


… I was just taking an afternoon nap when suddenly I woke up to all of this noise outside. I looked out die window and saw a tank and soldiers surrounding my house … My wife was eight months pregnant at the time, and I was afraid for her and die baby. So we managed to escape and made it the house of some relatives not too far away.

We tried to drive back to our house several times, but each time the army and the settlers would come after us and we’d have to flee again. Finally at ten o’clock that night a bulldozer came. They bulldozed four houses: my house, my brother’s house along with his clinic, and the houses of our two other relatives …

We’re not asking for a lot Originally, all of Palestine belonged to us. But we have recognized the State of Israel. We don’t say that we want all of Palestine. We don’t want to take back Haifa and we don’t want the Jews to leave. We don’t talk about any of that We only talk about ending the problems that we have to live with everyday…

That’s my story. One day we had a house and a garden and everything was fine. And then suddenly we didn’t have a house anymore. We didn’t have anything besides the clothes on our backs. We had to start over at square one. We had just gotten married so everything was new. I had all new furniture, including a television, a refrigerator, a bed and dresser, curtains, everything, everything. I had worked for eight years to get married and buy a house, and it was ruined in a single minute. Everything was destroyed. Now it is prohibited for me to return to the land where my house once stood. The Israelis took control over the entire area. But I want to return. I would like to have my house there. I would like to plant a garden again.

Or maybe I’ll change my mind and decide to buy another house. The point is that I should decide. There shouldn’t always be someone else forcing me to go here or there. It’s an issue of rights. I need to take back my rights. But now there are no rights to take.


TV is filled with news about funerals and bombings, so I don’t watch it anymore. I don’t even listen to the radio because they just play nationalistic songs and news about those who’ve been killed …

But I also have to live … One day a student brought a cake to the university to celebrate his birthday. Those days the news was filled with stories about all the Palestinians who were being killed. The students couldn’t believe that he wanted to celebrate at a time like this.

We were all talking about it but then one of the professors told us to stop. He said that this person was committed to carrying on with life, and we should respect that . . .

Sometimes I feel that it is selfish to be a student when so many people are suffering. At the same time, I need to graduate so I can be of service to my people … Each one of us has his own duty … It is when we act as one that we can make a statement


The Israelis piled up two mountains of sand on the road. Cars could not cross, but people could go by on foot They could have stopped people from going altogether, but it didn’t Its aim was simply to make things more difficult for people. At first people were very angry. But after a fewdays, they adjusted and dealt with the mountains as if it were just another part of ordinary life. People would talk and students would tell jokes as they climbed across. Other people started selling things there, and it became a regular free market zone.


… My children and grandchildren don’t know a Jew except as an Israeli military occupier. But I will always cherish the years in which I lived in Palestine before 1948, when all Palestinians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side-byside. I am privileged to have lived during that era.

We had Jewish neighbors when we were living in Safad. I remember that at Easter time my mother would give me a plate of special Easter cookies to take down to our neighbor Hannah. She would in turn send back her daughter with a plate filled with something special that she had baked.

You know something. In the early 1940s, the Second World War was still raging. We didn’t know if Germany or the Allies would turn out to be the winners. Mrs. Eisenberg was so scared for her daughter. So she came to my mother and said, “Linda, if Germany comes into this country, will you consider Batía your daughter?”

My mother used to repeat this story always, and I am telling it to you to show you what kind of relationship we had with each other. She had enough trust to let her daughter be in the hands of an Arab family for fear of what they might be exposed to under Germany.

Years after my mother passed away I was clearing some of her papers. In her address book I found an address with the name Batía and then another last name. I said to myself, this must be Batía Eisenberg, who has taken on a new married name. She and her parents had visited my parents once after 1967.

You know, I kept that address on my desk for days and days and months. And finally I said, I must contact Batía. After all that has happened, maybe people like us could do something to set things straight and make things make sense. So I finally wrote her a letter. Unfortunately, the letter came back saying, “Address Unknown.”

I didn’t say much in my letter. I didn’t know if she would be interested in corresponding. Maybe she has lost a son or her husband. You never know. We have all had our share of suffering…

But what is important is not to lose hope and not to become bitter. Because if you’re bitter there is no way that you can communicate. And, it is important to keep moving forward. That is basically what we try to do – to keep rekindling hope in the hearts of these children here in this school. We do this so that everything we do will have meaning. You’re giving them hope in the future. And I hope this succeeds.

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