Growing up in Gaza was difficult due to many factors, beyond the obvious ones. A challenge which I and a few of my peers encountered frequently was how to embrace new thinking and difference of opinion in an environment that tends to have a high degree of conformity and rigidity.
As a teenager in the coastal enclave, I often asked critical questions which were unanswered and made many uncomfortable when it came to the Israel and Palestine conflict. Since I didn’t have close contact with Israelis, I wondered how the assertions and opinions about them could be verified.
I grew up absorbing the generational trauma which came out of my grandparents and their entire community being expelled out of Zarnouga in the suburbs of Ramla, near the modern-day city of Rehovot, when Israel was established. There also were the occupation, settlements until 2005 – I left one month before the disengagement – and perpetual instability which have prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state that is secure, prosperous and functional. Despite this painful personal history, I was unable to accept a cart-blanche dismissal of Israelis’ humanity and their existence as a diverse, multi-faceted society, some with great qualities and attributes, others with not-so-great traits and tendencies.
This is why I relished the opportunity to travel to the United States as a State-Department-sponsored cultural exchange student from Gaza to California, hoping that the diversity of thought and openness of the free world would fulfill my endless curiosity.
Recently, I was truly inspired to read the story of a young man from Gaza who rose up out of terrible experiences and became dedicated to mutual respect and peaceful coexistence with the Israelis. Yousef Bashir’s story was reported recently in the Washington Post, and the title alone should give readers a clue about why this man’s journey and outlook are admirable: “At 15, he was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier. Now this Palestinian has dedicated his life to peace”.
I reached out to Yousef and spoke with him, got to know his story, and asked if I could share some of it via my blog space at the Times of Israel.
Would you please describe the circumstances pertaining to your family’s home and how you sustained an injury at 15 years of age?
My family’s home was steps away from the military base of Kfar D’Arom in southern Gaza. Across the highway was the settlement. In 2000, the soldiers began firing at our home for no apparent reason. The message was to evacuate and leave but my father refused and insisted on staying. Shortly after, the house was turned into a military observation post for the IDF soldiers. My family was forced to sleep in one room every night while the soldiers had full control of the three-story house. In 2004, just minutes after the Israeli soldiers authorized three United Nations peacekeepers to conduct a visit to our home, one of the IDF soldiers shot me point blank in the back with an M-16 assault rifle.
What role did your injury play in your transformation?
As a Palestinian, I believe that I was born peaceful and tolerant of others. That is one perk anyone from the Holy Land has. It was not exactly a transformation but a struggle to learn how to embrace the other side freely and confidently. Although I was shot by an Israeli soldier, I was taken to an Israeli hospital and treated by kind individuals who genuinely cared about me. This experience allowed me to see the civilian face of the Jewish people. A face that in many ways reminds me of my very own people. The injury was the struggle I had to go through to understand the power of unity and tolerance between Israelis and Palestinians.
How did your father influence your commitment to peace?
My father passed away when I was 21 years old and the last time I saw him was when I was 16. Once I go back to Gaza, I wish to read his books and writings to understand the source of his inspiring message. I saw war and violence being committed while my father chose to stand his ground and not give up. It was hard, but he did win in the end, and we still have our house standing, just like it always was and, God willing, always will be. My father taught me to challenge myself and always seek to make more friends not enemies. To seek forgiveness not revenge and courage over fear because only then will I be able to shine.
How did your journey to the United States shape who you are today?
It was my dream to attend a boarding school and to come to the United States. Unlike my brothers who went to Germany, the U.S. attracted me with its unique image in the world and openness to people who come from various backgrounds. Unlike any other place in the world, I knew that in America, I could inspire and be inspired. When I came in 2006, I did not expect to spend nine years without ever going home. I believed that the conflict would at least be temporarily resolved and I would be able to go back and forth, but that never happened. This became my new home ever since. America taught me that my message of peace is not only relevant to Israelis and Palestinians, but can and should be for all people who suffer from distrust and cynicism due to conflict.
Are you still convinced that Palestinians and Israelis can coexist?
Despite the terrible conditions that my family and I experienced, I grew up knowing that the Jews and the Christians are to be treated like brothers. Like brothers and sisters, we must go back to the foundation of our relationship for it provides a rich source of harmony and understanding. We must remind ourselves that there will be no winner in a conflict which can only be addressed through a peaceful and just resolution. I do believe that the Palestinians and the Israelis can live peacefully side by side, for each has uniquely rich values that are relevant to the other.
It has been inspiring to learn more about Yousef’s journey and his outlook on life. Not least because I see many parallels with my own journey out of Gaza and to the United States, but also because it confirms something that I have strongly believed in: the value of open travel in encouraging and strengthening tolerance, peace, respect and understanding of the “other”, and ultimately, de-radicalization. Like Yousef, I knew that things are not black and white when it comes to Jews, Israelis and the conflict. I knew that I didn’t have the full picture.
The environment in Gaza, deeply limited by isolation, violence, poverty and strife, is not conducive to alternative narratives and a different vision on what the relationship could be with our Jewish neighbors. This is why I am strongly committed to the goal of establishing a humanitarian airport in the Gaza Strip to facilitate the movement of people, including young travelers such as students and entrepreneurs, who would have more opportunities to see the world and meet people from wide ranging backgrounds. This would be the most strategic investment that could be made into future Palestinian generations and could plant precious seeds for the necessary process of de-radicalization and ultimately, peacemaking. Imagine how different Gaza will be when we nurture and empower more young people like Yousef.