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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

Radicalized in today’s West Bank

Updated: Mar 25, 2020


The Pasadena Star News

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I knew little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I understood a decent bit about Judaism because many of my elementary school friends were Jewish, but the faith was not my own. At my Catholic high school, I memorized the word “Zionism” for a freshman religion class exam but never learned its historical or cultural significance. All I really understood about Islam was what I learned in a short section of my World Religions textbook. It wasn’t until I was a KPFK summer intern before my sophomore year at UC Berkeley that I learned about the conflict — rapidly scribbling down bios and phone numbers for guests to call-in on the next morning’s show, I was exposed to a whole new language of buzzwords and names I knew nothing about.

After that day, I found myself strangely wrapped up in something I had little to do with — watching documentaries, talking to campus activists, and even digging through the depths of the University Library. When I found the Olive Tree Initiative, a experiential education program which takes students to the Washington DC, New York, Jordan, and all over Israel and the West Bank every summer, I knew I needed to apply. The program emphasizes that we are there to learn, not debate, and during our three week trip we had meetings with government officials, leaders of NGOs, soldiers, and volunteers. However, the most powerful stories came from civilians, who exposed us to the sheer humanity of this conflict that makes it so complicated and so pressing. I’ve come to believe that nobody can understand this conflict without thoroughly understanding the civilian perspective, and thus, found two stories necessary to share.

I met Ameer in Ramallah, which is where most of the major West Bank Government offices are based. Ameer was our “hardline” speaker — a civilian who could speak to the fringes of Palestinian politics. However, Ameer doesn’t fit the radical stereotype, fidgeting his fingers between responses and scrunching his nose and eyes sporadically in a goofy grin.

“I have three brothers and a sister,” he explains. “We were all raised by our mother…My father had been in jail, and so had all my uncles. I had to look at family pictures in order to know who my relatives are. A year after I was born, the First Intifada began. It was a big crisis for us.”

“Intifada” is often translated as “shaking off” in Arabic, and is used to describe two periods of regional warfare attributed to Palestinian rebellion. Growing up in a small village outside the volatile city of Jenin, Ameer has always found himself in the midst of conflict. “I realized things when I was four years old or five years old. In our basement there was some people living and one of them was killed. That was my first engagement with the idea of ‘there’s something happening with my actual life.’”

His story begins in the spring of 1992 when his cousin was killed by the Israeli Defense Forces. “He got like 27 bullets from here to here” he says, motioning vertically down the left side of his body and horizontally across his waist. A few months later his second cousin passed, the body returned with specific instructions. “We should bury him at night, with no funeral, and we should never open the coffin. And, when we open it, and it’s not only bullets, they cut his body. We are Muslims, and we don’t do this. Maybe it’s fine to do it but it’s not with us, it’s not our way.”

During the Second Intifada, Ameer continued to find conflict inescapable. “It’s something like I’d imagine September 11th. Everybody has a life before it and a life after it.” As he tells it, 13-day curfews were imposed on the refugee camp in Jenin, leading to the demolition of multiple houses along with the death of many inside. “I remember I had a double bed at that time, and there were four sleeping in it while I slept on the ground. Everybody in this town, they can’t afford for these people…People were dying because they were ill and they couldn’t reach the hospital.” When I ask about long-term solutions, Ameer sees only one option: “They can drive me out of my country, or they may kill me. I’m not going to shake hands with the one who killed my cousin, or killed my friend.”

Now a university instructor in Nablus, Ameer looks to the future. “It’s promising and amazing when a girl called you and she told you that she’s doing her masters,” he says, “but it hurts when they call to tell you that they lost their friend who’s also a student.” He plays an active role in his student’s personal lives, trying to mentor them in times of need. “I actually went to my student’s funeral. One of [the students] once went to a checkpoint in order to do something and they killed him. I spent five hours talking with the rest of my class, convincing them that if they go there and die for their friend, they are not giving Palestine anything. I didn’t know if I was convincing myself or convincing them.”

Living with three small children, he also finds himself concerned about their futures. “I bring a toy for Khaled, it’s like a toy gun, and he doesn’t want to play with it. When I asked why, he said, ‘I’m going to shoot the soldiers when they come to the house.’…I’m trying to raise children with no part in the war. But they won’t let us.”

Before my trip, I had read and studied as much as I could about Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But no studying in the world allows you to fully understand the humanity of it all — the narratives, each different, some conflicting — that make up the sum of hardships conflict brings. Despite his hardships, however, Ameer still finds hope in the day-to-day. “People here love life like none of the things that you see.”

This sentiment, though hard to describe, matches my own perception of the West Bank as a visitor. A day’s itinerary would include a meeting with someone like Ameer, followed by embarking on a tour of a refugee camp, and completed with a night of dancing, for example. “We, as a people, are able to go smoke some shisha or have a date after a day of fighting. Like if a war happened, after fifteen days you’ll find two lovers outside the coffee shop chatting. It’s amazing.” In this spirit, Ameer is able to find humor in even his own story, summarizing it with a laugh: “We can live. But we need more space. Just a little bit more space.”

Journalist Veronica Irwin, a graduate of Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, is a senior at UC Berkeley. 

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