The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Living with the enemy in the Gaza Strip

Yousef Bashir, 22, lives with a bullet lodged near his spine.  “When I imagine myself without the bullet in my back I ask myself would I be the same?” he said. “That bullet talks to me and I talk to it everyday. It is a very personal thing that I go through,” he continued. “I know that it was put there to destroy my life. I look at it and I say I am not destroyed yet.”

Bashir has very personal ties to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. He grew up in the Gaza Strip next to the Israeli settlement Kfar Darom, which was evacuated in 2005. The battle lines ran right through his house. When the second Palestinian Intifada broke out, Israeli soldiers moved into his home. Bashir was 11 years old at the time. His father, Khalil Bashir, refused to leave the house and so the family - Yousef Bashir, his grandmother, parents and his siblings - spent five years living with the soldiers, who occupied the top two floors.

The soldiers tried to make Khalil Bashir leave the house so many times, Yousef Bashir said. But his father would say, “Why don’t you leave this house, this is my house.” His father was afraid if they left they would never see their home again.

The Israelis divided his house into areas A, (full Palestinian control ), B (Palestinian civil control and joint security control with Israel) and C (near full Israeli control) - just as the West Bank had been divided as part of the Oslo Agreements. In Bashir’s house, Area A was the room in which they were allowed to stay on the ground floor. Area B included the bedrooms, kitchen and bathrooms. Area C was the second and third floors of the house. Bashir never asked for permission from his parents to do anything, he said. But he had to get permission from the Israelis to go outside or to watch a soccer game on television, he said. “I had to negotiate with them.”

It was not an easy time. Most of the soldiers were extremely rude. “Most of them were harsh,” Bashir said. “Most of them were at war.” Camouflage and barbed wire covered the roof and there was a machine gun and security camera posted on top of the house. Bashir said he had seen the bodies of a number of young dead Palestinian men near his home. The circumstances of their deaths unclear. Violence was no stranger. His second oldest brother was shot in the leg, his father too was shot.

Then it was his turn. On February 18, 2004, workers from the United Nations visited Bashir’s family to see how they were coping with their living situation. After 20 minutes, the Israelis ordered the U.N. to leave. Bashir and his father walked the U.N. workers back to their car. “As we were slowly reversing we heard a single shot fired,” said Stuart Shepherd, who had the time was with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Yousef basically just fell to the ground immediately, just crumpled.” He was 15 years old at the time. The bullet stopped near his spine. “Yousef had his back to the Israeli observation tower and was waving goodbye…at the time when the shot was fired,” according to Shepherd. (Disclosure: I worked with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but not at the time Yousef Bashir was shot.)

Bashir does not know the Israeli soldier who shot him. According to media reports, the Israeli Army apologized for the shooting.

That tragedy allowed Bashir to escape the hell that the Gaza Strip has become. After Bashir was stabilized in a Gaza hospital, he was transferred to an Israeli hospital. Bashir credits the Israeli doctors with saving his life and giving him the ability to walk again. He went on to study in Ramallah, which is where I met him years ago. He later went to the United States, where he is currently studying international affairs and diplomacy. He fundraises to pay for his college tuition. He still needs physical therapy twice a week and takes pain killers.

But Bashir said everyday he chooses not to be angry, something he learned from his father who died recently from a stroke. Everyday, Bashir chooses to forgive, but it is challenge. “I hear the news, I see how the Palestinians are treated,” he said. “But deep inside me I can never find any reason to hate.” Bashir cannot return to Gaza to see the rest of the family he left behind because he is afraid the Israelis would not allow him to leave once in the occupied territory. He does not want to risk his education in the U.S. Perhaps if the Palestinians had their own state things would be different.

“We should have had a state a long time ago,” Bashir said. A state would mean more responsibility and perhaps more problems he thinks. But once you are a state, “you are responsible for everything that happens within your territory,” he added. “But it is a good thing to show the world that we want to live in a democracy… We are willing to live in peace.”

“I was never a child,” Bashir said. He was seven years old the first time the Israeli settlers came into his house. They hit his mother and destroyed everything inside the house, burning things. His family locked themselves in the living room, but his oldest brother - who was in the sixth grade then - was not able to make it into the room in time and the settlers broke his teeth.

What should happen to the settlers should the Palestinians get a state? Bashir said he is not interested in what would happen to the settlements. “I am interested in knowing how long would it take for the settlers to realize that the ultimate price for their lifestyle is my freedom.”

Bashir said that when the last group of Israeli soldiers left his family’s house in the Gaza Strip, two of the soldiers thanked his father for his unwavering determination to be a peaceful man even in the most trying times.

“At the end we got the house back and they left,” Bashir said. “We did not fight, we did not carry a weapon, we did not fire anything,” he added. “We just believed in peace… and that is how it should be in the future.”