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Palestinians are People, Too

Guest Column
Lama Rimawi

His name was Joe. He loved landscaping and fishing. He had dropped out of school in the eighth grade. My aunt looked at his young bright face and told him to go back to school. “You have a great mind. You could be president one day and change the world. You should go back to school.”

We met him in the park. It was an overcast afternoon with a faint drizzle. Hundreds of people sat listening to the music. Children played on the grass as their parents hummed to the rhythm. Musicians sang songs that inspired the soul as some danced and others chatted quietly. We held a sign that said, simply, “Palestinians are people, too.”

Joe had been skateboarding with his friends when he noticed us. His friends looked over with curiosity as he hesitantly approached us. He ran his fingers through his tousled blond hair as he said, “I want to understand.” He said that his father was a firefighter and that he could have died on Sept. 11. He wanted to know why some people were happy when innocent people died. I told him that they don’t understand either. I reminded him that Americans were happy when we bombed Afghanistan but innocent people died. The Afghans look at us and wonder how we can be happy about innocent people dying. They don’t understand either.

My aunt asked him where Timothy McVeigh came from. He answered, “Oklahoma, maybe.” She asked, “Are all people from Oklahoma like him?” He said, “No.”

I told Joe that I am an American and I have lived most of my life in the United States. I told him that I am a Palestinian, but that I have never lived there. My mother was born in Jerusalem. When she was two years old, my grandmother, with my mother in her arms, fled, afraid for her child’s life. That was the year that the state of Israel was created.

He asked, “Is it a religious issue?” I answered, “Not at all.” My aunt shook her head sadly as I described the world that my grandmother lived in before it came crashing down in 1948. There were Palestinian Jews, Muslims and Christians and they had lived together in peace for generations. When we were young, we would sit around our grandmother as she told us stories about how life used to be. She would tell us about her beautiful old house with the prized velvet curtains in the area of Jerusalem known as Lifta. Her family had lived there for generations.

She remembers the fear in her Jewish neighbors’ eyes during World War II. In the height of that fear, one of her Jewish neighbors handed a gun to my grandfather. He asked my grandfather to kill him if the Germans ever entered Jerusalem. He said that he would rather die at the hands of a friend then die at the hands of the Germans. When the war ended, there were celebrations in the streets of Jerusalem for over a week.

That was life before 1948.

Joe asked me, “Why did it change? What happened?”

I told Joe about the Zionist movement which started in the late 1800s with the goal of creating a sovereign Jewish state. “Zionism (is) an international movement that originated for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel.”

After World War II, support for a Jewish state was given by the Allied Powers. Initially, they proposed the division of Palestine into two states: Israel and Palestine. I asked Joe if he could imagine someone asking him to divide his house, the home that has belonged to his family for generations; if he could imagine someone asking him to give up half of that house so that a group of strangers that have never seen him or his house can move in. His answer was simply, “That’s not right, it’s not right for anyone to do that.”

I explained that despite the protest of the Palestinians, the Jewish state of Israel was created in 1948 and a war broke out immediately. Armed by the British, the Jews that had emigrated from Europe and other regions fought against the people of Palestine and the neighboring Arab countries. They massacred innocent civilians in towns such as Deir Yassin. Over 100 people died in that little town. It doesn’t exist anymore. It was demolished by the Israelis. The number of innocent people that were murdered in Deir Yassin would be equivalent to 10,000 Americans. As news spread of the killings, the Palestinians started to flee for fear for their lives and for fear for their children’s lives. My grandmother fled. She fled with the clothes on her back, her children, a few Palestinian coins in her purse and her velvet curtains.

These are the people that became the Palestinian refugees of today. These are the hundreds of thousands of people whose lands and homes were confiscated by the Israelis because they were “abandoned.” The refugees number almost three million now, three million people who still dream of going back to their lands, to their homes, to their olive groves and orange orchards. These are the grandparents who hold on dearly to the keys of their old homes and pray every night that they will be buried in Palestine. These are the children who have never seen the towns that their ancestors farmed and cultivated, but proudly cry out “I am Palestinian!” These are the refugees of Palestine.

In 1967, Israel started another war that they called a “pre-emptive” strike. This time, they took over the West Bank and the Gaza strip. I reminded Joe that the United Nations and the entire world have condemned the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and have repeatedly demanded that Israel make an absolute and complete withdrawal but Israel persists in its occupation.

I told Joe about Golda Meir, the former prime minister of Israel, who went so far as to say, “There are no Palestinians.” She, and many like her, justified their actions simply by denying the existence of an entire people; she denied the existence of my grandmother.

For over 35 years, the Palestinians have resisted this illegal occupation. Establishment of settlements in occupied land is illegal under international law. Israel continues to build settlements in the illegally occupied land of Palestine.

As I described and explained, I saw a hint of understanding in Joe’s eyes. I asked him, “Do you remember your World History class? Do you remember when Germany occupied France during World War II? How do you think the French felt?” He shook his head and with a quiet voice said, “If someone did that to me or my family, if someone took my niece’s home away from her, I would kill them.”

I felt an overwhelming sadness. I thought to myself, my grandmother just wants to go home. She wants to live in her old house. She wants to take out the velvet curtains that she has stored away for 54 years waiting for the day she would return home and put them up again. She wants to live the life that she should have lived, not the life of a refugee.

She wants to be free. She wants to fall asleep under the olive trees. She wants to visit her friends and her family without going through Israeli checkpoints. She wants to live a life without humiliation, without fear that her grandchildren may be killed or maimed for throwing a stone. She does not want to fight tanks, F-16s and combat helicopters with antiquated guns. She does not want her children’s homes bulldozed. She does not want the centuries-old olive groves to be uprooted. She does not want her grandchildren scarred for life.

I am American and I am Palestinian. Both of my people are the same. We want to be free. We want our own houses, we want our own lands, we want cars and restaurants and cafes, we want careers and we want opportunities. We want to live. We want to be able to go back to school.

Lama Rimawi is a member of the Class of 1991.