Palestinian peace activist Yousef Bashir brings a singular insider's perspective to the conflict in Gaza
The admonition of John Lennon and Yoko Ono to “give peace a chance” is seldom heard in the Middle East. It is the exceptional individual who, having seen and experienced the worst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can hope for any kind of future. My guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Palestinian-American peace activist Yousef Bashir, may not be unique in having that hope, but he is a rare species.
Director of research and operations for the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, Bashir shares his history of growing up in Gaza during the Second Intifada. He tells us about his father, a man of steely and quiet determination, who refused to leave the family home and farm. As a result, the family lived in a house that was always occupied by Israeli soldiers — a home where Bashir had to ask permission from the soldiers to go outside or even to the bathroom, where the family was rounded up to sleep on the living room floor each night, because the soldiers needed the upstairs of the house.
He tells how, at age 15, he was shot in the spine by an anonymous Israeli soldier. The experience of having his life saved in an Israeli hospital by Israeli doctors and nurses — which Bashir chronicled in his book, The Words of My Father: Love and Pain in Palestine — changed him forever. He returned home with a new understanding of the humanity of both sides.
Bashir talks about his desire for peace, but with a realism tempered by his years of having seen the best and worst of humankind. He shares his belief in the ability of ordinary people, if not their so-called leaders, to work toward a truly peaceful future.
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Full Text Transcript:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. For almost 75 years, there have been few days of real peace in the Middle East. Yet even today, amidst unspeakable violence, life goes on. People on all sides go about their lives. They value their families, their land, their faith. The very fact that humanity can coexist amid such cumulative rage tells us of the good that people are really capable of.
On a more micro scale, my guest, Yousef Bashir, proves that real peace may one day be possible. His own experience growing up in Gaza, shaped most profoundly by the quiet strength of his father and by a bullet from an anonymous Israeli soldier, shows that with work, human beings can overcome years of hatred, revenge, and the most personal kind of violence. He tells a great deal of his story in his memoir, The Words of My Father. He joins me today to talk about that story in the context of what we see taking place today in Gaza and in Israel.
Yousef Bashir is a Palestinian-American who grew up in Gaza. He still suffers the effects of a near catastrophic injury at the hands of that anonymous soldier. As a young man, he made his way to the US where he earned a BA in International Affairs from Northeastern University and an MA in Co-existence and Conflict from Brandeis. He’s worked on Capitol Hill and served as a member of the Palestinian diplomatic delegation to the United States. He remains a vigorous advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is my pleasure to welcome Yousef Bashir to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Yousef, thanks so much for joining us.
Yousef Bashir: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you for having me.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. Talk a little bit first about your own personal experience and what it was like for you growing up in Gaza.
Yousef: It didn’t take me long to realize that I was not about to have a normal childhood. In the first chapter of my book, I actually talked about Gaza being a paradise, which is what I thought Gaza was, especially between 1997 all the way to early 2000. My parents would host foreign exchange students from Germany, France, the UK. A lot of people coming in and out to visit. A lot of foreigners would come and stay at the hotels in Gaza before they go onto their destinations. My parents owned a large farm, where we sold large quantities of vegetables — tomatoes, especially, that went to Israeli markets, Jordanians, and Egyptians sometimes.
That was life for me. It was safe, it was prosperous despite the fact that there was a military base stationed right behind our kitchen, attached to the former settlement of Kfar Darom. This, of course, would change in 2000 at the beginning of the Second Intifada when I was only 11 years old. It all came in one circle, kind of life reminded me that you are not living in a normal situation, a normal life. You are living in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and under the Israeli occupation.
Jeff: That occupation was very personal with respect to your family and your house. Tell us about that.
Yousef: Yes, absolutely. Everything I’ve experienced in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was not only stuff that I learned at school, stuff that I learned from books or saw on TV, it was too personal, to be quite honest with you. The Israeli soldiers, who I just mentioned were stationed at Kfar Darom, started shooting at the house, and I mean shooting everywhere, every day, at night, during the day. They came looking for my dad and asked him if he was going to leave or not. My father was surprised to hear the question and he said, “I’ve been a good neighbor to my Palestinian neighbors, to you. I am offended that you are here to ask me to leave.”
The soldiers, without another word, left and a day or two later came back with more soldiers and more equipment and took over the second floor, third floor, and when they were done, came downstairs and told my dad, “From now on, no one is allowed upstairs, and no one is allowed to come into the house without our coordination.”
The story began there. Every night, the soldiers came from downstairs, moved the entire family to sleep on the floor in the living room, where I had to ask for permission every time I needed to go to the bathroom, every time I needed to go to the kitchen, and every time I wanted to stay over at someone’s house, where I needed to come home late at night.
It wasn’t just my parents, especially as a teenager, just my parents who I needed to get their approval. It was my mom, my dad, and an Israeli soldier, whoever was assigned to us that night or that evening. That was nice for me. There was an occupation in the larger sense, but there’s an occupation on a personal level where soldiers woke me up to tell me it’s time to go to the living room.
Jeff: What was that like for you? Talk about your own personal feelings. You were 14, 15 years old at the time. What did you think about? What was that feeling like?
Yousef: I think it was very difficult, very challenging for me. Here I am, I was dreaming about one day, I’m going to travel and see the world, and read books that my dad would encourage me to read, and just the normal stuff. Songs, and movies, and soccer players, just like any child really in Gaza, Israel, in the Middle East, or throughout the world.
As life went on with the Israeli soldiers being in the house really controlling every aspect of our lives, disrespecting my dad in front of us, harassing my mother, harassing my grandmother, even shooting our animals, our house animal, a farm donkey that we had — they shot and killed it — a pigeon house that they demolished, even shooting at the palm trees just for fun, or shooting at random herds of sheep that would come by and just shoot one to the right, one to the left, and then the third one would mount the animal down.
All of this would happen during my break and the day after I come from school and before I go on and do my homework. I just spend an hour to just watch soldiers having fun with that. At night, as the soldiers gather the entire family to sleep in the living room, and as I hear the endless tak, tak, tak for hours and hours and hours, and as I feel the house shaking every time they decide to fire a small missile towards the house to really scare my dad who was relentless in his refusal to give up his house, I found it very difficult to understand my father.
Here’s someone who, in the midst of it, he would ensure us or assure us and challenge us that those people are actually mentioned in the Quran. Those people we are obligated and meant to share the land with, and our only mission and the real mission in all of this, whether it’s for us or for them, is to find a way to live peacefully in this land. All I could do back then is point to the soldier and say, “Are you sure they are the children of Abraham and our cousins?” He would say, “Absolutely,” without hesitation. That was a very difficult experience to grow up with. One that I still struggled with, but obviously, I’ve grown, and I’ve experienced so much more that I now agree with my dad.
Jeff: Were you angry then? Were you angry at your dad?
Yousef: I was frustrated. I don’t think I was ever angry with him. I admired him for all of his convictions and beliefs; they were noble values. It was just frustrating and difficult for a young person to be tackled with such large values at such a young age.
Jeff: What did you understand at that age about the Intifada, about the occupation?
Yousef: I understood that there were the Palestinian people. It wasn’t the first Intifada. I didn’t live through that, but I heard people talk about it. I heard people talk about ‘48. I heard people talking about ‘67. I heard people talk about the Israeli rule in Gaza. Now, I get to experience it for the very first time with my own eyes as I go through the Second Intifada. There were times where we couldn’t go to school. There were times where we couldn’t travel. There were times where we couldn’t do normal things like go into a grocery shop to get groceries for the house, only because of the Israeli presence in the Strip.
Many people in the Strip have gone to schools there. They were not a part of Fatah. They were not a part of Hamas. They were just ordinary Palestinians, different in opinions and perspectives and worldviews, but they were very much like any civilians you would meet in New Jersey or in San Diego. That was the experience for me, the Intifada, the Israeli presence, and the violence, the intensity of the violence.
Every time, I’ve watched kids get shot. I’ve watched things on TV. I’ve watched a lot of things that I could not possibly forget even as I grow older and older and older. Now, I always have my parents who always insisted that I should remain hopeful about the future. This, of course, was not easy, but it helped a great deal to allow me to hold onto my humanity and to allow me to not let the conflict determine what kind of human being I was going to be when I grew up.
Jeff: Tell us about your personal experience of getting shot. What happened?
Yousef: On February 18 of 2004, I had just turned 15. I was born on February 9. I was very excited that day. I went home. I stayed behind after my dad left the school at the time. He was also my headmaster. If you’re talking about being angry at my dad, I was frustrated with him at school and at home. He was everywhere in my life. That day, I decided to stay back to have extra time to play soccer with my friends and taking advantage of being on my own before I go into the house. Because once you go in, you really can’t leave until the next day.
I saw three United Nations officers. Now, to get into my house in accordance with the rules imposed on us by the Israeli soldiers, everyone who comes into the house would require a permission from the soldiers. This really meant the press. Relatives, ordinary people couldn’t do that at the time. It was primarily just press people. That day, three United Nations officers were standing with my dad in front of the Israeli watchtower. They were granted a 15-minute permit to visit with us. They told them to sit in the front yard where they can be watched and have quiet day, middle of the day, 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m.
I decided to join the conversation. I sat in. After immediately, seven minutes, the soldier asked them to leave. The UN officers got up, started walking to their car. My dad in front of me, the tower is to my back. As I wave goodbye with my hand, one of the soldiers at the tower fires. “Pshoo” is the sound that rings in my head to this very moment. I collapsed. I saw no blood. I felt no pain. My dad was just skied away from me. He didn’t really realize it. He needed a few moments. My mom was running towards me. My grandmother was attempting to run, and my little brother kicking a chair in anger.
As I looked around back to my dad, I thought that I was now living my very last moments on earth. I even said [Arabic language], a sentence every Muslim says when they’re about to depart this earth. My dad picked me up, shoved me into the UN car and on to the local hospital. He told me that I was not going to die. I started telling him, “I’m sorry about this, and I’m sorry about that.” I was convinced that this is my wish was about to be granted. I did not want to stay in that house. I didn’t want to deal with the soldiers, and now, I’m about to be set free. At the same time, I reminded myself, “You’re only 15. It’s too early to leave.”
At the time, by the time I got to the hospital, I felt pain, pain, pain, pain, some of which I still feel to this very day as well, but that’s when I realized that I am not dying because I can feel. What happened after that would be the defining experience for me because I opened my eyes at the hospital of Tel HaShomer in Tel Aviv. As I saw Israeli doctors and nurses surround my bed every morning, and every afternoon, and every night asking me if I could lift my legs up, if I could move my toes, showering me, feeding me, comforting me, it was a defining moment for me because it allowed me to see my dad’s message.
It provided me with a larger perspective that allowed me to look into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a new set of eyes. One that wasn’t angry, even though it had many reasons to be angry. One that wasn’t afraid to know the other side, even though I have so many reasons to be afraid of knowing the other side. One that was hopeful, even though I had very little reason to be hopeful about the future.
You see, in Gaza or in the West Bank or throughout the past Palestinian territories, many Palestinian children go through such experience. Most of them don’t get as lucky as I was with the parents or with the treatment and with the fact that I, today, am a walking man. I was in a wheelchair for almost two years. I still walk around with them, 16 bullets lodged in my spine.
Yet, I have been dedicating every weekend of my life over the past 10 years speaking to different communities across the country about the need for peace and reconciliation and how it’s possible, despite everything that happened, despite everything that’s happening, and despite everything that will continue to happen. Our only and ultimate mission, whether I’m an Israeli or a Palestinian, is to find a way for a lasting peace between the two sides.
Jeff: When you got back home after you came back from the hospital, you talk about having a whole different attitude at that point towards the position your father had taken and how you viewed the occupation. Talk about that moment when you came back and how you felt differently.
Yousef: I allowed myself to see the humanity in the soldiers. I allowed myself to see them for what they were: children with a lot of toys, and their elders send them our way and they give them a certain idea, mostly it’s not a positive one, about Palestinians. Palestinians, whether they are militant, whether they’re civilians, whether one of the PA, whether it’s with Hamas, they’re all Palestinians.
Now, all of that does not matter, because I only saw through them and I saw them as human beings, which is what my father did. You see, my father was against what they were doing to us. I’m sure he was angry in his heart, and we were all angry and frustrated, but we never allowed this anger to control us and determine our values and our views of the world and our neighbors, including our enemies.
Now, I was in that position to join my father, and despite them moving us rudely to the living room in the middle of our sleep at night, I would just join him in looking and treating them as children. For how long further? Until this is over. This has been my view of the world. Everything I do, I tried to see the positive side in it. It was hard to see positives in the soldiers being in my house telling me when I could go to the bathroom, but that really helped me hold on to my sanity, hold on to my values as a Palestinian, as an Arab, as a Muslim, and helped me hold on to my expectations of the future, and allowed me to remain productive and hopeful.
Jeff: On the other side of the equation, did it give you greater insight into what so much of the anger is about and why there’s so much anger?
Yousef: I think it showed me that the lack of interaction between the two sides is a main cause of how easily anger replaces every other emotion. When you look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whether you’re in the USA, or Israel, or in Palestine, Israelis and Palestinians, they don’t live far from each other. They buy and consume products that are made by one another. They buy our vegetables, we buy their products. We use their currency. We go to work in Israel. We go to hospitals in Israel.
Even my parents told me many, many stories where Israelis would drive down from Tel Aviv and north and all over Israel to come south to visit Gaza, go shopping in Gaza, stay at a hotel in Gaza, even though they were enemies. That interaction, that human interaction away from governments and away from politics was very much there and alive and always reminded people that they are not so different after all. The Jews and Arabs existed even before Israel came about. Jews and Arabs existed elsewhere.
It showed me that the lack of interaction, because of the war, because of the checkpoint, because of politics, because of the conflict, because of the war, there are so many reasons out there, but the fact remains that Israelis and Palestinians don’t really interact. They don’t know or are unable to put a human face on the other side. To them, most Palestinians want to kill the Israelis and to Palestinians, it’s precisely the same story. And I got to experience, I thank God, and I thank my parents, and I thank this painful experience that allowed me to see beyond what my society and my environment was portraying to me on behalf of the other side.
Jeff: If there’s ever to be any kind of resolution, and we’ll talk in a bit about where we are today, do you see it as something that comes from this kind of personal interaction, the kind of experience that you had, that it comes from the grassroots? If so, what then is the role of leadership or the lack of leadership in all of this?
Yousef: I certainly do. I think that this is the key to a lasting resolution. The human story in this conflict is very, very important. The leaders, I think that they once equipped — I can only speak from my side. I don’t view our leaders to be functioning leaders, because we have a leadership in Gaza. We have a leadership in the West Bank. Even before the Palestinian split, if you would politically, we were another state in charge of our own destiny or in charge of our own institutions.
Our institutions every once in a while have to be affected by Jewish holidays taking place where everything shuts down. Our institutions have to be shut down sometimes when there is a curfew imposed on the West Bank, which impacts schools, hospitals, government as we know it. It’s hard for me to blame my leaders for not putting great emphasis on the human story and not focusing on that and doing a good job communicating that to the other side.
To me, they are incomplete leaders. Now living in the US, looking from the outside, I think that this is not only a responsibility that falls on the Palestinian leaders, but also on the Israeli leaders, on the leaders, politicians in the US. I hope that today, it feels that so many more people are more informed about the situation and more informed about the need to hear personal stories, whether they are Israelis’ or Palestinians’ in order to set the stage for a lasting and genuine resolution between the two sides.
Jeff: In all the time that you have been here in the US — and I mentioned in the introduction that you had been at Northeastern and Brandeis, you’ve been here for a while — how have you seen the perception of this crisis change among Americans?
Yousef: When I first arrived in the US, every time I said where I’m from, I had to say Israel to make the person realize where I’m from. If I said Gaza, or West Bank, or Palestine, nothing really rang a bell. Once I said, “You know Israel, where Israel is?” and the person would automatically, “Oh, yes, I know where that is,” so you’re the other guy, and there it is. Today, as you know, I’ve been here since 2006. As I grew older in the US, and I lived in multiple locations, I’ve lived in Utah. I’ve lived in Kentucky, I’ve lived in Boston, I’ve lived in DC, and I’ve been to 25 other states as well.
The perception, especially among people in my age, high schoolers, college students, has been rapidly changing in a way that is more informative. Not saying it’s pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians, but people understand the context far more than they have in 2006 and certainly even before 2006, where Palestinians would barely be mentioned before an ordinary American.
Jeff: Yet, in spite of it all, we sit on the precipice of what some people think could be a third Intifada. Talk about that.
Yousef: Despite all of that, we sit on the Intifada and this is, we’re afraid of a third Intifada, not because of the failure of the people. The people continue to inspire me every day to keep doing what I’m doing, but the third Intifada, in my humble opinion, would only happen because of the incompetence, insincerity that we see every day on the politicians’ side, whether it’s in the side of the Palestinians or the Israelis’ side.
For the past 10 years, we have chosen to opt out and keep things as is, and pretend that the conflict has been resolved, and everybody in Gaza, and the West Bank, and East Jerusalem is happy and they’re fine, and everybody in Israel is safe, and they have no complaints, et cetera, but the truth of the matter is, the conflict was never resolved. Instead of dedicating every political move towards that end, politicians over the past 10 years have been distracted elsewhere. The left have forgotten about the big picture, and focused — I think this goes to the Israeli leaders as well — focused the efforts and energy on how to remain in power instead.
Jeff: What can the people of Gaza do, the people of Israel do? What would you like to see happen?
Yousef: I would like to see genuine negotiations to take place, first and foremost, negotiations that will represent the concerns, fears, and expectations of both peoples. For many Palestinians, it is a matter of freedom, it is a matter of prosperity, it is a matter of opportunity. A Palestinian, I decided to leave the Strip because I was convinced that there will be no opportunity for me in Gaza had I remained, and I was 15 years old. I figured that out at that age, and this was a big decision to take that you usually take when you’re at least a little bit older.
I was very lucky to be able to leave, to be able to go to school in the US, college, get a very top, very good education, but that hasn’t been the case for the vast majority of the young people who reside in Gaza. The majority of people who live in Gaza are under the age of 35. Many of them are hopeless. They call us the hopeless generation. It is hard for me. If someone comes and tells me, “Hey, you need to be optimistic and believe in peace,” it is difficult for that person to understand and see beyond the disparity that controls and rules all aspects of their lives.
For the Israelis, I would imagine it to be a little easier because I went to Brandeis, a Jewish University, and my classmates were from Israel. They would go to Christmas when we have vacations. They would go home, normally. They would take summer breaks and go home and be with their families, despite the fact that there was no peace in the Holy Land. This was something I could never do. Even though I was the one who was always saying peace, no matter what, peace, no matter what, peace, no matter what, it was not an option for me.
When it came to Christmas and vacation and being with family, I would stay in my little apartment all by myself, waiting for everyone to come back so I can rejoin the life as everybody knows it, but knowing between myself and I, that while everyone was gone, I was living as a Gazan even though I was not in Gaza. I was still living under that regime, under those policies that prevented me from living that normal life.
I think we need to get there before I can honestly ask the question of both sides on how to get to that peaceful resolution, because we are not equal on so many levels far from politics and strategy and self-interest and all that comes with that. We’re not equal on a day-to-day basis. That’s crucial if we are going to talk about peaceful resolutions in the future.
Jeff: Is the solution economic then? Is it about creating more prosperity in Gaza?
Yousef: The solution does not only belong to Gaza. Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Now, I am the young generation, Palestinian generation. My own leaders have spent the last good 20 years telling me that we no longer want all of Palestine. If you’re a refugee from former Palestine, prepare yourself to live in the new state of Palestine, which will be made of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This is what everyone’s been expecting. I’m talking about my generation.
At the same time, I continue to see illegal settlements and legal settlements, but many illegal settlements, come to place and come to life. Over the past two years, we saw how Israel not only did settlements, but went ahead and annexed large parts of the West Bank, imposed the blockade on Gaza since 2006, continues to have conflicts with Hamas but continues to allow many into the Strip and handed over to Hamas the hospitals to Qatari funding. It’s been a very confusing, very disorganized effort that really makes no sense to my generation.
Well, we’re ready for the state. We’re ready to take over. We’re ready to be allowed to be in charge of our own destiny, but then you look around and you see the opposite of that. No, you’re actually in danger. You’re still not free. Your only solution for a better life is to leave Gaza. I am here to tell you that for many Palestinians, whether it’s East Jerusalem, whether it’s Gaza, whether it’s the West Bank, many, many, many, and this is something that I find very inspiring, choose not to leave, even though they know they could have a better life if they leave. Why? Because it’s the only true home that they have come to know as human beings.
Jeff: Is it a generational solution? Is it your generation that will see things perhaps differently? Or is your generation, having seen so much failure in the past, even angrier?
Yousef: I think the last two. I think we see through so many things. I think my generation is the most informed generation. We’ve seen people try and fail. We’ve seen people attempt to make things fail on purpose. We’ve seen a lot of failure, but we’ve also seen some people take some genuine steps towards peace, were not lying. The fact remains that it is difficult to live in this environment. Is it my generation that has the key to a peaceful resolution? I certainly hope so. My generation is not the only generation that is responsible to bringing about a genuine and lasting peace in the Holy Land, this is also a responsibility that falls on the Israeli generation.
Israeli generation, this current one, is a very successful one. Doctors, the startups there in Israel, are on the rise. Economy is strong. I also expect the Israeli generation to also see me for what I am and my people, and also realize that the responsibility of peace does not only fall on my side of the equation. It’s a mutual responsibility, and one side cannot only be expected to be hopeful and work towards peace while the other side does not have to care about that and can only focus on themselves and themselves only.
Jeff: Have you gotten more cynical over the years?
Yousef: It’s an interesting question. I have gotten more — I wouldn’t use the word cynical. I have seen it all even before coming to the US. I’ve seen the Intifada, I’ve seen the soldiers. Even the current clashes, the current conflict is nothing new to me. This is pretty much the third time that I’ve had to worry about my family and my people in Gaza. As someone living in the US, I’ve grown up with it, one in 2008, 2014, and then these days. Cynical? No, because if I become cynical, then I am afraid I’m going to be a victim of that as well. I try to remain hopeful. I try to give the benefit of the doubt to the other side and pretty much everyone involved. I try to hold onto the idea that one day, I am going to live equally with the other side.
Jeff: Finally, Yousef, do you think about going back and trying to provide leadership for your generation?
Yousef: Yes, I have been trying to go back once a year for the past 10 years. It’s not an easy thing for me to do. It requires a great deal of paperwork, coordination. It requires borders that are open, and our borders are pretty much closed whenever there’s unrest happening. I tried to go this past Christmas before COVID and taking advantage of my American citizenship, but even that didn’t really help make a difference for me. I should let you know that I’ve just been accepted to Johns Hopkins to do a doctorate in international affairs. I would like to build on my dad’s career and teach the people. I love to teach.
In addition to whatever job I end up doing in life, I hope that I’m always able to spend time in Gaza to teach students there, because it’s through teaching that you could really make a lasting difference for a young person, because many of the lessons and the values that I still hold and will continue to hold for the rest of my life came from my dad the teacher and his fellow teachers, who— They will never remember me, but I will always remember them, but also, I’ll always remember the values, and the lessons, and the dreams they encouraged me to dream about
Jeff: Yousef Bashir, his memoir is The Words of My Father. Yousef, I thank you so much for spending time with us today. I really appreciate it.
Yousef: Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate
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