I identify as a Palestinian American. I am originally from the old city of Jerusalem. I grew up there until I was seven, then we moved from the old city to across the Damascus Gate. It is a famous gate. We have seven gates to the old city. The Damascus Gate was not very far from the border of what was Israel before 1967. Israel was created in 1948 over Palestinian territories in the north and the south, and then in 1967, the war is when they took over what we call nowadays the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Palestinians in the West Bank are occupied by Israel whereas the Palestinians in Israel proper are citizens of Israel. They have Israeli passports to travel. The Palestinians in West Bank do not.
When the Six Day War happened in 1967, I was seven years old. At the time the Palestinian territory was under Jordanian rule. East Jerusalem and the West Bank were under Jordanian rule. The Gaza strip was under Egyptian rule. We were not annexed, but we were under the protection of the Jordanian regime. Israel was attacking the area in 1967. I have a good recollection of the war as a child. I remember that there were planes and I was the first one to tell my mom. “Mom, there’s so many planes in the sky! What is that?” Then she heard on the radio that there was a war.
In the old city of Jerusalem people lived in areas where there were four families around a courtyard and then you had stairs to go up and there are another four households. We lived upstairs, but when the war happened our neighbor downstairs told my mom, “You can bring your children down and stay.” When you ask me about my childhood and what was really memorable about it, it’s sad but it’s true, the only thing I remember so vividly is the Six Day War and how we hid in our neighbor’s house.
She had her sister living with her so we were seven people, three women and four kids. I was the oldest of four kids. We are all almost one year apart each. My dad was working outside the old city so he did not come home. He was stranded in the area because the Jordanian soldiers closed the gates and nobody could come in or out. My dad worked in a convent outside the old city and he was a manager because he spoke several languages, including Hebrew and Arabic. He was responsible for everything the convent needed, for example hiring employees, or bringing in workers, like hiring an electrician. He worked on the paperwork for their salaries. He was comfortable doing managerial type of work. Only on the second day of the war my dad was able to come home. Everybody advised him not to go because it was too dangerous. My dad was walking by the walls and crawling on the ground for hours in order to get to us. He didn’t want to leave us alone. Nobody knew what was happening. He succeeded in coming and when he got to the Damascus Gate the Jordanian soldiers who were there let him in. But still within the old city he still had to go on the edges and crawl because he didn’t want to be seen by someone and killed, caught up in the fire between Jordanian and Israeli soldiers.
We were happy to see him. We had been two days without knowing what was happening. We hid for the whole six days until they said it was safe. We did not have much food. We had whatever we had there at the time. In the old city we didn’t have a refrigerator. The food was almost always bought each day. My mom would go everyday to the souk, which was the market. We had some extra stuff, like bread and tomatoes, but not in the sense of the amount of food that you would have here in the United States. Here you have cans and refrigerators. We did not have that then. During the six days nobody could cook. It was even really scary for us to leave and go use the bathroom. We were eight families living there and all of us used the same bathroom. The moms would take turns in cleaning the bathroom.
As a kid I did not understand much of what was going on. What I knew at the time was that there were different soldiers in the streets. There was something happening. When I started realizing that things were hard was when I became a teenager. That is when you start knowing more about the politics, the geography, the history of the area. My dad was very instrumental in telling us about the history. He loved history. He said if you don’t understand history you don’t understand what is going on now. I wasn’t the only one who knew about history. It was very common for Palestinians to know history because our reality was not easy.
As Palestinians we did not have the freedoms that we wanted. We could not go out, for example. I remember that my dad used to walk around the house after dinner. He could no longer do that because you had to always show your ID card and prove that you lived in this area. It was an ID from the state of Israel. It says that you are Palestinian and it also says your religion. Any soldier that would stop you would know who you are and which area you were from, the numbers on the ID card would differentiate Palestinians from Jerusalem and the West Bank. It was almost like the apartheid regime in South Africa. You cannot go in this area, if you don’t belong in this area. If the soldiers did not believe that you lived there they would take you in the jeep and you would spend the night in the police station. This is something we lived. This happened to my dad at one point. We did not know what happened. At two in the morning my mom woke me up and she said, “Take care of your brothers and sister when they wake up tomorrow for school. I don’t see your dad and I’m going to go and find out where he is.” I remember that she came back and we still did not know where he was. In the morning she went to the police station where he had been arrested. He got released the day after. All of this was because he was walking around the house after dinner and he did not have his ID card.
A lot of the students started protesting in their teenage years. There would be students coming from one school and there would be a demonstration and the soldiers would hear that the students were demonstrating and revolting against Israeli occupation of the area. You would all of the sudden have twenty soldiers coming down and stopping the students and asking them for their ID cards, to prove who they are. They would be arrested. The more you respond to the soldiers the more they will feel that you are defying them and defiance is not acceptable. They will take you to the police station. You will stay for days. You are not allowed to even call your parents or tell them where you are. The parents, when they would hear that some students have been demonstrating, they would be on edge, hoping it was not their son or their daughter. Sometimes people would not make it out.
There were a lot of arrests of children. From that time, from when I was seven years old, until now, when I am close to sixty, I hear the same stories — arrests of people who are just telling the soldiers, “We don’t want you here. This is occupied territories and you should leave.” The soldiers or the state of Israel are in a completely different reality. Sometimes I’d get caught up in demonstrations. I remember that we were getting out of school and a lot of us lived in the same area so we were going in the same direction and then all of the sudden we would hear these people running. It was soldiers following someone. And we would become part of this whole thing. Everyone starts running. You would hear shooting. People were pushing each other out of the way from the bullets. I was involved in situations like that. It was almost like you cannot escape these situations. It was everyday life there. In a way everybody is part of the resistance. When you grow up in a situation like that you don’t feel that what you are living is fair, even as a child. Why is this happening? Why don’t I have the rights to just go freely?
There are different ways of protesting. Whenever we were stopped on the way to school, and this happened at maybe at ten or twelve, they would sometimes would stop and ask you for your ID card. “Where do you live? Where are you going?” They would ask the same questions almost every day. Sometimes you get frustrated. I remember one time that I spit at the soldier and he got upset. He took my ruler from my backpack and he hit me with that. Basically what I always tried to do was a verbal confrontation.
Within the public and private schools there were different rules of how you could behave or you would be expelled. I started going to St. Joseph’s school. It was a private school, but unlike private schools here in the United States private schools are not more expensive than public schools. You do pay something, but it is very symbolic. It was a school run by Franciscan nuns. It doesn’t mean that they only have Christian students. We also had Muslim Palestinians from the area who attended the school. I was taught everything in Arabic and we had English courses also and we had French courses. All the schools in eastern Jerusalem taught all the subjects in Arabic, meaning math, science, everything is in Arabic. But you have one class of English and another one of English composition, so we would have two to three hours of English and French per week. And that started at the first-grade level. There were other schools that taught other languages as the third language, some of our neighbors went to schools who taught the third language as Spanish or German.
Another thing that happens is that the state of Israel imposes curfews during the time when school is running. So at the end of the school year when you are supposed to take your exams you cannot take them and then you won’t graduate. That is why sometimes it takes longer to finish high school. Also at the university level they would impose curfews so students would not graduate within the year, so instead of taking four years to graduate with a bachelor’s it would take you longer. Sometimes students were arrested because they were wearing the colors of the Palestinian colors, or wearing a t-shirt that said Palestine.
The checkpoints are very annoying. Going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem should take you 15 minutes driving on a normal highway. With the checkpoints and with the Israeli soldiers getting on the bus and asking you for your ID card and having some people being interrogated, you will be late. It is another way from stopping students from getting an education and making things more frustrating for the students who are attending Bethlehem University. Other limitations for Palestinians are things like not letting you build on your own land. The state of Israel doesn’t say that you can’t build, but they won’t give you a license to build. When you apply they reject it. If you build without a license they will come and destroy it. This is more than a limitation, it is not allowing you to be on your own land within the territory that they have already occupied. Even that space is not yours.
The people from east Jerusalem were treated by Israel completely differently from the people from the West Bank and from Gaza. This is one more layer of politics and oppression. Jerusalem, because Israel always wanted Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. Most countries recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian State in the negotiations of the two-state solution. Up until the Trump presidency, previous presidents have all gone with the international community by not having the US embassy in Jerusalem because that move is a recognition that Jerusalem is united and belongs to Israel. I remember during the Women’s March I went with a sign that said “No Embassy Move” and a lot of people asked me about that because they didn’t know what it meant. But for me it meant a lot. I was marching for women, and as a woman who has been oppressed on a political level, I wanted to share that message and have people ask me about it. I am against the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, which unfortunately president Trump did.
The people in Jerusalem had a few supposed privileges. They were allowed an Israeli passport. Of course the Palestinian people didn’t want it. Everybody at the time had a Jordanian passport. There were lots of hidden agendas and politics. There were a lot of pressures that people could not understand. There were some things offered by Israel to the Palestinians of the old city that were not offered to others because of wanting to annex East Jerusalem and have Jerusalem united.
They took some of the old houses of the old city. If they knew, for example, that I lived in France, and came back to Jerusalem occasionally, the Israeli government will try to take my house. Some residents would come back and find that Jewish families were living in their house. In order to stop Israel from confiscating land and housing if you owned a house in the old city you would ask someone to live in your house to show occupancy so that the Israel government wouldn’t take the house from you.
Sharon, a previous Israeli prime minister, and a defense minister at some point, had a house in the old city, in the Arab area and he had the Israeli flag on the top. There were a lot of confrontations, like this one. When you do something like that you are provoking the Palestinians who live there. That’s what Sharon wanted, he knew exactly what it meant.
Jerusalem is a very special place because of all of the communities that live there. You have the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Armenians, the Copts, the Syrians. Because of that, Israel has been very careful with how to deal with those communities, but look at the reality of how the Palestinians were living and how little freedom they had and the confiscation of their properties.
When I lived in the old city I lived in the Christian Quarter, but my best friend was Muslim. She lived inside of a mosque and that mosque was the house of Salahuddin al-Ayyubi. Imagine! When you walk in the streets of Jerusalem every little part has history. The sheikh who was responsible for that mosque was her dad’s cousin. In Jerusalem there was a lot of interaction between Christians and Muslims. There was never really a differentiation among Palestinians according to religion. But when the Israeli soldiers would stop us, the religion was a big deal for them. It was a divide and conquer strategy. It was very dirty. We did not play into that.
I want to highlight the difference between the soldiers and the Jewish people. We have to be careful when we talk. When a lot of Palestinians say “Jews” they refer to the soldiers because those are the only Jews that they have seen in the old city. We are not talking about the people, we are referring to the soldiers, the Israeli state and the Israeli people who are Zionists. After the Six Day War you didn’t really need to have borders between East and West Jerusalem. It was almost like there was no communication, and there was a natural divide. Palestinians wouldn’t go to West Jerusalem. And the Israelis would come only on Saturdays come to the Wailing Wall, inside the old city of Jerusalem, but they would have the protection of soldiers; they knew they were not welcome.
After high school I worked at the municipality of Jerusalem and there I had to deal with everybody. Jews from Poland, from Morocco and Iraq, Palestinian Muslims from the 1948 area, Palestinians from the West Bank and from Jerusalem. I worked with all types of people coming from all kinds of countries. We worked together. We depended on each other, that’s how you get to know people on a personal level. Other than contact through work there was no interaction. There’s this separation without walls that humans have made. We were not welcome there. They were not welcome here.
I then went to study at the Sorbonne University in Paris. I received a scholarship from the French consulate in Jerusalem. They gave three scholarships to Palestinians from French-speaking schools. I took an exam in the eleventh grade in French literature and composition. I scored high and I was given the scholarship. When I finished my bachelors and my masters there it was hard for me to go back to Jerusalem. I don’t think I would have found work there. It is really hard.
As a Palestinian from Jerusalem I traveled with a travel document from Israel. To go through the Tel Aviv airport I could not use my Jordanian passport because the Jordanians would not renew my passport if I had it stamped by the Israelis. I also, as a Palestinian, did not want to have an Israeli passport. I opted for a travel document from Israel. It is something that is given to you that allows you to travel through airports, and is renewed on a yearly basis.
This story is so telling of the impact of this situation on different areas of my life. Here I am with this Israeli travel document and in it is my name, but it doesn’t say that I am Palestinian. It says nationality: Jordanian. It also says that I am Christian. It was very confusing for a police officer that might stop me in Paris. Going from one oppressive situation to another, anything that happened in the Metro train in Paris I would say that racism is more overt in Europe than in the United States in the sense that if something happens and they are looking for someone they will stop everyone who has dark hair and dark eyes. This is what I mean by overt. That is something I experienced in Paris. When they stopped me and they would look at my papers, my travel document from Israel. In the United States in order to get a “green card” you have to get married to someone here who has citizenship in contrast to Europe where as a student in Paris you were given the equivalent of a green card which is a carte de sejours and they would renew it yearly as long as your student visa is valid. In the carte de sejours when they wrote down where I was from they said I was from Jerusalem and that my nationality was “undetermined.” That was in my carte de sejours travel document. They wrote down my nationality: undetermined. So when I was stopped and the police officer said, “What is this?” I said, “I don’t know, your government gave it to me.” He said, “What are you?” I said, “I’m Palestinian.” He said ok and returned it to me. The funny thing about it was since I renewed it every year, it changed. President Miterrand, like president Jiscar D’estain, was for Palestinian self-determination and the two-state solution so you feel welcome as a Palestinian in France, but unfortunately on paper they changed my nationality from “undetermined” under President d”Estain, to “to be determined” under president Mitterand. It is funny, but it is so hurtful too. My nationality is Palestinian.
At the time I was furious that my country was taken, occupied by Israel, and I lived through a war at a young age and I’ve seen poverty all around me, my people were in prison and arrested for the smallest reasons or no reason at all. On top of all the political implications there is this day-to-day harassment on the ground that never stops. You have to have the energy to deal with it.
When I came to the United States to finish my graduate studies I had to renew my Israeli travel document because I had to renew it every year to go back home to Jerusalem. The Israeli consulate in San Francisco told me that they could not renew it because I got married and had a green card. They couldn’t renew my travel document because I was no longer a citizen of Jerusalem because I married an American. I said that a lot of Israelis have both American and Israeli passports. They replied, “But they are not Palestinians.” If you are not born in Israel but you are a Jew from anywhere and you would like to have an Israeli passport you can. But I can’t have a travel document renewed because I cannot be two things. because I am not Jewish even though I am a resident of Jerusalem. This is Israel’s rule that only Jews can have dual citizenship. But the US knows about these rules. I wanted to go back to visit, but I could not go back. I still remember that I was calling the Israeli Consulate and they made me go through so much. “You don’t have enough stamps.” So I sent them stamps. “You didn’t have a plane ticket showing that you are going and coming back.” Why do you need a two-way ticket? She said, “Just because we need it.” It was telling me that they didn’t want me there, didn’t want me to stay. And then at the end the last time I called in that week, “I’m sorry, we do not renew for people who have a green card.” I said, “What do you mean? You have an agreement with the United States that you can have two passports.” And she said, “Yeah, but not for you.”
I remember I cried so hard because at that moment because I felt completely uprooted. The Israeli consulate didn’t want me and they told me that in so many words. When you are occupying a country, like Israel is occupying Palestine, and you are a huge power and having all these Palestinians become victims and the whole world is still listening to what you have to say, you feel helpless. Unfortunately or fortunately I teach psychology. I know what helplessness means and I know how it can drive you to depression. I was depressed for some time. But I feel like I have this strength in me that comes back always. I always know who I am and I don’t need anyone to define me and the Israelis are not going to define me with their rules and their policies. I do not allow anyone to make me question who I am. Palestinian.