Palestinians: Profile of a people in search of statehood

As their leaders go to the United Nations for a vote on state recognition amid a diplomatic crisis, six men and women say what it means to be Palestinian in 2011.

Palestinians state their case

Name: Mahmoud Albeak
Age: 33
Lives: Al-Sawiya, West Bank
Job: High school maths teacher
Religion: Muslim
Family: Married, no children
Mahmoud Albeak lives in a small village bordered by Israeli settlements, outposts and an army base. He is employed by the Palestinian Authority as a teacher, but receives his salary irregularly due to the vagaries of donor funds to the PA.

“This month we received our monthly pay for August yesterday [September 15],” he says. “It was the full amount but sometimes we only get half-wage. It’s very difficult to manage with half money. Even a full wage is not enough for a teacher. Some teachers have more than one job, and many teachers leave to be construction workers because they earn more than us.”

His full take-home pay is about $765 after deductions for income tax and medical insurance to the authority.

Albeak, who is not aligned with any political faction, is ambivalent about the authority’s approach to the UN. “Under the current circumstances of living under occupation, going to the UN is not worth ink on paper. We are still under occupation. We have no control of our land, our borders, our water. It will be a state on paper.

“But I think we have to explain our point of view to the international community in a clearer way. We should work harder to get other countries to support us.”

Village life is “deeply affected” by harassment from Jewish settlers, he says. “People cannot go and harvest their land. The settlers take our olives, they throw rocks at people.”

Albeak’s journey to his school in another village requires him changing from one shared service taxi — a common form of transport — to another at a major junction.

“There is a lot of harassment by settlers — beatings and spitting. You have to stay at least 200m away from the settlement bus stop. You are not allowed to wait at the bus stop, it’s forbidden. It’s a private bus stop for settlers. If a driver of a Palestinian [shared service] taxi wants to stop he has to be very careful, or he will get a ticket.

“You are afraid for your life. [But] we have to go through that road, there is no alternative, no matter what they do to us.”

Last year, he says, settlers “came to our mosque and wrote Zionist slogans, curses against our prophet and the Star of David. Last year they burned the village school, a whole storage room was destroyed. They are above the law.”

Palestinians, he says, are defined by the land. “A person without a homeland is nothing. It’s our roots.

“I hope that the children I teach will take responsibility in building the coming state. Building a state is not easy. The first step is preparing individuals to be good citizens to help build the country. And I hope they will live a better life than I have lived.”

Name: Abu Ahmed*
Age: 37
LIive: Gaza City
Job: Spokesperson, al-Quds Brigade
Religion: Muslim
Family: Married with six children
Abu Ahmed runs his prayer beads through his large fingers as he describes the experiences that led him to join one of Gaza’s most hardcore militant groups.

His family came to Gaza City in 1948 as refugees from Beit Jirja, a village that has now been absorbed into the Israeli town of Sderot, a town just across the border at which his fellow militants regularly fire rockets. He joined the Islamic Jihad movement when he was at high school, but it was only during the second intifada that he became active in the group’s militant wing, al-Quds Brigade.

“The Israeli occupation is an overt act of violence against Palestinians and I believed military action was the only way to liberate our land,” he explains. “I saw we had two choices, victory or martyrdom.”

Ahmed keeps a low profile for fear of being targeted by the Israeli Defence Forces in retaliation for the regular rocket attacks on civilians in southern Israel. But even as a father, personal safety is a sacrifice he’s happy to make.

“There is no conflict between being a militant and a father,” he says. “We are ready to sacrifice even our family. My eldest son is 13 now, but I would prefer him to be educated and go to university first. The educated militant is better than the uneducated militant.”

Ahmed, the spokesperson for al-Quds Brigade, says the UN is no place to defeat an occupier.

“When Hitler invaded France they didn’t reclaim their land through the UN, but through fighting. When the Americans occupied Vietnam, the Vietnamese didn’t get their state through the UN, but through fighting. There is no connection between the [UN] application and the resistance. The resistance is connected to the occupation. As long as there is an occupation we will continue fighting.”

Ahmed claims bloodshed is not the brigade’s ultimate aim. “This battle was forced upon us,” he insists. “We are not aiming to erase Israelis, but if they want to live in this place they have to live in an Islamic state.

“I think if we united our nation’s efforts, the people of Israel would flee. And when there is no Israel, there will be peace all over the world. Jews are trouble-makers.”

*Not his real name

Name: Mohamed Faris
Age: 57
Lives: Mena, Gaza City
Job: Businessman
Religion: Muslim
Family: Married with two children
Mohamed Faris is full of entrepreneurial ideas and Gaza, he says, is rich with potential.

One vision is to make Gaza a duty-free hub, shipping goods from Europe into the Palestinian port and distributing them across the Arab world on trucks and a railway system yet to be built. He also wants to start a chamber of commerce to encourage external investors. But these dreams, he admits, are a long way off.

His current venture is Rosy’s, the largest beauty salon in Gaza. It offers hairdressing, a beautician, gym facilities and a clothes store. These are luxuries increasingly few Palestinians can afford.

“I don’t believe any businessman would be able to function in the conditions we are in,” Faris says baldly.

On a good day Rosy’s takes $780. Faris says they should be making $7 900. Last Thursday, during an escalation in the fighting, Israeli jets dropped a bomb on an empty building behind Rosy’s. The blast shattered every piece of glass in his building, which cost Faris $9 950 to replace.

The conflict has hampered his industry for years. As importers of household goods from Europe, Faris and his father ran the fifth largest business in the Palestinian territories. That company folded during the second intifada.

“Why?” he says. “The [Israeli border] closures. We weren’t able to distribute our goods freely. The banks foreclosed on us. The people that owed money to us stopped paying. It came together all in one package.

“In 2002 I found that the only source of income is this little business [Rosy’s] I had made for my wife.”

Faris has sold his family farm, his shops in Gaza’s old city and declared bankruptcy in order to support his two sons and their families, his mother and his wife. The stress is evidently taking its toll.

“I lose a piece of my heart every year in little bits,” he says. “Each stroke comes stronger. I have had two, I’m waiting for the third.

“Sometimes I think I want to go away, I want to go to a different country, but where and how? This is my homeland. This is where I want to see my children and grandchildren grow up, on a small beautiful piece of land that is ours.”

Faris holds little hope that the UN will recognise Palestine this week. “If we declare a state, where is this state?” he argues. “We are under occupation.

“What will help business in Palestine is opening borders and having free trade and free movement. We need to reach a stage where we are stable so investors from abroad will be able to come here and help us to raise our economy.”

Name: Muna Mushahwar
Age: 33
Lives: Beit Hanina, east Jerusalem
Job: Doctor, Hadassah hospital, west Jerusalem
Christian (Greek Orthodox)
Single, lives with father
“The Palestinian people are long past the usual stereotype,” says Mushahwar, a Palestinian doctor specialising in ophthalmology and working in an Israeli hospital. “We’re an educated people with a long struggle for freedom. It’s a struggle that went through lots of stages, and now we’re at the stage of diplomacy, thank God. We just want our human rights, to have a country and our land, and to be able to say ‘I’m a Palestinian’ and not feel threatened.

“I’m proud of being Palestinian and it’s about time the world looked at us without stereotyping us as antisemitic western-hating terrorists.

“More Palestinians who are second or third generation displaced people are now choosing to come back and live here. This is one of our biggest strengths — people want to help build the Palestinian dream of freedom.”

Mushahwar says she regularly encounters racism among patients when they realise she is a Palestinian. “You’re only human, but as a doctor you have to put it aside.”

She also detects a rise in both anti-Arab and anti-Christian sentiment. “Christians are being harassed every Easter and Christmas when we try to get to our churches. We find [Israeli] roadblocks inside the Old City of Jerusalem. When we have to go to court to ask for our right to go to church — that’s extreme.

“The closer we get to the point where things will be decided, you find people becoming more extreme on both sides. They are frightened. But most people are sick and tired of this fight, and want to live in peace. But a fair peace.”

Mushahwar defines herself as “a Palestinian woman living in Jerusalem — that’s very important to me. When I tell Israelis I’m a Palestinian Jerusalemite, that raises a conflict for them. They think of Jerusalem as belonging to them.”

She supports the UN move. “The world should be looking at this as a positive step. We want to become a peace-loving nation. When we say we want to be part of the UN, that should be welcomed. Isn’t this what everyone wanted, for us to go through legal channels?

“No one thinks it will be solved overnight and that we will have freedom and fireworks the next day. But this is the Palestinian voice being heard across the world.”

Name: Mazen Saadeh
Age: 51
Lives: Birzeit, West Bank
Job: Artist, novelist, restaurant owner
Religion: None, but from mixed Muslim-Christian family
Family: Separated from wife, two sons aged 16 and 21
“I didn’t choose my Palestinian identity,” says Saadeh, who was born into a refugee family in Jericho and later lived in Jordan, Lebanon and the US. “I lived my life in different countries. I came back to Palestine but discovered it’s not my Palestine, my Palestine is behind a wall. I still feel I am a refugee.”

An artist and the author of three novels, Saadeh opened a restaurant last October in a beautifully restored centuries-old stone house, which serves traditional Palestinian food to a mixed clientele of local people and international workers. The restaurant also serves wines and spirits along with the local Palestinian beer, Taybeh. “There’s no problem with serving alcohol, Birzeit is a Christian city,” says Saadeh.

He spent nine years in a Jordanian prison after becoming involved in student activism and the Palestine Liberation Organisation when studying law at university in Amman. He renounced political activity almost 20 years ago.

“I was an activist until 1992 when I quit and chose art and literature. Politics was no longer the right way for me to express myself and change the world. Art and literature is a better tool for change. Political groups isolate themselves — they put themselves inside the four walls of their ideology and they don’t see the wider picture. I am very disillusioned with politics.”

As well as finishing his fourth novel, Saadeh is also working on a huge mural in Ramallah, the latest of several in the city. “I’m creating an image from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish [the Palestinian poet and author]. I work with public art because I believe it will challenge and change people to break taboos.”

He approves of the approach to the UN. “The Palestinian leadership have their backs against the wall, so they are trying to open a small window. I think it’s a good step

“My identity as a Palestinian created my feelings, my condition, my friends, my dreams, everything. Being Palestinian shapes everything I do. I am proud to be Palestinian.

“Darwish created the Palestinian identity with his poetry more than the PLO. Darwish gave us an epic. He is our prophet.”

Name: Ola Anan
Age: 26
Live: Gaza City
Job: Blogger
Religion: Muslim
Family: Single, lives with parents
Ola Anan considers herself “an advocate for a different image of Gaza”. As one of Gaza’s longest standing and most successful bloggers, her blog, FromGhazza, averages 320 hits a day.

“All the media attention is going to politics and the miserable life people are having here in Gaza. I have other things to tell,” she says.

Her short-term goal is to publish a book of her posts. “I was discussing this idea with my family recently. It was very challenging to convince them I should be doing something they think is completely crazy,” she admits.

There is the additional issue of the blockade. Anan explains there are few publishers and a very limited market for writers in Gaza. Getting out to meet interested publishers abroad requires a long wait for a permit to travel.

“This was the plan — I was going to register my name for a permit [at Rafah] and in the two months I would wait for it to come through, I was going to try to convince my family.

“But in the end, we agreed I would apply for jobs that seemed suitable for me here and contact people from Egypt to help me with this book idea at the same time.”

Jobs in general are few and far between in Gaza. Anan has a masters degree in computer technology and has worked as a new media consultant for international NGOs, but like most people she struggles to secure contracts for any longer than a few months. At the moment she says she’s “on vacation”.

“I keep myself very busy, following what happens in Egypt, keeping in touch with activists there. Sometimes I even feel disconnected from my own reality because I want that life so much. I want something similar to happen here but, honestly, I don’t think I will see that in my lifetime.”

For Anan, the Palestinian Authority’s application for statehood has little relevance to her life and her struggle. “If they had conducted a referendum and the majority of people had agreed to this, I would respect it,” she says. “But how can I say what [Mahmoud] Abbas is going to do is representing the Palestinians? Even he couldn’t say that.

“The Palestinian identity is fading through time. Sometimes I feel the point of being Palestinian is to struggle. I wonder, if we weren’t in this position would we have the same love for this country? Being Palestinian is a bitter-sweet thing.” –

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