Gazan tragedy reflected (oh so briefly) at J Street

M J Rosenberg has a personal revelation at the J Street conference. A powerful sign that the event wasn’t simply about re-hashing tired slogans:

Between sessions at the amazing J Street conference, people mill around talking to friends and, sometimes, just a person standing near by.

I was lucky enough to find myself talking to a young man from Gaza, in Washington for the conference. He is not on the program. He is here to learn. And he is a remarkable person in every way.

Yusuf Bashir is 20. He’s tall and handsome and, if I had to guess based on his looks, I would have taken him for a well-off American Jewish college kid.

He most certainly is not.

Yusuf is from Gaza, specifically from Deir el-Balah. Until Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ended the military (and settler) occupation of Gaza in 2005, Yusuf, his parents, and four siblings, lived in a house next to the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom, right next to a military base.

In 2000, the Israeli army decided to seize the house and use it as a sentry post. The army had already destroyed or taken other houses in the neighborhood.

But Yusuf’s father refused to move his family.

The Israeli army let them stay — but moved in with the family. They installed a lookout and a machine gun nest on the roof. And soldiers took over the top floors of the house.

Here is Yusuf’s description of life over the next five years (this section is from an article he wrote for the Seeds of Peace newsletter.

“We were not allowed on the second and the third floors of our house because the army told us that they were Area C where the Israeli military government runs everything and the Palestinians have no authority. The living room, where all seven of us had to stay at night, was Area B. We called it the jail. The bathroom, kitchen and bedrooms were Area B –where Palestinians administer themselves but Israel has security control. (Luckily they were not Area C ) My sister labelled the doors of the house. We had to get permission to go into the kitchen and a soldier would come with us if we had to go to the bathroom.”

This situation lasted for five years.

But for Yusuf, just four.

On February 18, 2004, a United Nations team received permission to visit the family. They spent a few hours at the house and then left. Yusuf, a teenager, was excited to see them and sad to see them leave. He followed them out of the house and, while saying goodbye, he was shot by an Israeli soldier who was patrolling across the street (the shooter was not one of the soldiers who lived with the family).

“The bullet stopped near my spine,” he recalls. .

“I crumpled to the ground. I was very sure it was my end and that I was dying. I even said the Shahadat, the words a Muslim says when he dies. But I did not die. In the hospital, I hoped that I would die because I was not able to move my legs.”

Yusuf was taken to Tel Hashomer hospital in Tel Aviv. The doctors and nurses saved his life but told him he would never walk again because of the bullet’s location.

The army apologized to Yusuf for crippling him. But the Tel Hashomer personnel, in Yusuf’s words, “cared for me with such love. They were so ashamed of what the army did. And after seven months, I could walk although I can’t play sports or do anything that could cause the bullet to move and cripple me forever. I’m in pain, but I walk. I’m better off than lots of Palestinian kids my age.”

So what was Yusuf doing at J Street. “After I recovered and went back to Gaza, my friends said, ‘now you must fight the Israelis.’ But my father told me that God didn’t save me so I can fight. He said that Israelis shot me but other Israelis saved me.”

Yusuf is now in Boston, in college. He intends to return to Gaza after he graduates to work to improve “my country.” Tragically, his father died a month ago and, due to Israeli restrictions on travel to and from Gaza, he could not return home for the funeral. He speaks of his father with tears in his eyes.

I asked him: how do you not hate?. He said, “Hate accomplishes nothing. My father taught me that to hate is the worst sin. Then Seeds of Peace found me and I went to their camp in Maine and met other kids from conflict areas being taught not to hate. Now I’m here at J Street.”

Yusuf’s story blew me away. I cannot imagine reacting like this. He was shot for no reason by Jews and yet he is here in Washington to work with Jews. I told him that his story gave me hope.

But an Israeli woman standing nearby, who listened to his story, said. “Hope? Yusuf is a lucky one. Yes, he was shot but he got out too. Most Palestinian children like him never get out. Israel has locked them into Gaza and thrown away the key. There are young men and women just like him, just as good, who will never have a moment of possibility. They are in a zoo. And they do not love us. They hate us, as I would hate them if the Palestinians did to us what we do to them.”

So, I asked, what’s the answer?

“The answer is right here. End the occupation. Free these Palestinian kids, and free my sons, one is already in the IDF, too. Otherwise, there will be so many more Yusufs and Yosefs and they aren’t going to be as lucky as this boy.”

Lucky? All things considered, I guess he is.