By Yousef Bashir
April 26, 2019
I was born and raised in the Gaza Strip. For years, my “neighbours” were Israeli soldiers based in the Kfar Darom settlement across the road from my house. Although the settlement was illegally established, my father taught me never to feel hostility toward the soldiers. They were the children of Abraham, as were we Palestinians.
But in September 2000, when I was 11 years old, all that changed. One night after dinner, the soldiers started shooting at our kitchen windows. As we crawled to the center of the house, I could see the bullets ricocheting around me.
Soon after, the soldiers told my father that it was time for him to leave. They wanted to use our house as a command centre. My father politely but firmly refused: “I am a peaceful man. I am not your enemy. There is no need for me to leave. If it is not safe for us in our own home, then it will not be safe for us anywhere.”
Khalil Bashir, whose son was shot in the back, in front of his house in the Gaza Strip in 2005. The house had been taken over by the Israeli Army for five years.
As punishment for refusing to go, the soldiers made us their virtual prisoners. They took over the second and third floors, and the rooftop. My family — my grandmother, my parents and eight of us children — were no longer allowed to go upstairs or into our backyard. We were told that anyone who broke the rules would be shot. At night we were often locked in the living room; sometimes we were kept there for a week or two at a time. When we needed to use the bathroom, we had to be accompanied by a soldier.
This lasted for years. My house was no longer my home. It was a base for the Israeli army, and I was filled with resentment. And yet, my father continued to live as though nothing had changed. He believed that sooner or later, the soldiers would leave and he would once again have his home and his land back. Determined to treat everyone politely, he referred to the soldiers as “our guests.” This drove everyone crazy, both our family and the soldiers.
The soldiers tried everything to get my father to leave. One smashed his head against the wall; others shot up his bedroom; they bulldozed the fields where he grew dates and olives and demolished the greenhouses where he planted tomatoes and eggplants; they shot his donkey, and set fire to the shed where he kept ducks and chickens.
“Why don’t you leave this house?” I remember a soldier demanding. My father, in his beautiful voice, responded, “Why don’t you leave my house?”
Then, on Feb. 18, 2004, a soldier shot me in the back. It happened in front of my father and three United Nations officers who had come to investigate our situation. We were standing in front of the house, and for no apparent reason, an Israeli soldier shot me. (The army said he claimed to be aiming at a suspicious car, but there was no suspicious car.) I was 15. For the first time I saw tears in my father’s eyes. I could not believe it: They had finally gotten to him.
As I lay on his lap in the back of the United Nations vehicle taking me to the hospital, my father kept telling me to keep my eyes open. All I could do was mumble apologies for my low grades in school. My father was my headmaster but I had no interest in school, in learning English, in reading the many books he got for me.
In bed at the hospital in Gaza, barely able to open my eyes, I realized I could not move my legs. I overheard the nurses wondering whether I would ever walk again. Then a miracle occurred. After three days, arrangements were made to transfer me to a hospital in Tel Aviv. Normally Palestinians like me were not allowed into Israel, but presumably because of the media coverage of the shooting, the Israeli government gave permission for me to be treated there and for my father to accompany me.
For the next several weeks, my father stayed at my side. He talked to me about family, country, his dreams and his understanding of life. He told me I was going to make him proud. Over and over he said: “Your life has been spared. A new door has just opened for you.”
Paralyzed in bed, frustrated and trapped and in pain, at first I found it hard to understand what he meant. Sometimes I would scream at him to just leave me alone.
Being in Israel was a challenge for me. For years, I had lived in fear of Israeli soldiers. Now I was surrounded by Israeli doctors, and yet they were doing all they could to save my life. My favorite nurse was Seema, a Jewish woman from Iraq who fed me, cleaned me, gave me my medicine and, most important, made me smile. An Israeli soldier had tried to kill me, but now Israelis were trying to heal me.
The doctors decided not to remove the bullet from my spine. Instead I was sent to a physical therapy clinic. I was put in a unit with 12 other kids, all of us in wheelchairs. Most of them were Israeli, and some were outraged by what had happened to me. Mohammad was another boy from Gaza. He had been injured while walking near a car that was bombed by an Israeli helicopter, and he had suffered much more damage than I had. He would have metal plates in both of his legs for the rest of his life.
It took almost a year, but I learned to walk again. Finally I was able to return home to Gaza. The soldiers were still there, but I could look them straight in the eye. They were now the ones who looked away. Their guns no longer frightened me, and I could see them as my father saw them: scared young men.
A few months later, in August 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the strip, and from my home. The soldiers had occupied that house for five years. Now my father was once again able to live freely on his ancestral land. His spirit had prevailed. He had proved to me that violence is not the only option when standing up for freedom and dignity. He had taught me that seeking peace is not only a prayer, but also an obligation.
I have since moved to the United States, where I have spoken to many groups about my experience. People need to know that good men and women like my parents do exist in places that are full of war and hatred. They may speak more quietly than some, but they deserve to be heard.
I have come to believe that a majority of Americans, especially Jewish Americans, want their government to work toward peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians. They understand that the Palestinian people have the right to a state of their own. To me — someone who survived the kind of violence that so many seem to believe is inevitable — that state would be a paradise, despite its inevitable flaws.
The Israeli army apologized to me, and the soldier who shot me was suspended. I often wonder what has happened to him since, why he did it and what he now thinks about the whole thing. I wish we could talk. I would tell him that I want to do my part to make peace between our peoples more possible, the way my father taught me. I would tell him that I have forgiven him.
Yousef Bashir is the author of “The Words of My Father: Love and Pain in Palestine.”