Saeed is speaking across Skype’s video messaging service. He wears a woolly hat, a jacket and dresses exactly as a European in his early 20s might. There is a hint of stubble across his chin. Saeed smiles and he appears friendly and relaxed. Behind him, a Palestinian flag is draped across his bedroom wall and occasionally members of his family walk through the room.
Saeed has just returned from delivering a series of lectures across Europe. He leans forward from his chair and reminiscently lists the countries he visited. “I have been to Sweden, to Germany, to Finland, France, Spain, Italy,” he says. “I have been invited by different groups and organisations and schools and universities and local TV. I have spoken to thousands of people.”
Saeed’s experiences as a Palestinian activist have lead him to share his story around the world. He taught himself English aged 17 using only Google Translate, but just a few years on has become an eloquent public speaker. Occasionally though, he asks the meaning of certain words and explains: “English is not my language and I’m still learning.”
Saeed’s family originate from Jaffa in Israel, but were forced into Jordinian refugee camps during the 1948 war. His grandfather returned to the West Bank in 1967 and settled in the Palestinian town of Ni’lin. Located in Area C, Ni’lin is under the full control of the Israeli military and being close to the border with Israel has lead to problems. “The land was only 5800 hectares,” explains Saeed. “Most was confiscated by Israelis to build five colonies around us. Only 800 hectares is left to us.” For this agricultural town, the loss has been devastating. One of the new colonies is the Israeli town of Kiryat Sefer, which – having been established only in 1997 – dwarfs Ni’lin with a population in excess of 40,000. Ni’lin’s population has dwindled to less than 6,000.
Yet even the little land the town has left is under threat. In 2008, bulldozers returned to build a wall that would take a further 33% of Ni’lin’s land, annexing the Palestinian’s olive groves. The anxious residents came together and formed the Ni’lin Popular Committee Against The Wall, which rejected violence and instead began a peaceful protest in May 2008. Saeed romantically describes the protesters as embarking on a “very dangerous adventure,” having been inspired by figures such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi. “All that we have is unarmed resistance. The most effective struggle is the unarmed one. This is the system that worked in British India, apartheid South Africa and the Arab Spring.”
At first the people of Ni’lin were successful in preventing the new wall from being built. However, the Israeli military soon intervened with tear gas, sound bombs and bullets. Several of the protesters have been killed, including children as young as ten and Saeed’s 17-year-old cousin Youssef. With Saeed’s father the official representative of the Popular Committee, his family have been brutally targeted. His father was imprisoned for a year, for “being present in a declared military zone”. The ‘military zone’ was once his family’s olive garden. Saeed has also been beaten and imprisoned and his sisters, then aged only 10 and 12, have been wounded by Israeli bullets. Saeed doesn’t understand it. “We have no guns. We are unarmed civilians,” he says.
Saeed’s family aren’t the only people suffering. “There is a road going through our village to connect the colonies with the main part of Israel. This is a road only Jewish people are allowed to use and it cuts the village in two. They have also taken the village’s water spring and they only give us water for three hours every day.” Despite the problems he has faced, Saeed passionately insists Israelis and Palestinians, given equal rights, can live peacefully side by side. “I don’t hate the Israelis! Why would I hate them? We just want to have our rights. That’s all that we want. We don’t want to hate Israelis or Jews. We have no problem with Jews. We just want to live in peace. We know that it is not the whole of Israel fighting us.”
Saeed’s right. The whole of Israel does not support the occupation of the West Bank, as was demonstrated by last month’s national elections. Newly formed centrist party, Yesh Atid, won 19 seats in the Israeli parliament and have promised to “revive” the peace process. The party is expected to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest coalition government, but Saeed isn’t convinced this will make much difference. “That’s not going to change anything. It’s still Netanyahu leading and controlling everything. Whenever they want to they can commit a massacre in Gaza,” he says.
Still, Saeed looks to the future. He wants to become an engineer and believes one day the region’s problems can be resolved. “I am very hopeful because you can see how the international community has started to change, which is going to play a big role in the next steps. Of course it is not going to happen in one day or one night, but the Arab Spring gives us new hope.”
The Israeli wall through Ni’lin has now been built and Saeed says his town has been turned into an “open prison”. Still, Saeed hopefully recalls how even the Berlin Wall fell eventually. For now though, he savours the small victories. “Whenever they see someone they shoot. It was very scary in the beginning. When we arrived to the area where they were building the wall, an Israeli soldier made a line and said: ‘if any Palestinian crossed this line they should consider themselves dead.’ ” What did they do? “We counted to three and jumped over the line together. They can’t kill us all.”