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Telling Their Own Stories Illuminates Life Under Israeli Occupation

(Photo: Voice of Witness)

Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation, compiled and edited by Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke, Voices of Witness, 2014, 352 pages, $16. Release date: November 11, 2014.

Writer and radio personality Studs Terkel (1912-2008) is widely credited with popularizing the idea of oral history, the notion that allowing people to describe their lives and experiences themselves, without interpretation or analytic filters, provides a way into history that is both powerful and meaningful. Terkel was a master at making diverse people – including the regular folks who are rarely interviewed – comfortable talking, and whether the subject was work, economic hardship, race or aging, he got them to open up and share revealing, and often poignant, memories, ideas and impressions.

Terkel influenced scores of journalists and scholars, among them, the staff at Voices of Witness, a nonprofit, California-based publishing project that seeks to “illuminate human rights crises” by giving people a platform to tell their stories.Their latest effort, Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation, compiled and edited by Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke, does this and then some.

Malek and Hoke spent four years, 2010 to the summer of 2014, conducting more than 250 hours of interviews in the West Bank and Gaza and ultimately culled the material into 16 chapters. The range is broad and includes a Jewish Israeli who moved to the West Bank in solidarity with her Palestinian friends and a middle-aged Palestinian professor who helped found the International Solidarity Movement. Their stories appear alongside those of homemakers, writers, teachers, artists, athletes, community activists and fishermen to give readers a picture of harrowing subjugation. Needless to say, the accounts are hard to read, painful in their matter-of-fact depiction of everyday oppression.

Optimism of First Intifada

Ghassan Andoni, a 58-year-old Christian physics professor at Berzeit University is particularly eloquent. During the first Intifada, in 1987, he begins, “the whole nation was standing on its toes.” It was an optimistic moment, he says, and “the occupation served to strengthen the community. When you live under rules that don’t represent you, you keep your traditions as a safeguard. If you have a problem, you solve it internally, instead of going to court because you don’t trust the authorities. In a way, occupation strengthened some of the tribal aspects of our society.”

Nevertheless, his story is steeped in misery and defeat. “The first Intifada, hope moved us,” he tells his interviewers. “The second Intifada [in 2000], desperation moved us.” And today? Andoni sees little resistance and few possibilities for those living under domination.

Indeed, hopelessness is rampant throughout Palestine Speaks. Editors Malek and Hoke describe shortages of clean water and electricity, and point out the economic stranglehold imposed by Israel. “It’s difficult for the average Palestinian to find a job, and most of the jobs that are available are low-paying, menial, or dangerous,” they write in their introduction. “It’s not unusual to meet taxi drivers or street vendors with PhDs.” In the West Bank, they write, Palestinians with work permits typically have to leave home at 1 am to get to work on time, thanks to the numerous checkpoints they have to navigate. If they lack a permit, it’s worse because they risk arrest if they’re caught.

People in Gaza have an even tougher time and often have to rely on international aid, rather than the sweat of their brow, to make ends meet.

Fifty-year-old Jamal Baker, a resident of Gaza City, is one of approximately 4,000 fishermen who can no longer support their families because of a naval blockade that began in 2007. The blockade restricts fishermen from going more than six nautical miles into the ocean. The result?

“In 1999 Gazan fishermen harvested 4,000 tons of fish and their sales represented four percent of the total economy of Gaza and the West Bank,” write Hoke and Malek. “Today, the fishing economy has collapsed as Gazan fishermen have depleted schools of sardines and other fish in their limited range.” Even more troubling, 90 percent of Gaza’s fishermen now live in poverty, and like Baker, have no choice but to rely on charity to survive.

Baker also reports another indignity: When he and his peers go out to sea, they risk being shot at by Israeli gunboats. His cousin was killed, he says, and his son had a missile lobbed at his boat, which completely destroyed it. “I don’t think soldiers who shoot always have a reason,” Baker continues. “They can just do whatever they want without fearing anyone.”

This abuse of authority – and its arbitrary imposition – comes to the fore in nearly every chapter of Palestine Speaks.

Forty-two-year-old homemaker, mother and prisoners’ rights advocate Kifah Qatash had her first brush with Israeli bombast as a teenager, when, during the first Intifada, she tossed a bucket of water on an Israeli soldier. He responded by arresting her, then threatening her with exile.

Locked up for Activism

Years later, after she married, she was diagnosed with Lupus, which slowed but did not stop her activism. “I was arrested on August 1, 2010,” she recalls. It was 1 am when 20 Israeli soldiers came to her house, took her to jail, and began interrogating her. “They wanted to know about my work with prisoners’ families, and they were trying to get me to confess that I had helped transfer money from Hamas to the families of political prisoners and martyrs. But I hadn’t done anything for Hamas,” she explains.

Nonetheless, the investigators hammered her with questions for four days, and despite knowing that Lupus makes her sensitive to cold, blasted the air conditioners for the entire time she was in detention. “It wasn’t just uncomfortable,” she says. “It was painful.”

Qatash was eventually put in administrative lockup, without charges, for a year. Even more appalling, she adds that because the prison was in Israel, her family had to apply for permission to visit. “My son wasn’t granted a permit, maybe because it was harder for young Palestinian men to get permits into Israel,” she says.

Indeed, this is but one example of how hard it is for young Palestinian men in the occupied territories. Artist Muhanned Al-Azzah, now 33, lives in the West Bank city of Bethlehem and served three years for membership in an illegal political party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. During his post-arrest grilling, his family had no idea where he was. Although they were finally able to visit him in prison, he reports that the separation took a toll on his parents. “They’d get on a bus at four in the morning and wouldn’t arrive until noon and the visit was 45 minutes,” he tells Malek and Hoke.

Despite gaining his freedom, Al-Azzah voices deep bitterness as he recounts the ordeal. At the same time, since his 2007 release, he has done his best to move on, completing school, getting married and launching a successful art career. “I believe art is resistance,” he says. “If you live in Palestine you have big problems: much pain, much suffering. I am painting to change that, to help ease the pain.”

That’s the same reason journalist and blogger Abeer Ayyoub gives for writing. Ayyoub, 26, and living in Gaza City, is the most upbeat person included in Palestine Speaks. Her feminism and anti-Islamist outlook are almost unimaginably sassy as she describes her mission: “To destroy the stereotypical image about Palestinians in the media . . . I try to take photos of girls without hijab, or young girls wearing shorts and stuff like that . . . and the beach . . . Hundreds, thousands, going to the beach just to swim, thinking of nothing. No fucking occupation. No fucking Hamas. They just want to have fun.”

But as Palestine Speaks makes horrifyingly clear, there is far too little fun to be had in either the West Bank or Gaza. In interview after interview, Palestinians express anger and frustration. And to a one, they say that conditions are deteriorating.

“Everything Bad is Increasing”

“Ten years ago,” Ibtisam Ilzghayyer, the director of a West Bank cultural center, notes, “we did not have the wall, the settlements were fewer, the harassment was less. Everything bad is increasing. It’s not guaranteed that a child is able to go to school. It’s not guaranteed that the child will be able to come back. This kind of helplessness has a psychological impact on kids as they grow up. Children look to adults as people who can protect them, and when we can’t – in many situations, we’re scared! To see the child recognize that his mother is scared, his father is scared, it’s not an easy thing.”


Studs Terkel would likely have expected the stories in Palestine Speaks to inspire the end of US financial support for Israel. “There’s a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence,” he wrote, “provided they have the facts and information.”

Palestine Speaks offers both. It’s now up to us to use this data in the interest of peace, not only for Palestine, but for the entire Middle East.

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