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This remarkable book tells the inside story of three young men caught up in the Palestinian intifada. Through their stories, the tangled and tragic web of the past twenty years of the most enduring conflict in the Middle East unfolds before us. For over a decade, Laetitia Bucaille lived in the Occupied Territories for months at a time, gaining rare access to the three militants she calls Sami, Najy, and Bassam and many other Palestinians they crossed paths with—those who grew up during the first intifada and whose lives became bound up with the second, which erupted in 2000. The result is an intimate yet unsentimental portrait of daily life in the West Bank and Gaza from the mid-1980s to today.
Raised in squalid refugee camps, and veterans of Israeli prisons and forced exile, Sami, Najy, and Bassam are torn between the struggle against Israel and a desire for a stable family life. Shooting a suspected informer at point blank range turns out to be easier than learning job skills for a globalized economy. For many young Palestinians, collective political failure mirrors their shipwrecked lives.
A riveting blend of social and political analysis, Growing Up Palestinian shows us Palestinian society as it unfolds in camps, prisons, homes, and the street. This is a society divided by class, age, politics, and religion, and consumed by corruption—a society that must somehow integrate its underprivileged and brutalized youth into nonviolent and productive activity if it is ever to meet the daunting challenges ahead.
In a new afterword, the author examines the social and political developments in the Occupied Territories since the book's publication in 2004, including the implications of Yasser Arafat's death and the challenges and opportunities presented to his elected successor, Mahmood Abbas.
"A must for all those concerned with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the great value of this contemporary history is that it brings you close-up to the Palestinian people and their politics, revealing the differences among them, differences across generations but also of class, religion, politics, and place. . . . Neither simplistic nor sentimental, Bucaille shows that the conflict with the Israelis is inseparable from the Palestinians' conflict within their own community."—Booklist
"Like a painter of miniatures, Laetitia Bucaille describes a multitude of small scenes from the lives of young Palestinians, ushering us into a world view in which death gradually comes to occupy the central role. . . . This book offers a richly detailed look at the rise of that political impasse which engenders suicide bombings and the alarming commitment of martyrs."—Gilles Kepel, Le Monde
"Clear, measured and exacting, Growing Up Palestinian is required reading for anyone who professes to have an opinion about the Middle East."—Mary-Lou Zeitoun, Toronto Globe and Mail
"Growing Up Palestinian . . . concisely opens up whole tableaus of recent Palestinian history and provides a rich basis from which to delve further into that history."—John Collins, Journal of Palestinian Studies
April 2001: an evening in Nablus. The air was heavy because the khamsin was still blowing. Waves of heat flowed across the town, boxed in by the surrounding hills. Suddenly, a crackle of gunfire. A group of shebab was attacking an Israeli Army post on one of the hilltops above Nablus. Over the last six months, the army had reoccupied certain strategic points, which allowed it to protect Israeli settlements or to defend against potential attack from the Palestinians.
That day, a few young men had gone up the hill with M16s slung on their backs and portable phones at their belts. They were prepared to take risks. They approached the Israeli soldiers in a stealthy attempt to take them by surprise. But they were spotted by the soldiers, who returned fire, protected by their bullet-proof vests and the walls they had built around their position. The shebab did not immediately retreat. The soldiers quickly outflanked them, and the group was beginning to wonder if this might turn out to be their final sortie, when Sami's cell phone (jawal) rang. The caller was Sami's girlfriend, Iman, who had heard the gunfire from whereshe was, in her family's house down in the Balata refugee camp. Sami was far from reassuring. "This is goodbye," he said. Iman was speechless.
Two hours passed. Iman, down in the camp, was torn between her desperation for news and her fear of endangering Sami's life by distracting his attention. Meanwhile Sami and his friends searched for a way out of the trap that was steadily closing on them. They called the mayor of Nablus on his cell phone to demand that he switch off the street lighting immediately in the zone where they were stranded. After a few hours, the shebab managed to slip back to the Balata camp in the darkness.
Later Sami and three others were sitting in his bedroom, drinking coffee and steadily filling an ashtray with butt-ends. Najy and Bassam were Sami's childhood friends, companions in battle, detention, and exile; the third youth, Fuad, was also from the camp. When the wave of anger engulfed the Territories in the fall of 2000, they set up their group as a presence to be reckoned with on the ground. The earliest confrontations with the Israelis took place around the tomb of Joseph in Nablus, which was kept under guard by soldiers because a few Jews came there regularly to pray. This place was a flashpoint during the confrontations of September 1996, which were set off by the opening of an archaeologist's tunnel adjoining the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Several Israeli soldiers lost their lives there. In October 2000 the tomb of the prophet again became a flashpoint for conflict, when Israeli soldiers as well as Palestinian civilians and police were killed there. The Israeli losses were sufficiently high to induce the IDF to negotiate a retreat, abandoning the holy place to the protection of Palestinian forces. After the evacuation of the tomb, tensions fell for a while. The cycle of confrontation began again in March 2001, at which time several teenagers were shot by the Israeli army in the course of demonstrations on the road from al-Quds (Arabic name for Jerusalem), leading to an Israeli Army roadblock. In reprisal, armed groups of Palestinians began firing on Israeli positions.
Sami, Najy, Bassam, and Fuad made their attacks less frequently, while keeping themselves supplied with weapons and staying on the alert. They knew they were wanted by the Israeli Army, and because of this they kept constantly on the move, within an area of several square kilometers. By day, they avoided the high ground around Nablus where they might be arrested at army checkpoints or recognized by soldiers watching from the hilltops. Sami spent part of the day asleep, and a lot of time talking to Iman on his cell phone. His friends assembled in his room, where he lived with his bed, a television, a computer, armchairs, a coffee table, and a few pieces of furniture containing his clothes and possessions.
Sami and Najy have been inseparable since childhood. Their families are both large and impecunious, neighbors in the camp; the two boys went to school together. At first sight Sami seems calm and poised, serious and brooding. This first impression soon fades when he unleashes his savage sense of humor. He is never without his windbreaker, as if he's planning to jump up and leave at any moment.
Najy would be handsome, if it weren't for his deeply lined face and air of lurking aggression. His manner is brusque; he's impulsive when he speaks and quick to pull his gun. Meeting him with Bassam for the first time, you would take them for brothers. They are the same medium height, and their thin bodies bear the marks of their present clandestine existence and of the hunger strikes they endured in jail. Bassam is the oldest in the group. He has a mature, responsible side that makes him more accessible than the others.
When Najy was seven, he sewed together a Palestinian flag and went with Sami to join a Palestinian demonstration that was marching by the camp. That evening his parents thrashed him. A year later his father died, leaving Najy's mother with eight sons and three daughters to take care of.
Najy was always a handful. When they were thirteen, he and Sami physically threatened a teacher who had expelled one of them from school for a few days. Shortly after, they and some other boys cobbled together a home-made gun and let it off in the general direction of an Israeli settlement. Sami got off scot-free and nobody denounced him. But in 1985 Najy, who wasn't yet fourteen, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison by an Israeli military court. He remembers how he burst into tears when he heard the verdict. Then he became overwhelmed with fury. "When the judge handed down the sentence, I punched my lawyer [who is Palestinian] and I spat on the judge. I said: 'You're sending a kid to prison, but you'll see, a man will walk out again!'"
What sort of man? If the goal of the Israeli military administration was to neutralize adolescents like Najy, it failed spectacularly. Behind bars, the men of Najy's generation were hardened, and in addition they received a solid political education. Intrepid, rebellious youths were turned into highly politicized militants, fully integrated into a structured organization. The Israeli prisons provided a veritable school for thousands of young men like Najy. Taken in hand by their elders, who had created the first resistance networks affiliated with the PLO and who were serving long stretches as a result, the younger generation found themselves beginning or completing an ideological and militant apprenticeship.
In prison Najy found himself with Bassam, who raised his spirits. Bassam had already served several months of his first sentence. At fifteen, he had been a member of Fatah for two years, one of a group that had tried to attack Israeli patrols with Molotov cocktails. Najy, who also identified with Fatah, officially signed up with the organization in prison. Sami, meanwhile, did not share his friends' fate until two years later, when he also went to prison.
Fatah, a political party founded in the 1950s by members of the Palestinian diaspora, originally became popular in the Territories when its fedayeen distinguished themselves in guerrilla warfare against Israel in the 1970s. At that time, Fatah's leaders, first in Jordan and later in Lebanon, did not count on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to open a front to resist Israel. But during that decade contacts were made and the first networks were built up in both locations. After the PLO's defeat in Lebanon and its exile in Tunisia, Palestinian militants within the Territories concluded that political structures and engagements had to be created within Palestinian society as a whole. The Israeli military occupiers banned Fatah, and the army relentlessly hunted down its people. They responded in 1981 by founding an association, the Youth Committee for Social Action, better known as the Shabiba. Officially, its objective was nonpolitical, but in fact the Shabiba was a vehicle for recruiting militants and for providing Fatah with a legal front.
Groups proliferated in the secondary schools, universities, and certain city quarters. At first they focused on cultural activities and mutual assistance. Through this association, Fatah rapidly increased its membership, catching up with the leftist groups that had been operating in the Territories since the 1970s. The movement could call on considerable financial resources, and its message was both accessible and attractive: as a self-proclaimed revolutionary group, it refused to lock itself into any given ideological dialectic. Its broad, stated purpose was to unite the Palestinian people, whatever their individual beliefs and political convictions.
As a result, by the 1980s Fatah had become the most popular political movement in the Territories. All its energies now had to be concentrated on the liberation of Palestine, which, as the PLO's founding charter made crystal clear, was incompatible with the existence of Israel. Ideology was put aside, and priority was given to ways and means of waging the war for independence.
INSIDE IS RAEL'S PRISONS
Bassam likes to make comparisons between the prisons he has known. His first was in Hebron, where he endured a series of interrogations. "To begin with, it was really tough. Fifteen is very young to go through that. The winter in Hebron was freezing and our cells were bitterly cold. It was snowing outside, but in spite of it there were cockroaches everywhere. The interrogations stretched me to the limit, physically and psychologically. Some guys had serious after effects; a few lost their minds completely."
After that Bassam was transferred to the Nablus jail, where he was warmly welcomed by the other prisoners and included in a program of activities that local Fatah leaders had developed. As a revolutionary organization, Fatah expected steady discipline and sustained moral effort. The forty inmates in each cell woke at 7 every morning. After a cursory wash, the prisoners were counted by the administrators. After this, the duties and obligations established by the Palestinians themselves came into play. The prisoners were expected to study subjects of their own choice for several hours. Later, an extended period was allowed for group discussion of political topics, the purpose being to instruct the younger inmates in the history of Palestine and to sow the seeds of a political education. Sports were also practiced, and prisoners were allowed two hours a day to themselves. From morning to night, their time was precisely regulated.
Hussam Khader, ten years older than Bassam, was one of the initiators of this program in the Nablus prison. A Fatah official in the Balata camp, Khader had an appetite for organization and responsibility. For him the struggle against the occupation required quasi-military discipline and a thorough purging of personal habits. Najy says he found his own rebellious spirit at odds with Hussam's plans on an almost daily basis. For example, the older man and his friends were set on banning the use of strong tobacco by the young prisoners. This provoked such a backlash that rationing cigarettes had to be adopted as a compromise. Hussam Khader, a man of principle, could be harsh, but in the end he won the respect of shebab like Bassam and Najy. Khader too had been sent to prison very young. He was first arrested in 1979, at the age of seventeen: "I was in jail for eighteen days and I met prisoners who talked about Fatah and the revolution," he recalls. "That's when I started taking an active interest in politics."
After a couple of years in the Nablus jail, Bassam was sent back to Hebron. The Israeli administration had not changed its attitude, indeed its violence had considerably intensified. "Two or three times a month, the soldiers tossed tear gas canisters into the cells. Or else there was a collective punishment and we had to stand stark naked in the yard while they beat us with sticks and iron rods. Most of the soldiers came from the settlements and were ultrareligious; they were the ones who really loathed us. They were totally different from the more liberal type of Israeli. In the Nablus jail, a prisoners' representative could go and see the governor and present him with requests. At least he listened, even though most of the time he said no. And every time he said no, we went on a hunger strike," explains Bassam.
Family visits were authorized once every two weeks, for half an hour. Prisoners' relatives stood waiting patiently outside the gates, in all weather. At the Hebron detention center they were often mistreated by the Israeli guards, even though it was a longish trip from Nablus, which is at the northern end of the West Bank. The visitors first had to take a collective taxi to Ramallah, fifty kilometers away, then another from Ramallah to Bethlehem. If they had no valid pass to cross Jerusalem, they had to skirt the Holy City and take a route three times longer. Even when they reached Bethlehem, it was still another twenty kilometers to Hebron.
Bassam's mother was the one who visited him most often. Every Friday she went to see one of her three sons, each of whom was in a different jail.
After Hebron, Bassam was transferred yet again. His last two years of incarceration were spent in the prison of Jneid, near Nablus, a special detention center for men serving long sentences. Here too the penitentiary regime was ferocious. But Bassam derived a certain comfort from being with prisoners who were older than he was, more experienced and more hardened. During this period, he read a great deal. He learned Hebrew along with a little English. The sessions were cut short when the cellmate who was teaching him the language of Shakespeare was moved to another prison before he could impart all he knew.
In this way many a Palestinian schoolboy and student serving a sentence managed to acquire some form of knowledge in prison. Foreign languages, notably Hebrew, were popular. Mastery of the occupier's tongue was necessary for anyone who wanted a diploma, and the prison administration authorized prisoners to follow the program of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the only one available to them. Correspondence courses were given in Hebrew and had to be paid for; prisoners were forbidden to take courses in Arabic given by a Palestinian university. From time to time, a professor came out to answer questions on each subject; exams were organized in the prison. As a rule, the Palestinians who chose the academic option tended to be those serving very long sentences.
Bassam was released on January 16, 1991, the day the international coalition began its attack on Iraq. On that day, and thereafter for the duration of the Gulf War, the Occupied Territories were placed under a blanket curfew while Iraq-intent on spreading the conflict throughout the region-bombarded Israel. For two hours a day, every other day, the Israeli Army lifted its restrictions so Palestinian families could go out and buy food and supplies. For forty consecutive days, the people of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were unable to work or study-indeed, the majority were unable to earn any money at all. They just sat at home, locked in, fainting with anxiety and boredom; the only relief was an occasional visit to neighbors or a game of cards.
So Bassam came out of prison to find his hometown empty and deserted. He was unable to get his bearings, let alone find his way home. Soldiers detailed to supervise the curfew apprehended him, then let him go. Alone again, he knocked on a stranger's door: he was welcomed and plied with tea, and an ambulance was called to take him out to the Balata refugee camp. His family, neighbors, and friends flocked around, but he soon found out that the freedom he had returned to was limited in the extreme. For over a month, until the end of the Gulf War, Bassam was confined to the darkened interior of his family's house. Palestinian society, sorely tried by these events, became completely turned in on itself.
Excerpted from Growing Up Palestinian by Laetitia Bucaille Excerpted by permission.
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CHAPTER ONE: The Palestinian Intifada: The Revolt against Israeli Occupation, 1987-1994 1
CHAPTER TWO: Building Palestinian Autonomy, 1994-2000 30
CHAPTER THREE: Fault Lines among the Palestinians 56
CHAPTER FOUR: Palestine and Israel: The Impossible Divorce 79
CHAPTER FIVE: Par t-timers of War: The Al-Aqsa Intifada, 2000-2002 111