Shouting toward Bethlehem

Local Palestinians plead for their homeland’s safety

Sacramento Palestinian Lara Kiswani.

Sacramento Palestinian Lara Kiswani.

Photo By Andrew Nixon

A pickup truck screeches around the corner at 16th and J streets in Midtown Sacramento on July 11. “They ought to kill ’em all,” the driver snarls out his open window. He’s referring to the Palestinians standing on the corner protesting Israel’s latest assault on the Gaza Strip. Sacramento resident John Batarseh, 43, son of the mayor of Bethlehem, seems oblivious to the heckler.

“When I grew up, we had curfews, demonstrations, and the soldiers would shoot at us,” he says, recalling his childhood on the West Bank. “People were arrested and killed, but it wasn’t anything like what’s happening in Gaza today.”

The West Bank and Gaza are the occupied Palestinian territories within Israel’s borders. Although provisionally governed by the Palestinian Authority, Israel effectively controls the comings and goings of the 3.5 million Palestinians within the territories, through checkpoints manned by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers and, more recently, concrete barriers that when complete will totally wall off the territories.

“Bethlehem is enclosed completely; it’s a jail,” Batarseh says. “It’s controlled by Israeli soldiers. They control who comes in and goes out.”

Israel clamped down even more firmly on the occupied territories earlier this month, after Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier in Gaza. The militant members of the group Hamas demanded that Israel release 1,000 Palestinian prisoners—including 100 women and 300 children under the age of 18, the BBC reports—in exchange for the soldier’s safe return. Israel retaliated by bombing and rocketing Gaza, cutting off food and electricity to 1.5 million Palestinians already living in squalid conditions.

“The whole world is watching, as if Palestinians don’t have human rights,” Batarseh says. Israel’s superior military might has crushed the Gaza Strip.

It’s an old story. The history of violence between Arabs and Jews dates back to at least the 1890s, when Jewish settlers fleeing European anti-Semitism began arriving in what was then Palestine. These early Zionists established a toehold in the region, which some 2,000 years earlier had been their homeland. After the Holocaust, in which 6.5 million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, Palestine was the obvious choice to resettle those Jews who had survived. The United Nations partitioned the region into two states, one Jewish and one Arabian, and the fighting hasn’t stopped since.

Who started the fighting remains an open question. Arabs attacked Jews; Jews attacked Arabs. A civil war ensued, the Jewish side prevailed, and Israel was declared a state in 1948. Today, Israelis refer to this initial conflict as the War of Independence. Palestinians call it by a different name: al Nakba, “the Catastrophe.”

Author Sandy Tolan, director of the Project on International Reporting at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, calls al Nakba “as fundamental to the Palestinian narrative as the Holocaust is to the Israeli one.” As Tolan painstakingly documents in The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, the birth of Israel came at the expense of tens of thousands of Palestinians who were forcibly expelled from their homeland.

Since then, the region has been drenched in bloodshed, from Israelis massacring Palestinians in refugee camps to Palestinian suicide bombers killing scores of innocent Israelis in coffee shops and pizza parlors. This month, from any point of view, the situation in the Middle East has grown increasingly grim.

After Israel’s attack on Gaza, Hezbollah militants in Lebanon joined the fray, dashing across the border on July 12, ambushing an IDF patrol and capturing two soldiers. Israel responded by blowing up Lebanon’s international airport and establishing a land, air and sea blockade around its neighbor to the north. It also threatened Syria and Iran, which provide financial support to Hezbollah. The situation threatens to engulf the entire Middle East in open warfare.

UC Davis graduate Lara Kiswani, 24, explains the reasons behind the protest by Sacramento Palestinians: “We’re out here today to protest the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip, the imprisonment of Palestinians throughout the Gaza and to ask the U.S. administration for support.” The summer of 2006 marks the 48th anniversary of al Nakba, but she says the timing of the demonstration is coincidental. But Kiswani, who is the program director for the National Council of Arab Americans, insists: “The date wasn’t chosen by us; it was chosen by the situation in Palestine.”

Kiswani is one of approximately 10,000 to 15,000 Arab-Americans living in the Sacramento County, according to the U.S. Census. Though born in America, her roots reach deep into the heart of al Nakba. She says her maternal grandmother’s family was among those who were forced to leave their homes in 1948 or be killed. “They fled when Israel was massacring villages all over Palestine,” Kiswani says. “My grandmother came by foot to a refugee camp in Jordan.”

Her father’s family fled to the West Bank during the 1967 Six Day War. Her mother and father met and married in Jordan before coming to the United States in the early 1980s, where Kiswani was born shortly afterward.

A white Camaro pulls up to the curb. The driver races the engine, chanting, “I love war. I love war.” If there was a draft, he’d be eligible. He releases the brakes and careens recklessly around the corner in a haze of blue tire smoke.

Most of the cars that pass through the intersection honk in sympathy at the 100 or so demonstrators, of whom perhaps 20 are Palestinians. Every Tuesday night, Sacramento Area Peace Action holds a vigil at the corner; on this evening, it’s been given over to the red, black, white and green flag symbolizing the Palestinian cause. Palestinians can be Muslim, like Kiswani; Christian, like Batarseh; or occasionally even Jewish. Tonight, the crowd is evenly split between Muslims and Christians.

“My dad is Palestinian. My mom is American,” says Janeen Rashmawi, 20, a California State University, Sacramento, student of the Greek Orthodox persuasion. Like many people of Palestinian descent, she speaks fondly of a land more renowned for its violence than its friendly atmosphere. Her father, from the village of Ghza, “doesn’t focus on just the violence,” she says. “He talks about the good things, like picking fruit, playing soccer in his village.”

She’s visited Palestine twice and plans to return for a third time soon.

“I love going there. I love being in Palestine. I love seeing my family,” she says. She has four cousins and a gaggle of second cousins. Her grandmother lives in Ramallah and is not permitted to travel outside of the city, so the family spirits her out for visits through back roads. Rashmawi is proud to be Palestinian and fight for her country’s cause.

“I’ve always been very confident of who I am and where I come from, and I’ve never had a problem speaking up,” she says. She was a high-school freshman on September 11, 2001, and her background raised suspicions among some students. “Kids said, ‘Why did your people do this to us?’ One girl said I’d bring anthrax to school. Another one called me Osama bin Laden’s daughter. I try not to take it personal.”

She thinks that Americans would be more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause if media coverage were more objective.

“I feel mainstream U.S. media is very biased. They show only one side of the story,” she says. “They’re biased toward Israel. They portray all Palestinians as terrorists.”

That’s an opinion shared by all the Palestinians interviewed for this story, including Riad Morrar, 50, a Sacramento store owner. A Muslim born in 1956, his family fled to Jordan during the 1967 war and later to the United States.

“We had some relatives killed in that war,” he says.

His parents recently returned to Ramallah. Morrar watches the news from home on the four Middle Eastern TV stations available on satellite in Sacramento.

“I believe if the U.S. just helped both sides and was neutral, peace would be accomplished,” he says. “They take the side of Israel all the time. It’s not fair. I’m a registered voter; I’ve voted in every election. I support this society, this government, all the time. I hope the U.S. will stop what’s going on in the Gaza today.”

But so far, the Bush administration, already bogged down in a bloody quagmire in Iraq, has shown little inclination to intervene in the latest skirmish between Israelis and Palestinians. It has condoned Israel’s actions, just as it continues to support Israel’s preferred long-term answer to the conflict, the so-called two-state solution, which would permanently wall off the West Bank and Gaza from the rest of Israel.

For John Batarseh, whose childhood home of Bethlehem has already been walled off, the two-state solution is untenable. Like many Palestinians, he prefers a one-state solution, in which Arabs and Jews would stand on equal footing and share the same country.

“Historically, Palestinian Christians, Muslims and Jews lived door to door with one another, until the establishment of Israel,” he says. “The only way to solve our issue is to have a one-state solution. The ghettos, the apartheid laws, all the walls have to come down—one person, one vote.”

A car buzzes by, and a man yells out the window.

“Support the troops!”