“Our identity is under attack;” Palestinian youth activist interviewed

Sawsan Khalife’ is a young Palestinian woman with an Israeli passport. She was born in Shefa-Amr, a village of approximately 45,000 inhabitants in the south of the Galilee. Khalife’ is involved in supporting Palestinian families that are being evicted from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, occupied East Jerusalem and in activities that aim to strengthen the identity of Palestinian youth in Israel. The daily discrimination she encounters in Jerusalem and the tragic killing by Israeli forces of a school friend have been determining factors for her activism.

Adri Nieuwhof interviewed Khalife’ for The Electronic Intifada.

Adri Nieuwhof: Can you please introduce yourself?

Sawsan Khalife’: I am Sawsan and I was born in 1984. I have four siblings and my family owns a little plot of land on which we built a house. My family is from a modest background. I studied science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

AN: How did you become involved in political activism?

SK: I believe that every individual in occupied Palestine, either from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or what is now called Israel, has political views. Palestinians with an Israeli passport are considered a minority in Israel. I don’t regard myself as a minority. I am part of the Palestinian nation. I am not associated with a political party, but I have my political views.

The majority of the Palestinian students that study at Israeli universities are involved in political activism. It follows from the discrimination that we encounter on a daily basis, the approach of the Zionist regime. When I was 19 years old, I moved to Jerusalem to the dormitories of Hebrew University. My Hebrew was limited; I read it but did not speak it. One day I was in a bus on my way to the Old City to do my shopping. I was talking with my mother on my phone. In our village there are no Jews. I never encountered racism face to face. I spoke in Arabic to my mother. A woman in the bus responded, shouting at me not to talk so loud, and that I should be ashamed to speak this language. She attacked me. There were Arabs in the bus, but no one defended me, the bus driver did not intervene. I did not know Hebrew so I could not defend myself. Now I
speak Hebrew fluently.

I have been living in Jerusalem for five years. Jerusalem is a political and religious place. There is hostility towards Palestinians. Of course the occupation is the worst in Gaza. In Jerusalem, it is a mental and psychological occupation. After I moved to Jerusalem I became active in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Palestinian families were kicked out of their houses by the settlers. Last year eight families were evicted and slept in the streets. A family has on average eight members. I went there every day to support them. Several political movements are active in Sheikh Jarrah.

When I was 16 years old my friend Aseel Asleh died. He was one year older than me. He was an outstanding student. He was one of the 13 people who were killed by Israel following the rallies in the “October events” in 2000. Palestinians in Israel were then involved in a revolution in the streets, calling for an end to the occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Aseel was killed by two shots, in his home village Arabeh. We were studying in the same high school at that time. It was a sad day for the school. The brutal killing of the youth opened the eyes of Palestinians in Israel. Israel claims to be a democratic state, but we are treated as terrorists even though we hold the Israeli passport. We are non Jews living in a Jewish “democratic” country.

As Palestinians in Israel we have an identity problem. In 1948 we had a choice. My grandparents had to make a decision and they chose to stay in their homeland and surrender; my parents are the first generation to hold the Israeli passport. If you give someone, as an Arab, an Israeli passport, they become puzzled about their identity. But now among the youth this has changed. We [the youth] are investigated all the time by Israel, we are killed and detained. We have less fear then our parents. They were less educated and knew less about human rights. It is still a problem that Palestinians are not self-aware of their identity, but it is changing fast. We non-Jews in Israel are almost 23 percent [of the population]. About 1.5 million proud Palestinians are living inside their own territory, Palestine. We are one identity with Gaza, the West Bank and the refugees. Israel divides and conquers. Divides us in religions: Christian, Bedouin, Druze and Muslims. We are working to achieve unity.

AN: How does your family feel about your activism?

SK: Israel has the right to withdraw the passport of any person who is a “security hazard; “it is a new law. Human rights activists will be a target. This is an obstacle for Palestinian human rights activists. It puts a lot of people in fear. If I am in touch with a
Palestinian in Gaza, the West Bank or abroad, they can claim I am a “security hazard.” I don’t have my own family. I am young, I have no children. I don’t need to take too much into consideration. It is different for people with families.

My family reacts as any family. Our parents tell us to be careful, not to get involved in political activism. In jail you have no rights. It is not in our hands. If they want to arrest us, the Shabak [Israel’s intelligence agency, also known as the Shin Bet] will do so. I believe in resistance in a just way. In poetry, art, literature, if Israel finds an angle to claim this as resistance, they will act and arrest. Our parents are tired, I believe our generation will make a change. I believe in the Palestinian youth. The more I encounter young Palestinians, the more I am proud of their national awareness.

AN: What is your opinion of Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt at the United Nations for recognition of Palestinian statehood?

SK: I think we can’t as Palestinians bid for statehood unless all Palestine is reunited. Maybe Palestinians can benefit from the bid. But the West Bank is not Palestine. I see the Galilee, al-Quds [Jerusalem], Haifa and Acre also as part of Palestine. We can ask for independence when we have reunited our land. After we have gained control over
the air, the sea, the borders, we can be independent. I see the statehood bid as a bit of an illusion. Abu Mazen’s [Mahmoud Abbas’s] approach is not at the right time.

AN: What do you see as the role of international solidarity activists or governments?

SK: I don’t want to look at it this way. I would like to address the Palestinian activists. I am maybe too proud to ask the others for support. The problem needs to be fixed by us Palestinians. We, the Palestinians living inside of Israel, are left behind. Palestinians in
Israel might be addressed by some as “not Palestinians.” We are all Palestinians. It is a blessing that there are Palestinians on our land that was occupied in 1948 by Israel. We must work towards unity. We should let the world know what is going on. To let them know that 1.5 million Palestinians live in occupied Palestine in a very different situation from the West Bank and Gaza — different in terms of safety, constant threat to our identity and residence. Different in that we live in our homeland, and different in terms of identity. Our identity is under attack. Even our Arabic street names are changed, not to
mention towns and villages; there is a policy of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian heritage, history and nation.

The world should know that occupied Palestine is not Israel, it is Palestine. They should remember that.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate based in Swizerland.

(http://ht.ly/6OpED / 05.10.2011)

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