Zeiad Abbas talks of his childhood living in a refugee camp, and Nakba, the 1948 “catastrophe,”when 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled or fled from their homes creating second class citizens of the Palestinians. Scheer and Abbas discuss the “birthright” movement, the Palestinian diaspora, and US-Israel relations. Abbas says “The moving of the embassy to Jerusalem, it’s like you erase the rights of the Palestinian people in East Jerusalem.” He questions the lack of media coverage of the Palestinian crisis and the continual suffering of the Palestinians. For example, Abbas says, “We have one aquifer in Gaza, which according to United Nations and according to all the human rights organizations, including the Israeli human rights organization, 95% of the water in the aquifer in Gaza is polluted… [and] 12% among the young deaths in Gaza [are caused by] diarrhea, related to the pollution.”
Zeiad Abbas Shamrouch, is the program manager for cross-cultural programs for the Middle East Children’s Alliance. He is a Palestinian refugee from Dheisheh Refugee Camp in the West Bank and cofounder of the Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh. Zeiad is also a filmmaker, journalist and educator who has worked with Palestinian and international media and has participated in the production of several documentary films. He was the co-producer and production manager of Promises, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002.Credits
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests, in this case, Zeiad Abbas. Who works here in Berkeley where I’m doing this broadcast from, but actually you spent 41 years of your life in what is called a Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem. Then you came out in 2008.
You’re one of these people we only see as a statistic. There are refugees. In this case, the refugees created … It really is … Either consciously or a biproduct, depending upon your point of view, of the establishment of the state of Israel.
Zeiad Abbas: I was born and grew up in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem in Palestine. My parents coming from two villages. My dad is from Zakariya village and my mom from Jarash village, but both of them … They got married actually before 1948, before the Nakba, the Catastrophe, happened. They had two children.
RS: We should mention the Catastrophe is the way that most Palestinians refer to the establishment of the state of Israel.
ZA: Yeah, we call it Nakba. Nakba in Arabic, it means catastrophe in English. This is the time … 1948, it’s a history stuck with Palestinian.
My parents they were Zakariya village. When the Israelis start attacking the village, my mom actually … She had two children, my brother, he was two weeks old. My sister, she was two years old. She closed the house with the key and she moved to the mountain near the village. She thought that when they will stop bombing the village, she will return back to her house.
The Zionist groups, which the Jewish Zionist groups in that period, they were attacking the village and pushing the refugees, pushing them until they find themselves in Bethlehem area, where they continued to live in the refugee camp, the Dheisheh refugee camp.
Right now, they are over 12 million Palestinian all over the world. More than half of the Palestinian people, they are living actually in the diaspora. They are living outside Palestinian, but what happened 1948, close to 800,000 Palestinian, 800,000, they were uprooted from 531 villages which it called right now Israel including my parents’ villages.
The 800,000 in 1948, they are almost right now over seven million Palestinian refugees. Actually, the number coming close to eight million Palestinian refugees. Right now, in Palestine, we have like 19 refugee camps in West Bank, we have eight refugee camps in Gaza, but the majority of the people living in Gaza they are refugees.
RS: It’s interesting because somehow the Palestinians got swept up in a war that they had nothing to do with starting or fighting or anything, the Palestinian population. The West Bank was occupied by Jordan. Gaza was occupied by Egypt, right?
ZA: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RS: But as a consequence, we had apparently the permanent annexation of these two areas and the captivity of this very large Palestinian population. I remember at the time I interviewed some very famous leaders of Israel, Moshe Dayan and others, El [inaudible 00:07:36] and a few others. They all assured me that if the occupation remained permanent, it would destroy the character of Israel. Whether they meant it or not is another issue, but this was the old Labor Party elite. They were aware that you cannot occupy a large number of people in their ancestral land and still remain a democratic, humane society.
Now we live in the time of Netanyahu in which that’s affirmed. Actually, we now have a new demographic law that even defines this as a Jewish state, a religious based state. Under Trump … And one of the great ironies of this election, while everybody’s talking about how Russia influenced the election and Putin and they got Trump in, the fact is it was Netanyahu who was Trump’s biggest supporter. He went before the U.S. Congress and attacked Obama’s agreement with Iran.
Since the election, the hard line in Israel has really been the big victor. The US has moved its embassy to Jerusalem. The U.S. has followed Netanyahu’s line in opposing the deal with Iran, reaching out to Saudi Arabia ironically, not caring about the peace process. Sitting from where you sit, here as a Palestinian refugee, isn’t this incredible irony that even here in Berkeley, many of your neighbors are probably really alarmed about Russian influence and you almost hear no one talk about Israeli influence.
ZA: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. Until now, the mass media, they don’t tackle this issue like how much Israel involved and how much the relationship between Israel and the United States and the influence of Israeli government inside the Congress and in the White House. What happened recently, moving the embassy, it brought another disaster for Palestinian when the announcement happened in December I think 6th or 7th. The moving of the embassy to Jerusalem, it’s like you erase the rights of the Palestinian people in East Jerusalem when you accept and you announce and you take Jerusalem as the capital of a Jewish state. It means that the Palestinians, they don’t have any kind of rights in East Jerusalem.
Here I am speaking about not just West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, where the majority of the Palestinian, they used to live in East Jerusalem. If we go back to the history, how many Jewish people they used to live in East Jerusalem before 1967? It was zero, no one. After 1967, this is how it is now the Jewish settlers living in East Jerusalem. They are the majority. The Palestinian become the minority.
The new laws right now, the self-determination only for Jewish people. Any Jewish person all over the world, they can go live in Israel, but Palestinian, they are living inside Palestine, they don’t have the same rights that the Jewish people they have.
RS: Let me stop you right there because that’s something I find most people don’t quite grasp. You grew up in Palestine in this occupied area. You spent 41 years in a refugee camp, right?
ZA: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
RS: Yet if you were to come to the United States now, you don’t have a right to return and your children would not have a right to return. They don’t accept that any of these Palestinian refugees around the world have a right to return to their ancestral home even if they can show, “Hey, we lived there for five, six generations or longer.” Yet, I Robert Scheer, who’s doing this interview, having been born in the Bronx, I can say, “No, I have a … They will tell me I have a right to return to Israel.
RS: This is an idea that is so prejudicial in its conception, yet it escapes controversy. I think the only reason there’s now some serious discussion about it is that the government of Israel for many more liberal Jewish people in the United States is offensive in so many ways, not the least their strong embrace of Netanyahu, that for the first time, they’re actually questioning, “What is this all about? Is this a religious authority? Is this a theocracy of some kind?” We know many Jewish people are basically secular. What is the authorship of it?
ZA: I believe that the United States and Israel, what they are doing right now for the Palestinian, it’s something like erasing the Palestinian rights. As you mentioned, you can go anytime and you can replace me in my house. You can live in my house because who you are, how you look, your religious, your mom. Because you are Jewish, you can do that and because who I am as a Palestinian, I don’t have the right.
After the apartheid in South Africa, right now Israel the only country in the world using … Even the brutality of the Israeli laws and the brutality of the Israeli [inaudible 00:17:06], even passed away the apartheid system in South Africa.
This is something it will harm Israel because for me, as a Palestinian, I justify my struggle. I want to live in peace. I want to be secure. I want to have water. I want to shower like everyone. I want our children to go to normal school. I want to be able to access my land. I want to farm my land. I want to end my life in the refugee camp.
For the Israelis, what do they do? Their focus just to push more Palestinian, to uproot the Palestinian and to throw them out and to take their land and to take the resources. Sometimes they use us as a market by the way. For example, the water issue. This is one of the things where I work in Middle East Children’s Alliance, where we built water purification and desalination systems in United Nations schools in Gaza because the children, they don’t have a clean water there. Farmers, they don’t have water for land.
Right now, in West Bank, Palestinian when they used to farm their land and they have all the vegetables, the fruits coming from their own land, they are depending on the Israeli market. They buy it in the Israeli market. Israel, they using our resources. This is what we call it colonialism. I know the people they don’t want to look at it like sometimes. In the media, they hate these big words like colonialism, but this is how it is. This is how France attacked Algeria and they start building settlements and they tried to replace the people there and control the people, but in the end, they left and they return back to France.
Right now, for Israel, this is where Israel is going and what Netanyahu is doing. According to many Israelis right now … I speak about Israeli Jewish intellectuals and journalist and writers, they are criticizing and they think that the direction where it’s going right now it will destroy the dream for Israel.
Palestinian, first of all, it’s not easy to erase them.
RS: Yeah, and we haven’t mentioned the Middle East Children’s Alliance that you work with and it’s basically a program to help children living in the region who are being marginalized and so forth. I’m going to take a break for 10 seconds to let any stations that are running this show to identify himself. We’ll be right back with Zeiad Abbas.
I’m back with Zeiad Abbas, who spent 41 years of his life in a Palestinian refugee camp before coming the United States 10 years ago to get advanced journalistic degree, and now works with a group called Middle East Children’s Alliance. I want to get at the reality of occupation. You talk about eliminating the Palestinians. There’s two ways to erase the Palestinians. One is forced ethnic cleansing, which has certainly happened, and moving people out, displacing, settlements and so forth. Another is by seizing basic resources like water and good land, so people can’t sustain themselves or just ignoring their plight.
It was interesting. Just last week, I read a long story on AP, Associated Press, a thoughtful story about the drought in Israel and the drought in the region right now affecting Syria and other countries, one of the reasons why you have increased refugee flows and so forth. This entire Associated Press story about drought in Israel, they do not mention the Palestinians. They mention the desalinization plants have not really produced an alternative. There’re problems with farming and so forth. There was not one sentence in the story about, “What about Palestinian farmers? What has happened to their water? Has their water been stolen from them?”
ZA: First of all, when we speak about like any people, they are oppressed or secluded, doesn’t mean you need to seclude the others. I say in the Israeli case, when the victim become a victimizer, they know how to hurt. This is the sad part. Part of the Israeli community, they were victims for what happened to them in Europe and part of them, not all the victims … Part of these victims become victimizers right now for what they are doing for Palestine. This is the tragedy for us.
The second thing I can say for us, as Palestinian, yes, we are living under Israeli occupation, and I say it in very clear way that the ethnic cleansing it was direct, sharp. This is what happened in 1948. 800,000 Palestinian refugees uprooted, thrown out of their 531 villages and towns and cities. Right now, you have other kind of slow ethnic cleansing by having the Israeli laws trying to control the Palestinian people’s life. It’s throw family reunification, driving license, borders, getting permits to go to school, permits to go to the hospital, checkpoints everywhere in Palestine, controlling the water, the resources, controlling the electricity, controlling all the basic needs of the Palestinian to make it difficult for them.
This is another what we call it slow motion of ethnic cleansing targeting the Palestinian. I grew up in a refugee camp. I used to shower one time a week. My mom she used to carry the water on her head and walk miles to bring it to the house on her shoulders. My mom before she passed away, if you looked to her shoulders and muscles, the doctors, they were explaining, if she participated in the international body building championship, she will win. Most of women they are living in marginalized communities in the world, look they carry the water on their head daily, every day to bring the water for their children to survive.
This is why I used to shower one time a week because it’s not possible. Right now, I feel very privileged because I can shower every day. The other point I can feel privileged by living in United States that I can drive where I want. In Palestine, you can’t drive where you want. Military checkpoints all over. Actually, between 2000 and 2005, I used to have a car while I’m working as a journalist. I stuck in 10 square miles in Bethlehem district. You have been in Bethlehem. I can’t drive my car outside Bethlehem. I can take public transportation, but I can’t drive.
Until now, when I am invited to LA or there’s something to go, I prefer to drive. I still enjoy driving. Some time I say, I access a part of my freedom as a human being when I get my shower every day here and sometime when I am driving. You feel like no one will stop you. In Palestine, it’s not possible for the people to live like this.
For the water issue, right now Israel they are controlling the seven aquifers of Palestine, even the aquifers in West Bank according to Oslo Agreement. Still, the water issue has separate agreement. Palestinian authority they need to apply for the Israelis when they want to access the aquifers. We have three aquifers in West Bank. We have four aquifers inside Israel. We have one aquifer in Gaza, which according to United Nation and according to all the human rights organizations, including the Israeli human rights organization, 95 percent of the water in the aquifer in Gaza is polluted. This is among the young deaths in Gaza, 12 percent among the young deaths in Gaza. They are children related to diarrhea, related to the pollution. This is why in MECA we are building these water purification and desalinization system in cooperation with the United Nations schools in Gaza strip.
RS: When you say MECA, you mean the Middle East Children’s Alliance?
ZA: Middle East Children’s Alliance, yes.
RS: You work with.
ZA: Yeah, this is part of our project. At the same time, we work with other projects like we try to take … Children in Gaza, they are traumatized totally because for the whole situation. Gaza itself actually, you speak about two million people. They are stuck on 139 square miles. It’s very tiny area. They have six gates, five gates controlled by the Israelis and one door controlled by the Egyptian. For 12 years, right now, the people they are living behind the siege, the blockade by the Israeli occupation. Children they were born in 2006, right now they are 12 years, they live the 12 years in a big jail in Gaza strip. Life under occupation is really, really miserable.
RS: One thing that hit me when I was back there at the time of that war was that the Palestinians were very much like the Jewish people in being a people of the diaspora. You found them everywhere in the Arab world, but you found them elsewhere. They were exploited because they were the other. Their situation was threatened by being the other even when it was in Gaza controlled by Egypt or in the West Bank controlled by Jordan. Certainly, throughout the Arab world, the Palestinians were more highly educated than the average population, just as Jews often were, but they were the diaspora. That’s something your life story illustrates.
ZA: Yeah. We feel we are less than the others. Even for the Palestinian refugees they were in Jordan … They are still in Jordan. The majority of the people living in Jordan, they are Palestinian. Over 60% of the people in Jordan, they are … Over two million Palestinian refugees there are in Jordan. You have over 600 that used to live in Syria, and most of them they are become refugees again to Lebanon and the front part of the world after the civil war in Syria.
You have around 600,000 refugees they are living in Lebanon, refugee camps in Lebanon. To be a refugee doesn’t matter where you are. It’s not the idea you can blend in. No, you are a refugee. For example, I want to have the right for one time in my life to choose where I want to live, including my right if I want to go back to my village. This is how it is. It’s about political right. It’s individual right, and it’s a collective right. You need to choose where you want to live.
When you say a Jewish person from anywhere in the world they can go live inside Israel because the Israeli laws now give them this kind of privilege. The Israeli laws and the Israeli system discriminate against the Palestinian people or any other people, Muslim or Christian or Buddhist or any kind of other religion. Only Jewish people. Why? Who give you this right? God give you this right? God is not a real estate agent distributing lands to the people. These people they have this land and the other people they should be excluded from this land, but this is how it’s served right now in Israel. This is how the change is.
I hope, and I am still very optimistic despite the fact after 70 years what happened to my family. I am very optimistic despite the fact that the escalation coming from the Israeli government against the Palestinian. I believe the world right now wake up. Look to United States. There are many people there are awake. Look among even Jewish families in United States. The young generation, they don’t want to be identified with Israel. They are Jewish-American, “We don’t want to be …
Who in the world right now are violating the people rights, children rights. You mentioned at the beginning about the girl she was in the prison, Ahed Tamimi. That girl 17 years, right now-
RS: 16 when she was arrested.
ZA: Yes, 16 years, and she had been-
RS: When she was arrested, her brother had been shot by a [crosstalk 00:33:08].
ZA: Her cousin. And her mom was with her. You have over 350 children because we are an organization focused on children. 350 children right now inside Israeli jails below 18 years old. Some of them they are 13, 14 years old. This is what Israel doing right now for Palestinian. I don’t speak about the other 6,000 Palestinian prisoners inside Israeli jails.
These children, what do you think they will grow up when you are … Israel is killing the childhood for the Palestinian children by arresting them. This girl actually, which the media caught up the story and she’s all over right now, which is great … It shows that Palestinian children they don’t have a choice. Some time we say … Actually, for me, I hate politics. I don’t like politics, but in our case as a Palestinian, I was born in refugee camp and grow up refugee camp. In my case, politics chose me. I did not choose to be a political person. Politics chose me because to survive, I need to be waiting in line in United Nations. To go to school, United Nations school.
The Israeli army, they used to come. I was arrested even like many other students in my refugee camps inside the school, the classroom. We saw teachers, they were tortured in front of us. My teacher, he was tortured in front of me when I am a child inside the school, in my refugee camp, in United… to find out who are the children they were throwing stones.
I saw my teacher, he was tortured in front of me. I saw the teacher when he fell down. This did not happen in one case. It happened many times. I remember when I was young like all the time they impose curfew, you find yourself in the school. Sometimes 12 hours, sometimes two days. It depends.
This is how Israel, they don’t target just people like activists. Israel, they apply the collective punishment against the Palestinian people. They try to target all the Palestinian people. What we call it as Palestinian, these are the measures of the collective punishment, using the military orders, imposing curfew, torturing everyone including children in our community.
RS: Let me end this on a note that might make some people uncomfortable because many liberal people, many Jewish people in this country, they voted. I think the polling shows about 70% of Jews voted against Trump look at the situation. They say, “Trump, oh, he’s a barbarian. Trump is crude. Trump is just America first. Trump wants to hurt people, bomb people.”
They have not come to grips with this issue. Why does Trump, the bully … Why is Trump, the America first so contemptuous of other people’s national and so forth … Why is he in such close alliance with Israel? What does it say about the current state of Israel?
Not only that Netanyahu is its leader, who has supported Trump, embraced him, but also that they have now under Netanyahu’s leadership passed for the first time really an overtly racist definition of Israel or religious dominant definition of it. First time that even as you point out the Druze who have been in the Israeli army and everything are denied the basic claim of citizenship. Now Israel has legally established itself as a theocracy.
ZA: For us Palestinian, when it comes to United States, doesn’t matter to be honest with you. Doesn’t matter who’s in the White House, Trump, Obama. We don’t want to say it, but for us, nothing changed except, I can say … Even Obama, he recognized Israel as a Jewish state. I don’t want to say, but the only thing, Trump, what he did actually, he moved the embassy.
RS: He’s done a few more things. Let me … I’m asking you-
ZA: Just I want to about this point.
RS: I’m going to let you because we’re going to run out of time, but I want to … I’m going to give you the closing statement. I’m asking you as a journalist now, observing this because you’ve been in the United States working also as a journalist and you’ve studied it in graduate level and you’ve worked in Israel. I’m looking at this phenomenon where the selling point for Israel was a sense of modernization, enlightenment, this was the idea. This was the dream of Israel. It was not to be a center of religious fanaticism or jingoism or so forth. This was not what was proclaimed.
Now you have the leader of Israel in this tight embrace with Trump. Just to put some distance between what has happened now under Trump and happened under Obama or going back to previous presidents, Republican or Democrat, they not only moved the embassy, but they also embrace Israel’s foreign policy. After all, it was Obama who could make an arrangement with Iran to get rid of nuclear weapons along with the European Union. It’s Trump who is following Netanyahu’s lead and abandoning it. It is Trump who has moved closer to Saudi Arabia, the first country he visited in the region because Israel prefers Saudi Arabia to Iran.
This president has done … He doesn’t talk about two-state solution. He doesn’t talk about the peace process. Trump has really emerged as the president who’s given the right-wing group that is dominant in Israel now what they want in an American president.
ZA: Absolutely. This is the honeymoon for Israel, I call it. The only thing we Palestinian, doesn’t matter. I say this. This is the sad part. Doesn’t matter. The massacres it was happened against Palestinian in 1982 in Lebanon, [inaudible 00:42:08]. There were other presidents in the White House. In Gaza, the massacres it was happened even before Obama get to the White House, even during Obama in 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2014. Palestinian they were killed during Obama.
I’m not saying … I’m not here to attack Obama or attack Trump or defend any one of them. What I’m saying for us Palestinian until now, we are not recognized as the Palestinian people. Our political rights are not recognized like many other people, like for example, the people in South Africa, like Mandela, like the people they were living under oppression in different part of this world until now because this kind of relationship between United States and Israel.
Among the American people, yes, there are a lot of changes. There are many groups, many schools, many they recognize the Palestinian people. They are in solidarity with the Palestinian people because they are in solidarity with any people under oppression, but as a government, still. This is a struggle for Palestinian people. This is a challenge for the Palestinian people still to work with the American public opinion and to change this.
Yes, I understand what you say about the president of United States, Trump. As a journalist, what I hear from the Palestinian people even, “Who cares? For us, it’s the same. Gaza under siege since 2006.” Actually, the siege, they came with Obama and Obama left and the siege still on Gaza for 12 years right now. And Trump, still. Still, two million people they are living behind the siege.
This is what I’m saying. For us, as a Palestinian, I want the listeners to understand, nothing much change even during Clinton, even during Oslo Agreement, even after that when Clinton visit Palestine. Even Hillary Clinton, she came to Bethlehem. I remember that day when they came and they change even the Palestinian [inaudible 00:44:20]. I forget the word in English. The content of the Palestinian struggle, they change it to make it easy to recognize Israel as a state so Israel would recognize Palestinian, the future state.
Even during that period, nothing much change. Israel continue their settlements. There are certain measures where the people they don’t measure things for political statements. They measure it by actions on the ground. Israel still expand settlements on the ground. While I’m speaking with you here, they are expanding settlements. They are taking more land from Palestinian people. There are more people they go to prison, to jail every night. As a journalist, I look to the media. It’s like a daily news, how many people they were arrested.
For me, I look how many children they were arrested because I want to keep the record. At the same time, still the checkpoints are there. This is how the people they measure how the things that … If the White House or anyone within the White House or in the American government can play a rule or change this reality where human rights, Palestinian rights can be respected as a human being to access water and to live in peace.
Still, we are far from that, but we have a big hope that change is happening. It’s slow, but we still have hope. Someday, what we … As for me, as a Palestinian refugee, and I’m a journalist and I’m working in human rights organization, the only thing I look, “Okay, it’s not the idea to seclude the other.” The idea it’s how to live in dignity and to feel free and to feel equal like everyone. We still have this hope, and we feel we are not that much far from our goal.
RS: I really want to thank you for taking the time to be with us. Our engineers for Scheer Intelligence are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz at KCRW. Our producers are Josh Scheer and Isabel Carreon want to thank Topher Ruth at the North Gate Studios at the UC School of Journalism in Berkeley. Thank you.