I cowered under the staircase of our apartment building with my family and next door neighbors, thinking it a safe enough place to hide. Darkness enveloped us as a chill from the cold tile floor penetrated the thin sponge mattresses we were lying on. Crammed in that place like sardines, shivering of cold and of horror, we all grew into eerie silence — each one of us wondering how this dreadful night would end. Our neighborhood in Beit Jala, a small city in the Bethlehem District, was taking blow after blow from Israeli military tanks based on the Jewish settlement of Gilo—the worst hit in months. Bombs rocked the ground beneath us, while Israeli military choppers hovered above, slicing the solemn air with its blades and the hope of us ever seeing Dad again. He’d been out for hours and had not yet returned. Would he ever come back?
It’s been almost nine years since that evening of terror, and I’m thousands of miles from where my tragedy took place. My journey has led me to Washington, D.C. as a graduate student at Georgetown University, where I joined the journalism program with the hopes of understanding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the slanted and inadequate media coverage and somehow, miraculously, find a solution and a means to make amends with a past that still haunts me. The little frightened child I was then is still part of me even today, for it might all happen again if the current situation doesn’t change. Scared as I am to go back upon my graduation this May, Palestine is nevertheless home to me and that is where I belong. Yet the future looks so bleak there and peace so desolate.
The all-out assault on Gaza this January triggered demons of the past and fears of what awaits me. For days I sat glued to the screen, watching images of F-16 Jets dropping missiles on a population of nearly 1.5 million impoverished, starved and defenseless civilians. Photographs exposed Israeli tanks firing rockets at inhabited homes, mosques, and United Nation schools killing over a thousand and injuring thousands of others.
Will this be what I have to go home to?
Curled in a fetal position, rocking back and forth, my heart quivered at the sight of men’s fragile corpses cut in halves, malnourished bodies whose ribs and arms were mere skin and bones. More disturbing were the pictures of babies buried under the rubble of demolished homes. One Al-Jazeera journalist reported seeing children sitting next to their decapitated mothers for days, because the Red Cross could not rescue them. I watched as doctors called upon the international community to condemn Israel’s use of white phosphorus and experimental explosive called “Dime” which instantly blinded children and melted skin away. I succumbed to tears, for it was too personal to look the other way, too frightening to forget.
My arms tightly hugging my knees, my mind was drifting to a place where dreaded memories are suppressed, back to the time when the same terror shook me, my family and my hometown of Beit Jala in the West Bank almost nine years ago.
It happened on Wednesday, November 15, 2000. Things were still calm that afternoon. The shorter hand of our living room clock stood at number four, while the longer one was slowly ticking past 11, about to strike five. I could see my mom in the kitchen cleaning up the table where we had just finished having cutlets and fries for lunch. Gold rays of light coyly beaming through the glass window illuminated the red streaks of henna in mom’s cropped black hair. Her olive complexion glistened from the lazy autumn sun. She looked peaceful—humming away to one of Abdul Halim’s songs. Through the window, I could see dad’s silvery hair swivel in the light breeze as he stood on the balcony, tossing out leftovers to stray cats below. Feeling full and like a beached whale, I stretched out on our cozy couch and turned on the television. My older brother, Danial and my younger sister, Asanja were there with me watching cartoons.
Tak, tak , tak, tak, tak… “Gunshots!” I shrieked.
The first round of heavy M16 alerted us that the vicious cycle had begun. I quickly jumped out of my seat and fell to the ground for cover as my heart skipped several beats and dropped down to my stomach. My parents joined us in the living room. I could not hide my fear or even pretend to be as courageously composed as my brother and father were. The shelling and bombardment had been going on for a few months ever since the second uprising which was ignited by then prime minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to Haram al Sharif/ Mount Temple in Jerusalem, accompanied by hundreds of riot soldiers on September 28. That was when all hell broke loose.
But I could just not get used to the sound. My mother always shouted at both Dad and Danial to step inside from the balcony and close the steel door behind them. Hardly ever did they listen, which convinced her that all Germans—including my father—had stubborn heads on their broad shoulders.
We could not determine where the shooting came from or who started it, but we knew we weren’t safe. Our home stood in the bottom of a valley in Beit Jala where olive trees dotted the plains surrounding us. Just a few kilometers away, on the opposite hilltop of the expropriated land of Beit Jala stood Gilo—one of many illegal Jewish settlements suffocating the West Bank—like a fortress reinforced with an Israeli military base and four-foot-high cement wall. In clear view, our neighborhood was an easy target.
Stones and rocks no longer sufficed in the Second Intifada of 2000. The bloody clashes between the Israeli soldiers and the Palestinians praying at Haram Al Sharif in September gave rise to a new form of resistance; the new freedom fighters called themselves Al-Tanzim—an armed militia group that shot at these surrounding Israeli settlements in protest. Israel called them terrorists.
As a Georgetown graduate student nine years later, I sought intellectuals for their expertise on Middle Eastern affairs and the Palestinian Israeli conflict, and delved into history books and personal narratives, searching within their dusty folds for answers about the continued state of violence afflicting the region I lived in.
I wanted to understand why a person resisting oppression and injustice on one side is called a freedom fighter, but is labeled a terrorist and black-listed as one of Israel’s most wanted on the other. And why, as Palestinians, we are collectively perceived as a national security threat, thus facing a life filled with discrimination, severe obstacles and hardship just because we happened to be born on the other side of the segregation walls Israel built up to confine Arabs within like lab rats in a concrete maze.
According to some experts, what constitutes terrorism is “a matter of perspective,” suggesting that it is easier to define terrorist acts, such as shootings, bombings, assassinations, and brutal killings rather than terrorism itself. Yet even perceptions within the same circles have changed concerning the Palestinians. In the past, one expert notes, Israeli leaders and Jewish media referred to these munadiloon or mujahidoon, individuals who strive, struggle, or embrace jihad toward a noble or just cause, as “trouble-makers” or “destroyers.” Today, however, Israel calls any form of resistance “simply terrorism.”
For more answers, I visited Fathali M Moghaddam, a professor at the Department of Psychology and the director of the Conflict Resolution Program at Georgetown University. I lingered in front of his office, trying to summon up the courage to knock. Will he put my questions to rest? I ventured in.
A middle-aged man wearing a bowtie greeted me as I walked into his dimly lit, rather small office. Shelves filled with psychology books covered nearly every wall. I sat down at the square table in the middle and examined the titles of his exquisite library. Across the desk sat the author — renowned for writing numerous books dissecting terrorism. I wondered how to ask the questions that I had agonized over for years. Does fighting for a just cause make a terrorist? Why should all Palestinians be called terrorists? I wanted him to help me understand who I was within this context.
A soft-spoken Moghaddam started in a tinged British accent, “The key element in defining terrorism is the intentional targeting of civilians.” He paused, thinking of an example, “See, if somebody accidently does something to hurt you — that is different. But if you intentionally target civilians… to create a feeling of terror or helplessness so that they become immobilized, that goes into the elements of terrorism.”
I could not help but think of the many times I became immobilized by fear as armed Israeli jeeps and military tanks raided my home town, Beit Jala, and enforced curfews for us to stay in doors; how helpless I felt under a sky of raging bullets and rockets. I thought of all the times we wandered from one house to another, seeking shelter because our home was not safe; of all the sleepless nights, and the nightmares that followed; of the hurt they caused me and my family.
“Can the use of force on both sides be justified?” I asked.
“Well, when you say both sides…” His eyes wandered for a second before completing his thought, “I don’t see the sides as one entity against another entity.”
“One of the problems when discussing intergroup conflict,” he said, “is that we often fall into the pit of categorizing in a way that minimizes and denies the variation within each group. It is a very bad idea to go into the thing [as] us against them. That approach just lends itself to the tactics of the radicals on either side.”
But it kind of did feel like it was us versus them. I thought of Israel’s repeated confiscation of lands, of all those displaced families whose homes were either taken over by Jewish settlers or demolished by the Israeli government. I remembered the high walls Israel built after the Intifada that cut through towns to immobilize free movement of Palestinians, thus crippling the economy. My mind wandered to the countless times I have been personally humiliated at checkpoints going into Ramallah to visit family or when visiting the [Church of the] Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at Easter. The same soldiers mocked me and treated me as subhuman, because I was Palestinian. I thought of the many families who have lost loved ones in this conflict.
“How can those who have suffered the injustice just accept what is happening to them without fighting back?” My voice was choking up. “It’s not a struggle for their statehood anymore; it’s a struggle for identity.”
“Threatened identity is not just peculiar to the Palestinians,” Moghaddam reminded me, “It’s peculiar to the Israelis as well. The threat of annihilation is on both sides.”
When I was only 15, nothing made sense. It seemed my life was facing annihilation. I was scared of both sides. I understood that when the fighters shoot with M-16s, Israel counters twice as hard with F-16 Jets, tanks and heavy artillery and that, regardless who the victim is, someone will get caught in the crossfire. That Wednesday night, one thing was clear: it was going to be another sleepless night.
By the time the shooting ceased for the day, dusk had fallen over Beit Jala. Knowing that I had to wake up early for school the following day, I decided to take a shower. During that period, enjoying a good thorough shower was a rarity, since our bathroom faced the side of the military base in Gilo. The moments I spent in the shower were haunted by worries of being hit by a missile or a raging bullet and be discovered dead, naked.
Just as I was getting out of the shower, the shooting resumed — one of the many intervals where the players had been in recess recharging their ammunition. I quickly grabbed my clothes and wrapped a towel over my soaking wet body and ran out to the living room.
“Yalla! Yalla!” my mother shouted in Arabic, urging us to scramble downstairs into our only safe hiding place in the entire apartment building—beneath the staircase.
My Aunt Mimi, her husband and nine-year old son who lived across the narrow hallway from our apartment headed to the same direction. I hurried there wrapped in a towel and the black sweat suit I had pulled out earlier. Once we got there, I immediately but discreetly tried to slip on my clothes without flashing anybody. I was trembling from embarrassment. Yet, the greater sense that overwhelmed me was still uncontrollable fear.
The shelling increased dramatically as time went on. The bombs were so forceful, the sound so deafening. Our apartment building felt like it was flying up in the air with each pounding. We could hear the bullets hitting the brick walls that were shielding us and flying off, which sounded more like a blizzard of hail hitting a tin roof. Moments later, we heard a loud shatter of glass upstairs and objects falling to the ground. We realized we got hit but did not know how bad.
All of us quickly rushed upstairs to see if fire needed to be extinguished and to evaluate the damage. My father quickly looked around the house to find what crashed, and as soon as he got to his bedroom, we heard him laugh.
“Look,” he chuckled as I ran into the room. “This was your grandfather’s best tailored suit.” He poked his fingers through the holes in the bullet-ridden suit he was holding. “He wouldn’t be happy about this!”
His cheerful attitude did not change even after realizing that the bullets did not spare him even one suit. They had shattered the window, penetrated the wooden closet, ripped through each and every single suit and came out the other side of the closet.
“I guess I won’t be needing these anymore!” He shrugged it off as though it wasn’t that big a deal.
I followed him in frustration. I did not know why. Seeing his suits torn up like that was unsettling to me. Mom seemed less disturbed knowing we still had a roof over our heads. After all, they were only bullets, not missiles.
When I got to the living room, I saw dad and Danial standing out on the balcony, again. Mom shouted for them to get back in, but her desperate cries fell on deaf ears. My attempts at pulling them inside proved fruitless as well.
“A bullet just whizzed by my ear,” Danial said with rather enthusiastic spirit, “Wow, that was close.”
“Come inside you idiot!” I screamed back at him. “Do you wanna get yourself killed?”
Suddenly, a bright flash of light accompanied by a floor-shaking boom filled the dark livingroom like a bolt of lightning. Dad was still outside. I panicked. Totally freaked out, I started screaming at Dad as soon as he became visible again, “Harry, don’t you get it? This is another sign from God to stay inside the house or you’ll get killed.”
I remember standing there, grasping what I had just said, surprised by the sudden rush of words that had just left my mouth, and by what I was thinking. He, on the other hand, was not harmed but still amused. “When the time comes,” a cocky grin lit up his face, “God will take me even in my sleep.”
He may have won the argument there, but I still wanted him to come with us downstairs. “We have brains, you know,” I held his arm and lead him to the door, “to practice common sense.”
It was around 11 o’clock when we settled in our tiny little refuge area. The shelling was still going strong. My sister Asanja and I huddled together in one corner. She was too young to understand politics or comprehend what was going on. Somehow her trembling limbs and yellow face suggested she understood fear. I could not comfort her either. I clenched my teeth and pursed my lips in attempts to control the trembling. It did not work. So I squeezed my eyelids shut and shook my head back and forth to deter my mind from what was going on around us. We tried to force ourselves to sleep on the thin sponge mattresses, but the quivering ground beneath us was a constant reminder of how dangerous the situation was.
I tried to think of happy times—advice dad always gave when mending our wounds and bandaging our scars to take our minds off the pain. But, it was fear I was trying to forget. So I thought of the Christmas holiday that was coming up, of the clouds of cinnamon, vanilla and cocoa that would fill the air in our apartment a month before Christmas.
I could smell the warm aroma of baked goodies coming from the kitchen where dad would spend hours every day bending over the sheet of dough spread across the table. The cookies turn out in the shapes of different animals, Christmas trees, round swirls and checkered squares. His gleeful cheer and merry songs echoing through the apartment reminded us of the true spirit of Christmas and to enjoy the season of coming together no matter the circumstances. I thought of all the gifts my mom and dad would stack under the tree, and of the plates of sweets awaiting us when we got home from the celebrations at the Manger Square.
It was around midnight. My thoughts were floating in the air, dreaming of the bright colorful fireworks that filled the dark sky above the Nativity Church, when a loud knock on the front door of the building shook me back to reality.
“Help!” the voice shrieked, “Please, let us in.”
The sound of whizzing bullets got louder as Dad opened the door to see who it was. There stood an obscure but bleeding figure in a darkish uniform.
“We have been hit,” the police officer gasped for air. Their headquarters, known as ‘Force-17’ had been severely bombarded. Bombs and rockets kept us from hearing his every word, but we understood that the men on shift managed to crawl between olive trees and made it this far. The flickering coming from the bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling beamed through the window and let them know people were hiding in the building. They had also heard a doctor lived in this neighborhood and wanted to get medical help.
We heard more cries of help coming from the neighboring house several meters away. We later learned it belonged to the Assafs. I saw Dad carrying his emergency medical case and rushing outside. I pleaded with him not to go, but he wouldn’t listen.
The shelling continued viciously at random. Missiles were falling close this time, closer than ever. With each resounding boom came a convulsive quake that shook the bricks in the wall and the ground beneath our feet. Fear once again filled me. My stomach started churning and my chest began to collapse. I felt like vomiting but nothing came out. My jittery limbs were experiencing a strange numbness from the cold. A bad feeling overwhelmed my body. Something felt terribly wrong. Minutes turned into hours and Dad had not come back yet. My mind circled in a whirlwind of dark thoughts.
“What if something happened to Dad?” I hesitated to ask.
“God forbid,” mom scoffed at the thought, though, she was visibly worried and shaking.
My head sank between my shoulders ashamed of the racing thoughts galloping around. There were snatches of paradoxical, yet bloodcurdling images flashing in my brain. In one, I imagined Dad taking cover behind a brick wall, safe from harm’s way. But another shattered that notion when the blast of missile hit nearby. Dad wasn’t safe anymore. I felt it.
“Where is Dad?” I demanded, screaming from my cocoon at the men standing outside, my emotions running haywire. They kept reassuring us that he was there helping the injured neighbors. They wouldn’t let Danial go outside to call dad back in, saying it was too risky. I snapped and yelled at them to go away and bring Dad back. Mom gave me the look to shush me. But the men moved farther away when they saw how agitated we became by their presence.
We sat there restlessly waiting for all of it to be over, but it just wouldn’t stop. The shelling had been going on for nearly nine hours straight. I silently prayed for Dad to be safe, somewhere. Nothing could happen to him, I kept reassuring myself. For as long as I could remember even as a kid, Dad was strong and sturdy like the Vikings of medieval Europe, perfectly fit and in good shape despite his 68 years and wrinkled face. I had always found comfort in his protection, knowing that he was there for me no matter the circumstances. When I got sick, I knew he’d cure me. When I needed someone to cheer me up, he would be there to humor me. Even when we weren’t on the best of terms, I just knew he’d be there for me. But my stomach kept twisting in tight knots with the most sickening feeling I had felt all night. Where’s Dad?
It must have been 3 am when we heard the telephone ringing upstairs. A sudden rush of blood flushed into my face. “Maybe it’s Dad?” I said.
Danial flew up three flights of stairs and brought the telephone down with him before answering.
“Danial, how are you?” said the voice on the other end of the line. “It’s Ameer.”
Danial assured his friend that we were fine.
“How is your father?” he asked.
“Why do you ask?”
Growing more anxious, all of us quickly barfed our questions onto Danial. We wanted to know what the matter was.
“Well, my father went out a couple of hours ago and hasn’t come back yet. We don’t know where he is.”
“But you’re okay, right?” Ameer kept asking. “The news is all over. Your neighborhood has been hit badly.”
Shortly after Danial hung up, the telephone started ringing again. My mom picked it up this time.
“Norma, it’s Diana!” It was Mom’s boss from work calling to break the news. “We have been getting live footage and they are saying that a foreign doctor has been hit and that the ambulance can’t get to the scene.”
“Harry!” Mom squealed and withered into a silent trance. Aunt Mimi took the phone from her hand and understood everything. We understood everything. And everything meant nothing. Nothing was left of him. We became fatherless.
Somewhere, not far away from our home, a huge olive tree was turning red instead of ever-green, nourished with the blood of my father whose body lay shredded into unrecognizable pieces beneath its branches. A ruthless murder, a hideous death.
The shelling had finally ceased after 12 continuous hours. All of us wearily climbed up the stairs. I dragged myself to my room, and flopped down on my bed. I could not sleep or cry or think of anything else. He was gone forever.
The dawn broke as the first rays lit up the room, gently stirring me out of bed where I had lain awake for the past two hours. Chatter pervaded the still morning air. I heard men talking loudly on the street and the sound of splashing water. I wanted to run outside to see for myself. But they held me back. A fire truck was rinsing away my father’s blood off the street, walls and trees, making sure there were no traces left to see. The firemen were talking about picking up the remains of my father’s body and sending it to the hospital. It wasn’t a dream. I finally broke down and cried.
It was around three o’clock Thursday when people started to gather in the neighborhood for the funeral procession. The sun shone brightly in the sky. There were no impregnated clouds to pour sorrowful tears on the heavy hearted souls that still roamed the earth. I stood on our balcony and saw a large crowd — faces I recognized and many others that were new. I saw classmates and friends carrying flower wreaths and banners. One sign said, “Christ will not be crucified twice.”
Inside, family members were wailing and lamenting. I glanced over at Mom. Her eyes were puffy and red. She was pulling at her hair and beating her chest repeatedly. “Harry… Harry… Harry.”
No chance for goodbyes or a final kiss, the person who’d woken up next to her for the last 20 years had left her with nothing but memories—how they first met, the courting, her giving in to his marriage proposal.
She was a 27-year-old Palestinian social worker at the Social Welfare Directorate of Bethlehem. He was a 45- year-old German doctor, volunteering at a German organization for the Blind called “Siloah” in Beit Jala now known as Life Gate. It was 1980 when their lives intersected for the first time at one of the monthly meetings my mother coordinated between the Social Welfare and the charitable societies in the West Bank. Siloah happened to be one of them. My dad’s calling had led him to the Holy Land to help people — a mission that rewarded him with more than he bargained for; he had finally found his true love. But he also fell in love with the people, the warm climate, and the country. He refused to leave when the uprising began, despite the insistent requests made by the German Embassy.
“I have survived World War Two,” he would teasingly say, “I’ll survive this, too.”
But Dad did not survive, and Mom had lost her companion to an untimely death.
“Harry… Harry… Harry,” she pounded away at her chest.
Asania was silently crying in one corner amid the havoc. She must have felt so scared. Daddy’s little girl had lost her biggest fan, and I could not tell if she realized what that meant.
The procession began. We joined the people, who were waving German and Palestinian flags as we left on foot to the Lutheran Church of Reformation in Beit Jala where the funeral ceremony was to take place. A number of my father’s colleagues carried his casket in which his body lay wrapped in the Palestinian flag. Crowds of people kept showing up from every corner of every turn to join the black train of what seemed like thousands of mourners. My breathing became intense as though a heavy weight was crushing my lungs. Everything became blurry after that.
I read an article several months later that reminded me of what my memory at that time failed to remember. Mary Jensen, a pastor from Canyon Country, Calif., who was present for the funeral, wrote:
“Dressed in dark clothes, Christians and Muslims filled the grounds of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation, quietly comforting one another. They all waited while a procession of Christian and Muslim clergy entered the sanctuary for the funeral of Harry Fischer, their beloved friend and physician.
During the funeral hundreds prayed and sang Nearer My God to Thee. Calling Fischer a martyr, Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan (and Palestine), said, “For this we cry: Enough bloodshed. Enough injustice, Enough war. Enough bombing. Enough fear and horror. Let us work for a just peace. And instead of bloodshed and money spent for weapons, let us use this money to build a just peace, to construct homes and to establish the independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
“Although it seems that death and oppression and hatred are strong, it was these that led our Lord Jesus to the cross. But death was not the end. The resurrection was the voice of justice, truth, peace and reconciliation that cried and still cries to the world that there is no other way that lasts.”