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The impossible return home

Our trip back to Israel-Palestine, the first since my daughter’s birth, was also the first time our family would be separated. The Israeli border, the crossing to the place where her father and I met and fell in love, would be the first thing to come between us.

I didn’t get a haircut in 2017 and it’s unlikely I’ll get one in 2018, either. Nobody touches my hair but Yossi and, unfortunately, Yossi’s salon is in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood.

Even though it’s bad for his business, whenever I do manage to get to Tel Aviv and see Yossi, he urges me to give up on him, to find a hairdresser in south Florida. He laughs, shakes his head, gently scolding me, telling me that I can’t get a haircut only once a year.

He examines my split ends and then asks, “And what’s going on with your color? You’ve got no less than three in here. There are big spots that you missed…” he sighs and doesn’t finish his sentence. My hair is in such bad shape, there’s nothing left to say.

I’ve tried to find both a hairdresser and a color here in the U.S. To my surprise, the color I used to buy at Superpharm in Israel is not available in the U.S.. I would have to order it online and have it shipped from New Zealand. As for the hairdresser, I’ve tried half a dozen. But no one seems to understand my masses of curls like Yossi does.

My first two years out of the country, I got annual haircuts on my annual trip back. I left in 2014, towards the end of the summer war, coming back to Tel Aviv for six weeks in 2015 to update my research for my book about migrant workers and African asylum seekers in Israel. And then, in 2016, a family emergency on my husband’s side brought all of us back — him, me, and our daughter, who was 10 months old at the time. Not to Tel Aviv. To the West Bank.

But, first, we had to get there.

No matter where we were going, we wouldn’t be able to fly to Ben Gurion together. My husband is a West Banker with a green ID, which means that there’s only one way in for him: Allenby Bridge — the only crossing that is off-limits to me. This wouldn’t be...

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Imagining Palestine's children as our own

My daughter, like Ahed Tamimi, also has blonde curly hair and light eyes. Her continual detention has left me awake in the middle of the night, my stomach churning. What if it was my little girl?

The controversy began with an image — that of a young Palestinian girl slapping the arm of an Israeli soldier. Since that girl, Ahed Tamimi, has been arrested a flurry of images has followed, turning her into the poster child for the new generation of Palestinian resistance.

We should, indeed, be rallying around Ahed. But we mustn’t get so caught up in Ahed’s image that we forget about the hundreds of Palestinian children who are detained by Israel every year. Or perhaps we’ve forgotten about them already? These children come from villages that are not in the media’s spotlight. We know neither their faces nor their names, so it is easy to pretend that they don’t exist.

It is easy to pretend that they aren’t languishing in filthy cells. It is easy to pretend that they aren’t being abused and — dare I say it? — tortured. It is easy to pretend that they aren’t being denied access to attorneys. Hundreds of children every year, many even younger than Ahed.

What if every time one of these children was arrested we all pasted their photos on our Facebook pages? What if we all came up with hashtags for all them? What if all of us pitched editors articles about them and their villages? What if the media showed up for all of those children, each and every one? Would it make a difference?

As I try to keep my eye on the bigger picture, I, too, find myself returning to images of Ahed. The picture that has struck me the most, the image that has undone me, shows her being led into a hearing, surrounded by officers. A woman in a blue uniform grasps the handcuffs wrapped around Ahed’s wrists. Ahed herself is hunched over ever so slightly, as though she’s trying to curl into herself. A smile plays on her lips. Some might see it as a smirk, an act of bravado; But it’s that smile that has awakened some sort of grief in me because in it, I see someone who is disoriented, confused, frightened.

Or maybe it’s us — the Jewish people — who are disoriented, confused, frightened?

My daughter also...

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Trump’s Muslim ban is eerily similar to Israel's refugee policies

As President Trump seeks to maintain white Christian hegemony, the Jewish state can serve as a case study of nationalism run amuck — and what that means for the ‘others’ who live there.

Israel’s founding premise that it would be a “Jewish and democratic” state has always meant that if the state wants to remain democratic it must maintain a Jewish majority. Artificially maintaining a certain ethno-religious majority has led Israel to take some decidedly undemocratic measures against various minority populations.

In the United States these days, President Donald Trump is also seeking to maintain a particular ethno-religious hegemony — that of white Christians. What does that mean for the future of the United States and its democratic institutions? Israel, where questions of national identity take on existential proportions, can provide important lessons. The Jewish state can serve as a case study of nationalism run amuck and what that means for the “others”—in this case, non-Jews—who live there.

My new book, “The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others,” focuses on two groups of “others” in Israel: migrant workers from Southeast Asia and African asylum seekers. Significantly, a large number of the asylum seekers in Israel are from Sudan, one of the countries on Trump’s “travel ban” list, which has also been referred to as the “Muslim ban.” Who are these people that are targeted by both Trump and Israel? Why did they leave Sudan? What were they escaping? What are their hopes and dreams for the future?

“The Unchosen” offers an intimate look at the lives of Sudanese asylum seekers. Almost all African asylum seekers in Israel are denied legal status — and while Israel claims that they’re actually illegal work migrants, the state can’t deport them because to do so would violate the international law against repatriating asylum seekers to a country where they could face persecution or death. So Israel keeps them in legal limbo, hoping that they will “self-deport” if you will.

To maintain its Jewish majority, Israel uses a variety of policies that, taken together, also constitute a Muslim ban. Palestinian refugees cannot return to the lands they lost during the 1948 war. For nearly 15 years, a law banning family unification means that if a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza marries a Palestinian who lives in Israel, they cannot come to Israel to reside with their...

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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Epilogue

Read the full series: The Long Road to Bethlehem

I began writing this series in December 2014, just a few months after I arrived in the United States, and finished in September of 2015. Much has changed since then.

Shortly after I finished the last essay, the current escalation in violence began. I also returned to Israel-Palestine for October and November of 2015 (read about that trip here) to update my research for a forthcoming book about migrant workers and African asylum seekers in the Jewish state, a project I’ve been working on in one form or another since 2007.

Despite heightened political tensions, I met with my husband’s family for the first time in November of 2015. And in January of 2015, I gave birth to our first child. Mohammad and I got our happy ending. But what about Israel and Palestine? Can the two peoples also have a happy ending?

For a long time, I believed in a one-state solution. Or, to be more accurate, I didn’t call it a one-state solution because “solution” implies something optimal that everyone has agreed to. I believed in what I called a “one-state outcome.”

Considering that the Israeli government already controls most aspects of life between the river and sea, there’s already a de facto one state on the ground. I felt an acknowledgment of that single state was inevitable. It was only a matter of time — well, time, and international pressure.

After my experiences living and working in both the West Bank and Israel, however — and much has been omitted from this series — I no longer believe that there is a solution to the conflict, in part because so many foreigners, Israelis, and Palestinians have a vested interest in the continuation of the conflict.

Even if there is eventually some sort of a peace agreement, I don’t believe that it will put an end to the fighting, whether that fighting is internal or between the “two sides” (though there are arguably more than “two sides” involved).

Lastly, a number of readers have emailed and messaged, asking if I will and suggesting that I should turn the series into a book. I’m trying. Thank you for your encouragement. And thanks for reading.

Read the full series: The Long Road to Bethlehem

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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part six

Read the previous chapters of The Long Road to Bethlehem here.

We live with Mohammad’s brother for the first two months as I look for an apartment—a difficult thing to find in America when you’re both living off of your meager savings, your ex-husband has successfully wrecked your credit (long story), your foreign partner doesn’t have a social security number, and neither of you have proof of current employment.

In early October I see an advertisement on Craigslist for a house with three small bedrooms and hardwood floors. The pictures show a tidy, clapboard, whitewashed home, edged with mango and avocado trees. It’s located in a historic neighborhood. Best of all, it fits our modest budget of less than $1,000 a month—criteria that has only yielded, thus far, section eight housing in the ghetto. And there’s an option to buy from the owner—no money down, no banks—the right tenants can simply take over the mortgage. It seems too good to be true.

In South Florida, rentals can go within minutes of being listed—and some are snapped up “site unseen” meaning that the renter hasn’t seen the property in person—so I call right away. The landlord tells me to drive by the place first. If I’m still interested, he’ll show me the inside of the house.

“The neighborhood is,” he pauses and clears his throat, “eclectic.”

Mohammad and I go that evening. As we pull up at the address, we notice the rundown cars lining the other side of the street. A man is sitting in one of them, his parking lights on. Another man approaches the passenger side and leans in the open window. The two talk. Money and baggies change hands. A drug deal.

I notice the house in the background then. One of the windows is broken; some wooden two-by-fours have been hammered across the hole. The other windows are covered with heavy black fabric. It’s impossible to see what’s going on inside. A smashed TV is in the middle of the yard. Nearby, a man takes a shit next to some overgrown bushes. I wonder, for a moment, why he isn’t going behind the shrubbery. He stands and stumbles about. And then I realize:

“It’s a crack house,” I say to Mohammad. “That’s why this place is so cheap. It’s across the street from an active crack house.”


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Torture is a gruesome symptom of military occupation

Israel’s use of torture is part and parcel of the occupation, and an inseparable part of maintaining the military occupation of Palestinian territories and Jewish hegemony in those lands.

A new report about torture at the Israeli Shin Bet facility Shikma is, rightfully, making headlines. The details are horrendous. The report, penned by HaMoked and B’Tselem, is also significant because it points to the close collaboration between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — essentially reminding that the former is outsourcing its dirty work to the PA.

While the report is new, we shouldn’t forget that torture in Israel is not. Palestinians have long suffered under the apparatus of the military occupation, with word of the practice surfacing in the 1970s — 40 years ago. Israeli human rights attorney Lea Tsemel says she was first exposed to accounts of torture in 1972, during the “Haifa Trials.” In a report on the issue for Adalah, Tsemel writes:

It is estimated that some 700,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel since the occupation began in 1967.

Tsemel continues:

She also points out the fact that the Israeli public has known about the widespread phenomenon since 1977, when the London-based Sunday Times press published dozens of Palestinians’ accounts of the torture they had experienced in the hands of Israeli forces.

In the book Palestine Speaks, a collection of narratives about life under Israeli occupation, Palestinian attorney Abdelrahman al Ahmar recounts the torture he experienced at Israeli hands in 1984, when he was just a teenager. After Israeli soldiers took him from his parents’ home in Dheisheh refugee camp in the middle of the night — a practice that is still commonly used against Palestinian children today — al Ahmar was brought to the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. It was a cold, winter night and the interrogation began thus:

Al Ahmar recalls the grim details of the interrogations that were conducted by Israeli authorities:

Today, al Ahmar’s body still bears the signs of torture. He has a scar on his wrist, he explains, because “[t]he handcuffs were so tight they cut to the bone. I still have marks on my legs from the beatings.”

For almost 40 years, the Israeli public has known about these practices. The same is true of the international community. Yet the horrific violation of human rights that is torture continues. And nothing will change until torture...

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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part five

Read the previous chapters of The Long Road to Bethlehem here.

Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” begins in Gaza. I am consumed by the news. I scroll through Twitter with the television on, flipping between Al Jazeera and CNN. Horrifying images stream out of the Strip. Rubble. Bodies. Crowds around hospitals. People running, carrying limp loved ones. Shujaiyah.

When I can’t take it anymore, I turn off the TV, leave my phone inside, and go to the garden. I realize how fortunate I am to be able to “take a break” from the war — even if that break is somewhat of an illusion. No, I’m not in Gaza, but rockets are falling inside Israel; a few that are intended for settlements hit Palestinian areas in the West Bank. We have no siren in the Bethlehem and so there is no warning when one afternoon — BOOM, BOOM — two rockets land close enough to my house that the floor, windows, and walls shake and shudder. The neighbors — a young couple who live in an apartment down the hill, below my garden — call.

“What was that? Did you feel it? Are you okay?” we ask each other.

We pass many nights together, worrying over a bottle of whiskey, watching for rockets. Sometimes we see them tearing the black fabric of the sky. Sometimes we spot shooting stars instead. We gasp and point at them and make silent wishes.

One morning, a rocket slams into a Beit Sahour home.

The rockets make me reluctant to drive into Israel to visit friends, even though I have less than two months left here. I know the odds of my car taking a direct hit are slim. But I don’t know what I would do if the siren went off while I was driving alone. Would I stop, get out of the car, lie flat and cover my head with my hands? Or would I just keep on driving?

I can’t decide, so for the first four weeks of the war, I rarely leave Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. I don’t leave the West Bank at all.

A Jewish Israeli friend, an artist, who was born and raised in the north calls me from her parents’ house in Upper Nazareth one afternoon. She speaks Hebrew and, because I’m sitting in the garden, I answer her...

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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part four

Read the previous chapters of The Long Road to Bethlehem here.

“I’m leaving.” I tell people in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. The words sound unexpected and foreign in every language, as though someone else is speaking them. While I’ve resigned from my post at the university and someone has already been hired to teach my fall classes, I haven’t given my landlady a firm answer as to whether or not I’m vacating the apartment, never mind a last-day-here-date. Nor have I begun to dismantle a houseful of stuff, the accumulations of a life.

My place looks like I’ll stay there forever. But tomorrow I’ll head to the US for a month; first to an artists’ residency in Vermont, then I’ll head to New York City, where Mohammad will join me. There, he’ll meet my family and we’ll attend my aunt’s wedding. After that, he’ll head to Florida to start his new life there. I’ll return to the West Bank as I’m scheduled to teach a two-week class at the end of the summer. We will spend July and August apart.

It’s our last afternoon together in Bethlehem. Our impulse is to pass the time in the garden, picking mish mish baladi (a local variety of apricot), sipping tea, and taking in the view. But we decide to pay a visit to the streets, alleys, and buildings that witnessed our courtship.

We head out, passing an old, large house like the one I live in. The limestone is the color of sand, the arched windows are framed by glistening white stone. We pass the French school—a stately building of rose-tinted stone surrounded by a blue gate—and we duck into an alley that cuts through the Christian quarter. It’s a residential area; there’s laundry hanging, the sounds of knives on cutting boards, the smell of food, voices, doors ajar reveal porches lined with potted plants.

On a white arch, red, spray-painted graffiti reminds the passerby: Palestine. I’m puzzled—everyone in this area is local and the word is written in Arabic. Why would someone in this neighborhood need to proclaim this Palestine to other Palestinians? Or was it something more personal, the artist’s way of asserting to himself or herself that Palestine persists?

We cross the plaza adjacent to the Church of Nativity and pass the tourist shops with their bright scarves flapping in the...

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Asylum seekers mourn ‘lynched’ Eritrean man

Asylum seekers hold a memorial service for Habtom Zerhum, who was mistakenly shot and then severely beaten by Israelis at the scene of a terrorist attack in Be’er Sheva earlier in the week.

Hundreds of Eritreans and Sudanese nationals gathered in south Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park Wednesday evening to mourn Habtom Zerhum, the asylum seeker who was shot and severely beaten Sunday night during a terrorist attack in the Beer Sheva bus station.

They lit candles and wept.

Desale Tesfay, 35, from Eritrea, explained to +972 that the gathering also served as a moment for members of the community to come together and talk and support one another.

Mourners expressed shock and anger at the accidental killing of the innocent man, who was mistaken for a terrorist and shot by a security guard. Some, like Tesfay, also criticized the Israeli government, calling on it to formulate a meaningful policy to help asylum seekers.

+972’s full coverage of asylum seekers in Israel

Speaking quietly during a moment of silence, Tesfay reflected on Zerhum’s life and violent death.

“He’s a human being who ran from [Eritrea] because there’s no democracy there,” Tesfay explained. “He was a young man who didn’t do anything wrong, he went to renew his visa and look what happened to him.”

Tesfay left Eritrea in 2008 after he was forcibly conscripted to the Eritrean army for eight years, for very little pay and with no end in sight. “It’s a dictatorship, that’s why we left. If it was a democracy, we wouldn’t be fleeing.”

When asked if Israel is also a democracy, Tesfay laughed long and hard.

“Yes, there’s democracy here, as they say, for their people [the Jews]. But for the refugees?”

Tesfay, a father of two, points out that his children cannot receive Israeli citizenship even though they were both born here. His visa stipulates that he does not have permission to work. And, when Tesfay arrived in 2008, he spent six months in Saharonim prison, without trial.

He added that while he has not been summoned to Holot, the desert detention facility where Israel sends asylum seekers, he feels like he is “still in prison.”

“It’s like the government put a long string here,” he said, pointing to his ankle. “I go to work, I come home and [otherwise] I don’t move.”

“Now, today, we...

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The 'lynching' of Habtom Zarhum: A history of incitement

Activists, asylum seekers and refugee advocates in Israel are pointing to the incitement directed toward African asylum seekers — by politicians, state institutions and the media — as necessary context for the vigilante mob and shooting that killed an Eritrean asylum seeker.

An Eritrean asylum seeker was mistaken for a Palestinian during a shooting attack at the Be’er Sheva bus station Sunday night. Habtom Zarhum, 29, was shot by a security guard who thought he was a terrorist and then – as the asylum seeker lay bleeding on the ground – civilians kicked him, cursed and spat on him. A bystander bashed his head in with a bench.

In a video that circulated on social media Sunday night, one man is seen holding a chair over Zarhum. It is not clear whether he was trying to harm the asylum seeker or protect him.

The video also shows a small number of policemen and civilians trying to stop the mob from further harming Zarhum. But their efforts were unsuccessful. At one point a man walks through the loose ring they’d formed around Zarhum, who was writhing in pain, and casually kicks his head like a soccer ball as he passes the already bloody and battered asylum seeker.

When medical personnel arrived, a crowd that was chanting “Death to Arabs” tried to prevent them from reaching Zarhum. The medics first treated the wounded Jewish Israelis. The asylum seeker was reportedly the last to receive help.

Zarhum later died of his injuries. Police on Tuesday said they were waiting to charge anybody in the death until an autopsy clarified whether the gunshot or the beatings caused his death.

Israeli media quickly labeled the incident a “lynch.” Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s top-selling daily newspaper, ran a photograph of Zarhum lying in his own blood and trying to protect his head, on the front page of Monday’s paper with the caption “A terrible mistake.” The article inside the paper was titled: “Just because of his skin color.”

Members of Israel’s African asylum seeker community expressed sadness and shock. Asylum seekers who are currently imprisoned in the Holot detention facility — where they are held for no specific crime and without trial for 12 months — held a vigil yesterday in Zarhum’s memory.

Dawit Demoz is a 29-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea who has been in Israel since 2009. He criticized the security guard who...

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Israel using 'preventative arrests' to stifle dissent

Palestinian citizens of Israel are being subject to preventive arrests as Israel attempts to silence dissent.

Israeli police came to Adan Tartour’s Jaffa home at half past midnight. They pounded on the door. When the Tartours opened it, police said that they had an arrest warrant.

Adan, an 18-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel who hopes to study law and history at university, was arrested for “suspicion of violence and terrorism” — all because she’d signed up to take a bus to a protest in Nazareth.

Although the demonstration, which was scheduled for Thursday, had not taken place yet, Tartour and other activists were detained last Wednesday night. Some were arrested on suspicion of planning “illegal” demonstrations. Others who managed to actually attend demonstrations were arrested and charged with taking part in an “illegal” gatherings or attacking police. In reality, lawyers say, the protesters were the ones who were assaulted.

Lawyers and activists point out that, in Israel, protests do not need authorization. They say that the wave of “preventive arrests” reflect Israel’s attempts to quiet dissent against its recent provocations at Al Aqsa and the shooting deaths of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They believe that Israeli authorities aim to frighten and intimidate Palestinian citizens of the state.

Attorneys also say that the arrests violate Palestinian citizens’ right to freedom of expression and that minors’ legal rights were violated while in custody.

There are also reports that protesters were beaten — they have appeared in court with visible bruises on their bodies. Family members who are not involved in demonstrations have also been arrested, as was the case when Tartour was detained last Wednesday night.

“They had an arrest warrant for me and my father,” Tartour explains, adding that this was the case with other female detainees. “They were arrested with their fathers… it’s humiliating and chauvinistic.”

The two were taken to a local police station before being transferred to Nazareth, where they arrived at 4:30 in the morning. During her interrogation, which began at 5:30 a.m., police repeatedly told Tartour that she “is a shame to her family” and that her actions are “not good for her family.” She felt that this Orientalist appeal to “family honor” was an attempt to dissuade her from protesting.

“But what they don’t understand is that our [Palestinian] families stand by their daughters,” she says.

While her father was released...

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Which is the 'right' side of the Green Line these days?

Read parts onetwo, and three.

Thursday morning: I wake up and check the news this morning to see what happened last night and then head to the doctor’s in north Tel Aviv. I’m 24 weeks pregnant — yes, with a Jewish-Palestinian baby. My physician in Florida, where we live now, has advised me to keep up with my medical care in Israel even though I’ll only be here for six weeks to freshen up my research for the book I’ve just sold.

I’m a few minutes late to my appointment . When the doctor’s door opens, the woman who is scheduled after me steps right on in. She shuts the door in my face. I check the list next to the door and announce the time of my appointment aloud.

“So, it’s your turn,” the other women who are waiting say. They urge me to knock and assert myself.

I knock and the patient who just entered opens the door. “I’m sorry,” I begin, “but I had the 8:40 appointment.”

She shrugs, smiles. “But you were late.” And the door slams shut in my face again.

“Israelim,” Israelis, one of the women smirks.

When the door opens again and the patient emerges, I’m quick to make my way into the doctor’s office. We talk for a few minutes about what tests I’ve already had in the States, their results, and how I’m feeling. At my American doctor’s insistence, I’ve brought my medical records with me. I offer them to the doctor. He says they’re not necessary and then he sends me on my way to get checked for gestational diabetes.

As I’m leaving, there’s a commotion in the lobby. A Filipino man has followed an elderly Israeli couple into the building.

“They hit my car!” he shouts in English.

No one responds.

“You hit my car!” he tries again to the couple.

The clerk — a Palestinian citizen of the state I spoke to on my way in — goes about his business. Another elderly couple puzzles over a piece of paper.

You hit my car and you’re angry with me?” his voice indignant.

I step onto the sidewalk just as the Filipino man is heading towards parallel parking.

“Look,” he says, pointing. “I was there, they pulled in and hit me, and then...

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The people behind the numbers: 'Palestine Speaks'

A collection of oral histories offers a penetrating look at life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

Gaza could be uninhabitable by 2020. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed in 2014 and more than 17,000 were injured. Israel arrests and detains between 500 and 700 Palestinian children every year. In August of 2015 alone, Israeli forces demolished nearly 150 Palestinian structures.

palestinespeaks_cover_PR_STORE_lores-(1)When it comes to the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, there’s no shortage of statistics. But while numbers may tell, it’s the stories that show the deep impact the occupation makes on Palestinians’ lives. Enter Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life under Occupation, a moving collection of interviews compiled and edited by Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke and published by Voice of Witness in the U.S. and Verso in the U.K..

The detailed oral histories offer the reader more than a look at life under Israeli military rule. By including voices from a wide range of backgrounds, they also offer an intimate look at Palestinian society itself: from a lawyer from Dheisheh refugee camp who spent nearly 20 years in Israeli prisons to a young female journalist in Gaza to a West Bank farmer to a middle-aged housewife. Too often the media represents Palestinians as a monolithic group, relying on convenient stereotypes like the humble villager or the freedom fighter with an indomitable spirit, the martyr hero. Palestine Speaks breaks such Orientalist depictions by bringing us individuals rather than a faceless, fetishized mass.

The reader also gets a glimpse of history through Palestinian eyes. Recalling the Six Day War, Ghassan Andoni, a founder of the International Solidarity Movement, says:

The editors could have ended the passage at “But it was over in a week”—indeed, those who are focused more on the story of the conflict rather than the stories of the people who live the conflict would have stopped there. Instead, Malek and Hoke give the narrators room to express themselves fully; the inclusion of details like Andoni’s attempt to rescue the bird bring nuance and complexity to the stories, helping readers better see and understand the people behind the...

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