In the early 1980s my father was illegally crossing the borders as he stamped his passport with forged seals of the countries he wished to visit, from Libya to Syria, then on to Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia he settled for 16 years, though he did not remain in one place for long and carried on his habit, moving from Al-Riyadh to Jidda, and from Jidda to Tabook— where I was born, and lastly coming back home. His brother, meanwhile, had already settled himself in a land far more handsome and graceful, mild and sunny, along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea far from the baking wilderness of the Arabian Peninsula. He had already gained a wide reputation as the best T.V. technician in the Galilee. By then, he had his own shop, and diligently worked so as to preserve his place in that heaven; he feared nothing more than the prospect of going back to a flaming Gaza. I care not how low, inconsiderate, and void of principles this man might be regarded, nor do I care how discreet and realistic his attitude toward life was. He married an Arab-Israeli girl of fifteen from Kofor Kana, who as she crossed our doorstep in Beit Lahya thirteen years ago had already brought him three sons and two daughters, who joined the loosely connected extended family to which I belong.
That was the only time I met my uncle’s family, and before that I had no clue that I had an uncle from Israel! I was nine years old in those days. “Israel” was something completely unlike the “Israel” I know, hear, meet and think of at the present. All I knew about Israelis— or “Jews” for I used the two words synonymously back then, and they are still used interchangably amongst many Palestinians, especially little children like me at that time who knew nothing of the huge difference between the two terms; all I knew about “Israel” is that they were my most hated enemy, the worst enemy I could ever think of. The first time I was taught about antitheses and contrasts, the teacher asked us to come up with a few examples of contrasts, so my mate sitting next to me wrote him a few words among which there were two in particular that, upon seeing, the teacher smiled: they were “Israel” and “Palestine”. “Israel and Palestine? Yeah, why not?” the teacher said before he went to check the other mates’ answers. When I wanted to curse some mate and made him feel really bad, all I needed to do was call him a “Jew”, referring to one of those near Jews who settled in the land we perceived as ours. I still remember how whenever I heard the word “Israel”, I just thought of death. I believed I was to be killed by a helmeted soldier, pointing his gun toward me. In short, I really hated Israel. It was enough of a shock to me when my uncle and his family from Israeli came along paying us a visit at home.
“Get ready, Mohammed! Now you’re gonna meet your ninth uncle,” My mother said to me, and observing my and my brother’s cold and passive reaction, she attempted to put on some sentiment of gratified excitement and continued, “from Israel; it’s gonna be something amazing…I mean you all will finally meet your uncle from Israel!”
And It worked. I got all excited. To meet somebody from there. From Israel. And that somebody is none other but my uncle, my ninth uncle who I hadn’t met yet. That would be really exciting. Nothing could have made me more excited than that. My heart swelled, and I felt I finally got something to boast about: something to steal my mates’ attention. I fancied that scene where, encircled by a whole lot of my classmates, all gaping with esteem in their eyes and listening attentively, I would tell my exceptional story with my Israeli uncle and his family. I was overwhelmed in part by the angst and beauty of the word ”Israel”. This time all the dread, the horror, the agitation, and the disgust “Israel” usually sparked in my chest whenever I heard the word, all turned to a curious feeling that kept me hopeful that this uncle of mine would be unlike the rest. The fact that he was coming from Israel led me to think that be could be different. But then, there was that thought which struck me with its vitriolic harshness and acridity. I couldn’t get one question out of my head —how can I have an uncle from Israel?
Here began my journey of realization to the actual nature of a conflict that I had been hearing about since my early childhood. Israel was until that moment only an abstract, something remote and unreachable; it was in the middle of nowhere. I heard people talk of Israel; some talked of its breathtaking charm, its adorable environment, luxurious livelihood, splendid beaches, seductive and pretty women. The other image, however, was largely the fruit of what I heard on the news; occupation, brutality, killing children, demolishing homes, uprooting trees and olives and the like…Neither was real.
“How can I have an uncle from Israel?” Failing to figure it out for myself, I asked my mother.
“You already have one. His name is Kamal,” My mother told me. This answer didn't satisfy my curiosity, and only added to my growing puzzlement. “How can he be named Kamal, and he is from Israel at the same time?” I thought to myself. My mother, however, as if my thoughts were laid out before her, resumed, “He is an Arab, just like us, but he lives in Israel. They call them Israeli Arabs. There are a great many of them living in Israel.”
The certainty of my mother’s statement left me no chance to doubt or bargain. And I still could not understand. As I reflect on it now, I believe that this situation brought together all the paradoxes of the conflict for me. My astonishment knew no boundaries, and even though I wanted to know more, to argue, to understand, and to tell my mother she was wrong, to tell her Israel and Palestine can never meet, it seemed the more I knew, the less satisfied and more confused I became. I thus decided to leave it at that point.
My uncle and his family at last arrived. I could now search for answers to the too many questions that roamed across my head by myself, and it was not too long before I had my first observation, which was not really naïve for a child at my age, living in a very closed environment and conservative society. Up to that moment all the women I had seen in my life were all wearing a scarf. To me a scarf was part of a woman’s body, of her face. My Israeli aunt was hence the first woman who I saw not wearing a scarf; and, as if I had not believed my mother to this point, this would have convinced me that my uncle and his wife had in fact come from Israel. I got alarmed and wanted to quit this company at once. However, no sooner did I have my first observation about my aunt that she shocked me, and kept me from leaving. Probably noticing our diffidence, she very jovially and friendly bid me, my brother and sisters to come closer, in fluent Arabic! My mother was right. Those are Israeli Arabs (or Arab Israelis.) This was the first and only time I had a direct contact with people said to be Israelis.
The disparity between how I looked upon these people at that time and now is immense.
As I grew up and started to learn the facts about Palestinians in Israel, who also led a life of similar inhumane, subjugating, factual procedures, I felt my affection and devotion to the “Israeli Arabs” grow day by day, and understood that their suffering is by no means less than the Palestinians’…
I now understand they are part of neither “Israel”. A direct object of Israel’s discriminatory policies; looked down on as inferior enemies; regarded with contempt as Arabs; living in a racist Jewish state and obliged to swear allegiance, jailed and punished for sleeping together with Jewish women; neglected as an unwanted minority; treated with wicked brutality by the police; that we are of the same Palestinian identity, originally compatriots; every bit of that I now very well understand.
Mohammed Rabah Suliman, 21, is a student of English Literature at the Islamic University of Gaza. He blogs at http://msuliman.wordpress.com/.