Visiting Palestine

The remains of Yacoub Odeh’s family home in the destroyed village of Lifta. (Judith Mahoney Pasternak)

Almost every day, I think, talk, and read about Palestine. But it had been more than three years since my last trip and there are some things you can really only get by going there — seeing the landscape and its destruction, the daily insults and injuries of occupation, and most of all, getting to know a few people, hearing their stories, and being invited into their lives.

Yacoub Odeh was the guide for Middle East Children’s Alliance’s twelve-day tour through Palestine/Israel. He became a friend who told me and showed me things I know I will never forget. At age 67, Yacoub seems to carry with him the whole history of modern Palestine. And that is above all a history — and ongoing experience — of terrible loss.

On day one, Yacoub took us to Lifta, the village in West Jerusalem where he was born and where he lived until 1948 when he, along with his family, his neighbors and approximately 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes by the militias that would soon become the Israeli military.

After we walked down the steep path into what had been the center of the village, someone asked Yacoub how much he remembers living there as a child. He said emphatically, “I remember it ex-act-ly. Ex-act-ly,” and then turned and looked at a fig tree nearby and told us how his older cousins would climb the tree when the figs were ripe and toss them down, while he and his brothers waited eagerly below to catch some. Across from us was the spring the villagers used for their homes and lush, terraced gardens and orchards — overgrown and untended, but still there. Now, about a dozen Israeli settlers in orthodox garb were cooling off the water. Yacoub took us to the olive presses, school, and to the remains of his family’s house — just a few shattered stone walls. “This was my home. Where I was born,” he says. He showed us the alcove that once served as a candy store where he did a comical imitation of his child self getting chased by the proprietors, hiding and then coming back for more. He also showed us the graffiti, the trash, and the places where mosaic stone tiles had been stolen.

If the Nakba — the “Catastrophe” that Palestinians experienced when the state of Israel was created — hadn’t happened, Lifta might have stayed much the same as it was in 1948. Or it might have become a thing of the past, like so many agricultural communities in modernizing places around the world. The thing is, Palestinians were deprived of being able to determine the direction of their own lives, or that of their nation.

Meanwhile, Yacoub spent seventeen years as a political prisoner in Israeli prisons, an experience he returns to again and again. As we drive through the Negev desert, Yacoub looks out the window, shakes his head, and remembers, “I spent ten years in the Negev, but all I saw was the inside of my own cell.” We pass a hospital along the freeway and he tells us he was treated there for the severe burns he suffered when Israeli prison guards poured hot coffee and put out cigarettes on his head. “When the nurse saw me she screamed at the Israeli soldier, ‘How could you do this?’ and he answered, ‘It’s not my fault I’m just bringing him here.’ Yes,” Yacoub says, sighing and putting his hand on his scarred head which holds a metal plate. “Yes, he was right. It was not his fault.”

I spent my last evening in Palestine with Yacoub, his wife and three children in their home in occupied East Jerusalem. He and three friends from prison built the apartments — without a permit. Getting a permit to build a house in Jerusalem, or to add so much as a window to an existing home, is an expensive and arduous process. And in the end, Palestinians are rarely granted permits, so they build without them and risk demolition. As the Human Rights and Housing Supervisor with the Land and Housing Research Center, Yacoub investigates home demolitions in Jerusalem. Every day he sees families whose fate his own family could one day share.

I look forward to my next visit to Palestine, and to seeing Yacoub and other friends again. But as important as that is for me personally, I believe the most important work that I, and others in the US, can do for Palestine is here at home — changing hearts and minds, and the policies of our government. Often I feel that whatever we accomplish is too little, too late. But it is something, and we all have to keep doing our part, “difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding,” as the late Edward Said said, who added, “Why? Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for equality and human rights.”

Deborah Agre is the Development Director for the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) in Berkeley, California. She co-leads MECA’s annual delegations to Palestine/Israel. Next delegation, 1-12 July 2008. For more information go to or email deborah AT mecaforpeace DOT org.