In this special podcast, we hear from AFSC staff and other community leaders in Palestine. They are working to bring together Palestinian youth across divides and to counter the fragmentation caused by the Israeli occupation.
Listen to them discuss equity, identity, and the Palestinian experience.
Read the full transcript.
RB: Welcome to “Mosaic,” a radio road trip from the American Friends Service Committee that will take you to cities across Palestine. I’m one of your hosts Robert Bound. I’m a writer and radio presenter in London.
MMK: And I’m Marisa Mazria Katz. I’m a reporter and editor living in Rhode Island.
RB: In the winter of 2023 we visited Palestine to meet people working with the American Friends Service Committee’s Palestine Program.
MMK: American Friends Service Committee, or AFSC, is a Quaker peace and justice organization that has been working in the Middle East and Palestine since the 1940s.
RB: The current AFSC Palestine Youth Program has been running for almost a decade and has seen around 9,000 young people benefit from imaginative activities designed to increase engagement in social issues - and help to bring together, physically, virtually and narratively, the disparate Palestinian experience.
MMK: From workshops and training sessions to publications and games, the AFSC’s outreach is centered broadly around the importance of discussion and conversation as much as equity and inclusion.
RB: In this podcast we will meet three people involved with that program. And each have very different stories to tell about what it means to be united and divided…
MMK: …in a place where borders constantly shift and histories are both debated and deeply personal.
DAWOOD: This is what makes communities survive, people survive, they are dynamic and willing to change and develop and evolve.
NIDA: We understand our Palestinian identity and struggle as also protecting the principles and values of equality as a human right of believing in dignity for all people.
AHMED: As long as there's one Palestinian who thinks that there's one common thing about all the Palestinians and all these areas, then we're moving forward towards liberating minds and liberating souls.
RB: Our road trip took us to three cities: Jerusalem, Haifa in the north of Israel and Ramallah in the West Bank, the center for the Palestinian Authority and many non-governmental organizations.
MMK: And it was during our time together we got to see firsthand how life in these cities form the complex mosaic of Palestinian identity.
Dawood: Okay, so we were talking in the old city between the houses and the neighborhoods originally the whole city was split to 3/4 the Muslim quarter, Christian quarter and the Jewish quarter …
RB: That’s Dawood Hammoudi. He’s our guide and the Palestine Program Manager for the AFSC.
MMK: It’s a crisp winter morning and we are walking with him through one of the most contested places in the world: Jerusalem.
DAWOOD: the confrontations of the old city and nowadays, it's becoming more and more every day.
RB: Dawood is a resident of Jerusalem. He took us on a bit of a hike around the limestone city, and eventually to his family’s home where he told us about the AFSC program he’s in charge of--one that aims to, as he says, “combat the fragmentation of the Palestinian experience.”
MMK: Dawood has been a longtime witness to the rapid changes and political and military policies that he’s seen taking hold on the ground here. And as he tells us he sees the actions of the Israeli government as having left an indelible mark on how Palestinians think of themselves.
RB: When we spoke to Dawood, he was describing the difference of these actions on areas like Haifa, which became part of Israel in 1948, the Occupied West Bank and Gaza, the latter of which still remains under siege despite Israel’s withdrawal in 2005.
DAWOOD: Fragmentation is a normal thing in any community…What is unique about our situation that this was used as a tool to divide and conquer. So dividing the Palestinians by policies by infrastructure, like the Wall, the checkpoints, military bases, and many other armed tools, and to small zones, or ghettos or walled in areas where people cannot really reach each other and communicate with each other. So it became much more intense to the level that we started, as I said, 10 years ago feeling that we are losing the next generation. The next generation have these like romantic ideas about the Palestinian identity, nation, future, history, but doesn't really have a real solid understanding for what is happening in the community, and how to go forward in the community. You can't build a future based on some thoughts, you know, and dreams and hopes. You need to build it based on really something practical, something solid, very relevant to a community you are living in.
MMK: That all sounds really important in theory, how does it play out, though, for instance, with you're trying to equip the youth, the young people with facts that will enable them to actually implement change, rather than in a kind of abstract way thinking about change or future? So how do you do that? What are the kinds of things that you try to teach them, or, how do you see them implementing what you're teaching them in real life ways?
DAWOOD: We are not really equipping them, or teaching them. That's not the approach, the approach is to create a space where they can come together…So it is not someone imposing on them a specific idea or a specific vision. We want them to really build their ideology or thoughts or strategies, let's say. And so it is an organized open space where they come together, they have different debates, they have different levels, we try to make them think deeply … in this region, people tend to be more dictating decisions, and deciding solely based on their thoughts, so consensus is not something normal here. That's why you need to train them on how to reach consensus, understand the differences doesn't mean you can't agree with the other person. Differences are something natural. We need to be different. That's our richness as human beings.
RB: And I wondered, going back to the programmees themselves, the young people, whether they come to you, or whether you go out and find them?
DAWOOD: We ensure that when we have a mixed group of youth, we have mixed experiences. The mix of skills in the group that can complement each other. And again, this usually starts by a harsh, how you call it, not debate, the harsh confrontation between the youth as usual, I think, where everyone tries to prove himself and focus on the differences of the others who are in the same room. Then through these, like, again, debates and spaces, we organize, we ensure, too, that they reach a level of the they start reaching the levels of consensus. So not eliminating differences, but understanding that the differences are there to serve a bigger goal they need to agree on.
MMK: We're sitting in the middle of the Old City in Jerusalem. And AFSC’s program works with with youth from here from within 48 Israel, and the West Bank as well as Gaza. How do you contextualize or connect all of these communities, when each of them are so distinct.
DAWOOD: Look, the older generation, my generation and older, the country was much more open, we had more movement rights around the country, so many of my generation would have seen Gaza. They know the West Bank, and Haifa, Nazareth and all these different areas. So we were more privileged actually in moving around. Restrictions became much worse after 2000. So we are the generation that feel a little bit lost and distance is more the generation, who was born, or who was a teenager from the 2000 and after. These are less privileged and the more that we go in the years after 2000, the more it becomes worse, because again, then you have generation after generation. And you don't have let's say, a big brother who knows that area or an older relative who knows that area, suddenly you are a teenager, in a family. No one knows anything about anything else… this is what is the challenge of the programme. This is the focus of the programme on how to bring the youth and explain for them that reality, daily reality, is not necessarily what you see in news, what you read in some textbooks, or what you hear from relatives or social media or whatever. It's much more. To have a society in the first place, it needs to be dynamic. This is what makes communities survive, people survive, they are dynamic and willing to change and develop and evolve, and all the change and learn and practice and so on. It's an ongoing challenge. That doesn't stop even for us, like in this generation. And although I claim I know, Gaza, and West Bank, I know Jerusalem, Haifa, or whatever. I still, sometimes when you go to a small community, or a village, you feel yourself so different. And and you take a couple of minutes before started talking to see how you can engage with this community without really giving them this feeling of someone coming from outside to impose on them something or to debate with them on something he doesn't really understand it's details. But again. This is what makes us human.
NIDA: It's the Palestinian houses actually. And if you go to other neighborhoods like Al Khalisa or El Waad which is like actually Palestinian Arab neighborhoods, you would see the difference already, because these are Palestinian houses that existed before 48 existed before the establishment of Israel…
ROBERT: This is Nida Al Nassar. She went through the AFSC Palestine Program during the 2013 to 2016 cycle. Today, she’s taking us around Haifa, a city in the north of Israel, that she calls home.
NIDA: It still a feels as one of Arab Palestinian Arab villages it has this atmosphere of community it's not the big city that you feel very alien inside of it it's not a Tel Aviv it's not the big cities it's like still a city but relatively like small city that you still feel community atmosphere.
MMK: And here Nida welcomes us into the offices of Baladna, an NGO that she heads up working with Arab youth in the area.
ROBERT: We asked her to talk about fragmentation and Baladna's main goals…
MMK: …And how the organization has to adapt with the politics shifting so rapidly around her.
NIDA: The first goal is to work with Palestinian youth around topics related related to Palestinian history cause to raise their awareness about the knowledge about the Palestinian history and cause in a context in an in an Israeli context, actually, that works very systematically to eliminate anything that has to do with Palestinian identity, especially for young people who were born into the Israeli context, and who do not have any opportunities to learn and to know about this context. In our schools, we abide to the Israeli Ministry of Education. However, we learn in our own schools, Arab schools in that a Palestinian villages and towns. And we are actually taught the Israeli Zionist narrative that simply tells us that we the Palestinian nation did not exist before and that we should normalize, with being inferior and accept this reality in one way or another. So therefore, one of our main goals is to enable young people alternative information, to enable them with spaces where they can discuss these kinds of topics. And of course, related to our contemporary struggles. We live in a very deprived reality, we live in a context of discrimination in all aspects of our life, in education, in employment, in everything that you might think of and we are discriminated against because of our Palestinian affiliation, because we are part of the Palestinian history, nation, reality, future. So this is one goal. The second goal is also to foster democratic feminist progressive values. We see our struggle as Palestinians and we understand our Palestinian identity and struggle as also protecting the principles and values of equality of human right of believing in dignity for all peoples.
MMK: Rob, when we were with Nida it struck me that Haifa presents itself--upon first sight--as a kind of egalitarian town… but as she explained, even this apparent normality has a political dimension.
RB: I also noticed this and I asked her about it. This is what she had to say:
NIDA: Our parents are like somehow part of our population have witnessed the Israeli wars and are very much frightened and they want to protect their children. So they would simply avoid speaking about political Palestinian topics with their children, and would encourage them simply to be successful at your individual life, like go to school, go to university, pursue good work opportunity. And that's it. And actually, Israel works in order to mainstream this kind of like mindset. One of the main Israeli policies and practices is simply to push people to shrink into their individualistic spaces, to think only about their own personal lives. And to avoid or avoid anything that has to do with community organizing, political organizing, and even to criminalize this and to make people afraid to speak about politics. When we go outside in our villages, we will see that there's something wrong: the infrastructure, the opportunities that we get in our lives, it's very much obvious that we live in a discriminative and deprived reality…
MMK: Tell us a little bit about the work you did to repair the fragmentation?
NIDA: Well recently in the last two years we created board games because we work with teenagers. So we have to be creative and to think about new tools that interest young people. So one of our projects, our education projects, actually, is to use board games, political board games in order to raise awareness about different topics. So we have one game about the siege on Gaza, we have one game about the right of movement we have in the West Bank, and we have one game about house demolishing and the land crisis inside our society. And we use these games in order to expose young people about the challenges that people face. So what are the challenges that people living in Gaza face while living in a siege over like a couple of years? And what are the challenges that people face here in the 48 regions of Palestine since we do not have any places to build our houses and due to the house demolishing that we face. So we simply use these kinds of games in order to speak about the experiences of people and the struggles that we face as Palestinians.
MMK: 2023 is ushering in a very different moment for Israel, they've just elected a new government, which is seen as being quite far, if not extreme on the right, how is that affecting your work? And how will it affect, in your opinion, the future of your work?
NIDA: It's very important to say by the beginning, that the space of action for Palestinian NGOs is all the time challenged by Israel, not only when there is a right wing extremist governments, but as long as you are dealing with core political topics and challenging the Israeli Zionist mainstream, no matter what government is in charge, so you are all the time incited against and you are all the time you are all the time struggling in order to do the kind of work that you are doing. Of course, now speaking about very extremist, right wing government, things are being more and more challenging not only for Palestinian organizations but also for Israeli Zionist leftist NGOs. This is also an internal Israeli debate and discussions that they got…. So yes, there are so many challenges that we are expected to face, but we cannot tell that for now, like we can see it very directly. But what we do is what we do, what we think we should do is what we think we should do, no matter what government no matter what are they what are their policies or laws and what is the Israeli atmosphere, we do not have the privilege of not doing the work that we do--our work is essential. It’s going to be more challenging, to face hassle etc. But we think this work is very much essential.
DAWOOD: Actually it was a proposal from the World Bank was to build around the 12 industrial zones along the West Bank, close to the Wall, or the Border area, where Palestinians could come from the West Bank work in these settlements, industrial settlements, then leave back again to their houses inside the West Bank…
MMK: Dawood’s showing us an area that surrounds the Separation Wall that snakes in between Israel and Palestine. Nearby is one of the most militarized checkpoints in the Occupied Territories: Qalandiya.
DAWOOD: We need to stop here, recording....
RB: This is the busiest and largest crossing point between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
MMK: These checkpoints are the pressure valves on life in Palestine.
RB: After we cross, we drive through Ramallah’s city center to the Al Qattan Foundation, which features a new library perched on a hillside overlooking the West Bank.
MMK: We’re here to meet a young program officer for the AFSC named Ahmed Yassin. He went through the AFSC Palestine program during the 2013 to 2016 cycle.
RB: We wanted to talk to Ahmed about his work, and what he learned about his Palestinian identity when he was a participant in that program…
MMK: and also how he navigates in and around this tightly-controlled territory.
RB: Speaking to Ahmed we can hear how the political can be very personal.
MMK: And he started the conversation by explaining his work at AFSC.
Ahmed Yassin: It might sound absurd, but for me, the main sole purpose was to talk. And not having an opportunity to speak to your people it's hurtful, it's painful, and to have this platform and to have these opportunities to speak to each other, despite what the what the topic is, is an advantage and opportunity… There's always been something about this specific programme, of the type of people they meet, the Palestinians that they come from different fragmented areas. And I really wanted to be part of this and see the conversations that happens and try to understand how other Palestinians think. I think it's curiosity, per se, but also the lack of knowledge that I couldn't get out of books or internet about Palestinians that live few kilometers away from me, but can't really meet them, anywhere, aside from randomly, you know, hearing the different Arabic accent in a restaurant in Ramallah, or something.
I think the major question was, are we looking for collective Palestinian identity? Or do we need to act normal, like any other country where somebody from the northern part of the state would define themselves something and the people from the southern part would define themselves something different? And so, basically, we would be discussing, as I mentioned earlier, challenges amongst us, we'll be discussing, what would identity be defined as, as Palestinians from everywhere, but at the same time would be envisioning what would the future would like if there was no checkpoints of there was no fragmentation geographically and socially? And how would we want a Palestinian to be identified? If all these challenges have been, you know, have gone away?
MMK: AFSC's principles are about driving debate that leads to consensus. So even if you're not agreeing on a single principle, what would you say some of the kinds of consensus ideas you have reached in your time?
Ahmed Yassin: I think consensus was there, the minute we decided that we want to meet to meet each other…We've all agreed that we are under the same challenges, and that we have to work towards raising the awareness of societies about reducing stereotypes about increasing awareness of identity, and about understanding that a Palestinian identity is not only nationalistic, and is not only about the nationalistic feeling of just being a Palestinian, it has, it's much more complex than than what we think it is….So so we have reached a consensus that we are who we are. The challenges really make us all want to be around each other but we can’t push each other to look or think even in our political social or economic views.
MMK: AFSC has a historical legacy of working in Palestine. Looking ahead, what do you think the legacy will be of the work that you're doing now? So for instance, someone who looks back 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, what do you think they're going to say about this particular moment in time, for the work that you've been doing?
AHMED: I think the legacy would be the number of initiatives and the number of change that we have been able to create in people's personalities and in people's minds…you can tell that whoever has been part of AFSC's programmes, is carrying a different, more open, more positively critical, sort of thinking about different aspects of life of challenges they're facing of, you know, their own history, their identity. Sometimes it's a bit difficult to really see. But you can sense it, if you know who's been involved in who's and who's not…But 40, 50 years from now, I'd like to see all these, you know, ambassadors running around the community talking about how important it is to communicate how important it is to reduce stereotypes to try to break all these geographical, which I hope they wouldn't be here 50 years from now, but all these barriers and challenges in any way possible, whether it's technological, or through this space, or the air that cares, just I want those people to exist and to try to tell people that as long as there's one Palestinian who thinks that there's one common thing about all the Palestinians and all these areas, then we're moving forward towards liberating minds and liberating souls in terms in terms of thinking and in terms of creating a new reality for what Palestine is what Palestinians are.
RB: At one point in our chat, Ahmed started to share the details of his personal life, including how his marriage to a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship has underscored just how difficult this idea of cohesion really is.
MMK: For me, it was one particular story about how just driving around with his wife and family really pointed to these challenges. Here’s Ahmed:
AHMED: We have three beautiful daughters…there's been this painful incident where we're going to Jerusalem, and that was recent, maybe three weeks ago. And of course, I had to get out the car, you know, go to the inspection station of the checkpoint and, and leaving and meet them on the other side, after perhaps two kilometers of walking, and I get in the car, and my my oldest is like, “Oh, here's my dad back. Where do you go? Why do you get of the car?” And I'm like, “What am I supposed to answer at that time? What type of explanation would you give a four year old girl that you know, her dad had to get outside? Because he's between quotations, considered a tourist if he's not getting checked on the checkpoint, and is being allowed to pass that?” And I think I'm living in that, in that dilemma.
I think they're still young enough to really ask critical questions about it. But such a question of why did you get out of the car has made me furious for days. I couldn't answer like, what am I going to say? She is by papers belonging to that state. She's an Israeli citizen, from Palestinian parents, you know, abnormal Palestinian parents with someone who's not really from their own political identity, but then I'm really concerned about such questions that might appear in the future…
I still ask myself every single day, why am I doing this? Every single day, and the answer always comes out. When looking at, you know, people's eyes as I speak to them about a topic or students at schools when we talk about, you know, challenges, identity or fragmentation just gives you all that power that you really want. Even see what the checkpoints are for the next day to get to get in the first bus, you know, to go to give the same services to those people. And so I think there's a noble feeling inside every single Palestinian despite he’s building a settlement or he’s working. I don't know where or he's just crossing a checkpoint for for a hospital to get to get treated by an Israeli Jewish doctor, you know, there's this noble feeling. And this special feeling that I always say it's, it's a Palestinianised feeling of getting energy to go on with your life and do whatever you want for the sake of your people for the sake of your country and society.
MMK: That was AFSC’s Ahmed Yassin taking us through his day-to-day life in the West Bank.
RB: In visiting Nida, Ahmed and Dawood, we could see how the AFSC’s Palestine Program <has> built a foundation for long term support along with networks that allow thousands of other young Palestinians to engage throughout the region and diaspora…
MMK: One of the reasons that AFSC supports Palestinian young adults as they discuss their identity is, really, to directly counter fragmentation in society. And you can pick up any newspaper and see how this kind of fragmentation is the result of Israel’s occupation policies, and also outside pressures, and internal political divisions.
RB: …And the Program’s aim always goes back to that idea of creating a new generation with a more cohesive sense of identity, and in that: the strength required to realize a long-term peace.
MMK: This has been “Mosaic”, a radio road trip from cities across Palestine. I’m Marisa Mazria Katz.
RB: And I’m Robert Bound. Thank you for joining us.