“My family lives in Ramallah. I would say that bombings don’t happen often, but it’s still an occupation. I’m not really worried about my family; they know how to deal with the curfew and bombings. I have family in Kasam, though, and I was really worried when there were bombings there; it’s under siege. Sometimes when I don’t know what’s happening, I want to be there. It’s kind of scary, and I want to be able to help them.”
The speaker is Bisan Khaled Mohammad Battrawi and she is from Palestine. A senior at Knox, Battrawi has undergone a great deal in her life to reach this point.
She was born in 1989, during the First Intifada, a major Palestinian uprising against occupying Israeli forces. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online article about Israel, “This uprising was distinguished by widespread street violence in which children and teenagers battled Israeli troops with rocks and stones…Israel’s international image was suffering as the media recorded scenes of Israeli soldiers beating young Palestinians in the street. Frequent closures of the areas also severely disrupted the Palestinian economy.”
The intifada in many ways is a framing event in Battrawi ‘s life — her father wrote a series of letters to a newspaper during it and she is named after a town in Palestine. Her father addressed his letters to “his friend in Bisan.”
“Ever since I was little I’ve dealt with violence, curfews and bombings. I think the important thing is how the family deals with it,” said Battrawi.
Today, Palestine is still a troubled country, not officially recognized as a sovereign nation and under occupation by Israel, almost constantly in conflict with Israel and torn internally with a Fatah run government in the West Bank and a Hamas controlled government in the Gaza Strip.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the economy of Palestine is essentially dependent on outside aid. Currently, the West Bank, where Ramallah is, has a population of approximately 2.5 million with 722,000 Palestinian refugees. A barrier wall, called the “seam line” by the CIA, surrounds the West Bank and checkpoints control all movement in and out.
The United States is a strong ally of Israel and Israel has been at conflict with Palestine in some way since the 1940s. As such, it has, at times, been difficult for Battrawi to go to school in the United States.
“I didn’t want to apply to an American school. But I thought that I should go and show them how it really is [in Palestine]. I was surprised to find that everyone was very nice, very open and very friendly. I learned a lot from here, stuff that I wouldn’t expect. Before I came here, I had this image of Americans very different from what I’ve seen,” she said.
It was a difficult path to Knox, however, and Battrawi has been luckier than many. It is impossible to grow up in Palestine, even in a “safe” part, and not have politics and violence as a constant part of life.
“As children, we talk about politics. Who does that? In high school, even before high school, we talked about politics. This is when resistance and peace movements start. As you can see we have a lot of potential. It’s just that some people misuse their intellect,” said Battrawi.
Living in the United States and getting to know her friends here has led Battrawi to some realizations about life in Palestine.
“Now that I’m here, I realize that I don’t think we have a real childhood. I remember one day we were swimming and a helicopter started bombing. You know, we weren’t scared. We just jumped around and went into the house. Still, my experience is nothing like other people’s,” said Battrawi.
Many Americans, largely to do with the United States’ commitment as an ally of Israel, have a negative opinion of Palestine. Battrawi spoke about why she feels this is the case.
“I think the media does not really show the real story. It shows one side of the story. That’s why I don’t blame people for their ignorance. But I’ll talk to anyone. I think there is potential for open-mindedness. People are open to listen. My experience is that the [American] government definitely supports Israel. I know the government has always supported Israel directly, but it’s the people who really matter.”
Although there has been violence for many years between Israel and Palestine, Battrawi does not think it has to be this way. The first step that she says must be taken is the destruction of wall that Israel has been building around the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“The first thing is breaking down the barriers, breaking down the checkpoints. The best way to come to peace is to talk to people. It’s the governments that are the problem. They put bumps in the way. We [Palestinians and Israelis] are the closest people together, but the only Israelis I’ve ever met are in America.”
Battrawi feels that the people in both Israel and Palestine want peace, and that the path to peace is through education.
“As a Palestinian growing up there, everyone wants to help their country and some want to do it a bad way through violence, but most people want peace and to do that we seek education, to show the Israelis we can do things peacefully,” she said.
There is racism in Palestine and Israel and many issues that must be dealt with, but dialogue is the path to resolving those differences, said Battrawi.
“It’s hard for some people to talk to an Israeli. A mother whose son has died can’t understand why I want to, but you know, I’ve gone through hard times too. A lot of people back home would not say this because they’ve never met an Israeli, but I’m telling you this because I have, and I know we have basically the same culture.”
In the end, although the governments of Israel and Palestine don’t seem any closer to peace now than they did a year ago, the people of those countries feel differently.
“Friendship is the path to peace in the Holy Land. We should call it the Holy Land. It’s stupid to want to kick out the Israelis — that’s what they did to us in 1948; you can’t do that again. We have to live together.”
In the end, Battrawi has gained a lot from her time in the United States.
“We had a rally in Chicago to stop the bombing in Gaza, and I was surprised to see many Americans, Jewish Americans there,” she said.
Battrawi is graduating with a major in biology and a minor in environmental studies. She plans to go to graduate school for nutrition in Europe, but first she plans to return to Palestine to do research on public health. Battrawi says she does not have dreams about making grand changes in Palestine, but rather, she said that, “with whatever I do, I’ll help indirectly. I don’t plan on political involvement, but in working on common problems.”