My name is Yousef and I am a Palestinian. I am the fourth of seven children. For the first 13 years of my life, I lived in the Gaza Strip with my family—my dad, my mom, my grandmother and my four siblings. We lived in a three-story house in the village of Deir el-Balah next to the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom. Growing up in Gaza, I didn’t think much about politics or the poverty which surrounded me. My main interest was playing sports, especially soccer. I dreamed of being a soccer star someday.
Things changed in 2000 when violence broke out between Israelis and Palestinians. Our village was caught in the middle. One day there was a violent knock at the door. My father opened it, and a group of Israeli soldiers armed with M-16 rifles glared at him.
“You have to leave your home,” they said. “Your house is too close to the settlement. It will be dangerous for you to stay here.”
“Why should I leave my house?” my father asked. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“If you stay here,” the soldier said, “you’re going to pay the price. A big price.”
He then explained the restrictions we would have to live under if we decided to stay. When the soldiers left, my family discussed what to do. My mother was frightened and wanted to leave immediately. All of the neighbors had left, and their houses had been destroyed. But my father had a different idea.
“You can leave if you want to,” he said, “but if we leave, they will destroy our home, and we’ll never see it again. I plan to stay, no matter what happens.” He spoke with such conviction that we all decided to stay.
But living in our home became more difficult every day. The Israeli soldiers moved in. They covered the roof of our house with camouflage nets and barbed wire. Then they put up a machine-gun post and cameras. We could no longer live normal lives. Soldiers occupied the top floors of the house. No one was allowed to come inside, except for the soldiers and those who had permission to enter, such as journalists and United Nations workers.
Even we were not allowed on the second and the third floors of our house because the army told us that they were called Area C, where the Israeli military government runs everything, and the Palestinians have no authority. The living room, where all seven of us had to stay at night, was called Area A, where Palestinians supposedly have power. But we called this area “the jail.” The bathroom, kitchen and bedrooms were called Area B, where Palestinians administer themselves, but Israelis have security control. My sister labeled the doors of the house. We had to get permission to go into the kitchen. If we had to go to the bathroom, a soldier came with us.
This continued for five years. Our lives were dominated by tanks, soldiers, shooting, rockets, and seemingly endless destruction.
How we survived this crazy period, I don’t know. Maybe it was the love of our home that gave us the power to keep going. Maybe it was our belief that we are all human beings, who can somehow live together. My father used to say, “We are all children of Abraham. We Palestinians have the right to live in peace, and so do the Israelis.” But I never really believed him in my heart.
It seemed as if things could get no worse, but they could, and they did. One day some UN workers, who had permission to visit us, came to our home. They were very nice. I was feeling good. I told them how my soccer team had just won a game. One UN worker complimented me on my soccer shirt that had the name of my favorite Italian team—the Romas.
I was standing outside my house, waving goodbye to the UN workers when something terrible happened. It was as if something had entered my body, from the back. It didn’t hurt, at first. But it felt very strange.
“Dad,” I said. “I think I’ve been shot.”
He looked surprised, then horrified. So did the rest of my family. Then I crumpled to the ground.
My father rushed over and took me into his arms.
“Son, are you okay?” he asked.
“Sure, Dad,” I said. “I’m fine. I passed my math test today, and I, I got a good grade in history, and my team won.”
Then the pain hit me. It was so intense that I whispered the Shahadat, the words that Muslims say when they die.
“It’s going to be okay, son,” my father said. “You’re not going to die.”
He said it as if he really meant it. That’s the way my father is. He never gives up. He called an ambulance, and I was taken to the hospital in Gaza City.
But I don’t remember much about the trip. I had passed out. When I awoke, I was very drowsy. I could tell that I was in a hospital. I was in a big white bed and something was stuck in my arm—an I.V. My father was sitting by the bedside. He smiled when he saw that I was awake.
“What happened?” I asked groggily.
“You were shot in the back,” he said. “The bullet lodged in your spine. The doctors say it’s too dangerous to operate. But you’re going to be okay. You’ll live.”
I tried to move my legs, but I couldn’t.
“Dad,” I said. “I can’t move my legs. Will I be able to walk?”
My father didn’t say anything at first. Then he said, “If God wills, son. The doctors are doing everything they can.”
I knew that the doctors did their best, but they lacked basic medical supplies. I felt helpless, as if my life were over. Here I was, 15 years old and I might never walk again and never play soccer. I was so depressed that I stopped talking. I was in shock.
A few days later, I was taken on a gurney to another ambulance, then driven to a new hospital. I don’t remember much. It was like a bad dream. When I was finally conscious, I noticed that the new hospital was different. The nurses and doctors were speaking Hebrew! I couldn’t believe it.
“Where am I?” I asked. Those were my first words in days.
My dad was sitting by my bed. Behind him was an Israeli nurse. When she saw me open my eyes and speak, she smiled. “He’s awake,” she said in a kind, gentle voice, much like my mother’s.
It was the first time that an Israeli had ever smiled at me, the first time that I had ever seen an Israeli who wasn’t a soldier.
Over the next few weeks and months, I saw many Israelis—doctors, nurses, children, parents. The doctors who came to visit me smiled and joked. The nurses were kind. I found this very bewildering. Is it possible that Israelis really were human after all? After a few weeks, my father and mother had to return to Gaza, and I was left alone. I missed them very much. And I was nervous about being alone with Israelis.
A settler family had been visiting their son who was in the same room with me. At first, they had been upset that their son was in the same room as an Arab. But when they learned what had happened to me, and saw how lonely I was, they began to be nice to me. They brought me little gifts. They made sure that I had all the food and water I needed. I will never forget them.
Over the next year I struggled to regain my health. During this time I had long conversations with my father about the meaning of what had happened. Why do so many people have to get hurt and die? Is forgiveness possible?
Little by little, my attitude changed. I came to see that one Israeli soldier had shot me, but many Israeli people had worked to save my life.
I also came to realize that what my father and mother had said was true: Israelis really were human beings just like me. And I felt truly human for the first time in my life. I wanted to do something to change the world, to make it a more peaceful place.
The doctors were not able to remove the bullet from my body. I lived for seven months in the hospital without being able to walk. Today I am walking fine, but the bullet is still in my back and probably always will be.
I finally got my chance to be a peace maker. I learned about a program called Seeds of Peace. This program brings together Israeli and Palestinian teens in a camp in the state of Maine in the U.S. Teens are given the opportunity to dialogue, to learn about each other, and to make friends. I went to Maine and spent the summer with a group of Israeli as well as Palestinian teenagers.
When some Palestinian youth at the camp, and also later back at home, heard my story, they wanted to use it to show how bad the Israelis can be. I refused to let them use my story in this way. They became angry at me. “What’s wrong with you, Yousef? Whose side are you on,” they demanded, “theirs or ours?”
I didn’t want to take sides. I knew in my heart that “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” And so I made friends with the Israelis as well as with the Palestinians. This was hard. Even some members of my own family rejected me for being a traitor. But my father and mother always gave me their complete support.
When I was back in Gaza, one of the Israeli soldiers named Ori, who was stationed in my home, became interested in my story. We had long conversations about peace. I told him that even though I probably would have a bullet in my back for the rest of my life, I would do all I could to be a peacemaker. Ori was very sympathetic, and I suggested that he should think about becoming a counselor at a Seeds of Peace camp. When we finished our conversation, I gave him a Seeds of Peace T-shirt.
Ori smiled warmly. “Thank you,” he said. “I will wear it when I am done with my military service.”