In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes. Ziad Abbas' mother was one of them. "My mom, she closed the house with a key, and took the key with her," she says. "She thought she would come back to the house in a few days."
That key, Abbas says, she protected all her life. "I have that key right now," he says.
There are children who have lived in refugee camps since birth, he says, but when you ask them where they're from, they'll give you the name of the village parents or grandparents left 61 years ago.
Abbas is a Palestinian journalist who helped guide a documentary filmmaker through the West Bank for a film called Promises, which was nominated for an Academy Award. He is also the co-founder of the Ibdaa Cultural Center, which works with Palestinian children to preserve their cultural and artistic heritage against, he says, attempts to wipe it out.
There are an estimated 12,000 people living on less than a square mile in the Dheisheh refugee camp where Abbas has lived all of his life. "We are missing still basic needs," he says. "Electricity, you have it in summer. But in winter, because it's controlled by Israelis, sometimes no electricity. Same with water. You have it in winter, and in summer we don't have enough water because Israel controls more than 80 percent of the water."
Some call these places concentration camps, he says, and there are 59 scattered over the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. It's like a big jail, he adds, where inmates face discrimination and harassment at any of the hundreds of military checkpoints. He calls it a "death environment," explaining that "maybe you will die everywhere, at any moment." It's a daily challenge, he says, each hour, from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep. "Even your dreams,” he says. “Sometimes, they disturb your dreams."
“Even your dreams. Sometimes, they disturb your dreams.”
Abbas can cross the ocean to places like Albuquerque and Santa Fe but notes that he can't enter Jerusalem, which is 10 miles from his refugee camp. "I'm not allowed because of who I am as a Palestinian."
The American media entirely ignores the Palestinian perspective, he says, and does not show what's happening on the ground. Coverage of Israeli bombings of the Gaza Strip and the subsequent victims has been abysmal in the mainstream, he says. "Children were killed in Gaza Strip," he says. "Who cares that much about them?"
That's why he's come to the States on a passport he says he's lucky to have. "We are trying to raise our voices, to come and speak to the American people direct, face-to-face." Once citizens are aware of what's going on, he hopes they will take a stand. "Take South Africa, for example. There were huge campaigns in the United States against the apartheid system and against racism," he says. "I can see movements moving, but moving in a slow way, to support the Palestinians."
Many of the bullets, tanks and planes used in attacks against the Palestinian people are made in the U.S., he says. There are people in the States who support Palestinians, including many minority organizations, according to Abbas. It's a joined struggle, he adds, because the United States is buttressing Israel not just politically within the United Nations but also with billions of dollars and military aid. And there are plenty of Americans who believe those dollars should be spent at home, he finishes, on education and health care.
Abbas doesn't flinch from potent terms when describing the destruction of his people. "It's a continuous genocide," he says. "It's ethnic cleansing. Israel is attacking the Palestinians because they are Palestinians." This has been happening since the late '40s, he says, when people were uprooted from their land, their villages destroyed. "They want to build a pure Jewish state." Abbas says one day he hopes the area will be part of a secular state with equal rights for everyone who lives there.
He is not the first to use the term "ethnic cleansing." He cites an Israeli professor named Ilan Pappe, who published a book in 2006 called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which critically examines Israel's actions from the war for independence in 1948 to present day.
He's not looking for sympathy from Americans for the Palestinian struggle. Instead, he says, he wants people to be aware of what the U.S. government is doing in the Middle East—and of its backing of the Israeli occupation. "We want American people to know that American support to Israel is harming the Palestinian people, harming the Palestinian children, harming the Palestinian women. Not just harming—