Across the Aisle, Beyond the Green Line

“The discrimination of refugees by Palestinian society is terrible,” said Muhammad, who lives in a UN refugee camp in Nablus. “If you think about it, the source of all the problems and all the devils in the world is…”

I honestly thought he was going to say “discrimination”, or “inequality”, or something along those lines.

“…Israel.”

I held my breath and my tongue as I tried to digest the bigoted non sequitur I had just heard. It’s one thing to read such incendiary statements in an academic article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it’s an entirely different experience to hear it from the horse’s mouth. I felt a flush of anger, but how could I respond? I was sitting with a tour group in a public park in Nablus, just minutes before entering a refugee camp – not the most conducive environment for a debate.

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Public park in Nablus

Our tour guide, also named Muhammad, quickly interrupted his friend from the Nablus refugee camp. “He’s not referring to the people. He’s talking about the system of oppression,” he said. But I wasn’t convinced. What’s worse is that “Nablus Muhammad” is an English teacher to 11th and 12th grade students. Is he repeating such statements to his students?

As I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat, two thoughts entered my mind. First, my discomfort paled in comparison to the discomfort of the Palestinian refugees in the camp that I was about to walk through. As erroneous and dangerous as Nablus Muhammad’s remarks were, they are the product of socialisation within a crowded and dirty urban pressure cooker. Second, I must learn to deal with this dissonance rather than run away from it.

After listening to Nablus Muhammad for a few more minutes, we walked to the refugee camp. Actually, the word “camp” gives a false impression. When the camps were created after the war of 1948-9, Palestinian refugees lived in tents, hoping for the conflict to end soon so that they could return to their homes. But over the decades, as it became clear that a resolution was nowhere in sight, the tents were replaced by shabby concrete buildings sponsored by the UN and other states like Japan. In many “camps”, the buildings were built in extremely close proximity, creating a dense and suffocating environment.

As we approached the refugee compound, a young boy called out to us, “Ma shlomchem (how are you)?” I was surprised to hear Hebrew, but fortunately for me (as I would learn later), I replied with a weak “Hello”. We entered the maze of narrow alleys, each of which was the width of two people. As we walked in single file, I tried to decipher the graffiti on the walls of the four-storey apartment buildings that we were walking between. I noticed a hastily drawn swastika and shuddered at the thought of such a symbol amongst a population that hates the Jewish state.

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Narrow alleys in refugee camp

Privacy is non-existent in this densely populated concrete labyrinth. As we weaved in and out of the alleyways, I unintentionally peeked into several homes. The atmosphere was eerily quiet, save for the few children playing in the alleys and several men carrying out repair work. I didn’t feel unsafe at all, but I did feel a lot of tension in the air. I imagine that many residents scornfully regarded us as intrusive foreigners trying to “understand” the situation in a brief 10-minute tour. I don’t blame them for thinking that.

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Refugee camp in Nablus

There are very different opinions about Palestinian refugees. Some blame only Israel for creating the most protracted refugee crisis in the world, and others blame the Palestinian and Arab governments for abusing the refugees as pawns in their assault on Israel’s legitimacy. But regardless of political opinion, it is an undeniably miserable situation that I wish more Israelis would at least acknowledge. When I visited the Arafat Museum in Ramallah and saw pictures of Palestinians fleeing their homes and living in tents, I recalled the words of a right-wing Israeli who told me that the Palestinians are a “cancer in Judea and Samaria”. How could such a vile pejorative be hurled at refugees?

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Picture taken in Arafat Museum in Ramallah

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Picture taken in Arafat Museum in Ramallah

As we walked away, a man on a wheelchair came speeding towards us shouting, “T’azor li (help me)!” He was begging for alms in Hebrew! Confused, I asked Tour Guide Muhammad why I had heard Hebrew in a Palestinian refugee compound. He replied that many refugees suspect that there are Israeli Mossad or Shin Bet agents embedded within tour groups like ours, especially since many of them are wanted by the Israeli authorities. Interestingly, he seemed quite apologetic for this attitude, claiming that it was the fault of the Palestinian media. He also recounted the story of another tour group that he had taken to a refugee camp, where a German girl accidentally said “Beseder (OK)” to a refugee. He had to explain to the refugees in Arabic that she was just a student in Israel, and her Hebrew reply was just a habit she had picked up.


The walk through the refugee camp was the final and most memorable part of the Nablus tour which was organised by Area D hostel in Ramallah. I had stayed in that hostel for one night as part of a short weekend in the West Bank. Before this trip, I had only visited Bethlehem and Jericho, and I had never slept overnight in the West Bank.

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Nablus

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Mural in Nablus

Tour Guide Muhammad was a friendly, easy-going guide who spoke in a frank but mostly measured manner. Before taking us to the refugee camp, he showed us the main souk of Nablus, took us to a Turkish hammam, and treated us to delicious knafeh – a syrupy symphony of sugar and cheese that tantalises the taste buds and elevates the soul. He also took us to an olive oil soap workshop, where we were introduced to the complex process of purifying olive oil and turning it into high-quality bars of soap for export.

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Spices, olive oil soap, nuts, etc.

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Making knafeh

Throughout the tour, he shared his personal stories of the Second Intifada, his experiences working for several years in the Palestinian Authority (PA) government, and his thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian society.

He said a lot that I had expected – that the unjust Zionists were brutal and violent, that they had killed many innocent women and children during the Second Intifada, and that the Palestinians are cooped up in two giant jails (the West Bank and Gaza). He also said that he was unsure of his own future and the future of the Palestinian people, and that there may be no more land left to claim if Israelis continue to build settlements and place restrictions on the movement of Palestinians.

But some of his opinions were quite surprising. For example, he shared his displeasure with the Palestinian refugees who remained in the camps instead of moving to the cities like Nablus and Ramallah. “They don’t need to live like our fellow Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria,” he said. “They are the ones who are really suffering – they are not accepted by the societies they live in.”

He also said that there are many problems in Palestinian society, such as inequality, corruption, infighting and lack of meritocracy. “People get jobs based on connections and not only on qualifications,” he said. In fact, he had never heard of “internships” until he travelled to India as part of an official exchange between the PA and the Indian government.

“It isn’t right to blame everything on the Israelis,” he said. “The Palestinian people have two enemies – occupation and ignorance.”

When referring to Israel, he often placed the word “state” in inverted commas, claiming that he recognises Israel because of its power, not because it had the right to take the land in 1948. In other words, he accepts the reality of Israel’s existence but not its legitimacy, just like many other Palestinians. Since this looks unlikely to change, it seems that a future peace deal (if there ever is one) will only be possible on the basis of hard power politics and unpalatable realities.

Interestingly, he claimed that Israel is highly individualistic because it is a migrant society of Jews from many different nations and cultures. This stands in contrast to the high solidarity of Palestinian society, which he claims has one unifying culture based on time-honoured traditions spanning many generations of indigenous Palestinians. I disagree with his assessment – there is a high level of solidarity within Israeli society even though there is tension between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, as well as the Haredim and secular Jews. Also, Muhammad himself decried the inequality and fault-lines that exist within Palestinian society. But it is nonetheless an interesting perspective to hear from a Palestinian.

I share these experiences and observations primarily to educate and not to try to influence. I’ve tried to recount the most memorable parts of my tour as accurately as possible. I’ve spoken to a lot of Israelis over the past year. Over the next six months, I will make an effort to speak to more Palestinians across the Green Line.

Real Steel: Usumain Baraka

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I first heard the incredible story of Usumain’s perilous journey from Sudan to Israel on the same day that he tried to treat me to dinner.

I was almost moved to tears when I witnessed his warmth and generosity. A young man who came to Israel with nothing but the shirt on his back now wanted to pay for my meal.

Usumain’s graciousness is equalled by his drive and determination. He is a BA student in Government in IDC Herzliya, one of the top colleges in Israel. He aspires to work either in an international NGO or in a foreign embassy in Israel. But his big dream is to return to Sudan and help build relations between Israelis and Sudanese. To say that this is a tall order is an understatement. Sudan is ruled by an Islamist dictator and does not recognise Israel’s right to exist. From Usumain’s report, anti-Semitism runs deep in the population – as a young boy, he was told by his uncle that Jews have devil’s horns on their head.

But Usumain is an optimist fuelled by aspiration. When he saw the name “Canada-Israel” prominently displayed on an office building in Herzliya Pituach, he turned to me and said, “One day, I will open an office with a big sign that says “Darfur-Israel”.


“Darfur” usually conjures bloodcurdling images of massacres and mayhem, but it is home for Usumain. He fled from the Darfur genocide in 2003 when his village was attacked by the government-backed Janjaweed militia. His father and older brother were killed by the militants, and the entire village was razed to the ground. He was only nine.

He miraculously escaped to a refugee camp in neighbouring Chad, where he spent the next four years of his life with his mother and siblings. As he interacted with the UN workers, he picked up English and was inspired to leave the refugee camp to further his education. With childlike innocence and wisdom beyond his years, he promised his mother that he would “learn to be a leader without spilling any blood” and went off to Libya to study at the age of 13.

Although he benefited from the English lessons in the international school he attended in Libya, Usumain struggled tremendously since he was not granted refugee status. He eventually left for Egypt because he had heard that school fees were cheaper there. He travelled across the border with his friend who was barely a year older than him.

While in Cairo, the two boys went into hiding when they heard that there were Egyptian and Sudanese agents collaborating to arrest and deport Darfurians. While watching TV one day, they chanced upon a documentary about Israel on Al-Jazeera. For the first time in his life, Usumain learned about the Holocaust and the waves of Jewish refugees to Israel. It dawned on him that of all the countries he had passed through, none of them had ever experienced the horrors of genocide. Chad, Libya and Egypt have certainly been ravaged by internecine fighting and violent oppression, but not ethnic cleansing like in Darfur. Usumain thought that Israel would truly understand his plight. He decided to make his own Exodus from Egypt.

Usumain convinced his friend that brighter prospects awaited them in Israel. They managed to contact a Bedouin smuggler, who grouped the duo together with ten other refugees. The twelve refugees hid in the smuggler’s delivery truck, with nylon draped over them and boxes of fruit and vegetables on their heads. The smuggler drove them through the Sinai and was stopped twice by the police. In one inspection, the policeman took an apple from the box atop Usumain’s head! He sat like a statue, and was not discovered.

After several nights of travelling under the cloak of darkness, the smuggler stopped a distance from the border and told the group that they were on their own. They approached the border with caution, crawling as they got closer. They were like the 12 spies of Israel, scouting out the Promised Land. But instead of the giants of Canaan, they faced armed Egyptian soldiers.

Every nerve-wracking step towards the border was possible only because fear was suppressed by desperation. But the mental strain was too much to bear for one member of the crew, who had a panic attack and started screaming uncontrollably. He was immediately shot by the Egyptian border guard.

All caution was abandoned. The remaining eleven ran to the border with all their might. In the frenzy, another refugee was shot and wounded, and his loyal friend refused to leave his side. Both were tragically killed by the Egyptians.

On the other side of the fence, Israeli soldiers prepared to receive the survivors, but could not fire back at the Egyptians. The soldiers instructed the refugees in Arabic to run towards them for safety. But they didn’t heed their call, because they hadn’t expected Israeli soldiers to speak Arabic and thought that they were still in Egypt. Ironically, the language that should have inspired trust in the soldiers served instead to arouse suspicion. At last, the refugees realised that the soldiers’ uniforms were different from the Egyptians, and they turned to them for help.


I stared at Usumain in disbelief as he recounted his harrowing brush with death. He was animated in his narration but seemed surprisingly calm. He paused for a while, allowing me to digest everything I had just heard.

“I’ve met good and bad people here in Israel,” he said, “just like in every other country.”

He recalled the moment when one of the Israeli soldiers at the border took off his own socks to help a barefooted refugee. That auspicious beginning was then overshadowed by the deceit of another soldier who collected the refugees’ money and valuables for “safekeeping”. They never saw their money or belongings again.

Usumain was transported with the other refugees to Saharonim Prison in the Negev, a detention centre for African asylum seekers. He spent 6 weeks there, during which he was referred to by number and not by name. When he was released at Be’er Sheva Central Bus Station, he was left completely alone as an unaccompanied minor who knew no Hebrew. The only Arabic he saw was the sign for the taxi stand, so he approached a driver, handed him the US dollars that he had hidden under his collar, and was on the road to Eilat.

Standing in the central bus station of Eilat, he saw an African man in the distance and ran headlong towards him. As it turned out, the man was Ghanaian but knew other Sudanese refugees that he could put Usumain in touch with. Through a series of miraculous connections, Usumain was enrolled in Yemin Orde, a boarding school on Mount Carmel for at-risk and immigrant youth. Not only did he study Hebrew in Ulpan, he had to study every subject in Hebrew too!

Grateful for the opportunity to study, Usumain believed that he needed to make an effort to integrate with the school population. In an impressive display of leadership and influence, he convinced his five other Sudanese friends that they should participate in religious services, even though they were not required to do so. He dressed like an Orthodox Jew with a kippah, white shirt and black trousers, read the Tanakh (Bible), and ate only kosher food.

Through grit and perseverance, Usumain excelled in his studies and qualified for university. But motivated by his desire to integrate, he volunteered to serve in the IDF. To his disappointment, he was rejected because he was not a citizen. He decided to further his education in university, and was accepted to the BA Government programme in IDC Herzliya.


Usumain came to Israel eight years ago believing that the country would identify with his experience and show him compassion as a refugee. Was he right?

Despite his harsh and terrifying stint in the detention centre, he was welcomed by an Israeli boarding school and his education was sponsored by the Israeli government. He developed strong friendships with Israelis and was assisted by NGOs and volunteers. He is now studying in a top-notch Israeli university with the support of Jewish philanthropists and netizens who donated to his Indiegogo campaign.

However, life is not all smooth-sailing for him. He has no passport or refugee status in Israel. All he has is a visa that has to be renewed every two months in Bnei Brak – a process which requires waiting in line for hours. He is also not permitted to work on his visa. Apparently, enforcement of this rule is ambiguous, but he has been rejected at multiple job interviews.

Worst of all, asylum seekers like Usumain are subject to interminable haranguing from right-wing politicians and religious leaders who tell them they do not belong to the Jewish nation. Miri Regev, for example, called African migrants a “cancer” to Israeli society. According to current policy, African asylum seekers who enter Israel illegally can be detained for a year without trial. As for refugee status, of the 3,165 asylum applications received between 2009 and 2015, only 5 were granted temporary residency. These policies are designed to encourage asylum seekers to accept government-assisted repatriation to Uganda or Rwanda.

Usumain knows all this. And yet, he keeps his chin up and smiles. He has been tested severely through his life, and has shown the famously resilient Israelis that he too is made of real steel.