Growing Up Palestinian: Terrorist, Collateral Damage, and Apple Tree Cutter?

When I was a kid, I was often asked what my nationality was. Was I Italian? Greek? Spanish?

The answer was none of the above. “I’m Palestinian!” I would respond proudly.

The reaction? Well, usually . . .

“Oh,” in a quiet voice.

I grew up in the 1970s, a time when the word Palestinian was practically synonymous with the word, ‘terrorist.’ And though I never lost my pride in my heritage, there was a feeling of dejection after some of these exchanges.

Other times, the feeling of dejection came after various “reality checks.”

I remember one specific occasion. I must have been about eight years old. I was riding with a Palestinian adult. An obvious drunkard walked in front of the car while we were at a stop sign and pretended that he was hit. Minutes later, a police officer came and arrested the drunkard.

The officer asked the driver for identification while explaining the havoc that the man had been causing. Upon seeing the driver’s license, the officer noticed that the name was ethnic.

“Where are you from, Ma’am?” the cop asked.

To my surprise, the response was, “Jordan.” This was not false, as many Palestinian West Bankers did hold Jordanian passports. I sat quietly and knew, even at my age, that it was just the easier answer to give.

“King Hussein,” smiled the officer.

Yes, it was the easier answer to give.

Years later, my family moved to a nearby city and lived near a young man who drove a sports car. The license plate at the front of his Camaro signified his pride in his Italian heritage. I thought often about the nationalistic plate I would get when I was of driving age. And yet, my thoughts were interrupted by parental warnings that such a display would encourage vandalism.

I forgot about the plate. I thought, ‘It’s not fair! Why are we, Palestinians, unable to show public pride in our heritage? Weren’t we a nation of immigrants? ‘

Many years later, it feels like time has stood still. The word “terrorist” never went away. But I learned to live with it, and even make light of it at times.

I recall a time when we celebrated an event in my office. We went to a Middle Eastern restaurant. I knew all of the employees there and talked with them in Arabic.

“Do you know those guys, Sherri?” Tom asked.

“Yes, I’ve known them for awhile,” I answered. “They are great guys. By the way, Palestinians own this Middle Eastern restaurant. And, you will love the food!”

“Oh, this restaurant is owned by Palestinians?” asked my noticeably uncomfortable colleague.

“Yes, Tom,” I smiled. “So you’d better be careful because there might be a bomb under your plate!”

The table erupted with laughter, as well as appreciation that a potentially tense situation was avoided and instead, turned into a joke.

But these days, I am finding it more and more difficult to make light of or find humor in similar situations. In fact, I find myself mostly disheartened at the various experts on television. Experts who seem more finessed at regurgitating Israeli rhetoric than offering thoughtful and helpful analyses to viewers. Quite simply, Palestinians are terrorists and collateral damage.

Palestinians had their homeland taken away in 1948, but we are the terrorists. The irony that the founders of Israel were called terrorists for blowing up hotels and committing massacres has been lost on many.

Palestinians é deprived of their most basic rights — have been militarily occupied in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, but we are the terrorists.

Yasser Arafat shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin and signed a peace agreement at the White House. Ariel Sharon announced that he was against the prior peace agreements and immediately talked of the continuation of the 1948 war upon his entry into office. Yet, Arafat is the one who is allegedly not a partner in peace.

Israelis recently destroy the infrastructure of Palestinian society, slaughter hundreds, prevent investigations from taking place, and prohibit human rights organizations from delivering needed relief supplies. But hey, those suffering are just collateral damage in Israel’s war on terror.

And collateral damage is just not that important in the scheme of things. Israelis fired 200 missiles into the Jenin refugee camp é an area of one square kilometer é but the Israelis just didn’t think anybody would be killed and if there were deaths, they were unintentional. Besides, it was a camp full of terrorists, and Israel did what any decent country would do to “terrorists” . . . bomb the “terrorist” haven into oblivion and “shave” 1,100 homes with Caterpillar bulldozers.

Indeed, throughout history, name-calling has been a fact of life. The British used to refer to American heroes like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as terrorists, too. The German Nazis referred to the instigator of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz, as a terrorist. More recently, white Afrikaners referred to Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.

And, so I guess we, Palestinians, are in good company.

Sherri Muzher, who holds a Jurist Doctor in International and Comparative Law, is a Palestinian-American activist and free lance journalist.

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