April 2, 2020

Storyteller, Undercover Arab

It was late in the day and all Rami wanted was to put his head against the bulletproof window of  “the settler bus,” as he calls it, and doze off. But stuck in traffic, the religious Jew next to him saw an opportunity for conversation. He gesticulated wildly, telling Rami how fed up he was of living in fear of Arabs.  Rami nodded but did not answer. Even with his fluent Hebrew, his accent would have given him away as a Palestinian Arab. 

The traffic intensified. As they approached the Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank, they encountered several dozen policemen, soldiers and bystanders. A riot broke out. There had been another terror attack — a Palestinian had tried to stab a soldier. The army had shot and killed him. Rami was petrified. Arabs don’t usually ride settler buses, but they were more frequent than the Arab buses from the Jerusalem bus station. It took all his strength just to will his legs to move. He got off the bus and ran to a nearby gas station where he knew there was an Arab worker. He sat there, trembling, until his mother came to get him.

Rami, 29, is full of similar stories. Even as we spoke at a café in Jaffa, an Israeli asked if Rami had served in Duvdevan — an elite counter-terrorist unit in the Israel Defense Forces. With shorn hair, hazel eyes and a chiseled physique, Rami’s generically handsome Middle Eastern appearance means he melts into a crowd as seamlessly in Tel Aviv as in downtown Ramallah. 

Rami was born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp in the south Hebron hills. One of five children, his parents instilled in him the importance of respect for others. Nonetheless, he grew up in a culture of hate. 

“I didn’t choose my childhood,” he said. “My neighborhood, school, university, all of these influences led me to grow up hating the other side.” 

“For a Palestinian to come to Israel and work in an international company like Intel or Google, this is a dream.” – Rami

These days, his association with Jews is the reason that ties with his closest childhood friends were severed. But during his days as a tour guide when he was 20, he had an encounter with Israelis at a tourism summit that was the turning point for him. Until then, the only Israelis he’d known were soldiers, and his memories of their treatment of him were not good. 

Rami recalls angrily telling an Israeli at the summit how his grandparents had been forced out of their home during the War of Independence. He denounced Israel’s policy of changing the Arabic name of their hometown to an Israeli one, Kiryat Gat, as an attempt to erase Palestinian history. He expressed the hope that his grandmother (who, like many Palestinians, still carries the key to the home she fled) would return someday.

Nine years later, Rami has changed his tune. His grandparents’ “right of return” to their former abode? “I don’t believe in that anymore,” he said. “Putting history — the Nakba (the Palestinian “catastrophe” marking the establishment of the State of Israel) or the Holocaust — all the time on the table [means] nothing will change,” he said. “Both sides [are] sad and full of trauma, but we don’t need to allow these things to live with us. We need to start thinking about the next generation.”

Rami is working to do just that. He works as a program coordinator for the Palestinian Internship Project, an organization that places Palestinian university graduates in three-month internships at companies in Israel. 

“For a Palestinian to come to Israel and work in an international company like Intel or Google,” he said, “this is a dream.”