Inside Palestine: 3 Families On What Life is Really Like, From Making a Living to Staying Together

Missile strikes in Gaza and home demolitions in the West Bank make headlines, but rarely are they presented in the context of everyday life. Meet three Palestinians trying to make ends meet and keep their families safe.

In 2010 we began research for the book Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation, a collection of oral histories from people living in the West Bank and Gaza.

As young journalists, we had met in college and worked on a long-term human rights story previously, but this new project was something else entirely. Approaching Palestine as outsiders was a considerable challenge but also proved to be one of the strengths of the project. We sought out stories that might surprise us, so that we might also surprise our readers— no matter their backgrounds or knowledge of the region.

Life in Palestine is astonishingly diverse, complex, and often contradictory. Hope flourishes right alongside stark cynicism and despair, and we found that many of the human rights abuses in the occupied territories take place in the mundane details of daily life. Simple things like traveling to work, sending children to school, or planning weddings can all be severely impacted by the occupation at any time. In Western media, West Bank home demolitions and missile strikes in Gaza make headlines, but rarely are they presented in the context of everyday Palestinian life.

Click here for more info on the new book from Voice of Witness.

Click here to download free educational curricula based on this oral history collection.

Beyond the news stories of failed negotiations and armed clashes, there are millions of stories of people continuing to live, laugh, and struggle under military occupation. Our book presents stories from 16 people living in the West Bank and Gaza. Here, we present snippets from three of them.

Ebtihaj tells the story of the night her son was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers. Jamal talks of his livelihood being threatened by an Israeli naval blockade that restricts fisherman to only the shallowest of waters. And Fadi, a computer programmer who grew up in the United States, talks about moving his family to Gaza in 2012 with the goal of giving his three young children a stronger connection to their Palestinian roots. He tells about surviving bombings with his family and the struggles of living under siege.

For the full-length version of these stories, you can order Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation here.

A boy races his bike down the streets of Bethlehem in the West Bank. Photo by Mateo Hoke.

Ebtihaj Be’erat

We first visit Ebtihaj Be’erat at her house in the hilltop village of Kafr Malek in 2010. Two years before our visit, just up the road from the house, her son Abdal Aziz was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers. Inside the house, there is a room devoted to him, with pictures and plaques on the walls and more pictures piled on the floor. Ebtihaj is a warm woman with oval frame glasses, a gold heart necklace, and deep dimples that appear when she smiles. Her name, in fact, means “joy.” Yet, the death of her son is clearly still part of her everyday life.

I gave birth to my middle son, Abdal Aziz, on December 5, 1987, in Ramallah. He was born nine pounds, blond, and with green eyes. The nurse who was on shift, she held him and said to everyone, “come and see the child from Kafr Malek. He is so beautiful.”

The kids don’t have any weapons to defend their country, they only have stones—a stone versus a tank.

As a child, Abdal Aziz was unique. There wasn’t anyone like him. Abdal Aziz had a lot of friends, and he was a leader among them from a young age. Part of it was that he was just so affectionate and generous. I remember he used to come up to me when I was washing dishes or something and give me a big hug. He was the same way with his friends. If one of his friends mentioned that he saw a shirt in the market that he wanted, Abdal Aziz would save his money until he could buy the shirt for his friend.

Ever since he was a kid, he always talked about how much he wanted to throw stones at the jeeps and tanks when they passed our house, to drive them away. The kids don’t have any weapons to defend their country, they only have stones—a stone versus a tank. I knew my son loved to throw stones at soldiers when they came at night, and I knew that he was in danger. The soldiers arrested so many teenagers and they injured others. My cousin is now spending 25 years in jail for throwing stones, and another one was put in jail for 15 years. One of my cousins has been in jail for 18 years now, just for throwing stones at the soldiers.

The site of a building in Gaza City that was demolished during Israels airstrikes in Gaza in 2012. Photo by Mateo Hoke.

The soldiers usually come into the village at 2 or 3 a.m. That’s their normal time. Every time they enter the village, the youth have an agreement to start whistling to let everyone know. It’s a signal for others when they are on the streets to go back home so the soldiers don’t catch them and beat them. I’m always so afraid whenever I start to hear whistling.

There were many nights when I would hear whistling, wake up, and put on my clothes to go out and search for Abdal Aziz. I would go to his friends and ask them where he was. When Abdal Aziz came home in the early morning, I’d go hug him as soon as I saw him on the stairs outside of the house and tell him, “Thank God, you’re okay and nothing has happened to you.” I would make him sit and talk to me because he wouldn’t listen…

In early October 2008, he was twenty years old and getting his passport ready, because his soccer team had an opportunity to go play in Europe. During that time, Abdal Aziz was still going out every night to be with his friends. On the night of October 16, I went to sleep at around 11:30. Abdal Aziz called at 1 a.m. he had a habit of asking me when I answered the phone, “How are you, Ma?”

I told him, “I’m going to sleep now. Do you need anything?”

He told me, “I’m coming with friends, so please make us some dinner to eat.”

I told him, “I don’t sleep very well because of you, and you want me to prepare dinner for you now?”

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So he asked me to speak with Muhammed, and he told his younger brother to prepare dinner for him, all his favorite things. I heard him come in with his friends, so I got up and put on my dress. I looked at him through the door eating dinner with his friends outside. I looked at my watch, and it was around 3 a.m. I thought, It’s late. Abdal Aziz won’t go out again. His friends will leave, and he’ll go to sleep in his room. And because I was comfortable that Abdal Aziz was at home, I went back to bed.

Not long afterward, I woke up again and opened the window. Although it was October, it was still hot. When I opened the window, I realized my son Muhammed was outside, crying and calling for a car. He told me that there had been a shooting. I went to Abdal Aziz’s room and saw that he wasn’t there. I put on my clothes and started screaming that Abdal Aziz had died.

I knew then. I felt it immediately that he was dead. My heart dropped.

A crowd of fishermen around the Port of Gaza as the sun sets over the Mediterranean Sea in the place where Jamal Bakr fishes. Because of the blockade at the time the photo was taken fishermen were only allowed to fish six nautical miles from shore. Photo by Mateo Hoke.

Jamal Bakr

During our 2013 trip to Gaza, we meet Jamal Bakr twice at the marina where the fishermen dock their boats. On each occasion Jamal is not fishing; instead, he is watching other boats with expensive nets, and the extensive manpower required to use them, as they bring in their hauls of sardines. Jamal has short-cropped grey hair and a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. He tells us that he comes from a very long line of fishermen, but that he now relies on international aid to support his family. Since the imposition of the blockade, he can’t rely on catching enough fish to provide meals for his family, let alone catching enough to sell at market.

I was born here in Gaza in May 1964, and I’ve always lived off of the sea and what it provides. My family takes its job from our ancestors—we’ve been fishermen since long, long ago. I first went out on a fishing boat with a brother-in-law when I was twelve. I loved it immediately and knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. My father taught me to fish when I was 13. I got my own boat when I was 16, and I fixed it up until it was in good enough shape to sail in the sea. I’ve fished now for 35 years. I’ve never done anything else…

A vendor in Gaza City sells cotton candy from a bicycle cart. Photo by Mateo Hoke.

Before the blockade, my family used to go far out into the sea and get amazing amounts of fish. We’d find mostly sardines, but also plenty of mackerel. I could make $500 in a single day sometimes.

But things have been especially difficult with the blockade. Restrictions have been much tighter. It might change a little, but whether it’s three miles or six miles doesn’t make much of a difference. We can’t find much in those waters—only a few sardines. There are no rocks for bigger schools of fish to live around, since it’s mostly only mud in the zone where we’re permitted to fish…

It’s really hard now to support my family through fishing. It’s really bad. Before, I used to donate money to charity. But now I’m living on international aid. It’s only because of this that I can survive. We get some support from CHF, but it’s not money. It’s just flour and oil. I could make $500 a day before, and now I haven’t made anything for a month. If I could make even $30 in a day, that would be an incredible day of fishing. But I never feel discouraged. I’m always hoping for the best.

I owe a lot of money to a lot of people. I’ve borrowed from family and friends. People don’t hassle me about it yet, but I feel the pressure whenever I see them. I don’t sleep much, only two hours a day. I didn’t sleep at all last night. How would I sleep knowing everyone wants money from me? And, more than this, I wake up in the morning and I’m not sure I’ll be able to feed my children. So it’s becoming complicated, and it’s affecting me and my state of mind because I’m not feeling fine.

Still, I never thought of getting any other job because I feel like I’m a fish. If I leave the sea, then I will die.

A young man rides a donkey outside the village of Battir in the West Bank. In the backdrop is one of the many settlements that surround the village. Photo by Cate Malek.

Fadi Shihab

In 2012, Fadi Shihab made an unusual decision: he chose to move his family from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Gaza City, despite heightened tensions between Israel and Hamas at the time. Up to that point, he had only visited Gaza once. Fadi emigrated to the United States from Kuwait when he was 13 years old, but his parents were originally from Gaza City. We meet Fadi multiple times in 2013, mostly at the property he inherited from his father in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City. He has a four-story house and a garden with olive and lemon trees covering almost two acres. As we sit in the shade of his garden, Fadi explains the reasons why he left a lucrative job and comfortable home in Tennessee.

What my parents really wanted more than anything was to go back to Gaza, to see the family they’d been away from for thirty years. My dad passed the citizenship exam first, and once he got a U.S. passport, he was finally able to get back into Gaza. So in 1997 he moved back there. He built a house on some property he inherited from his father—a couple of acres with some olive, lemon, and fig trees—and he got it ready for my mom to move there too. It was weird to us kids, and we wanted him to stay. But it was his life’s dream to go back to his home, to sit under the olive trees in the breeze…My mom failed the citizenship test a few times, so she stayed back in the U.S. for a couple more years, but then she joined him…

A aerial view of Gaza City during the summer of 2013. Photo by Mateo Hoke.

My wife, Houda, and I had our first child, our son Azhar, in January 2007. Later that same year, she got pregnant again, and it was going to be a boy. I called my dad, and told him I was going to name my second son after him. But before my second son Iyad was born, in January 2008, my father passed away. I wasn’t even able to go to the funeral—I flew to Israel, but the Erez crossing was closed at the time because of the war with Hamas, and I couldn’t get in. I was glad I got to tell him about my son, at least.

Finally, in 2010, I flew to Gaza to stay for a week and a half. I was shocked to see how my mom was living—she was so alone. She had a couple of cousins, but nobody to really look after her, and she was 72. I was like, Man, it isn’t right for her to live by herself like this for so many years. But she didn’t want to come back to the U.S. She said, “I will have nothing to do there. I want to die here, just like him.” And she wanted me to stay. She wanted her family around her. It really bothered me.

And so I went back home, and I told my wife, “Listen, you know I’ve been at IBM almost 10 years, and I don’t want to let it go. Nobody does this, but I really feel like the right decision is to return to Gaza for a while. I have to do it for my mom. I can’t live with myself if my mom dies and I’m not there.”…And Houda was like, “Okay, fine, fine. I’m not sure this is the right decision, but I understand.”

We came here in April 2012. My sons Azhar and Iyad were 5 and 6, and my daughter Nada was 3. It was a big adjustment for our family. But in some ways it was a bigger change for Houda than for me. You have to understand, she came from a family of Palestinian refugees in Gaza. Her family lived in Ashkelon before 1948, so they didn’t really consider Gaza home. For my wife, she felt like she’d finally found a home in the States, and she wasn’t crazy about being back in Gaza. But we settled into the house that my dad had bought and my mom was still living in…

I’ve had trouble finding work. I figured if I had some type of 9-to-5 job, no matter how much it paid, at least I’d feeling like I’m being productive. But I still haven’t found one. I’m not gonna lie, coming to this situation after so many years having a solid job, it brings on depression sometimes. Sometimes the stress is so much that I’ll smoke a pack of cigarettes in a night.

I also think that coming here has made me feel closer to my Palestinian identity. Just ’cause when I sit with my cousins, they tell me these stories about my grandfather, about my dad while he was here…

I wasn’t with my dad when he died. But when I’m fixing these olive trees and the garden, I feel I’m near him. I’ll just feel his presence, and I’ll sit down under the trees in the cool air. The breeze comes in from the sea, and it’s real nice. I can kind of sense what he wanted to get back to by returning here.

A soldier polices a demonstration in the West Bank city of Hebron. The Old City of Hebron is one of the most volatile areas of the West Bank because of an illegal settlement built in the middle of the city. Photo by Mateo Hoke.


Throughout the spring of 2014, Fadi and his family sought a way to leave Gaza, but were unsuccessful due to border closures with Israel and Egypt. U.S. authorities refused to help.

Then, on July 8, Israel launched the early stages of the bombing and ground assault in Gaza that the Israeli military called Operation Protective Edge. On July 10, the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem issued an emergency message to U.S. citizens in Gaza offering assistance in leaving. Fadi quickly provided all the needed information to the consulate, and a consular representative told him to be ready to leave immediately.

However, Fadi’s wife Houda was in her third trimester of pregnancy, and in the early morning hours of July 11 she went into labor. Just after two in the morning, Fadi helped his wife into the family car and made his way to Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City.
Fadi tells us by e-mail:

“My car lights [were] the only lights in the streets” due to power being out across Gaza City. “It was like telling the Israelis, please shoot me. [We heard] bombs going off to [our] left and right. But I was scared to speed up [because] I didn’t want to look like I was running away.”

A young man cradles his arm just after being hit by a rubber bullet in the West Bank village of Bilin. For almost ten years the people of Bilin have been involved in non-violent protests against the building of the separation barrier in their village. Photo by Mateo Hoke.

Houda gave birth that morning, but supplies were running short at the private Al-Quds Hospital, so Fadi was forced to drive through the darkness a second time to Shifa Hospital to get glucose for his wife. The couple was able to return home safely with their newborn daughter later the same day. “[That] night was the most scared I’d ever been,” Fadi says.

In the early morning hours of July 13, the U.S. consulate called Fadi to let him know that some Gazan residents with foreign passports would be allowed through Erez crossing that day, and that he should bring his family to a rendezvous point in Gaza City. His family would be escorted across the Erez crossing into Israel and on to Jordan. Fadi brought his wife and children to the rendezvous point, but he decided to stay in Gaza City himself—at least until the military invasion was over. He wanted to ensure his mother’s safety, and he also wanted to wait until government offices opened again so that he could obtain a birth certificate for his newborn daughter and school records for his boys. His wife and children made it to Amman, Jordan. They waited there for two weeks until the newborn was medically authorized to board a plane. In the final week of July, Fadi’s family flew to the United States.

Fadi stayed on in his mother’s apartment. “There are so many sad stories here,” he tells us. “I feel like a hypocrite for wanting to leave, but I have to be with my family. Thank God my family left. Remember our [garden]? It looks like a desert now because of all the bombs that hit it. People are dying. Some families [are] leaving their elderly behind to get to safety. There is no water. The situation is getting very dire. People here feel like nobody cares about them. God help us here in Gaza.”

A boy playing on the arbor in his grandmothers garden just outside of Bethlehem in the village of Battir. Photo by Mateo Hoke.

Cate now lives in the West Bank where she works as an editor and teaches English and writing. She previously worked as a newspaper reporter, receiving multiple Colorado Press Association awards. Mateo holds a master’s degree from the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. In addition to his work in the Middle East, he has reported from the Amazon jungle and the Seychelles. His writing has received awards from the Overseas Press Club Foundation and the Knight Foundation, among others.

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