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50 Years After War, Palestinian Man Recalls How He Overcame Displacement


This week marks the 50th anniversary of the six-day war between Israel and neighboring Arab states. Israel's victory prevented its elimination, but it started Israel's occupation of the West Bank, which continues today. NPR's Daniel Estrin rode through the West Bank with a Palestinian man who was displaced in the war and who now sees his homeland as an outsider.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: When Israel captured the West Bank, Omar Omar was stuck away from home. He was 16 years old, going to a high school in Jordan while his parents were back in the West Bank. But like other Palestinians who were away at the time, Omar couldn't get Israeli permission to return.

OMAR OMAR: Yeah, many times I try to 'cause if you are not counted during the war, you are not from here anymore. You are not Palestinian despite your father, your mother, your family. No, they don't consider - they consider you are not from here.

ESTRIN: Here is the Israeli-controlled West Bank where I met Omar Omar. Since 1967, as hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers moved in, Palestinians have faced life under occupation. Over time, that meant army checkpoints, road closures, nighttime arrests, clashes. But Omar was headed toward better fortunes in America. And once he became a U.S. citizen, he could finally return to the West Bank a few times a year as an American tourist. After all these years in the U.S., whenever he visits the West Bank, he sees it with the eyes of an outsider.

OMAR: You see them staring? See the soldiers over there.

ESTRIN: Where are the soldiers? I don't see them.

OMAR: You see that Jeep?

ESTRIN: Omar took me on a ride through the West Bank in a black Mercedes. In the car and in his family's village home, he told me the story of his divided life. While Omar was stuck in Jordan after the 1967 war, his family sent a cousin out to marry him. They had kids. But money ran short, so he sent his wife and kids who had West Bank residency rights to live there. He became a limo driver in the U.S. and sent them money, but he lived a much different life than they did.

OMAR: I dealt with the Americans, high-educated people, executives. They don't look at you. You are black. You are white. You are Palestinian. You are - they don't look at this thing. They fair people.

ESTRIN: He tells stories of his visits. Like one time, the two halves of his life collided at an Israeli army checkpoint. He was returning from a picnic, and soldiers asked him to get out of the car and raise his shirt to check for explosives.

OMAR: So I told them I'm not going to take it off. Why? I said I'm not. I can't take this thing. When you live for 20, 25 years, a free person, you have full rights, you can't take this thing.

ESTRIN: You mean 25 years living in America.

OMAR: Right, right, in America. So he starts screaming. So I look at the guy next to him, the other soldier.

ESTRIN: A soldier.

OMAR: I saw that soldier and exactly jumped to my mind that this guy I know. This guy I swear I know. So I told him, aren't you from Fair Lawn, a town next to my house, you know?

ESTRIN: The soldier was from New Jersey. Omar used to drive his family to the airport. And here he was in Israeli army uniform, ordering Omar to lift his shirt. Omar told him...

OMAR: Don't you know me? Oh, oh, oh, I see; I see. I'm sorry. I'm saying, what are you doing here? See; he told me, it's my duty. I say, why you should - why you do these thing to people? That's what they're doing. So just like go in the car, and just go. Go, Omar. Go; go. Don't worry.

ESTRIN: The soldier let him go. Omar's most difficult moment came when his son Esmat was a teenager. He'd seen the intifada uprising firsthand, seen a kid in his village shot while throwing stones at soldiers. He grew bitter. And in 1993, Esmat and some others tried to kidnap an Israeli settler, Haim Mizrahi, who bought eggs where Esmat worked. The man resisted, and Esmat helped hold him down while an accomplice stabbed Mizrahi to death. Esmat wound up in prison for 20 years. Omar remembers when he got the call about what his son had done.

OMAR: It was the hardest days in my life. It was that day when they called me, and I had an accident in the car, the limousine car, because I didn't know, like, my - like, everything mixed up and you know.

ESTRIN: Did you feel like if you would have been living here...

OMAR: He would never do that. If the father in the house, every night in the house, every day in the house, I'll be, like, supervising them.

ESTRIN: Did you feel guilty at that time?

OMAR: I did. I did. And I wish, but I said, wishes doesn't do nothing, you know?

ESTRIN: Esmat was released from prison a few years ago and says he no longer believes in violence. The Israeli man's mother, Mazal Mizrahi, told NPR talking about it is still too painful. It would just open old wounds and wouldn't bring her son back. Omar rationalizes what his son did as part of a never-ending conflict with Israel.

OMAR: They killing us. They humiliating us. They doing everything to make us less than human being.

ESTRIN: And so, like, what do you - what would you say to a listener who would be listening to you now and say, but Omar, your son also killed?

OMAR: I know. You know, what he did, he was, like - I mean when he was 16, 17 years old, right? Why he kill?

ESTRIN: His answer is that his son was caught in a cycle of violence. What do you expect, he asked. He used to think he could help his family most by sending money home. Now after 50 years, he wants to get family members to America. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, the West Bank.


Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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