This story is part of a series called Israeli, Palestinian Women: The Only Way Forward Is Together. The series highlights Israeli and Palestinian women about their connection to Israel/Palestine, and how they are working to improve relations, and promote equality and coexistence between both groups of people. See the links below for each article of the series.
Lama Abuarquob remembers the day vividly. She was around 16 at the time and had been participating in peaceful demonstrations against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. She and her friend were headed back to their homes in Dura, a city southwest of Hebron in the West Bank. They felt like someone was following them. When they turned to look — they realized Israeli soldiers were close behind— chasing them.
“I had to hide in an empty grave,” Abuarquob said.
“Those few minutes in the empty grave made me think that nobody deserves to be so afraid. Nobody deserves to be so sad, and there must be a way to protect other people from having the same experiences.”
This moment would set the stage for why Abuarquob eventually became a peace activist.
But at first, she mainly felt disdain for Israelis for the seemingly endless pain she experienced as a Palestinian in the West Bank. (Israel has occupied the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War. The Palestinian Authority currently controls some of the West Bank, but the majority remains under direct Israeli military and civilian control.)
Abuarquob was raised in Dura— her family lived here for generations. Her parents were both school teachers, with her mom eventually retiring to care for Abuarquob and her 11 brothers and sisters.
Abuarquob’s family was in Dura when Israel won the Arab-Israeli war and became a country in 1948, declaring independence from the British Mandate for Palestine. They were also there when Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967, ultimately leading to Israel’s occupation. During both times — they experienced immense hardship. For starters, Abuarquob’s family and her husband’s family, also from Dura, lost significant amounts of land after 1967.
“The West Bank was under the Jordanian occupation or under the Jordanian authority before 1967, and it was really hard. My father used to tell us that even listening to the Middle East radio from Egypt was a crime by the Jordanian authority,” Abuarquob said. “And then after 1967, the Israelis came. My father-in-law had a lot of land that the Israelis confiscated. This is how he got the refugee card. My husband is considered a refugee in his own country because the land was confiscated.”
Abuarquob’s aunt, a former teacher, joined the Palestinian resistance and was eventually imprisoned by Israeli forces. Her uncle was arrested and sent to prison over the years because he was a prominent member of the Fatah organization, a Palestinian political party that began as the Palestinian National Liberation Movement.
For a time, Abuarquob said, her grandfather’s house in Hebron was a safe house for people who escaped Israeli soldiers.
“When he [her grandfather] used to tell me stories from 1948 and 1967, he was also very afraid for his daughters, and his first thought was, ‘Where do I hide them?’” she said. “If the soldiers raid the house or if they enter the city during the night, where would he hide them?”
Living Under Occupation
The stories Abuarquob often heard from family members served as preparation for when she grew old enough to understand her reality.
When Abuarquob was a teenager, she said Israeli soldiers came to arrest her father simply for hanging a Palestinian flag in front of their home. But, because she spoke English, after an hour and a half of pleading, she convinced the soldiers to leave without her father in handcuffs.
During the first Intifada or Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, Palestinians in the West Bank placed large rocks and boulders on the streets to prevent Israeli soldiers from entering their neighborhoods. Some of those rocks were placed in front of Abuarquob’s home.
One night, when her father was very ill, Abuarquob remembers soldiers illegally entered their home and tried to drag her father outside to move the stones so they could pass.
“There wasn’t electricity. It was off because every time the soldiers entered, the electricity went down,” Abuarquob explained. “They were inside the house, and they were trying to drag my dad, and I pushed one of the soldiers, and I told him ‘I will go out with you to take away the stones. My father is very sick.'”
“They were very violent, they were very aggressive, and they were angry.”
Abuarquob said another horrifying instance happened one day after her 12-year-old brother came home from school. Israeli soldiers followed him, accusing him of throwing stones at them. The soldiers forced themselves into Abuarquob’s home while her frightened brother hid under his bed.
“They were screaming, yelling, and threatening us. They dragged my brother from under the bed, blinded his eyes, and tied his hands behind his back. My mom was fighting to reach him. She had a stone in her hand. She held the stone and said, ‘I will throw it if you don’t leave my son,’ and the soldier pointed the gun at her.”
A shot was fired. Abuarquob said she nearly fainted, thinking the soldier had shot and killed her mother. When she opened her eyes, her mother was still alive, but the soldiers were beating her. Abuarquob ran to protect her mother, covering her with her own body.
Abuarquob pleaded with the soldiers not to take her brother.
“One of the soldiers said, ‘If you promise that he won’t do it again. I will let him go. But, if I see him in the streets another time, I will shoot him in the head,'” Abuarquob said. “My brother was crying, and said he was running with his friends but that he didn’t throw stones.”
A similar incident occurred years later, except it happened to Abuarquob’s teenage son. It was Ramadan, the most important month in the Islamic calendar. (Ramadan serves as a reminder of the month when the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammed.)
Israeli soldiers were demolishing the home of a Palestinian fighter near Abuarquob’s home. Abuarquob woke up her children, telling them not to be alarmed by the noise. Nearby, other Palestinian children were throwing stones at the soldiers.
Then, there was a knock on Abuarquob’s door.
“Soldiers came to my house and said, ‘Do you have men in the house?’ I said, ‘Just my sons— one is 14, and one is 16. He said, ‘Let them go out.’ And when my son was trying to get out of the door, they pointed the gun in a very strange way, and they said, ‘Have your hands up! Hands up! Don’t move!’ And they started yelling. I stood between them and my son, and I said, ‘He’s just 16, and he is afraid. Why are you doing this?'”
The soldier tried to accuse Abuarquob’s son of throwing the stones even though he hadn’t left the house that morning.
“But then another soldier came, and he was telling the other soldier that this boy is wearing shorts and the other boy who had thrown the stones was wearing trousers, so it’s not him. I turned to the soldier and told him, ‘I understood everything they said because I know Hebrew well. He says he’s not the one who was throwing stones, so what do you want?'”
Abuarquob said the soldiers still appeared as though they were going to arrest him.
“I started yelling at them and pushing them away. They thought I was crazy or something. But they left and said, ‘Keep him inside the house or we will shoot him.'”
“And I said ‘I will keep him inside the house, not because you asked but because I fear for his life.'”
Living under Israeli occupation means checkpoints around the West Bank. The checkpoints are, according to Israel, intended to enhance the security of Israel and Israeli settlements. (Checkpoints increased after the second Intifada, when Palestinian leaders sent suicide bombers into Israel, killing over 1,000 Israeli civilians. As terrorist attacks have decreased, checkpoints have been removed. However, there are still hundreds.)
Checkpoints are typically staffed by soldiers, Israeli military police, or border patrol. But for Palestinians like Abuarquob, despite the checkpoints intended use, they violate Palestinians’ right to transportation and other human rights in practice. Israeli soldiers have been accused of abusing and humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints. It can take Palestinians several hours to go a distance that should take significantly less time.
So when Abuarquob was a teenager and accepted to a university in Jordan, she knew getting there would be challenging. She would need to take the Allenby bridge, which crosses the Jordan River, and connects the West Bank with Jordan.
In 1989, she packed up, loaded her belongings in the car, and her family drove her to the border. It took them the entire day to get there because they went routes purposefully, avoiding checkpoints. But nothing could prepare her for what she was told when she arrived.
“The Israeli security service said if you want to go to the other side of the bridge, you have to sign a paper that says that you cannot come back home for nine months. It was my first time away from my family, and I didn’t know if I could be there for nine months without coming home,” she said.
“But then my father advised me to sign it. I signed it. And I remember that I cried for nights —for a long time— because we were a big family. I missed them. I missed my mom, my parents, my brothers, and my sisters. And I remember that these were among the most difficult nine months of my life.”
Every time Abuarquob traveled to and from her university, she ran into obstacles. There were times where Israeli soldiers interrogated her for seemingly no reason. And then, there was the time during the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990 when Israeli soldiers refused to give her permission to cross the border to go back to school. Abuarquob refused to give up and went inside the border patrol office. Another Israeli soldier ended up helping her. He told her they needed to lie and say she was sick and needed an operation in Jordan. To do so, they would need to forge a document.
“He said, ‘If anything happens, and you tell anyone that I did this, I will deny it, and I’ll say you forged the paper.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll take the risk,'” Abuarquob said.
“With the Israelis, they made me feel like I’m a criminal, under investigation, and I’m dangerous, which is not true because all the years when I was in university, I minded my business. I studied. I paid for the basketball team, and I traveled to Syria and to Iraq with the team. I was studying and having fun. And every time I see an Israeli officer, I feel like a criminal.”
Abuarquob managed to get through this time, even graduating with honors. After college, she came back to the West Bank, and within two months, she was a teacher. She’s been teaching students for 27 years. Currently, she teaches literature to 10th, 11th, and 12th-grade students.
In the early 2000s, Abuarquob worked for Doctors Without Borders in Hebron — close to Israeli settlements and an Israeli military base. She worked as an interpreter with psychologists, doctors, and with traumatized and bereaved families. During this experience, she was attacked by Jewish settlers. (Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in settlements built in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Palestinian territories. Settlements are widely viewed as illegal based on the Geneva Convention principle that an occupying power is barred from transferring its population to territories captured in war. The settlements began after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. Jewish settlers often move there for religious reasons, some because they want to claim the West Bank territory as Israeli land, and others because the housing is cheaper and subsidized.)
But this experience, among others, motivated her to find a way to reduce the hatred between Israelis and Palestinians.
Six years ago, Abuarquob joined her sister, a peace activist, at meetings with Israelis and Americans. She began reading books and articles and participated in peace-building activities. She brought one of her daughters (Abuarquob is the mother of five children, including a son with a disability) to the events too. Eventually, she and her daughter became best friends with an Israeli mother and daughter who live in Tel Aviv.
“I listened to the Palestinian mothers who lost their sons and their daughters, and it’s the same agony, the same sadness, whether it’s an Israeli mother or Palestinian mother. So I have always felt that no mother should have such a devastating and difficult experience,” she said.
“It made me believe that we should work to find a third way, a better way, a less painful way.”
Abuarquob now speaks publicly about her experiences with the hope of being invited to talk to more young Israelis. The reason? She says Palestinian history and the Palestinian plight are not spoken about in Israeli schools or society. She wants to change that.
“They know nothing about us. What they know, what they see, is what the Israeli government chooses to let them see, and that is the violence; that we are just some minority trying to disturb their quiet lifestyle. I mean, I am not a minority in my society; people who think there must be a peaceful way through this conflict are not a minority in Palestinian society,” she said.
A few years ago, Abuarquob was invited to speak to a group of young Orthodox Jewish Israeli men at a school in an Israeli, Jewish settlement.
“I asked them, ‘How do you think I reached here?’ They said, ‘You drove your car,'” Abuarquob said.
“I said ‘No. I spent three days at a military base to get permission to come here. I went through a long checkpoint. I had to take off my shoes and my jacket to get checked. I was stopped and asked why. Why am I going into this area? It took me more than five hours to reach you here, and if there weren’t a checkpoint, it would take me an hour and a half.’”
“So they were looking at each other as if it’s the first time they heard this. I don’t know if it’s the first time, but I don’t think they have ever heard it firsthand from a person who experienced it.”
Abuarquob said some of the students asked her questions like, “How come you want to throw us into the sea and kill us?” She responded, ‘That’s untrue’ — and after the seminar, she told the students to be safe and that she loved them.
“They were looking at each other in a very strange way — that it was very strange to hear that from a Palestinian, from an Arab,” Abuarquob explained.
“Talking to young Israelis makes a big difference.”
Hope For The Future
Abuarquob believes a future where Israelis and Palestinians are neighbors and friends is possible. And by participating in activities with Women Wage Peace, and Encounter, she hopes to help lead and be part of the change.
She dreams of seeing a world where Palestinians and Israelis learn about each other in school. She waits for the day that the borders will open again, and Israelis and Palestinians will intermingle. She prays for the day that it won’t take her hours to visit her Israeli friends in Tel Aviv.
Every time there is an escalation, like the latest conflict in Gaza, it seems to set progress back — but Abuarquob still tries to remain positive.
“My hope is that one day we [Israelis and Palestinians] will share wedding parties, we will share graduation parties. We will share and enjoy the sea together. My hope is that one day, my children, and my grandchildren and my Israeli friends’ children and grandchildren will go to the same schools and universities. My hope is that they will be able to cross borders without being humiliated at checkpoints.”
“Everybody needs a place to belong to, and I really hope that Israelis would feel that they belong to Dura as much as I feel that I belong to Jerusalem or Yaffa. Hopefully, one day, everybody will realize what’s so obvious — the life of a human being is more precious than anything in the world.”
“I hope that everybody realizes that one human soul on any side — Israeli or Palestinian — is worth protecting and loving and keeping more than any stupid building, whether it’s a church, a synagogue, or mosque in this land.”