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This piece by Palestinian-American peace activist Saffiya Shillo describes the personal experiences at the root of her community's deep pessimism regarding the possibility of a Palestinian state. It also addresses the impact that respectful gestures can have in tearing down barriers and turning disappointment and discouragement into cautious hope.

--Aliza Becker, Deputy Director

Hope Begins with Respect
By Saffiya Shillo

The Palestinian American community is watching the moves of President-elect Obama's transition team carefully. The Bush administration has been so disastrous for our cause, we're afraid to hope anything could get better.

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Palestinians in particular got a jolt when Obama named Rahm Emanuel his White House Chief of Staff. Emanuel is the son of an Israeli who was involved in the 1940s with the Irgun, the Jewish militia responsible for the atrocities at Deir Yassin massacre. Immediately after his son's appointment, the elder Emanuel made racist, anti-Arab comments about his son's possible influence on the American-Israeli relationship.

To the Palestinian ear, this sounded like the same old, same old. During the campaign, there was a lot of talk of change -- and maybe there would be change on other issues-- but as far as Palestinians were concerned, we shouldn't hope for much when it comes to the conflict.

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This fits in with a diminishing loss of faith in the possibility of a two-state solution among Palestinians. The situation on the ground has changed dramatically in recent years: Once, Palestinians struggled for independence; today, they're struggling just to feed and shelter their children.

The inability to pray at our holy places, the difficulty farmers have getting to their land, the continuous settlement expansion, the denial of medical care across checkpoints -- all these are extinguishing the small spark of hope Palestinians felt about building a state alongside Israel. People on the West Bank see the suffering of fellow Palestinians in Gaza, and they're waiting for it to happen to them too, once the Wall closes them off entirely.

As painful as the occupation always was for the Palestinian people, it's gotten worse. Not only are the deprivations greater, it feels as if Israelis have lost a sense of our humanity.

I experienced this myself recently, when flying to visit family on the West Bank. My grown son and daughter were with me, and when we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, we learned that my son had been issued a Palestinian I.D. number and was now considered a Palestinian resident. He was born during a visit to the West Bank, and four months later, we returned to our home in Chicago. According to Israeli law, he couldn't travel through the Israeli airport without prior permission from the government. He would be deported -- after first serving up to six months in jail.

Explaining that he hadn't known about the I.D. and had never lived on the West Bank, pleading for understanding, was useless. The officials who interrogated us, asking the same questions for hours, looked not at us, but through us, and told us that we were "Liars. All Palestinians are liars."

I was luckier than many that day. I got a hold of an experienced Palestinian lawyer who helped me do whatever needed doing, and 24 hours later, my son was free. And as difficult as the ordeal was, I came away most disturbed by my interactions with the Israeli soldiers.

In the past, I've always been able to connect with these young people on a human level. This time no connection could be made. I felt sad for them, and couldn't help but wonder what had happened to cause these grandchildren of Holocaust survivors to lack basic empathy.

I came home to Chicago deeply discouraged, and in this mood, wasn't surprised to hear the remarks made by Rahm Emanuel's father. I assumed that they reflected on his son.

But I was wrong. Soon after the comments were publicized, Rahm Emanuel took it upon himself to apologize, and repudiate his father's statements.

"From the fullness of my heart," he said, "I personally apologize on behalf of my family and me. These are not the values upon which I was raised or those of my family."

It's really hard to express what this meant to me. What Emanuel did was acknowledge that Palestinians are human, we have feelings, and we count. This is a real rarity for our community, demonized as we are in Israeli and American society. While I understand that he was under political pressure to say something, I cling to the hope that his apology was genuine.

Treating Palestinians in a humane and respectful manner helps us reclaim a spark of hope. It's not enough to just talk about bringing change -- everyday life for Palestinians has to improve or our pessimism and despair will deepen. I hope the Obama administration will remember our humanity and the humanity of all of the region's citizens when addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Saffiya Shillo is a Palestinian American peace activist based in Chicago.  She co-developed a dual narrative program with Deputy Director Aliza Becker that they have given in many Chicago-area synagogues. Saffiya is a board member of the Palestinian American Women's Society and previously served as president of the Palestinian American Congress-Chicago chapter and as president of Arab American Family Services. She presently works as a sexual assault crises counselor and bully prevention trainer. Shillo previously worked as Director of Ethnic Affairs for the State of Illinois' Office of Lieutenant Governor and Director of the Arab American Institute's Chicago office.


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