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Interview Archives

Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Yafit Gamila Biso

Yafit Gamila Biso immigrated to Israel from Syria in 1985. She is active in many joint Israeli-Palestinian peace and human rights groups, including Ta'ayush, Windows, and her own organization, the Olive Tree Movement. Her activities include being a translator and contact person for Palestinian children and families getting treatment in Israeli hospitals, organizing humanitarian aid for Palestinian children in the West Bank, and assisting Palestinians with the olive harvest. She is known interchangeably by her two first names, with mean "beautiful" in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively.

  • What's problematic about that?

    Keeping in touch means slowly building a relationship with our neighbors; it's not just coming when we are needed and playing the role of the stronger older brother. I want us to be in touch regardless of whether I'm strong and you're weak, or the opposite. It's important for me to explain that we seek neighborly relations. I seek their friendship even if I don't visit once a month. It's important that we exchange phone numbers and talk from time to time and not come only when there are demonstrations. Maybe in the Israeli daily routine people are too busy to do that. But we need to keep in touch. Palestinian people appreciate that-not people coming, demonstrating and running away. When I arrived in Israel the first business I opened was a large sewing factory in Tel-Aviv. I had almost twenty workers from Gaza. I got on very well with them. There was a period when I even had a partner from Gaza. Look, I'm a daughter of the Arab culture. I'm Israeli and Jewish, and I don't know whether I'm proud of it or not in view of the operative policies. I'm sometimes ashamed of being Israeli when I see that an Israeli killed a little girl, whose only fault was that she went to school that morning. That's what brought me to all these activities.

  • Please tell me a little about your background and how you became involved in peace work.

    My name is Yafit Gamila Biso. I was born in Damascus. My neighbors were Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and the majority were Jewish, but it varied. Most of my friends were Palestinians from the two largest refugee camps there, al-Yarmukh and al-Palestine. In Syria there are schools for Jews up to junior high school. After junior high, whoever continues studying goes to government schools. So I went to high school with Palestinian and Syrian girls - girls like me. When I got married and began working, I had Palestinian partners; I worked alongside them in many fields, in sales, fashion, marketing - in every field - and they became my friends.

  • How has your involvement affected your relationships with other people in your life?

    I'm not in touch with my sisters much. My mother's shiva1 was hellish for me, because I had to spend it at my sister's house and take all my sisters' and brothers in laws' nonsense. Whenever I got a call in Arabic and was organizing things over the phone, they would say things like, "Stupid Arab-helper." I overheard my brother-in-law saying, "She'll be an Arab all her life. Why do we need her here?" So on account of it being a shiva I stayed out of respect; if it had been my decision I would have gone and resumed the shiva at home. I asked my cousin who is a rabbi, "If you say that on Shabbat we must remove the mourning clothes, do I have to spend Shabbat here?" He said I could go home and return on Saturday night or resume on Sunday morning. So I went home and didn't want to come back on Sunday morning! Everyone begged, "No Yafit, don't do that!" They are concerned with what people would say if they came and didn't see the eldest sister at the shiva. They don't care about their sister or human rights-they care about someone coming and not seeing the eldest sister at the shiva and saying they are quarreling. Some people distance themselves from me and label me because I'm left-wing, and it causes problems. I left one job after I was seen on television joining a hunger strike with Azmi Bishara to protest the wall. They made trouble for me so I left. I've been at my new job for 8 months. It causes problems but doesn't make me change my opinions. I live according to my beliefs; I'm very stubborn. I do what I want to do. As an Israeli who paid a high price for coming to Israel, I care; I care to see the State of Israel as exactly what I envision. Obviously I don't expect a state according to my personal characteristics or desires but it is important for me that Israel come across to the world as a democracy and truly humanitarian - not a democracy of Jews over Arabs. I think that contradicts the laws of nature and humanity. I got involved with our Palestinian neighbors - I call them my brothers - and I felt that they were being discriminated against. That's how I slowly became involved in this work.

    • 1Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven-day mourning period observed by Jews following the death of any family member older than 30-days. Family and friends of the mourner visit to offer their condolences and to prepare food for the mourner.

  • Please tell me about your work.

    I started small. I had many connections in Gaza, in the Territories. During the quiet periods I used to drive out there and visit, helping whoever needed help here and there-help getting to Israel for some sort of treatment, or for work. I'm not a political person, I'm not interested in who is prime minister. I'm interested in human rights, in particular the rights of children and women, because they suffer the most here in this conflict. During the second intifada I found myself having to apologize to everyone for being Israeli, Jewish, apologizing to the world for what we are doing. A little before the second intifada began, I worked in a few places. Prior to the second intifada I worked in international brokerage. I was the liaison between business representatives from Israel and the Arab countries. I worked with Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, people from the Gulf. I simply had to apologize in front of everybody for Israeli policies. They saw Israel sealing up houses, demolishing houses; Israeli soldiers are depicted all over the world as soldiers with tanks pursuing children with rocks, it's horrific. I began with participating in demonstrations and organizing them. At first I started out with Peace Now and went along with Gush Shalom until I got into it intensively. I was a quiet participant because I'm a single mother so I never had time. I worked two jobs and I had children at home so I couldn't go to demonstrations or activities like I do now. I assisted anyone I could on a humanitarian level. There were villages I'd go visit; I'm familiar with many people in villages and they know that they have an Israeli friend that comes and goes, if they need anything from Israel. So they would come to me for advice and I would help. That was how I helped. I'd take my children along. They were family visits, not necessarily political work. It was simply keeping in touch with these people. That's very important to me. When the intifada began and the October events broke out and Israeli Arabs were killed because of the police's brutality, you could say that all the baggage I was carrying around in me from being a second-class citizen in Syria exploded. I couldn't remain silent. I went to demonstrations organized by Gush Shalom and met the Ta'ayush activists, and then I went to olive harvests. Now when I see an activity that really beckons to me and suits me I go regardless of which organization is behind it. I consider the activity's effect and whether it is really just or not. I will demonstrate when lands are expropriated and olive trees are uprooted; for me every olive tree is a child. The trees are simply left there for all to see, testament to Israel's murderous policies. An olive tree feeds a child for a whole year and once you take it, he dies! Dies or becomes a terrorist.

  • You assist Palestinians to access medical care in Israel, please tell me about that.

    Yes. I was part of a group from New Profile. It was a very small group at the time of two or three people. We started off slowly and grew, and the group got strong. I used to go to Tel Hashomer 4 or 5 times a week. All the mothers had my phone number, the intensive care unit had my number, other units too. If they needed translation at night they called me up -even at two am. I would meet with mothers and doctors for a meeting and translation regarding the child's condition. I was active there until the group got stronger and now it's under the auspices of Physician for Human Rights. Then I moved to Wolfson Medical Center,1 which is a little closer to me. After all the pressure, Tel Hashomer was kind enough to employ Arabic speaking nurses around the clock and they don't need me at 2 am anymore!

    • 1The Edith Wolfson Medical Center is located in Holon, a city in central Israel next to Tel Aviv.

  • What other projects are you currently involved in?

    I'm establishing a non-profit organization because over the past 3 or 4 years I've been very busy transferring patients from the West Bank to hospitals in Israel. I'm not involved in the procedure of obtaining permits, even though I do assist occasionally. It's important for me that after suffering through the process of receiving the necessary permits a sick child and the accompanying parent be able to reach the hospital. If they cross through Tulkarm checkpoint then their only option is to take a special taxi that costs 25 NIS.1 They can't travel by bus because an Israeli bus driver wouldn't let them aboard. If a patient needs transportation, people know to call me. I pick them up and take them to Tel Hashomer Medical Center, or I arrange for someone else to do it if I can't, or if I have financial difficulties. Sometimes I have no money for gas. This happens to us all-you need a lot of gas for these trips. A trip means leaving my apartment in Rishon LeTzion and picking people up from the checkpoint in Tulkarm, then taking them to Tel Hashomer. Later I return them to Tulkarm. That's a lot of gas for one trip, and I earn minimum wage. If someone else picks up the patients, I meet them at the hospital and accompany them throughout the treatment, translating or helping them find their way around the hospital. Then we go back. They're very pleased. That's what I've been doing lately. There's a high demand for it, more than we can accommodate.

    • 1NIS= New Israeli Shekel. 250 NIS is roughly equivalent to $60.

  • What is the effect of your work?

    In order to establish a just peace we must ensure the other side's human rights as well as ours. You can't differentiate human rights work from peace work, it's ultimately connected. This is what I am doing when I work to promote children's rights to receive medical attention or get an education. It is a brick in the wall of the peace we aspire to construct. My work has an impact on the people over there in the long run. They see you're persistent and insistent, that you join the olive harvest and the plowing season every year. If they encounter trouble with soldiers you come to help them. This is not long term, this is short term. There are people to talk to on the other side! Success is changing the views of people in the villages. They no longer think that Israel is a bad problem that needs to be uprooted. The left-wing organizations' mistake is that they only do activities in a certain village, that's it; they demonstrate and leave. They don't keep in touch, don't build real friendships. For example, the last village I visited on Friday, I had never set foot there before. I went to visit them yesterday. They saw me return after the demonstration and they weren't used to that. They're used to Israelis who come demonstrate and then leave. Very few keep in touch, and that's usually the organizers or people who have close relations with the village, but the 3-4 participants who come to the demonstration don't.

  • Please tell me about the Olive Tree Movement.

    I aim to include not only Israelis in it, the participants will be Palestinians too, and internationals who really want to take part. This organization will first and foremost defend Palestinian children's rights to health and education, a normal life under an olive tree. We called it the Olive Tree Movement. Part of the organization's activities support the families of the children who are taken for treatment in Israel. We help their families during the olive harvest or by selling oil. I've been doing that for years. I don't just go and assist during the harvest. After the harvest ends I come to the village and collect gallons of olive oil from the families. We sell olive oil for the families at all sorts of events sponsored by organizations such as Ta'ayush or the Coalition of Women for Peace We never take any sort of a commission, not even gas money or travel expenses. Palestinian farmers have only the land as a source of income. They wait for it from year to year. It isn't enough that they are prevented from plowing it, we can see now, even Rabbi Arik Ascherman1 said that as a result of the neglect of the land the quality of the olives is declining. They haven't reached their lands in 6 years so they aren't plowing or weeding like the land needs. Watering, cleaning, so that it can give the best fruit possible. That isn't the case anymore. The only thing left is to come once a year and harvest the olives. Every year we come and never know whether we will be able to reach the land the following year.

    • 1Arik Ascherman is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights. http://rhr.israel.net/profile/arikascherman.shtml

  • Do you have fears concerning your activities?

    My fear is that in the end, all that I do won't bear fruit. My fear is that if we don't have a true and just peace we'll find ourselves - as the fanatic Palestinians put it-in the sea. The ship that brought us will take us back, I have that fear. People who know me know that there's nothing permanent in my house. I practically live out of suitcases. I don't know. I'm afraid. I'm afraid that we, Israel, will continue stubbornly with oppression and land expropriations, theft of water resources. This wall is going to kill us all in the end, not only them - us too. We're tied to each other inseparably. It's been very bad for us since the intifada began. The economic situation here in Israel has declined, in terms of tourism but also other things. We're tied to [the Palestinians] in terms of tourism, but not only that, we're tied to them in every way. When the State of Israel doesn't permit the establishment of any factories in Palestine for people to work in then they're certain to infiltrate the border and come work here, so that the Israeli policeman will have work catching them and throwing them in jail. Let them establish factories there and be economically independent. I need them; the minute they have work there they won't be coming here, they won't infiltrate the border, they won't need us.

  • What gives you strength, what propels you in your work?

    What propels me is seeing people there suffering. What pushes me to keep going is when I hear that a family is desperate. They hang on to words, even though sometimes I can't help them. I'm propelled by the urge to prove to the world, and to the Palestinians in particular, that in Israel there are not only soldiers who kill, but there are people who care. That's one of the only things that drives me. People think that I go there and push because I love Arabs too much, that I like being among Arabs too much. No. I do love being with Arabs, but I'd like to pay them friendly visits, not fight their battles. I'm driven to show them and prove that there are people in Israel who really want peace and truly care. There's nothing I can do with the older ones because they've been to Israel already and they know what Israelis are. I care about the young children. I collect used toys and go to a kindergarten and gather 1-2 children and speak to them in their own language, in Arabic, and give out the toys. I tell them that the toys are from people in Israel, from Jews, Israelis, that this toy is from a child who gave it up so that they could have a toy, because maybe they have a little more than them. It does something. I came across villages that had never had contact with Israelis apart from soldiers, and it matters. It changes opinions. To this day I'm in touch with boys for whom I was the first Israeli they could even understand and speak to. I spoke to them in their language and explained things to them. At first they were under the impression that I was Arab, so I stood up to them. I said, "No, I'm not Arab, I'm Jewish-Israeli. I do speak Arabic, it makes both my life and yours easier, but I'm Jewish-Israeli. There's nothing you can do, you can't make me an Arab. You must accept me as an Israeli Jew. Then I'll be with you all the way then. If you continue insisting that I'm Arab, I'm not here."

  • Why is it important that Palestinians acknowledge that you are Israeli?

    It's very important. I'm not embarrassed to say I'm a Jewish Arab. As long as I live in this country and am a citizen here I expect my country to behave appropriately. People count you as being one of them if you speak their language, if you identify with their situation; if you are consistent, they can count on you coming when necessary and you are always present and assisting them. "One of us" means that you are very concerned for their wellbeing and there is a sense of love. Sometimes people say, "You can't be a Jew" or "an Israeli Jew," "You're one of us, part of the Arab people." I tell them, "No. I'm Israeli." I don't deny I'm Israeli, that's a given fact now. I don't know what the future holds; if Israel continues in the current mode I might change my citizenship, maybe I'll leave the country. It's important for me to prove to the other side that there are people in Israel who are concerned about them. There are humanitarian people in Israel, we Jews are merciful people. It's important for me to explain that all my mercy and compassion and goodness and assistance and consistency and stubbornness stems from my being Jewish. It is Judaism that taught me to be merciful and help my neighbors. I think the separation between religion and state is important, differentiating between Judaism as religion and Zionism, or Israel as a state. It's important for me to explain that Israel isn't all tanks and soldiers running after small children. Israel isn't just the army. There are law-abiding citizens who are concerned about human rights in Israel. That's very important for me to clarify. I came to this country and it's important to me how it is perceived by the world. That is the reason I'm doing all this work. It's important to me that Israel be portrayed as a humanitarian country and not as a killer. Sometimes I'm ashamed to be Israeli, in a state where the most basic human rights are being repressed.

  • How does you experience being part of a minority in Syria affect your views?

    If you grow up in a place where you're a second-class citizen, where you are restrained, your liberties are curbed, your travel is restricted and you are not exactly a free citizen, it helps you understand the other side. This is what motivates me. The fact that my movement there was restricted doesn't mean my mind was restricted, or my education. It doesn't mean that my emotions were limited! One of the reasons I came here to Israel is that it aspires to be a democracy in the Middle East and I expected it to fulfill that aspiration.

  • Do you have any doubts that you're doing the right thing in your work?

    No, no. I'm a million percent sure that I'm doing the right thing. Especially when I assist a child in accessing a hospital, and especially when I help a family harvest their olives and sell the olive oil which is their source of income, especially when I help people reach the only road that connects them to the world outside. Last week there was a child at Kdumim checkpoint1 who bled for two hours in an ambulance and then died.2 Did anybody mention it? Did anyone open their eyes? Had it been an Israeli child it would have caused an uproar; the whole world would have been informed. I know that I'm doing the right thing; I don't think there's anything wrong or erroneous in aiding children, in assisting the elderly and helping people access their lands. I don't think that's wrong.

    • 1A settlement in the West Bank a few kilometers west of Nablus.
    • 2See an article by Gideon Levy for Haaretz, archived at the following site: http://peaceandjustice.org/article.php?story=20050313144719887&mode=print0

  • Does your involvement affect any of your relationships?

    I have many problems with my family because I help Arabs. I didn't see my grandchildren, my son's children, for a year. He is religious and the rabbis told him - I don't know who told my son's rabbis, though during the activities we attend we're photographed everywhere we go - that "your mother associates with Arabs." They thought they would apply some pressure. I didn't see my grandchildren for a year, until one day I couldn't bear it anymore! I was used to seeing them every day and I was working 2 jobs to support them so that they could go to daycare and have normal lives! Anyhow, one day I went to their village and honked my horn under their balcony, and the kids came down. We sat in the car together and my son was so ashamed. My son is a son of the Torah and he's very charming. He said, "Mother, come up." I said, "There's nothing for me upstairs. I want to see the children and it's my right, if you don't allow me to then I'll demand it in court." I don't want to go to court, I want to see the kids. Now I come to their house freely and visit. They try breaking your spirit in all sorts of ways.

  • Which international audiences do you think have the most influence on the conflict?

    I think that the United States has a large influence. If they pressure Israel and say get out [of the Territories], it will.

  • How do you think international communities could be most productive here?

    I want all the countries to come and lend a hand or apply pressure on Israel or help the Palestinians rehabilitate their lives, rebuild the ruins that have accumulated over years. First of all, in funding, proving to the Palestinians that there is someone who truly cares. They could pressure Israel in all sorts of ways. I remember from studying international trade that in the EU common market they don't count Israeli produce made in the Territories as Israeli. I think that it's a wise move to say to Israel, look, listen, stop! These Territories aren't yours; they are Palestinian. This product isn't Israeli but rather Palestinian.

  • I would like to talk about peace processes. Where do you think former peace processes failed up to now?

    They failed because they swept the important issues away. For example, nobody talked about a Palestinian state, or their rights to their own state, their sovereignty. If we grant them an airfield but make it conditional on our soldiers being inside it, conducting checks while their soldiers are outside, that's not exactly a state, not really borders or independence. Nobody contemplated the very important issue of the right of return.1 There are many Palestinians in the Diaspora, in refugee camps, living and suffering. They have a right to return.

    • 1The Israeli Law of Return grants Jews the world over the right to immigrate to Israel. Here Biso is referring to the fact that of the nearly one million Russians who have immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return since the 1980s, a portion are Christians, or are not recognized as Jewish by religious law. See http://www.jafi.org.il/papers/2002/sep/jtasep10.htm

  • Where do you think Palestinian refugees should have the right to return to?

    Let them return to where they choose, to Israel or the Territories. I say something many people are upset with me for saying: instead of gathering in Christian Russians, Palestinian landowners should have the right of return.

  • Do you think Jews' right to come to Israel is important? Is it important that it be a Jewish state?

    The question of the Jews' right to come to Israel is a little bit problematic, but on the whole I think every person has the right to live where he or she pleases, as long as they observe international law and human rights, and don't invade the lands of others. I don't think I'd mind living in a Palestinian state, nor do I think Palestinians would have a problem with that as long as I don't invade their lands and lead my life according to their laws. I don't care whether Israel is Jewish, I don't think it can continue the way it's going.

  • What do you think needs to be done to change the situation?

    I think that all the organizations need to unite and work together, but there are extreme-left organizations, slightly less extreme organizations and center-left organizations. It confuses perceptions. I only concentrate on human rights and that's my only fight. I think if we cannot grant them a sovereign state of their own based on the '67 territories and take down the wall that has ruined their lives, then at least let there be one state for two peoples. Take the example of South Africa, where there is a single state for whites and blacks. They have elections and they choose their leader. Israel is scared that the Arab minority here will soon be the majority within the state. Of course it will be! That's nature; you can't prevent people from having children.

  • What does the word peace mean to you?

    It means hope for a better life: for my children, grandchildren, other children, other women's grandchildren.

  • What do you envision here in 5 years?

    Everyone says I look at the world through rose-colored glasses. According to my optimistic outlook, I think that building the wall and what's called the "distraction" of the disengagement do not constitute a political process. They simply intend to leave Gaza and move the settlers to other settlements. If they continue doing this, despite my optimistic perspective, there will be a bloody war. The Palestinians won't keep quiet as they have. Their hearts are loaded. It's very difficult. There has been a great breach of trust and it is very difficult to bridge it again. One thing we try to do in our activities is work with people in villages and just be around them, to restore trust slowly. The opposite needs to be done, too. Israelis must start trusting Palestinians again.

  • How can trust be rebuilt?

    With special meetings, and a lot of joint work. Israeli Jews have a paranoid kind of fear that is self created; it must be reduced from their hearts. I met a nice soldier who is willing to talk to me. I told him I'd been to Jayous for 3 days for the olive harvest. He asked, "Aren't you afraid?" I told him that fear is something we invent, something we must overcome. "Take off your uniform and you and I will go knocking on the door of any house you want in this village. We'll greet them saying, 'Shalom, sabakh al-khair, salaam aleikom, we've come to have coffee,' or 'Our car broke down and we'd like to use your phone,' and see how you'll be greeted! As long as you're wearing the uniform, don't expect people to love you or like you, because they view you as their oppressor, you're the oppressing force." End.