A bullet in his spine, hope in his heart
By Ari Daniel
Yousef Bashir has a permanent physical reminder of the stakes of the long-running conflict between Israel and Gaza — a bullet lodged in his spine.
Bashir grew up in Gaza. In 2000, during the Second Intifada, when he was 11, Israeli soldiers occupied the second and third floors of his family home. As for why they did so, “the short answer is because they could,” Bashir says. The house was isolated from the rest of the neighborhood and it gave the soldiers a lookout that let them “see all the way to the sea.”
The soldiers “demolished our greenhouses,” he says, “and pretty much every night, moved the entire family to sleep in the living room while they controlled the rest of the house.”
Bashir says he had to ask the soldiers for permission to use the bathroom.
In the face of that difficult time, Bashir recalls his father explaining that “we should not allow them to turn us into hateful, vengeful people. I’ve watched my dad insist that the only way forward for both sides is peace. And it isn’t only just because it is the right thing to do, but if we are to move forward and become doctors and engineers and husbands and fathers and productive members of the international community, we must do all we can to preserve our humanity.”
His father drew on the Quran. “Never let hatred for any people lead you to deviate from being just to them,” he quoted in Arabic.
Bashir says his father told him “it is one thing to lose one’s home and one’s land and even a loved one. But it is another thing — the most tragic thing — when one loses their humanity.”
It wasn’t always easy for Bashir to agree with his father. For instance, one summer, the soldiers prevented Bashir and his family from going to the beach, which was 15 minutes away. Bashir snapped. But his father said to him, “imagine you are at the beach, imagine the air, the breeze, the waves, the ocean, the sand, imagine, imagine what would you be doing?” Bashir couldn’t quite put himself on the shore in his mind that day, but ever since he’s practiced his ability to imagine. And it’s helped him imagine a different reality for himself and his people to this day.
Peace and tolerance are the core lessons that Bashir was taught as a boy — “as a person, as a Muslim, as an Arab, as a Palestinian,” he says. “I became peaceful in Gaza. I became peaceful when my house was besieged and when my family was shot at, when my farms were demolished. And I think that is a miracle.”
Without those important lessons, Bashir isn’t sure whether he would have survived his youth. “My dad saved my life,” he says.
Roughly a week after he turned 15 years old, just outside his home, a soldier fired the bullet that embedded itself in the center of Bashir’s back, in his spine. “I was lucky to survive,” he says. “I collapsed to the ground. I was looking to figure out what was happening because I felt no pain. I saw no blood, but I could not speak and I definitely could not feel my legs.”
“I think I was shot only because I was Palestinian,” he reflects.
“Quite frankly,” he admits, “I did want to die because it was not normal for a child to be subjected to that way of living. But at the same time, I’m just 15. Why should I go now?”
Bashir was rushed to a hospital in Tel HaShomer, Israel. Up until that point, he’d only met Israeli settlers and soldiers. But now he was meeting Israeli doctors trying to repair him.
“I don’t think Israel intended to show me their human side,” Bashir says. “But I think some higher power wanted me to see that.” He recalls an Israeli nurse who frequently rushed to his side, explaining to some of the other health workers that he was shot for no justifiable reason. All this made Bashir understand his father’s perspective better.
He also came to recognize that he’s from a very particular part of the world. “I come from the Holy Land,” he says. “The land of Jesus and Muhammad and Moses, the [land of the] Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
Bashir was in a wheelchair for two years, but he did learn to walk again. He still does physical therapy and takes regular shots of cortisone to relieve the pain.
Today, half his lifetime later, 34-year-old Bashir lives in Washington, D.C.. where he’s finishing his Ph.D. in international affairs at Johns Hopkins University. The residual bullet causes him ongoing discomfort — “a 24/7 ordeal for me,” he says. “When I watch movies, when I hang out, when I sleep, when I play, when I do just about anything.”
To Bashir, it’s a constant reminder of the conflict — and why the fighting must stop.
“I am here,” he says. “I still believe. I’m still committed. Despite the pain that I will experience tomorrow, I am convinced that [peace is] the only way forward.”
The present moment, however, is a difficult test of Bashir’s conviction.
“With every image, with every video, with every report I see of innocent Palestinians being killed and targeted,” he says, “I get very close to screaming in my apartment. And breaking.” Bashir’s voice cracks.
And then he remembers his father who insisted on peace.
“It’s bad enough,” says Bashir. “My people lack freedom and a state and so much more. I think to be deprived of [our humanity] is just unacceptable. And so in preserving my humanity, in my mind, I am somehow still giving my people and the world a chance for a better life.”
The right to live in peace and security, Bashir argues, “belongs to the Palestinians just as much as it belongs to the Israelis.”