Mideast Peace

11.24.12

Translating Two Bitter Enemies in Gaza

Sami Al Ajrami is the only Palestinian journalist working for an Israeli paper in Gaza—and his goal is to explain each wounded society to the other.

When the phone rang on Nov. 15, Sami Al Ajrami, a short, wiry Palestinian journalist, was covering the funeral of Hamas’s top military leader—the man whose assassination by Israel marked the beginning of the latest round of violence between Jerusalem and Gaza. The voice on the other end of the line conveyed every Palestinian parent’s nightmare: Ajrami’s 9-year-old daughter had been playing in the yard outside when an Israeli airstrike hit. The girl was in the hospital; she had been injured by shrapnel.

Ajrami was numb—a journalist working in Gaza knows what children wounded in Israeli bombardments look like—and he had visions of her small frame shredded by metal. He wept for the entire 10-minute drive to the hospital.

When he arrived, he was told she had been lucky. The metal ripped apart her hand and the doctors would probably have to remove it, but they weren’t sure.

The thought of a medical procedure in the primitive conditions of Gaza—where proper equipment and expertise are in short supply—was too much for Ajrami to bear. He knew he needed to move his daughter to a hospital in Israel as soon as possible. But since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, the Jewish state has restricted the numbers of Gazans admitted to Israeli hospitals and, more worryingly, in the middle of the hostilities, the border crossing was reportedly closed altogether. So Ajrami did the only thing left for him to do—he pulled out his phone and called his editor.

Ajrami writes for Maariv, one of the Jewish state’s leading national newspapers. He is the only Palestinian journalist in the Gaza Strip working for an Israeli publication. He speaks and writes in fluent Hebrew. He also appears on Palestinian stations as an expert on Israeli affairs to explain the Jewish state to Gazans. In the last year and a half, Ajrami’s job has become a personal crusade to establish understanding and change perspectives on both sides of the increasingly divided and alienated societies. 

‘I can understand your misery, as people, as humans—but you have to understand the message from Gaza.’

“I realized it’s a very important mission because there's no voice that goes out of Gaza to the Israeli community,” he says, sipping on a Turkish coffee in a hotel restaurant in Gaza City. The reverse is also true: Gazans “who have never been there, never seen what kind of a country [Israel] is, they will never understand how to be effective to achieve the Palestinian goals for the Palestinian issue.”

When Ajrami was 12 years old, he taught himself Hebrew. At the time, Israeli soldiers patrolled Gazan neighborhoods and Ajrami wanted to know what they were saying. Three decades ago, most of the television news networks broadcast in Hebrew and learning the language was the only way he thought he could understand what was going on in the outside world.

Yet the more Ajrami read, in Arabic and in Hebrew, the further he felt from the Gazan mainstream—he disavowed religion; his political views moved to the left; and as he reached his late teens, he fell in with an intellectual crowd. But in Gaza’s deeply conservative society, Ajrami knew he had to keep his newfound views to himself. “You cannot say I’m an atheist on the street, people will never understand that, so it’s mainly between friends,” he explains. “You might get killed because of what you are thinking.”

The oldest male in a large, impoverished family living in the Jabalia refugee camp, Ajrami moved to Tel Aviv when he was 22 to work for an Israeli construction company and send money back to Gaza. During his free time, he trolled libraries, consuming Hebrew-language books and newspapers. He joined a chess club and became friends with Israelis.

The sojourn in Tel Aviv allowed Ajrami to understand Israel—something that he retained after he returned to Gaza. “You will never understand the community unless you live among them. If you can watch them from a distance you will never understand, you will never touch, never understand the cultural meaning of the words,” he reflects.

He stayed in Tel Aviv for five years. In 1999, when the Palestinian National Authority needed an Israeli Affairs specialist who knew Hebrew for the negotiating team led by Mahmoud Abbas, now the head of the Fatah faction in the West Bank, Ajrami felt it was his duty to put in for the job. He was the only applicant.

By 2004, Ajrami had returned to Gaza to work at a local news agency, writing in English and Hebrew. After the Hamas takeover in 2007, Israeli reporters were barred from entering Gaza, but they still wanted news from the coastal enclave. An editor from Maariv got in touch with Ajrami to ask if he wanted to write for them.

It seemed like a great personal opportunity, but Ajrami worried about being called a collaborator, which could lead to harassment, or worse. He applied for permission from the Hamas government—and was astonished by their response. “They were really understanding,” he remembers. They agreed immediately, telling him: “It's good that you write for Israelis because they will understand really what’s going on.”

Still, before Ajrami accepted the job, he needed to lay down some ground rules for his work: “I say whatever I want and if you want to take me, take it or leave it. I will say what I need to say as a journalist and as a Palestinian … There are so many words that I can’t say in my reports,” he says. “I never say IDF [Israeli Defense Forces]. I say Israeli Forces, Israeli Army, but I never say Israeli Defense Forces and they accept that. There are some words like terrorist—we [Palestinains] are not terrorists, and I’m not going to write that and I’m not going to say that. And they accepted it.”

In his work, Ajrami knows he is walking a fine line—the way he presents the story can mean the difference between being dismissed offhand and having his message truly resonate. “I’m not talking just like a Palestinian, saying, ‘the Zionist criminals’—[the audience] won’t listen to me. But I can give information in a human way and the way the Israelis really can understand and accept it,” he says. “For example, I never talk about Palestinians without talking about Israelis. I compare between the two miseries.”

For almost a year, Ajrami also worked for Channel 2, an independent Israeli television channel. As he stood on the streets of Gaza speaking Hebrew into the camera, he remembers the reaction was mixed. “I could hear people behind me saying: “’What—a Jewish?’ They don’t say Israeli, they say Jewish. ‘What—a Jew? How could he come into Gaza?’ Sometimes it makes me laugh and sometimes I had to explain to them in Arabic that I’m a local. I’m a journalist … and then people start to understand and get used to it.”

While Ajrami says he has never been threatened as a result of his work, at times the politics of the conflict have become an impediment to his reporting. After Channel 2 rejected his segments on civilian casualties of Israeli attacks, he decided he had to stop working for them, though he has remained on good terms with the station.

During the latest conflict, in which 160 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed, Ajrami appeared on air every night to discuss the situation in Gaza. Ajrami says he tried to create common ground by comparing the Israelis who fled their towns in the south for the relative safety of Tel Aviv to Gazans evacuating their homes in heavily-targeted areas of the enclave. “I can understand your misery, as people, as humans—but you have to understand the message from Gaza,” he remembers saying. “It’s the same misery and there are politicians who rule and govern in a way that makes a lot of civilians dead.”

Israelis are more prone to understanding that message, Ajrami believes, than if he accused the Israeli military of targeting Palestinian civilians. “They won’t understand me, and they will say: ‘What? Fuck, you are launching rockets randomly on our houses!’ They won’t understand and they won’t feel sympathy towards your misery,” he says.

Ajrami’s mission is not to be a one-way bullhorn on the situation. When he speaks as an Israeli expert on local television and radio in Gaza, he tries to explain that Israel is a segmented society, with different factions that should be engaged in different ways. “Let’s separate between Jews and Israelis, and Israelis citizens and Israeli government and the Israeli policy, because I can have the support of a lot of Israelis because they understand and they call for the end of occupation, just like me,” he says.

After Ajrami’s Channel 2 appearances were translated and rebroadcast by Palestinian TV stations, he says he has received a lot of support and praise from people in Gaza for his remarks.

Although Ajrami knows his messages falls on deaf ears when it comes to extremists on both sides, he thinks he can still reach ordinary Israelis and Gazans who realize the status quo only encourages further armed conflict.

“They won’t understand now, but they will understand later that we can’t go on like this, because I can see people, ordinary people—away from politics—they are talking about their fear. They are talking about their children, the safety of their children, and they want a better future for their children,” he says. “I lived from the beginning, from the first day of my life until now, struggling under occupation and offensives and the ongoing war and if I think about my daughters, I want a better life for them. This is the message.”

When Ajrami called his editors in Israel to appeal for help with his daughter, he says they used all of their available connections to help bring her across the border. It took 15 hours for permission from the hospital and both governments to come through. Israeli journalists Ajrami had never met even called to offer the family their help. 

Now in an Israeli hospital, Ajrami’s daughter has undergone two surgeries on her injured hand, but in the end, three fingers have been amputated. Ajrami admits his personal tragedy made him more critical of the Jewish state in his appearances on Israeli television. But he also believes it made more Israelis appreciate and understand his message. He was no longer speaking as a journalist, but as a grieving and anxious father--something he thinks Israeli parents can empathize with.

During the television interviews, Israelis often ask him: how can he be angry at Israel when the nation accepted his daughter for treatment?

“I keep saying Israel is an occupier state--we are under occupation and they are responsible for all the misery that we have been through,” Ajrami says. “You are not helping me because you are a different country, you are the cause of my misery and my daughter was injured in an Israeli offensive.”

In the past, Ajrami tried to remain neutral on the Palestinian resistance movement, and has also refused to comment on Israel’s justifications for their incursions into Gaza. He said he’d never been able to justify an attack on civilians by either side. But since his daughter’s injury, he has been better able to explain the Palestinian mentality behind firing rockets at Israel.

“I say when I’m in a room with a lion, I have to fight. I know that he will kill me, but I have to fight. Despite that I know it’s a lion and at the end I’m going to die, but at least I fight. This is what the Palestinians are doing and this is the message that got through to the Israelis: When you kill my daughter, I’m going to launch a rocket, wherever it goes, I don’t care,” he says.

“It wasn’t the journalist that gives a report, it was me talking about something inside me without talking about my case,” Ajrami says. “My daughter and how she got injured. I was talking about all the children in Gaza, all the civilians in Gaza who got hurt, that was my message.”