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A Life Under Occupation

ONE magazine’s interview with Maher Turjman

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Maher Turjman, Pontifical Mission’s regional director for Palestine and Israel, has spent his entire life under occupation. A Palestinian Christian, Mr. Turjman’s childhood unfolded against the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars and he came into adulthood during the first intifada. Now, as he and his wife, Selina, rear two young children in Jerusalem, the possibility of living free of oppression and violence seems bleak. Here, Mr. Turjman shares his story of life as a Palestinian under Israeli military occupation.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in 1966 in the Old City of Jerusalem, which the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan controlled until 1967. My mother was born into a Greek Orthodox family from Ramleh, a town just south of modern Tel Aviv. She and her family fled to Amman, Jordan’s capital, during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. My father, who is Coptic Orthodox, fled West Jerusalem when in 1948 it became a part of the new state of Israel. He and his family settled in the Old City. He worked with delinquent children for the Social Welfare Department, which the Jordanians administered until the Israelis took over after the 1967 war. Now it is in the hands of the Palestinian Authority.

Can you remember any of the 1967 war?
I was young, just over a year old. My family sought refuge in a shelter in a flower shop in Ramallah during the fighting. Later, my mother told me she was expecting another child, my younger brother, Nabil.

I can better recall the 1973 war. We had painted the windows of our house black, so light from the house couldn’t be spotted by bombers. Still, I was young then. I remember not knowing at all who the enemy was.

What was it like growing up in this atmosphere?
The Israeli Defense Forces were a constant presence; the soldiers were like boogiemen: ‘If you don’t finish your meal,’ our parents would say, ‘the Israeli army will get you.’ Growing up like this, too young to know about the history of anti-Semitism, World War II and the Holocaust, you thought of Jews as the bad guys. And we were too young to make a distinction between Jews and Israelis.

Was it different being a Christian, a minority?
At the time, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah had significant numbers of Christians, but religion wasn’t that big of an issue. Politics then was largely secular; you had a lot of secular leftist groups, including Fatah. There were many Christians who held important posts in the various Palestinian political parties. So, while you generally knew who was a Christian and who was a Muslim, it wasn’t that important.

Did you know any Israelis?
No, I only had contact with Israeli soldiers, who patrolled the streets. There weren’t checkpoints at the time — they didn’t appear until after the first Gulf War in 1991.

We were foolish. As children, we would throw stones at the soldiers and then run. It was a cat-and-mouse game, but we didn’t realize how dangerous it was, because sometimes they’d shoot back in response. Though just a boy, I was arrested several times for throwing stones at Israeli military vehicles, and each time I was quite scared.

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Tags: Gaza Strip/West Bank Jerusalem Palestine Occupation Maher Turjman