Palestinian-Americans Hopeful About Gaza

While scenes of Israeli soldiers facing off with Israeli protesters have dominated TV news recently, Palestinians and other Arabs living in the United States hope the tumult in the Gaza Strip (search) will be a turning point for their people.

"They said it was going to be very hard, very difficult. I just hope everything they go through in the peace process on both sides" is worth it, said Najeh Jawad, 40, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian who owns a supermarket in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Like most Palestinians, Jawad, who immigrated to the United States 25 years ago, believes statehood for his people is the only way to quell the region's strife.

[Editor's Note: this is the second of two stories looking at U.S. reactions to the current situation in the Middle East. To read about the reaction of American Jews to the Gaza pullout, click here.]

Sammy Sleem, another Palestinian-American and Brooklyn resident, was also pleased with the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza.

"It's a step forward. We're looking forward to peace," said Sleem, a 44-year-old deli owner. "I'm very hopeful, very optimistic. But I want to see jobs. We want to see hospitals. We want to see schools. ... We need homes and services to make their lives better."

Palestinians like Sleem and Jawad fled their homes for the United States because they said providing for their families proved too difficult under occupation by the Israeli army.

According to the Census Bureau's 2000 count, there were 72,112 Palestinian-Americans living in the United States. The Washington-based Arab American Institute Foundation puts the figure at 252,000.

Palestinians have been stateless since well before 1967's Six Day War (search), when Israel seized the Gaza Strip, the West Bank (search) and East Jerusalem, among other heavily Arab regions it has controlled ever since. If Palestinians are overjoyed to see the Jewish settlers leave, it's because to them, it's justice.

"The Palestinians were kicked out of their homeland 50 or 60 years ago. This is the same story. Now they’ve both felt what it feels to leave your home," Sleem said.

But other Palestinian-Americans were more dubious that a breakthrough in their quest for sovereignty had come at last.

"Technically, they [Israelis] actually didn’t leave. They left Gaza, but they're still going to control the borders outside Gaza. They [Palestinians] can live in peace in there, but they actually can't move around as well as they did before," said Rufus, a 25-year-old Palestinian-American who works in his family's Middle Eastern grocery in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. He declined to give his last name.

Joe, a Gaza-born Palestinian who did not give his last name or age, said he believed the Israelis' withdrawal from his homeland was a "political trick."

"I don't believe the Jews or the leadership of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon are really withdrawing from Gaza unless they plan something secret for the West Bank," he told

Joe, who runs a barbershop in Sunset Park, did not want to describe in detail what life was like under the occupation, saying that it was an "occupation after invasion. Worse than the invasion of Iraq.

"They took the land of the natives and they kicked us out," he said, comparing it to the Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. "Look now — the Japanese have apologized for that and it has been such a long time. This [occupation] is not accepted in this world."

Many Palestinians are miffed at America's alliance with Israel and seeming indifference to their plight. The United States has long been seen as the world's policeman on human rights — to the chagrin of isolationists — and yet consistently sides with Israel when it is criticized by bodies like the United Nations for violating the rights of Palestinians.

But the horrors of bomb attacks against Israeli civilians, many of them children, by Palestinian militant groups has made it more difficult for Americans to commiserate with Palestinians as a whole.

Farid Ali, a New York restaurateur, was among those who felt little sympathy for Palestinians. But on a trip to Israel last year, he had the unpleasant experience of being an American tourist treated like a second-class citizen.

"I knew nothing about what was going on over there. I really thought Palestinians were crazy. I heard about suicide bombings and thought there must be something really wrong with these people," Ali told

Ali, 40, was born in Colombia to a Colombian mother and Palestinian father and was raised Catholic in the United States. He said he never heard his father say anything derogatory about Israel or Jews.

"I have a lot of Jewish friends, and they would pronounce the wonders of the only democracy in the Middle East being Israel, how open and wonderful it is, and how other Arab nations should aspire to be like it," Ali said.

Instead, Ali said he returned from his trip traumatized. Likening his experience to that of blacks in pre-civil rights America, Ali said he was constantly singled out by Israeli police, made to wait for hours at checkpoints, refused service in cabs and hotels and on several occasions awakened in the middle of the night by police banging on his hotel room door.

"From what I saw, the Palestinians really are living in an apartheid state, and this is not something that was inculcated in me or some indoctrination forced on me growing up," Ali said. "I went there as an American with eyes wide open and what I saw there just shook my belief system."

Marty Rosenbluth, a Mideast specialist at Amnesty International USA, said that while he and his organization believe Israelis have the right and obligation to protect themselves from terrorism, "a lot of the measures the Israelis use in the occupied territories ... can't be justified on the basis of security."

Rosenbluth, who worked in the West Bank for nearly eight years, likened the occupied territories to open-air prisons.

"Palestinians in the occupied territories basically cannot move around. They are confined to their villages, towns and cities — freedom of movement is virtually impossible," he told "Every single aspect of life is controlled by the military."

Among the abuses Rosenbluth said Palestinians are suffering: excessive use of lethal force in situations in which police and soldiers are not in danger; arrest and detention without trial; confiscation of land; insufficient access to water sources; and strict controls on enterprise and business activity.

According to Rosenbluth, countries including the United States will have to step up to help Palestinians become self-sufficient after the withdrawal.

"The economies of the West Bank and Gaza were never developed properly," largely because Palestinians have not been allowed to compete with Israeli businesses, he said. "If there is going to be development, it will have to come from the international community."

Ali said that following his experience in Israel, he was hoping for a more open and honest dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States.

"I've been very cautious about speaking about this, because if you speak up you're deemed anti-Semitic. I am not anti-Semitic. But I have found that when I do express or share my experience ... many Americans have empathy for the Palestinians. It's just that I think people are afraid to talk about it," he said.

Ali said he was heartened by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search)'s efforts to see progress in the "road map" peace plan. The pullout has also had the strange effect of warming Palestinian-Americans' once-icy feelings toward Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search).

"[Sharon] said at the beginning he was never going to pull out of Gaza, and later on he pulled out. I think hopefully that will happen in the West Bank, too," mused Jawad, the Prospect Heights supermarket owner. "Sharon is doing the right thing."

Deli owner Sleem doesn't think the world is seeing a kinder, gentler Sharon — just a smarter one.

"Sharon did for his people what nobody else in history did for them. He was a founding father [of Israel]," he said. "He knows what he's doing. He didn’t do this for love, he did this for the benefit of Israelis. What he did is the right stuff."