VJP Board Chair Dr. Burhan Ghanayem: His Trip to Palestine
Dr. Burhan Ghanayem

Interview with Dr. Burhan Ghanayem, Board Chair of Voices for Justice in Palestine

Burhan traveled to the Occupied Palestinian West Bank from late September to mid-October 2022. The interview has been edited for clarity. The Interviewer is Rev. J. Mark Davidson, Executive Director of Voices in Justice for Palestine.

Burhan, what are your observations and insights into the current situation on the ground?

My main takeaway is that Israel has gained near total control of my people. No Palestinian is safe from the occupation and the settler and state violence. Palestinians are losing their homes, land, and loved ones every day. There is a hidden domination, more pervasive and devastating than most people outside the rural portions of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) ever see. What is happening is a dumbing and a numbing of the Palestinians. They are under tremendous economic pressure. The only jobs available to the people in the villages are in Israel, on their farms, their factories, cleaning the houses of Israeli families, washing dishes in their restaurants, or working in the settlements. Children who reach the age of 15 or 16 are dropping out of school in large numbers, not completing their educations, and going to work in these dead-end jobs. And they are doing this because they have no other viable choice. They need to feed their families and help pay the bills. This goes against the grain of what it means to be Palestinian. The Palestinian people have always emphasized education. It used to be a shame for a family for one of their children not to finish secondary school and college. It was such a source of pride when a child from the villages advanced to receive a graduate degree, though this was quite common. Now there are college graduates in computer programming, the sciences, business, and engineering, and there are so few opportunities for them in their chosen fields that they now work in Israel at menial jobs @ $30-40/day. To tell you the truth, they are slaves. That is what this is – it is slavery.”

It’s almost as if the Israelis are allowing them just enough freedom to participate in their own ruin.

That’s right. Before Covid, I went to see a father and his son from my village. I have known his family for years. They know how important education is to me and my family. My son was the same age as his son, who is also a college graduate. He started to tell me what their lives are like and they both were in tears. The father had a stroke which left him blind and disabled, so his son had to go to work in the Israeli settlements to support the family. This is breaking their spirits. Another of my good friends told me he can’t find enough laborers to harvest his olive trees because the cost of labor is too high. So, he has chosen to leave the olives unharvested. The Palestinian agricultural sector is being destroyed. This is a huge loss and deepens the Palestinians’ dependence on Israeli agricultural products. Harvest time is such a beautiful community time. A time of great celebration and cultural pride. There is the work of harvesting the olives, but so much more. Families and friends gather under the trees, spread blankets, eat and tell stories, listen to Palestinian music, enjoy being together. There is love of nature, of others, a great sense of joy. We grew up sharing these traditions and passed them on to our children and grandchildren. To see this disappearing is heartbreaking.

I know that the Palestinian Authority employs Palestinians, but this is largely confined to the cities, and there is rampant corruption as well. Outsiders, especially those who are not well-informed, might think that the Palestinian Authority is legitimate authority, but to most Palestinians it isn’t, if it ever was. 

The Palestinian Authority is the joint creation of the Israeli/US governments and Palestinian elites. It is resented by the majority of the people. What are the PA and the Security forces doing? They are arresting the protesters and disarming the people. They are considered by most Palestinians as partners of the occupiers. They are enriching themselves and collaborating with the occupiers. The Security forces are trained in U.S. Jordan, and Egypt, and they are called “General Dayton’s boys” after the U.S. general who oversees and coordinates their operations. They receive high wages and titles. They are arranged by military rank and rewarded for their work. Their work is to keep a lid on the Palestinian resistance movement. They reinforce the occupation. The Oslo Authority employs a significant segment of the population. Once again, most of those are forced to do this work to feed their families. Employment by the Oslo Authority is plagued by favoritism and corruption. Most good jobs are reserved for the children, families, and friends of high-ranking Oslo Authority officials. The same applies to business opportunities in the private sector. The relatives and friends of Oslo Authority officials receive the lion’s share of such opportunities.

How can more visibility be brought to this situation?

That’s just it. All the tours from the United States and Europe, they go to Ramallah, and they see all the cafes, fancy hotels and restaurants, and the stores, and they think the Palestinians are doing alright. Or they go to the developed sites in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Maybe they go to Nablus or Wadi Fuqin. But they rarely, if ever, come to my village and the surrounding villages. They don’t see the villages near Qalqilya that are completely encircled by the Wall, and they don’t see the land the villagers have lost. They don’t see Qalqilya, Tulkarm, Jenin, and the surrounding villages. They don’t see the devastating impacts of the occupation and the apartheid wall. These are the places where the enslavement has taken hold, where the people are barely surviving, where their spirit has been crushed, where they don’t see any hope. What most people from the US and Europe see is a sanitized version of the occupation, not the ugliest face of it.

Say more about the system of enslavement you are seeing, how it is set up, how deeply it reaches into Palestinian life.

If a young Palestinian doesn’t want to cooperate with his own enslavement to the Israelis, what are his options? Maybe he can find some work in the Palestinian villages for a few dollars/hr., but in Israel he can make a lot higher pay. Of course, if he works in Israel, he must go through a very long process to get a permit and pay bribes to Israeli and Oslo authority officials. Permits are used by the Israeli occupation as a powerful tool to subjugate the people, prevent resistance to the occupation, and enforce calm. In addition to extracting high monetary costs for granting permits, Israel sometimes uses permits to force some Palestinians to collaborate and become informants, among other things. Workers have to get up at 4 AM, spend 3-4 hrs. at the checkpoints, where Palestinian workers are herded into steel pens like cattle in terrible crowded conditions just for the chance to work in Israel. Workers also spend hours returning home. There is no workman’s comp, no insurance, no sick days, no vacation. Sometimes they get stiffed. No wages after days of work. There is no recourse for them. There are stories of Palestinian workers dying from toxic fumes in an Israeli chemical plant. Further, Israel uses permits as a form of reward and punishment. Israel cancels permits for workers and their families and neighborhoods as collective punishment. Workers abide by the occupier’s dictates to avoid losing their work permits. No one speaks up about these abuses for fear of losing their work permit. The worst part is that many Palestinians caught up in this system of slavery have started to accept it. They say, “With this money, now I can get married.” “With this job, now I can add a room in my house.” It’s not their choice. It’s not what they wanted in life. But they make their peace with it, they settle for it.

What you are describing sounds like near-total Israeli control over the work lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. What other ways does Israel exert control over Palestinian lives?

The entire Palestinian territories are connected to the Israeli electrical grid. There really is no alternative to buying your electricity from Israel, and they make a lot of money from the Palestinians. They can turn it off whenever they want. What can we do? The Israelis also regulate water use from aquifers in the Occupied West Bank. They sell the Palestinians their own water in certain areas. Another unseen form of slavery has to do with trade. Palestinians can’t import or export anything without a permit from Israel. Palestinians are forced to buy Israeli-made consumer products, which benefits the Israeli economy. Palestinians have to cope with soldiers and settlers’ violence every day in every aspect of their lives. Soldiers and settlers can erect a “flying checkpoint” anywhere on a moment’s notice. This serves to further block and delay the movement of people and commerce. Some of these flying checkpoints are used by the soldiers and settlers as a way to harass traveling Palestinians.

Palestine is rich in natural resources, but it is the Israelis who are accessing and developing them.

I saw two stone quarries in the Tulkarm area, and I am sure there are many more in the rest of the Occupied Territories. Israeli companies claim to own them, but it was by theft or fabricated purchase. Israel extracts our natural resources, causing erosion. Their heavy trucks are destroying our roads, which are already not good. This is environmental exploitation that benefits Israel and the settlements.

I have heard there is a serious “brain drain” from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Did you see evidence of that?

Yes. Those young people who can are going to United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar find work. They accept lower wages than the going rate. They are denied health services and their children are denied participation in state-run schools. Most of them spend most of their income to send their kids to private schools and to pay for rental housing in these countries. Those who remain in Palestine are trapped, reduced to being a cheap labor source for Israelis. If they step out of line, or miss work because they cannot get through the checkpoints in time, they can be fired, or lose their work permits. The whole infrastructure of slavery holds them down. They are building the plantations for the Israelis, while their own lives slip away. They are major contributors to building a booming Israeli economy.

The Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank has been ongoing for 55 years, if you date its beginning in 1967, or 75 years if you go back to the Nakba. Most people have no idea of what it means to live for decades under military occupation. Could you give an example of what this is like for your family and neighbors?

Israel has perfected, if you can use that word, its military control over every Palestinian town or city. They’ve built massive electronic military gates that can shut down any entrance or exit to any Palestinian city or town, at any time. One night, my nephew and his wife invited us to go to dinner and eat Shawarma and Kunafa in Nablus. Nablus is one of the largest cities in the West Bank and famous for its Kunafa, about a 30-minute drive from my village. We went early, and after dinner around 7 pm, we started to leave Nablus to go back to our village. It turned out there was a military operation in the area. The Israeli military immediately shut down all entrances and exits to Nablus. When we arrived at the gate leading to our village, the gates were manned by 5 soldiers in a Jeep and they shut down all incoming and departing traffic. It took more than 5 hours of waiting for the gates to open. We arrived at our villages after midnight.

You have painted a devastating portrait of life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I am particularly struck by your graphic depiction of Palestinian enslavement.

Slavery is a condition in which human beings are “owned” by other human beings. Slaves are deprived of most of the rights ordinarily held by free persons. Palestinians may not be chattel slaves under the direct and total control of their masters, as in the ante-bellum South. But their lives are directly and indirectly controlled by the Israeli system of apartheid. They are forced to work in Israel and build Israeli farms, factories, settlements, etc. Most have no real alternatives. They are forced to pay for their own natural resources and energy. They have no choice but to consume Israeli-made products. They are forced to live under curfew during Israeli holidays and during Israeli army incursions and military operations. Their freedom of movement is restricted both routinely and at the whim of Israeli authorities at any time. Without foreign intervention and hopefully the awakening of the conscience of the Israeli public and Jews around the world, this enslavement will only tighten its hold on the Palestinian people.

What is the solution? What is your best sense of how to break the Israeli stranglehold on the Palestinian people, and set them free?

Most Palestinians rightfully regard the U.S. as partners with Israel in their subjugation and enslavement. Israel would never be able to maintain the occupation and keep enslaving Palestinians without the more than $4 billion in U.S. military aid and diplomatic cover. The U.S. must place universal human rights at the top of its agenda. Israel must be pressured by the U.S. and the rest of the international community to end its apartheid regime and accept one state for all human beings living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike, with equal rights for all.

Dr. Burhan Ghanayem is the Board Chair of Voices for Justice in Palestine, the co-founder of the North Carolina chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and has been instrumental in establishing the Palestine Diabetes Institute by the Jerusalem Fund. He also serves on the board of directors of the North Carolina Coalition for Peace with Justice (CPWJ), the Abrahamic Interfaith Initiative on the Middle East (AIME), and the Muslim American Public Affairs Council (MAPAC).