The interview: Muhanned Qafesha

Frances Leach speaks to human rights activist Muhanned Qafesha about the life-and-death battle to defend Palestine from illegal demolitions and settlements.

Muhanned Qafesha

Muhanned Qafesha

You’ve lived your whole life under the Israeli military occupation. Can you tell me what your first memories of that were?

I grew up in one of the toughest times for the country, which was the second Intifada.* I would open my eyes in the morning and see helicopters in the sky, shooting at Palestinian families in their homes. I’d walk to school and there would be a tank in the middle of the road. We used to play in the streets, but suddenly they were full of soldiers. Sometimes the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] would pass by in their tanks and we would have to run and hide. Then when they had passed, we’d come back out to play.

What I remember the most is not being able to sleep because of the noise of shootings across the city. If it wasn’t that, it would be the fear that next time it would be you.

I was 20 the first time I was shot by the IDF. I was lucky really because I was struck by a bad sniper. He missed me the first two or three times. So, then he had to shoot me with the kind of bullet that explodes so he could at least say he shot a Palestinian when he went home that day.

Can you tell me a little bit about Youth Against Settlements?

Youth Against Settlements (YAS) is a Hebron-based nonviolent direct-action group. We were set up in 2008, and we maintain a youth education and meeting centre located in a building that was initially occupied by the Israeli military and later by Israeli settlers. It was reclaimed for Palestinian use through nonviolent direct action and a legal campaign that we started a few years ago.

Now the centre is used to empower and educate Palestinians, especially young people, to stand firm and use nonviolent action, media, and advocacy work to resist Israel’s system of occupation, restriction and separation in Hebron.

Often videos we take are used as evidence if people are accused of crimes. These can be made-up charges where, without our video evidence, they would go to jail.

How has the situation changed for Palestinians in Hebron since YAS began? Have you had any successes over the years?

I joined YAS in 2012 and things have progressively got worse for Palestinians living in Hebron. We try to help Palestinians who live in the restricted part of H2 [the area of Hebron under Israeli military control] so they can continue their life with our support, or resist their houses being occupied and stolen.

We recently stopped an illegal occupation of a Palestinian family home by camping outside it for a week. The settlers couldn’t move in and the family were able to eventually return. These are small wins compared to the overall rate of settlers moving in and illegally building in the West Bank, but it gives us all hope that we can resist.

What are you asking for from the international community?

We are asking for people to recognize that what is happening in Palestine is apartheid. When Amnesty International used that word in a report it really helped us.1 It gave us a term which we ask people in the international community to use to describe what they are seeing when they come here.

The targeting of journalists by the Israeli military is not new. It is a way to silence the Palestinian resistance and stop the world from hearing about what is happening to us

We can do the work ourselves when it comes to resisting and documenting the occupation, what we need is support to hold the occupation to account and prosecute them for their crimes. We want justice.

As the war in Ukraine continues, how do you – as a Palestinian – feel about the international response?

Watching the news from Ukraine and talking to my friends who live there – Palestinians who are based in Kyiv – the first feeling was just pain. To see another nation suffering under occupation, as a Palestinian, it’s a sense of intense sadness. Partly because we know how degraded people will feel at the injustice of it all, because we understand the level of violence that comes with it.

But, of course, I also felt that it was unfair to see this massive support for Ukraine from the rest of the world. I’m not talking about the local support people give to the victims but the legal support that seemed to kick in almost immediately. You had countries like the US and the UK, countries that have turned their backs on us time and time again, suddenly leaping to denounce illegal military occupations, calling for sanctions and prosecutions.

You’re also a journalist working in the West Bank. What has it been like for you since Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered in Jenin?

Shireen was my friend, as well as my colleague. The targeting of journalists by the Israeli military is not new – it’s why I was shot and why so many of my other friends have been shot and killed in the past. It is a way to silence the Palestinian resistance and stop the world from hearing about what is happening to us.

It is heartbreaking that no justice has been served for Shireen, even though multiple organizations, including The New York Times, have forensically analyzed the footage to conclude that she was shot intentionally by the Israeli military.

Since the second Intifada ended in 2005, do you feel that younger Palestinians have learnt their activism through older generations? Or do you think a new type of resistance is coming through in the age of social media?

Politicians are corrupt, they are profiting off the occupation and the pain of our people. Young Palestinians want the two parties [Hamas and Fatah] to be united, not divided. The younger generation isn’t apolitical; they have just completely lost faith in politicians. Young Palestinians don’t aim for political resolution anymore, we believe that the freedom of Palestine will come from international support for the resistance, alongside on-the-ground activism of the young.

Read more about the realities of occupation, apartheid and resistance on the ground in Palestine and Israel in NI544 - Palestine: From Occupation to Uprising - July/August 2023 available from the Ethical Shop.

* The second Intifada (2000-2005) was an uprising against Israel.

1 Amnesty International, ‘Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians…’, February 2022, nin.tl/apartheid