Yousef Bashir on His New Memoir “The Words of My Father”

Yousef Bashir was fifteen years old when an Israeli soldier shot him in the back outside his home in Gaza. But in the months after the attack, he would come to see a different side of his occupiers, as a team of Israeli doctors helped him learn to walk again. As an adult, Bashir has become an advocate for peace. His journey is documented in his new memoir, “The Words of My Father.”

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: So we turn now from that uneasy situation in Colombia to one of the longest-running conflicts in the world, the Middle East, where the U.S. also has a massive stake and the Trump administration is slowly rolling out its peace plan. Yousef Bashir was just 15-years-old when an Israeli soldier shot him in the back outside his home in Gaza. But in the months after the attack, he would see a different side of his occupiers as a team of Israeli doctors helped him learn to walk again. Now an adult, Bashir has become an advocate for peace following in his father’s footsteps. He documents his journey in his memoir “The Words of My Father” and he spoke to our Alicia Menendez about how he has managed to forgive.


ALICIA MENENDEZ, CONTRIBUTOR: You were born in 1989. Describe to me the Gaza of your childhood.

YOUSEF BASHIR, AUTHOR, THE WORDS OF MY FATHER: The Gaza of my childhood was something more of a fairy tale movie in my mind. I saw a beautiful farm, beautiful house, beautiful family, laughter. There was a (INAUDIBLE) next to our house but everything was calm and I thought it was going to be that way for the rest of my life.

MENENDEZ: And what changed?

BASHIR: It changed in 2000. In 2000, things changed drastically when the Second Intifada started and the soldiers who were just dancing music toward the 90s were now shooting for no reason at my house, knowing that we’re here inside the house. So from 2000 to 2005, that world that I took for granted was never the same.

MENENDEZ: And you’re seeing this through the eyes of a child who’s watching your neighborhood change. Zoom out for us, geopolitically, what was happening in Gaza at the time.

BASHIR: At the time, the peace talks failed, Camp David, Arafat, and Ehud Barak, they couldn’t make a deal. So the Second Intifada broke out, especially after the visit of the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. So a lot of demonstrations, a lot of protests against the soldiers, a lot of arrests, a lot of killings. It was an all-out war, something I had never seen before. I’ve heard my elders in the house talk about the First Intifada and the previous wars and clashes that happened between Israelis and Palestinians but this was very my first time to see it in real life with my own eyes.

MENENDEZ: Your father had an unshakable belief in living peacefully alongside the settlers. What is your suspicion about why he believes so firmly in peace?

BASHIR: I think that he had — he was raised very well by his mother, my grandmother. And he was — had the secret to his — to everything. I actually mentioned that in the book, it is his connection to God. That was I am a Muslim, I don’t have to make a scene of it. And his connection and faith in his religion and his creator brought him closer to his house, to his friends, to his family, even his enemies.

MENENDEZ: How did your father’s belief in peacefully coexisting with his Israeli neighbors shape you?

BASHIR: They were difficult for me at the beginning. Because I watched him — I watched him strongly believe that we are from nowhere else but Gaza. I mean, I have nine names in my name. My name is Yousef (INAUDIBLE) Bashir. And as a kid in the book, at 10-years-old and 12-years-old, I didn’t care but he took that to heart. I mean that’s all he spoke about. And his coexistence with the Israelis was the fact that they are also the children of Abraham. No matter what happens or what we do to each other, I’m always going to believe in that idea and the concept of the children of Abraham.

MENENDEZ: And did you question his belief in peace?

BASHIR: I sure did. I sure did. Not that I was born angry. But at the time, we moved from living happily, building a house. He had his job, family, grandmother. I mean it was a beautiful, beautiful living situation for me in Gaza. And suddenly I see the soldiers not just shooting at the house, everything not just happening on T.V. It’s happening in my living room where suddenly I have to ask for a permit to go to the bathroom. I have to ask for a permit to come home late. Suddenly, I was even fighting with him about doing teenage things.

MENENDEZ: Right. What you’re talking about is September 2000, you were 11-years-old, your house actually gets taken over by soldiers. There’s a passage that I would love for you to read on page 56.

BASHIR: Absolutely. A few days later, without any explanation, our neighbors from the base became our house guests. They simply walked into our home as if we were not there, moved into the upper two floors and set up their guns on the rooftop. They had taken over our house in the blink of an eye just like that. My older sister shouted at them, where are you going? She tried to block their way. But they just walked past without even acknowledging her presence. Right then and there, they took over our house. From our top floor, they could see the whole neighborhood. They smashed holes through the upstairs wall to set up gun positions. They covered all of the windows with camouflage netting and installed automatic machine guns at each corner of the roof. The guns had cameras attached to them so they can shoot whenever they registered danger. We assumed that the guns could shoot on their own, though we were not sure of that. Instinctively, I knew never to be in their sights.

MENENDEZ: What did the day to day actually look like sleeping, eating, using the restroom?

BASHIR: The soldiers took over the second floor and the third floor every night. At least five nights out of the seven nights a week, they came downstairs and moved all of us to the living room. Sometimes that began at 8:00 p.m., at 4:00 p.m. or after midnight, 12 or 1. And they would keep us there for hours. Sometimes, for until the next morning comes and all we do is run to the bathroom, try to get ready and off to the car to drive to school with my dad. And sometimes, they’ll keep us there for a week or two without any access to the outside world. And to get food, especially during Ramadan, we had to — Ramadan, as you know, is a whole festivity at night when you can eat. We had to go to the kitchen, escorted by a soldier, come back with the foods that my mom would end up just picking a corner in the living room and try to fix us something to eat when it’s time to eat. But all of that meant nothing to my dad. If you come home without an A on your exams, don’t come home. I don’t care if World War II is happening here, we are still going to survive and make it because that’s what we do.

MENENDEZ: What was the experience of living with these so-called house guests in your home?

BASHIR: It was incredibly confusing just to call them that was appalling to me. And I blamed my dad for that but he had his own vision and strategy. He didn’t want them to use any reason to take away the house, the land that he spent his life farming and caring about. And my dad, I think he loved the land just as much as he loved my mom and the rests of us. So I watched them when they demolished the greenhouses. And this was after a good three years into the whole experience. And here he is always advocating for peace and no, no, no, we’re not going to turn angry. And I watched him watch his farms get demolished just like that. And I said this is it. He’s about to give up and he didn’t. He said — he looked back, he watched the whole thing and he said OK, we will figure out and try to build it again. And that was all he said after that. And to this day, I just remember how — is he a real human being? And today, I’m glad to tell you that he was the best human being I have ever known.

MENENDEZ: Was there resistance from the broader community to the way that your father chose to treat the Israelis?

BASHIR: There was. There was disagreement. His friends, best friends, they thought that this is difficult. I could never do that. There was a lot of justified anger that was going on in the house but in the end, they all applauded his stamina and his belief that all he needed to do is not leave the house. Some neighbors left and their houses were demolished a couple of hours later. So my dad didn’t want the same to happen to his house.

MENENDEZ: You’re living in the home. You, your grandmother, siblings, your parents, quarantined to a living room, soldiers are on the top floor. And on top of that, your house also became a satellite studio for international media. What was it like to have that much attention on your living situation?

BASHIR: It was — it made me feel normal again. It made me feel that my dad wasn’t all by himself. And he got nearly half a million postcards from kids in high school, teachers, ordinary people from across the world, India, Canada, U.S., England, including Jewish people, who told him we heard about your story and we watched your story and we saw what you’re trying to do and we hope that you will continue to live in the house. Watching that — I was a kid, so I wasn’t getting all of the attention. And I wasn’t — I was just always, can I come here? Can I go there? Whether it’s my dad or the soldiers. I remembering being impressed that maybe this guy had the plan after all. I’m going to get the attention of the press, I’m going to be who I am, I’m going to tell them how I believe and how I see the world, including my soldiers who are occupying my house for no reason. And hopefully that sends a message to the soldiers that we’re not alone and maybe they have to do whatever they have to do but they’re not going to demolish the house, they’re not going to shoot all of us without anyone noticing. Because many moments, it came close to us thinking they would just do that.

MENENDEZ: You write about a series of incidents in which you either witnessed violence or props that led to violence. What happens when you’re 15?

BASHIR: When I was 15, I left school. I stayed behind because I tried to make every minute outside of the house count. So I stayed behind to play some pickup soccer and wear my favorite first authentic soccer t-shirt. And I saw my dad and three United Nations officers at the tower where the soldiers are, asked for a permit to enter the house. For some unknown reason, I would never know, I decided to put — drop my bike and sit in on the conversation with my dad, between my dad and the three Americans. They were granted a permit to visit for 15 minutes. After five minutes or so, the soldier asked them to leave. And so they without questions got up and walked back to the car. And as I watched their jeep back away from the house in the driveway, my dad is in front of me and I remember just waving with my hand bye and, boom, the soldier at the tower shot me. And right then and there, I lost control of my lower half and my dad was just a few feet away from me. I felt he was so — couldn’t be further. I couldn’t even speak. I didn’t feel pain. I was trying to figure out what just happened. And I remember my grandmother was 85 or something, attempting to run. My youngest brother running and kicking and screaming and my mom running and I thought oh, my God, this is it. And he comes back around and shoves me into the U.N. car and off to the hospital.

MENENDEZ: It was an Israeli soldier who shot you.


MENENDEZ: It was also an Israeli doctor who saved you. How do you reconcile that duality in your own mind?

BASHIR: To watch the people who inflicted a tremendous amount of pain on not only me but the rest of my family and the rest of my people, I’ve known the Jewish people through the settlers and soldiers my whole life. The best representative of the Jewish people was my dad. It wasn’t the soldiers. It wasn’t my — it wasn’t the settlers. And then to watch the very same people ask me with smiley face describes the level of your pain, can you move your toes? Can you lift them? Can you do? Can you try? That is, I think, the greatest gift I have ever received in my life, to see the human side of my enemy because that spared me from a great deal of having to hate them for the rest of my life when the soldier who shot me for no reason. Because that showed me the light of what I could do next.

MENENDEZ: Both the experience of being held prisoner in your own home and the experience of being shot as a 15-year-old, unbelievable story. When is the first time you shared that story publicly?

BASHIR: At the seats of Peace International Camp in May.

MENENDEZ: Which is?

BASHIR: Which is organized by an organization called Seeds of Peace. They’re dedicated to bringing the next generation of adversary kids from Israel, kids from Palestine, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, to a camp in Maine to try to provide the future generations of these countries with that human connection.

MENENDEZ: The first time you shared your story, what’s the response?

BASHIR: I will never forget it. I remember the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Americans crying together, glad that I was alive. It gave me hope that maybe despite everything that we have done to each other and despite everything that we will continue to do to each other, maybe I will use my experience to give that last touch of hope when everything seems like there’s no more hope.

MENENDEZ: After spending the time in Maine, what was it like then to go back to Gaza?

BASHIR: It was hard because here I am, OK, I believe in peace, no revenge, no violence. And I go back to, guess who, the soldiers in the house. Only this time, I have matured like never before. I have matured. I have matured. And I treated the soldiers the way my dad treated them. By the time, they are serious and do this, go there. I would just do the same thing as he did to them, treat them as children.

MENENDEZ: At the end of the book, you write a letter to the soldier who shot you. I would like for you to read a page. It’s 213.

BASHIR: I wanted to hate you but a miracle happened. No, not the miracle that I can walk again. Another miracle. One that was shown to me through my father’s commitment to peace, my mother’s unfathomable love, and the doctors and nurses who attended to me with the deepest compassion. It is the miracle of forgiveness. Without your bullet, I might never have understood forgiveness. You’re created by the same God who created me. You have the same humanity as I have. You are part of the same family as I am. I forgive you, my cousin, in peace.

MENENDEZ: A peace offering. Why in the book this way?

BASHIR: Everything that happened in my life was because of a soldier and my father if I’m going to bring it down to two people. And I spoke of the soldier and my father has toured 20 states throughout my 10 years in this country. And I have always spoke of the soldier and my father, the soldier and my father. And I don’t have my father. I like to believe that one day, I’m going to sit in front of a soldier, across from a dinner table, lunch table or whatever, and tell them what I’ve been doing since the moment he decided to shoot me for no reason. I think it will be powerful for me and I hope it will be just as powerful for him. Because if I can sit down with the person who nearly killed me for no reason, then I hope everybody else can get over it and see the path forward.

MENENDEZ: What do you say to those who believe that what is happening in your homeland is an irreconcilable conflict?

BASHIR: I tell them that if God is capable of forgiveness, then why shouldn’t we? The human beings who have done nothing but mistakes. We do wrongs. I, in the book, talking about that. We manipulate. We — everyone has their own interpretation. And God said I could have made you into one nation, one tribe. But instead, I’ve made you into nations and tribes so that you get to know one another, not fight one another or persecute one another or assassinate or imprison one another. And that’s always and forever will be my response to that.

MENENDEZ: Yousef, thank you so much.

BASHIR: Thank you for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Keith Bush on exoneration after 33 years in prison alongside Nina Morrison. Sergio Jaramillo joins the program to discuss peace negotiations in Colombia. Alicia Menendez speaks with Yousef Bashir about his new memoir, “The Words of My Father.