Heard on the Hill

Connolly Intern Sows Father’s Seeds of Peace for Gaza

Yousef Bashir has faith in a peaceful solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Yousef Bashir, a Gaza native, is an intern in Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly’s office. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The future president of a Palestinian state might be working as an intern in Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly’s office. 

“No pressure, huh?” Yousef Bashir replies to the Virginia lawmaker’s assertion about his future and the two laugh.

Bashir, 28, came to the U.S. to attend a summer camp in Maine organized by Seeds of Peace, a group that brings together children from countries in conflict. He later completed his high school education at a Presbyterian boarding school in Utah. 

He earned a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from Northeastern University and a master’s in coexistence and conflict from Brandeis University, a Jewish-sponsored institution.

Bashir tells his story about growing up in Gaza and his wishes for a peaceful two-state solution to the conflict there on college campuses and in front of groups like J Street and AIPAC.

“I tell my story because I don’t want people, especially the people who have caused my pain, to feel guilty,” he said. “I tell my story, and it’s hard for me to tell my story over and over again, because I want the people who caused me my pain to give me a chance, to give themselves a chance, to understand where I come from. Who I am as a human being.”

His story is of growing up with Israeli soldiers telling him what he could and couldn’t do and of firefights going on outside his home. And of a father who, despite all that, kept his faith in humanity.

And if anyone had a reason to lose his faith in humanity, it would be Bashir, who still carries fragments in his body from an Israeli bullet from when he was shot at age 15.

“You think Palestinians, they just want to throw rocks and want to blow things up, but I say, it was in Gaza that I learned how to be a peacemaker,” Bashir said. “It was in Gaza that I learned that the Jewish people are our cousins.”

A world changed

In 2000, Bashir’s world became a war zone when Israeli forces rolled into Gaza to put down the second intifada.

Israeli soldiers took over the second and third floors of his house, located next to a military base, to serve as an outpost and told Bashir’s family that they weren’t allowed upstairs.

“Soldiers started shooting at the house as a message for my father that it wasn’t safe,” he said. “All of the neighboring houses evacuated.” In the following days, those houses were either bombed or demolished.

But his father refused to leave, and he continued to preach peace, so the soldiers let him stay.

“In the midst of all of this, my father was teaching me and my siblings that we are destined to find a way to live in peace with the Jewish people, no matter what they do,” he said. “Because this is kind of the ultimate cause for Christians, Muslims and Jews, to find a way to coincide in the Holy Land, which belongs to all three people.”

His father’s philosophy got the attention of international media outlets. Bashir thinks that’s part of the reason why they weren’t forced out.

“That coverage put a restraint on the soldiers. They did horrible things in my house as it is, but the press being there pushed them back,” he said.

As conflict raged around him, Bashir had difficulty embracing his father’s philosophy.

“My real conflict was with my father,” he said. “How is it possible that we have to live in peace, no matter what they do to us? Because I was seeing a peaceful man, a peaceful family, that taught me nothing but peace, and I was seeing what the soldiers and the settlers were doing.”

Bashir recalled a CNN crew giving Israeli settlers a letter from his father, in which he expressed his hope for peace. The settlers wrote back: “Every day, I wake up, I wish to never see your house again.”

In 2002, an American CNN camerawoman went upstairs, only to be kicked out by the soldiers. That evening, Bashir said Israeli soldiers shot at his father’s bedroom in retaliation.

“We were used to crossfire every day around my house, so we’d gotten to the point where we did our homework, cooked, watched movies, watched TV and there was a three hour-long crossfire happening outside. That was pretty normal,” he said.

But this night, Bashir said, there were “bullet fragments all over the back of [my father’s] head.”

His father suffered only minor injuries and gained more resolve.

“The CNN crew came back and said, ‘They almost killed you and you still believe in peace?’ And he said, ‘What happened to me last night makes me believe even more in peace. Someone has to take that step and if it’s not them, let it be me because I want to give my children a chance to live in peace,’” Bashir recalled.

Two years later, at the age of 15, three American United Nations workers visited his home. As they were leaving, he followed them out to wave goodbye. And then a bullet from a Israeli soldier’s rifle slammed into his back.

“Literally, ‘pew!’ — just one sound,” Bashir said. “I will never forget in my … forever.”

A change of heart

His father shoved him into the UN vehicle and he woke up a week later at a hospital in Tel Aviv with Israeli doctors and nurses caring for him.

“I held onto their hands and I knew that I was holding the people whom I just, yesterday, looked at as enemies,” he said.

He began to think about Israelis differently.

“I experienced it through its soldiers, through its settlers,” he said. “Not so great. Not because I’m a Palestinian, just simply because of what they did in my house. And, now, just like that, I was being asked, ‘Out of 10, how much pain do you have?’”

Bashir was hospitalized for 16 months. He spent four months in surgery and was paralyzed for a year. Fragments of the M-16 bullet are still in his back, with one in his spine and two others around it. 

The experience resolved his conflict.

“For the first time ever in my life, not to only look at the Jewish people as human beings but also to recognize my humanity as well,” he said.

Connolly added, “Humanity, in Yousef’s case, prevailed. He’s now walking and talking and working in a congressional office.”

From left, Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., Maryland Rep. <a class="memberLink" title="Click to view member info in a new window" href="http://data.rollcall.com/members/44214?rel=memberLink" target="_blank">John Delaney</a>, and Connolly address demonstrators at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., on Jan. 29, after President Donald Trump issued his first executive order on immigration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From left, Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., Maryland Rep. John Delaney, and Connolly address demonstrators at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., on Jan. 29, after President Donald Trump issued his first executive order on immigration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Middle East has been a cornerstone of the congressman’s 40-year career, in the public and private sectors.

“I think it’s imperative that we strive towards a two-state solution and that we find ways to bridge the gaps between the two sides and build a peace process. And that starts with the human being and Yousef is a great example of what we’re talking about,” Connolly said.

Bashir met Connolly through the congressman’s wife, Catherine, who invited him to speak to a group of congressional spouses.

Leaving Gaza

The more than 100 soldiers in his house left in August 2005. A year later, Bashir left Gaza for high school in Utah, among 150 people in a 50-passenger bus. He hasn’t been back. 

He recalled having to go to the bathroom in an empty soda bottle “because if I left my spot, I would lose it. It was the last bus that would leave.”

That was also the last time he would see his father, who died of a stroke three years later.

“When I got the news of his passing, I said that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life because this man was unbreakable,” he said, with tears in his eyes.

His U.S. visa didn’t allow him to travel, so he wasn’t able to go to the funeral. That inspired him to seek asylum in the U.S. so he could get a green card.

His mother still lives in Gaza, but the two reunited in June after she suffered critical injuries in a car accident and Bashir’s brother, an orthopedic surgeon in Germany, had her moved there to care for her.

Of Bashir’s six other siblings, one is an engineer in Germany, another is a doctor in Austria, there’s an accountant in Gaza, and others include a dentist and a translator.

He wants to transition into a full-time position on Capitol Hill, and long-term, to be able to advise someone on foreign affairs and “represent Gaza, Palestine, the U.S. and even, Israel.”

“I hope his experience here will feed his appreciation of, if not love for, politics and the political process,” Connolly said. “How frustrating and difficult though at times it is, that’s the process that will produce a peace, a lasting peace, someday and hopefully, it will be in Yousef’s lifetime.”

And Bashir is not discouraged by the new  Trump administration and hard-line Israeli leaders’ opposition to a two-state solution.

“I feel that the real people are interested in something that has nothing to do with what the leaders are saying and I want to give it a chance. So, both people can live together,” he said.

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