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Al-Aqsa raid through a Palestinian-American lens

Al-Aqsa raid through a Palestinian-American lens

Israeli Defense Force soldiers stand outside Al-Aqsa mosque doors last summer. | Rasha Abousalem

Israeli Defense Force soldiers stand outside Al-Aqsa mosque doors last summer. | Rasha Abousalem

The sounds of explosions shook the air around me. People ran frantically in my direction. Unfortunately this is what I was expecting on my trip to Jerusalem.

This past summer I visited my parents homeland—Palestine. I was in my hotel room when I received a Skype call from my brother in Florida. It was a Thursday evening and I had just returned from a trip to the West Bank. He eventually asked me what my plans were for the following day. Before I could even answer, he advised me not to go to Friday prayer at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound because it is well known that the Israeli Defense Forces raid the mosque, attack, and terrorize unarmed Muslim worshippers following the Jumah prayer. I told him not to worry, and that I will stay away. Of course, I couldn’t.

Fridays are unpredictable in Jerusalem, especially for Palestinians who plan to attend prayer at Al-Aqsa mosque.

Questions that filter through every Palestinian traveling through their homeland: Will I be allowed to enter? Will they harass me on my way in?

The three previous times I entered the compound I was harassed by the IDF, so I decided to make my way to the Old City earlier than usual. I was never surprised when I was stopped by armed Israeli soldiers, but it still never made sense to me why the IDF guarded entrances into Palestinian land and asked worshipers like myself, “Why we are going in there?”

That day, the Al-Aqsa compound was exceptionally empty for a Friday prayer. I asked the woman next to me where everyone was. She reminded me that for the last two days the Palestinian shop owners in the Old City had been closing their stores in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners, who were on hunger strike.  Many people were afraid to come to prayer in anticipation of violent clashes with the IDF.

After prayer was over a woman pointed out how quickly people were leaving the area, assuming a raid would soon occur. I resumed my seat on the floor and assumed nothing would happen since people were rushing to leave.

Not even 10 minutes had passed before I heard the first explosion.

Living in America practically me entire life, I was unaware of what that initial sound was. Before I could ask, a lady told me, “[The raid] has started, and you should leave right away.” I asked her what started, to which she answered, “The Israelis are by Al-Aqsa.” I looked up in that direction and a rush of people— elders, women and children—were rushing in my direction towards the exit of the compound.

I quickly grabbed my camera and made my way towards Al-Aqsa mosque. After all, aside from prayer, I traveled to the compound to document the injustices that occur there.

As I was running toward the explosions that literally vibrated the air around me, I saw others searching for their loved ones and running around in panic. On the back-end of the Dome of the Rock, IDF soldiers were lined up prohibiting people from going down to the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Israeli Defense Forces soldiers entered the compound and stood by the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, Palestine last June. | Photo by Rasha Abousalem

Israeli Defense Forces soldiers entered the compound and stood by the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, Palestine last June. | Photo by Rasha Abousalem

I could see other IDF soldiers down by Al-Aqsa mosque with their large plastic body shields attacking anyone in their way. There was a soldier on the stairs with a megaphone speaking in Hebrew. He saw me and about five others making our way down the stairs. Of course what really got his attention was my camera in one hand and my phone recording in the other. He pointed at me and shouted to the IDF soldiers behind me to come get me. I start walking backwards up the stairs but quickly realized there were soldiers coming from behind me— I was surrounded.

Suddenly, the soldiers were distracted by a group of what looked like Arab politicians that were walking the grounds and turned their attention to them. At the same time the man down the stairs dropped his megaphone and the batteries spilled out, thus leaving him too distracted to notice me anymore. This was my opportunity. I ran down past the Israeli soldier and made my way to Al-Aqsa.

Two young Palestinian boys follow Israeli Defense Force soldiers at Al-Aqsa compound during an IDF raid in June 2014. | Rasha Abousalem

Two young Palestinian boys follow Israeli Defense Force soldiers at Al-Aqsa compound during an IDF raid in June 2014. | Rasha Abousalem

In front of Al-Aqsa mosque there were two young boys, between the ages of 6 and 8 years old,  followed some of the IDF soldiers as they made there way through the compound. Some people, with children, were sitting around watching this unfold. I was baffled. Why weren’t the children running away from the soldiers? Why weren’t parents hiding their children? Then I suddenly remembered that to Palestinians, this is a normal part of their lives. Palestinian children have all but lost their childhoods to a cruel system of violent military rule. Children following around men hiding behind their guns baffled me. I stood in awe.

BOOM. I was startled by the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life. The IDF was setting off air explosives again, meant as a scare tactic. I saw a group of men standing by one of the entrances of Al Aqsa and I quickly made my way over to talk to them.

Wood scraps and plastic littered the floor outside. I asked one of them who had done this and to my surprise he replied the young Palestinian men that had now locked themselves inside Al-Aqsa mosque were responsible. Again, my ignorance became obvious when I asked him why they would destroy mosque property.

“What else do you want us to do? We have no weapons and no way of defending the [mosque],” a man said to me.

Palestinian teenage boy injured by tear gas canister fired by the Israeli Defense Force at Al Aqsa mosque in June 2014. | Photo by Rasha Abousalem

Palestinian teenage boy injured by tear gas canister fired by the Israeli Defense Force at Al Aqsa mosque in June 2014. | Photo by Rasha Abousalem

I thought the previous explosions were loud, and they were, until I heard the sound of one fired right at us. We scattered everywhere like frightened rabbits. Honestly, I had no idea where I was going. I remember having a terrible taste in my mouth from the tear gas being fired at us.

Soon after the raid was  over, the IDF stood quietly by the exits of the compound, and the Palestinian men removed the locks on the doors of Al-Aqsa mosque.

Excitement ensued as they removed the chains. As we got to the last door, some young men with their faces covered were trying to clean up the mosque. They did not want their pictures taken because if the pictures were to circulate and the IDF got hold of them, they would find the young men and their families and arrest them.

The noises simmered down and the excitement faded. As I walked back a woman came up to me and said, “Put your camera away before they confiscate it.” I took my memory card and hid it in a small pocket in the back of my zip-up. The camera is replaceable; the pictures are not. The only exit near me was full of soldiers. I walked toward the other side and exited the compound. The Old City was now crawling with soldiers and their guns.

Doors reopen to Al-Aqsa mosque after Israeli Defense Forces exited the compound.| Photo by Rasha Abousalem

Doors reopen to Al-Aqsa mosque after Israeli Defense Forces exited the compound.| Photo by Rasha Abousalem

I was told that day was a particularly good day in comparison to other raids that have happened at the compound.

“Usually there’s blood on the floor and at least 10-15 people hurt badly. On some occasions someone dies,” a shop keeper later told me.

Regardless, it was a terrible scene to witness. It was hard for me to comprehend how I can live peacefully in America, a country that supports Israeli terror that targets Palestinians like me on a daily basis.

I left Palestine with more questions than answers.

Memoirs of a Stolen Land: Right of Return

Memoirs of a Stolen Land: Right of Return

Rasmea Odeh released, headed back to Chicago

Rasmea Odeh released, headed back to Chicago

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