Beyond the Bubble: Growing up in the West Bank, Franko Omair risks his life to visit the ocean

Lily Yost, News Reporter

This week, The Wire spoke with Mohammad “Franko” Omair, a first-year student from the Palestinian West Bank, who discussed what it’s like to grow up under military siege. 

Palestine has a complex history; political conflicts stem from colonialism after the First World War when Great Britain defeated the Ottoman Empire and established the British Mandate for Palestine. From here, Jewish people began to migrate to Palestine, cohering with a growing zionist ideology: that the Palestinian region was to be a Jewish state.

After World War II and the Holocaust, Palestine was divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state, granting more land to the Jewish regions despite their lower population. By 1949, Israel gained more land than what was originally outlined by the UN following the partition plan, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees. To this day, they are defined as stateless. 

“We were driven out of our own land by military and by guns,” said Omair.

Violence continues today. Gaza and the West Bank make up Palestinian territory. The Israeli military—which is funded by U.S. tax dollars—strictly monitors borders, and Palestinians in these regions face invasive oversight from Israeli soldiers. Checkpoints, cameras and ID checks track Palestinian movement.

Omair said there are over 500 checkpoints in the West Bank alone. 

“Everyday we get checked,” said Omair. “Sometimes if the soldier is not in a good mood, sometimes they will just—sorry for my language—but they will fuck around with people.”

Every day to get to school or work, Palestinians have to pass through a checkpoint. “They just close the checkpoint and start checking my school bag. Once I got my hand cuffed,” said Omair. “It’s pretty intense…sometimes it’s just the mood of the soldier.”

He said soldiers target young men between the ages of 13 and 20. “There were 500 Palestinian kids arrested just last month.”

“Once we were picking olives and [soldiers] came and arrested my brother. There was no reason for that.” Soldiers accused Omair’s brother of throwing rocks at a military jeep. He was imprisoned for several days. 

“But this is how they do it, there is no actual law there. Israel invests a lot of money into taking Palestinians out of their houses and building new settlements.”

Ahed Tamimi, a friend of Omair’s, was imprisoned for eight months. “One of the soldiers was using her house as [protection] to shoot on protestors, to shoot on Palestinian kids, so she went up to the soldier and slapped him. She was telling him to ‘get out of my house.’”

Tamimi made international news and a video of the incident can be found online.

Omair said the military frequently invades Palestinians’ homes and schools.

“If they feel that a neighborhood or town is good for settlement and have some anger and protest, in order to make them fearful of the soldiers, they will break into random houses in the middle of the night and interrogate the kids and separate the family,” said Omair. “Sometimes they arrest kids, and that’s how they stop people from rebelling.”

Sometimes Israeli soldiers will give Palestinian residents a permit ordering them to destroy their home. If the homeowner does not comply, “the [soldiers] could just bring their military tanks and blow it up. Then you have to pay a fine for that because you didn’t destroy it by your own hand.” 

“You don’t feel safe while you’re sleeping in your house because they could just blow up the doors at any point and ask you to leave.”

Palestinian schools are also a target for attacks. Omair said schools are attacked with guns or with tear gas to force students outside. At school, this violence was normalized. 

“There was gossip in our school, ‘this kid got arrested yesterday,’ or ‘he just got out of prison.’ It’s so normal for us.”

Omair left Palestine to study abroad with the United World College (UWC) program in Wales. “When I got a scholarship to travel to the UK I was shocked. Like I could travel any minute without being stopped. I could do whatever I want without being questioned.”

Omair explained how he could wear his “I am Palestinian” shirt anywhere in the United Kingdom without fear, but in Palestine, Israeli soldiers would harass him for it. 

He recalled a time when he was walking to a checkpoint in a mosque and passed a woman selling greens on the street. Looking at his shirt, “she said ‘oh, poor you, they are going to arrest you!’ She was making fun of me!” 

At the checkpoint, “the solder called me and was making fun of me because the shirt said ‘I am Palestinian.’ He said, ‘you’re Palestinian, right?’ and I said ‘yeah.’ He did swear a bit, but he didn’t arrest me. He said ‘why don’t you fuck off to your city and change this shirt and then I might let you in.’” 

Omair went around the corner to buy a plain shirt and the soldier let him through. As soon as he passed the checkpoint he changed his shirt back. 

“When I go to sleep I see all these dreams about trauma, people getting tortured, or I see a lot of soldiers or I see myself getting arrested or getting killed or someone getting killed in front of me because I saw similar things in Palestine. I have a lot of dreams I got from when I was chased from a military jeep in first grade.”

At seven years old, Omair was chased by a military jeep on his way to school. “I saw the neighbors calling from the window and [I thought] ‘they’re just making fun of me because I’m going to school everyday’ and kept walking. Then I wasn’t sure what they were talking about, people were speaking to me but I wasn’t sure what was happening. After that I realized they were saying ‘watch out’ or ‘don’t walk further.’ And then I saw the military jeep coming from the other side when I crossed the street. The military jeep started chasing me and then I had to run to reach my aunt’s house.”

“There is no time to heal. We don’t have time to think about these things because, OK, there’s a murder that happened, they killed a kid, but we don’t have anything to do about it because we’re civilians. We cannot do anything.”

While studying at UWC, Omair’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. There are no hospitals in the Arab towns. The only hospital that treats cancer is in Jerusalem, and his mother was refused a permit five times before the Israeli government granted her access to medical care. For every day of treatment she had to reapply for a new permit.

“She has to go and wait through checkpoints, without anyone with her,” said Omair. “It disgusts me… it made me rebellious, it made me want to change the whole situation, but nothing is in my hands.” 

These checkpoints physically restrict the mobility of Palestinians. When Omair visited home before coming to Whitman, he illegally visited the beach for the first time in his life. To legally see the ocean, a Palestinian needs an Israeli-issued permit, and Israel will not grant them for young men. 

“I told my mom I’m going to my friend’s house for a few days, and I went with my friend to the wall that is built to separate Palestinians and Israelis. Me and my friend went and jumped over the wall. It’s a 10-meter wall and we have to climb and there’s a lot of military jeeps that are coming and going from the other side, so if they saw us climbing they would shoot us…but whatever, I wanted to go to the sea so I went and climbed the wall and went to the sea. It was one of my biggest dreams.”

When asked if Omair was comfortable with the inclusion of his name in this article, he agreed without hesitation. His family is terrified of the potential repercussions of his political activism, but he doesn’t “have any other option. It’s either to give up and get killed, or speak about it, so why not?”