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Palestine Diary

Najib Joe Hakim | Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Syria

Organization: Jaffa Orange Photography

Blind Men of West Jerusalem

He looks but does not see.

He hears but does not understand.
متل القطرش في الزفه.

Ask about the neighbor before the house.
اسعل عن الجار قبلي الدار.

The old terrorist, now Prime Minister, Menachem Begin wants to give the Palestinian people autonomy, but not over their land! Where do they get this stuff? The very essence of autonomy is zapped when the “autonomous” people cannot rule over the land they live on.

These images and journal entries were made between 1978-79, when I attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a “foreign” student. That alone is not so remarkable. But I am the child of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Nakba and was most likely the first and, to my knowledge, only diaspora Palestinian to enroll at an Israeli university. My application described my family roots and expressed my interest in “seeing for myself” the situation on the ground. I was accepted – something even more unlikely to happen today. However, I was threatened with being disinherited by my parents. Nevertheless, I persevered and enrolled.

During my 18 months there, I studied both Hebrew and colloquial Arabic, befriended Israeli and Arab students, and  other foreign students. I travelled the country extensively and met my family’s relatives in Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth, Lydda and Ramle for the first time. And my presence there provided the one and only opportunity for my mother to return to the country since her exile and see her old home in Haifa and meet her relatives - unseen by her since 1948.

"But, once the realization is accepted that, even between the closest human beings, infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!"

--- Rainer Maria Rilke

It may seem odd to return to a place one has never been. But as a Palestinian, that is exactly the feeling I had when I “returned” to Palestine in 1978 as a recent college graduate. That was just five years after discovering I was Palestinian.

I applied to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Foreign Student program and they accepted me on the basis of my straightforward premise: “My background is Palestinian Arab… My objective in going to Israel is to observe the Middle East situation from the Israeli perspective.” I went with high hopes and bags full of naiveté.

My parents were not pleased. As my uncle pointedly asked, “Do you think you are going there to play Kissinger?” The little stone that I was caused hardly a ripple in the scheme of things – large or small. Neither at the time nor afterwards. I believe not one of the Israelis I spoke with, got to know, or befriended went on to be a “mensch” towards Palestinians. But I got to sink roots into the country, connected with family never before known, and earned the right to become a player in whatever way I could.

The photographs in this exhibition were taken with the purpose that most pictures are made – to remember and to tell a story. In that respect, they present my personal relationship to the places and people I connected with. I travelled the country from top to bottom, east to west. Learned sufficient Hebrew and Arabic to get into and out of jams.

Unlike the fog of memory, these images feel to me solid like stone, and lay a good foundation on which to stake my memories. Although the images may appear timeless, from another era, they are not nostalgic. Most make declarative statements or ask poignant questions. Today they help me re-connect with the most pivotal part of my life. But they are more than just about me. They also show Israelis and Palestinians on the ground, beneath the big headlines of the day: Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the Camp David Accords, the origins of the Israeli settler movement and of course, the Iranian Revolution.

The captions that accompany these photographs are excerpted from a journal I kept at the time. When I read the journal recently, it felt like letters that I had written to my future self, were just delivered. The captions are edited mainly for clarity, succinctness, and to veil some of my more embarrassing naiveties. They do share some insights that have held up over the decades. Most relate only tangentially to their associated photograph.

My work over the last ten years has focused primarily on remembering and documenting. Both are part of the Palestinian struggle to regain control of our own narrative. They are my humble weapons to counter the accelerating genocide waged against the people of Palestine by asserting our vital existence and by steadfastly resisting our erasure.

Would the Hebrew University accept me today as they did in 1978? Sadly, I think not. Would I today, under current circumstances, do what I did 40 years ago? Frankly, I would find it much more personally difficult to do it today. On the other hand, it’s never been more important to take that kind of leap.


Israel attacks surrounding Arab countries and captures Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai within seven days.


The first Israeli settlement, Kiryat Arba, established in Hebron.

1975 circa 1990

Lebanon embroiled in a bloody civil war.

Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adummim established in the West Bank about three miles east of Jerusalem’s Old City.


May - Israeli settlements of Elkana, Beir El and Karnei established in the West Bank just north of Ramallah.

June 21 - Menachem Begin becomes Prime Minister of Israel

August  - Ariel settlement established.

Nov. 19 - Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat goes to Jerusalem and offers peace.

Dec 31- Despite growing unrest in Iran, Pres. Jimmy Carter goes there and toasts the Shah describing Iran as “island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world.” The Shah was a close ally of Israel.


String of assassinations of Palestinian doves in Europe and the Middle East by the Abu Nidal group and Israeli “agents”.

March - Israel invades southern Lebanon, displacing up to 300,000 people and killing about 1200 Lebanese and Palestinians.

March - May Demonstrations, violence and repression escalate in Iran.

July - I arrive in Jerusalem.

June thru Dec - Riots, political resignations, general political turmoil in Iran.

Sept - The Shah declares martial law. Security forces kill at least 100 demonstrators. Protests and strikes escalate nonetheless.


Jan 16 - The Shah leaves Iran for Egypt, then Morocco.

Feb 1 - Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran from exile. Shah’s regime collapses shortly after.

March 26 -Sadat and Begin sign Camp David Accords and Egypt becomes 1st Arab country to recognize Israel officially.

Sept. - I leave Israel, returning to the US.

Oct - US allows Shah and family to enter the country. Khomeini denounces the Great Satan.

Nov 4 - US Embassy overrun by student demonstrators and America’s Hostage Crisis begins.


July - The Shah dies in Egypt.

July - Israeli Knesset passes “Jerusalem Law” declaring Jerusalem the “eternal and indivisible” capital of Israel.

August - A unanimous UN Security Council (except for US abstention) declares Jerusalem Law “null and void” and ordered Israel to dismantle settlements.


January - US hostages released by Iran after Reagan inauguration.

July - Israel bombs PLO headquarters in Beirut killing over 300 civilians.

October - Sadat assassinated.


May - Israel invades Lebanon, eventually leading to the assassination of Bashir Jemeyal, the evacuation of the PLO to Tunis and the Sabra/Shatilla massacres.

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