This story is part of a series called “Israeli, Palestinian Women: The Only Way Forward Is Together.” The series highlights Israeli and Palestinian women about their connection to Israel/Palestine, and how they are working to improve relations, and promote equality and coexistence between both groups of people. See the links at the bottom of this article for each article of the series.
It’s still challenging for Layla Alsheikh to speak about the worst night of her life: the night her six-month-old son Qusay died.
The day before his death, Israeli military troops hurled tear gas in Alsheikh’s village, Battir, in the West Bank. Soon after, Qusay developed a cough and seemed to be struggling to breathe. Alsheikh took him to the doctor, who gave him cough medicine and sent them home.
But at 4:00 a.m. on November 4, 2002, Alsheikh woke up to her son gasping for air. She also noticed he struggled to make eye contact and wasn’t reacting to her voice. She immediately knew something was seriously wrong and woke her husband. Alsheikh, her husband, and her father-in-law headed to the closest hospital in Bethlehem.
On their way, they were stopped at an Israeli military checkpoint and prevented from traveling further because of a “military zone.” So they changed their route, now heading to a hospital in Hebron, about 20 minutes away. However, they came across more Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers who said they couldn’t pass because the road was closed.
Alsheikh and her family were now forced to take a rocky, much longer route through multiple villages into Hebron, but a military barrier stopped them for the third time. Here, the soldiers searched the car and checked for her husband and father-in-law’s Palestinian IDs.
“My father-in-law was the only one who spoke Hebrew at the time, so he told them that our son was in very critical condition and we needed to move fast, but they didn’t listen to him, and they asked him to stay in the car,” Alsheikh said. “I was looking at my son, and he was in my arms, and I didn’t know what to do.”
“It’s the hardest thing to feel hopeless, and you can’t do anything for your son to protect him.”
Alsheikh decided to plead with the soldiers, begging to let them pass because of her baby’s deteriorating condition. But she says the soldiers instead laughed at her expense.
Four grueling hours later, they were finally permitted to continue traveling. When they arrived at the hospital, Qusay was rushed to intensive care. Doctors told Alsheikh that if he survived, he would be severely disabled.
Alsheikh, her husband, and father-in-law sat waiting for news. But a few hours later, instead of the doctor coming to update her on her son’s condition, he came to ask her to leave the hospital because Israeli soldiers would be coming through to search for Palestinian fighters they believed were hiding at the hospital.
“I told him, but my son is inside the intensive unit care, and he said because of that, they will ask you to leave because you can’t see your son,” Alsheikh said. “So we argued a little bit, and he said, ‘Please, leave, I don’t want any problems here,'”
So begrudgingly and distraught, Alsheikh left.
After arriving at her father-in-law’s house, she immediately called the hospital only to find out that during their drive home, her son had died. Doctors told her that the tear gas affected his lungs, and he didn’t have enough oxygen going to his brain. If they had arrived just a few hours earlier, the doctors said they would have been able to save his life.
“At that moment, I felt like his words were like a bullet coming to my heart, smashing it into many pieces,” Alsheikh said. “I start to cry like crazy, screaming.”
The next day, Alsheikh saw her son’s lifeless body for the first time.
“And from that moment, I felt hatred, anger, sadness, and every bad emotion you can think of, I felt. So I made the decision that I don’t want to have any relationship with any Israeli person because, for me, every one of them was responsible for his death,” Alsheikh said.
“Because I think that when the Israelis kill a Palestinian or to take them to jail, they use excuses like ‘They threw stones against us,’ or ‘They are snipers,’ or ‘They tried to bomb somewhere, or some people,’ but my son was just six months old, what is the crime that he did?”
“The only crime is that he is a Palestinian.”
This wasn’t the first time Alsheikh felt discriminated against by Israel and Israelis because of her Palestinian identity.
Alsheikh’s family is from Bethlehem. After the creation of Israel, her father joined Fatah, a Palestinian political and military organization in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
But eventually, he stopped being a fighter, and he and Alsheikh’s mother traveled to Jordan for her father to teach refugees. But after the 1967 Six-Day-War, she says the Israeli government closed the border — and her parents were not allowed back, and they lost their citizenship.
Because of this, Alsheikh was born and raised in Jordan. In 1999 she finally traveled back to Palestine. She and her husband decided they would stay and learned that they could work to obtain their Palestinian citizenship after a few months.
But then the second intifada (or Palestinian uprising) began, turned violent, and the Israeli government stopped giving people Palestinian IDs.
Because of this, Alsheikh was stuck in the West Bank without a Palestinian ID. This caused two major problems. First, Alsheikh couldn’t travel back to Jordan to see her family without a Palestinian ID because she would never be allowed back inside Palestine. And if an Israeli soldier caught her without her Palestinian ID, she could be jailed or sent back to Jordan and away from her husband and children.
For 11 years, Alsheikh spent most of her time inside her home in fear.
When Alsheikh’s son Qusay got sick, Alsheikh still didn’t have her Palestinian ID. Because of this, on the night they were rushing him to the hospital, it was a significant risk when she decided to approach Israeli soldiers and beg them to allow her family to pass.
“I was thinking of taking a risk and talking to them, and as I told you before, if they find that I don’t have my ID, maybe they will take me to jail or send me back to Jordan, but at the time, I didn’t care,” Alsheikh said. “The only thing that I cared about was my son.”
After her son died, Alsheikh spent the next decade destroyed and depressed. Until around 2018, when she got a call from a friend. Her friend began speaking to her about the organization, The Parents Circle Families Forum — a nonprofit of over 600 bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families.
“I stopped him, and I said, ‘Are you crazy? How could you speak to me about this? You know what happened to me,’ and he said, ‘Because I know you and I know your story. This is not just a chance for you to protect your other children but to maybe protect other families around you,'” Alsheikh said.
Alsheikh wasn’t convinced, but her friend wouldn’t let up — calling her multiple times a week, asking her to join the organization.
“One day, he said to me there’s a conference in Bethlehem, and you should come and listen. I just said I would go to make him stop calling,” Alsheikh laughed.
After arriving at the conference, Alsheikh watched as Israelis and Palestinians in the room hugged and kissed one another.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, they are both crazy, how could they do this?” She laughed. “And at the same time, I was really shocked, and I said, I want to know what’s the thing that makes them so close to each other like that. They are not just friends; they look like family members.”
“So I decided to listen to them, and I was really shocked because, for the first time, I looked at them as a human, like me.”
Alsheikh decided to participate in one of the Parents Circle projects. She was with a group of mothers — both Israeli and Palestinian — speaking about how the conflict impacted their lives.
This would be the first time Alsheikh spoke about what happened to her son since his death 16 years prior.
“I stopped in the middle of the story and started to cry. And I was really amazed when one Israeli woman came and sat in front of me, and she started to apologize and said to me, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘You’re sorry for what?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I know that I didn’t hurt you, but the people who hurt you are my own people, and I am a mother too, and I can understand your pain, and I can understand the words that you couldn’t say.’ And she came to hug me, and she started to cry,” Alsheikh said.
“She didn’t really know that by her simple words that she changed my life forever.”
This was the start of Alsheikh’s peace advocacy with the Parents Circle. After that, she began lecturing across Israel, Palestine, and even around the world.
“Those dialog meetings helped me to really recover and to stop looking at myself as a victim and start to look at myself as a survivor,” she said.
Despite the progress Alsheikh has made personally, and the lives she and her counterparts have changed, whenever there is an escalation between Israel and Hamas (the “Palestinian resistance group,” classified as a terrorist organization by the United States), she and other members of the Parents Circle struggle.
In May, when the war began, Alsheikh was putting food on the table for Ramadan when she heard an explosion outside her window.
“My children were so afraid and my youngest daughter, she was crying the whole night, and I was really afraid because it was the first time since I became a peace activist, and this happened,” Alsheikh said.
But during that time, her Israeli friends from the Parents Circle continued to call and check in on her family.
“My Israeli friend called me, and she wanted to ask me how I am and how my children are, and she’s in the shelter too, and I said ‘Oh my God, this is the key,’ Alsheikh said.
“So my kids asked me who’s that, and I said it’s Robi (her Israeli friend), and she’s hiding in the shelter too. We are not the only people who suffer — there are people on the other side who love us, and they don’t want us to be killed.”
Alsheikh hopes her story humanizes the Palestinian plight. She also hopes for a future where the cycle of violence stops, and Israelis and Palestinians view each other as friends and family and not enemies.
“We want the best future for our children and our grandchildren and for all the people around us. It’s time to stop killing,” Alsheikh said.
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