Skip to main content

Palestinian-American: 'Living in occupation felt normal'

From Naim Naif, Special to CNN
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Naim Naif was born in the U.S. but spent part of his childhood in the West Bank. His <a href=''>Palestinian parents</a>, seen in the center, posed after getting engaged in 1985 in his father's hometown Sinjil, West Bank. Click through to see photos of his family through the years. Naim Naif was born in the U.S. but spent part of his childhood in the West Bank. His Palestinian parents, seen in the center, posed after getting engaged in 1985 in his father's hometown Sinjil, West Bank. Click through to see photos of his family through the years.
I used to live in the West Bank
Sinjil, West Bank, 1980s
Sinjil, West Bank, 1990s
Tampa, Florida, 1990s
Tampa, Florida, 1990s
Sinjil, West Bank, 1990s
Sinjil, West Bank, 1990s
Jerusalem, Israel, 1990s
Sinjil, West Bank, 1990s
Sinjil, West Bank, 2000s
West Bank, 2010s
Jerusalem, Israel, 2010s
Sinjil, West Bank, 2010s
Nablus, West Bank, 2010s
  • Naim Naif spent part of his childhood in Ramallah, West Bank
  • Naif, 20, says that living under occupation "felt normal"
  • 70% of his family still lives in the West Bank
  • Share your perspective about the Israel-Gaza conflict with CNN iReport

Editor's note: Naim Naif is a Palestinian-American living in Tampa, Florida. He spent part of his childhood in the West Bank, and many of his family members still live there. The 20-year-old is a political science student at University of South Florida. Naif's story first appeared on CNN iReport. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I am an American, and I love my country, but I also love my heritage.

I was born in Tampa, Florida, to Palestinian-American parents, but 70% of my family still lives in the West Bank, including my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. When I was 3, my parents decided to move back to Palestine -- a choice that changed the course of my life. The purpose of the move was for me and my siblings to learn Arabic and our family's culture. Yet, the four-year experience offered much more than that.

We lived peacefully in Ramallah, a West Bank city just north of Jerusalem, when we moved there in 1997. My father built a home in Area C, an Israeli-controlled region of the West Bank. During the first two years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at a quiet period. Our lives were pretty normal. My older brother and I attended a private school operated by the American education system, and my two older sisters went to a French all-girls Catholic school. In our free time, our days consisted of shopping in Ramallah, taking cabs to Jerusalem and hiking mountains.

Naim Naif
Naim Naif

In the summer of 2000, our lives were flipped upside down by the second intifada, or "the uprising." A 20-something-foot harsh concrete wall was constructed around the West Bank, there were checkpoints installed between towns and villages, and daily clashes between Palestinians and Israeli authorities interrupted our day. We no longer had the liberty to take cabs to Jerusalem, shop in Ramallah or hike in the mountains. Our sense of freedom was stripped away from us.

My family soon discovered that living in fear and under occupation was dangerous and too hostile. So we decided to move back to the U.S. in 2001. My family's decision to leave was one that would thrust guilt on our shoulders for a time to come. Leaving our extended family behind in a war-torn country left us with feelings of sadness.

Fearing daughter's Gaza border wedding

Living in occupation felt normal to me. It was moving back to America when I was 8 that felt like a culture shock.

My life in America has been very different from my life in Palestine and is much different from the lives of Israeli and Palestinian youth today. Going to school in Tampa, my only morning worry was getting a decent grade on my homework. My cousins in the West Bank, on the other hand, are worried about grades too, but they also have to worry about checkpoints and random clashes between the Palestinians and Israeli authorities. The day the four children were killed while playing soccer on Gaza Beach, my friends and I were at St. Pete Beach playing volleyball. Unlike those children, we made it home safely to our families.

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, the world is watching with eyes wide open. In the U.S., public opinion has been varied. America's opinion about the conflict is split between both sides: Some support Israel; some support Palestine.

But for me, I have a different perspective of the conflict. When terror hit America on September 11, I was filled with sadness, sorrow and anger. I thought, "How could someone do this to my people?" The anger lingered for a very long time and still does today.

These past couple of weeks have also made me angry. Waking up every day, I would discover yet a higher death toll of Gaza civilians. I would turn on the TV to find limbs of Palestinians plastered all over the news. Sad and angry, once again I thought, "How could someone do this to my people?"

Many Israelis are also victims of terrorism. I understand the fear and frustration they feel due to the conflict. No one should have to mourn a loss of a human life due to violence.

For those of you without ties to the region, I ask you to look at it with a fresh perspective: The history of the Holy Land and the politics go far back, but please look at the humanitarian crisis. Think about the people instead.

I think I speak for many Palestinian-Americans when I say I feel helpless in watching the continuous deaths of civilians in Palestine. My reason for writing this essay is to express my feelings about the conflict in order to help the Palestinian people -- my people -- in some way.

Before leaving Palestine, I remember taking a walk with my mother in the hills of Ramallah. On the bottom of the hills was the West Bank barrier. Once we reached the top of the tallest hill, my mother grabbed my arm and pointed in the far distance. "You see that city over there? That's Jerusalem. That's where I was born, where your father was born and where you are from. One day, we'll walk from here to Jerusalem. ... And no wall or soldier will stand in our way."

I hope to see that day.

See more of Naif's photos on CNN iReport

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on

Part of complete coverage on
Tensions in the Middle East
Here's a look at some of the most serious conflicts involving Israel and its neighbors -- conflicts that have spanned more than six decades.
updated 11:17 AM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
A video released by ISIS shows the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley and threatens the life of another American if President Obama doesn't end military operations in Iraq.
updated 5:04 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
19-year-old Udi Segal explains why he won't join his country's military.
updated 8:28 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
The sights at the Gaza zoo couldn't be sadder, after it was nearly destroyed during recent Israel-Hamas conflict.
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Both Hamas and Israel have chosen conflict over real peace negotiations again and again in the past, writes Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Mohammed Najib says Hamas' objectives also include ending its political isolation.
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Fri August 8, 2014
With so many conflicts, on so many fronts, here's a quick look at what's happening.
updated 10:29 AM EDT, Sat July 5, 2014
Alan Elsner: How Israel reacts will be decisive turning point for both Israelis and Palestinians.
updated 4:59 PM EDT, Fri August 8, 2014
The Israel-Gaza conflict impacts families on both sides. Karl Penhaul speaks to the family of a militant killed in Gaza.
updated 9:41 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
A sense of Egypt's historic role and the traditional animosity of their military toward Islamist radicalism have propelled Egypt to take a central role in the on-off cease-fire talks.
updated 5:50 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
If the Gaza truce holds and Israel's Operation Protective Edge comes to its conclusion, some things are certain.
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
CNN's Tim Lister says, to secure peace, Israel needs to offer Gazans a better future.
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
Tensions between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been strained for years.
updated 9:16 AM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
Images from the conflict between Israel and Hamas depict apparent civilians, caught in the middle.
updated 9:06 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
Hamas must be tamed through politics, not the failed strategy of war, argues Ed Husain.
updated 9:55 AM EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
It may have started as a TV debate about the Israel-Hamas conflict, but it's now turned into an online war of words.
updated 2:20 PM EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
Hamas' political leader, who lives in Qatar, sits down with CNN for an exclusive interview.
updated 6:43 AM EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
Nafoz Mohammed is living in a cramped two-room apartment with 16 other people, hours holed up in fear.
updated 12:54 AM EDT, Sun August 3, 2014
Karl Penhaul visits a destroyed section of Gaza and learns how the bombing has affected one student's aspirations.
updated 2:15 AM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
The birth of a child is normally a joyous occasion, but it is tinged by sadness and anxiety in Gaza. Ian Lee reports.
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Amid the Gaza conflict, experts try to figure out who's in charge of "the resistance."
updated 6:10 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
The opening was so small that CNN's Wolf Blitzer -- no physical giant -- had to bend down to climb inside.
Follow CNNArabic for the latest news and analysis from the Middle East and rest of the world.