The Israeli soldier shot Yousef Bashir in the back in the front yard of his father’s house in Gaza. It was Feb. 18, 2004, a week after Yousef’s 15th birthday. The bullet splintered into three fragments, severing nerves near the teenager’s spine.
Ten years later, Yousef describes the episode — he learned to walk again, after months of rehabilitation in an Israeli hospital — as life-changing, which makes sense, and a blessing, which astonishes.
“I feel very thankful to this horrible experience because it spared me from a lot of hatred I would be growing up with toward the Israelis,” he told me. “I was shot by one Israeli but saved by many Israeli people.”
Indeed, over the years, Yousef has imagined finding the soldier who shot him that afternoon. Yousef had arrived home from school, to a house occupied by Israeli soldiers; they had commandeered the building, located near their base, but Yousef’s father, a school headmaster with a fondness for Victorian literature, refused to leave a property that had been in his family for generations.
The result was a touchy compromise — soldiers taking over the bedrooms, Yousef’s family sleeping in the living room. The Bashirs needed permission to go to the bathroom; they were permitted to buy groceries once a week. The situation had festered for four long years when Yousef was shot.
That day, as a surly Yousef griped at his mother for not making the after-school snack he had requested, U.N. observers were visiting the property. Yousef had planned to bike back into town but hung around to listen to the discussion. The soldiers had just told the U.N. officials to leave when, Yousef said, he heard a shot and was trying to figure out why he was suddenly on the floor.
“I forgive the soldier,” he said. “It would be a great privilege for me to meet with the solider. . . . What he did changed my life a great deal, I would say positively more than negatively, lucky for him. But I think it would be life-changing for him if he gets to see me.”
I had heard about Yousef for years from my friend Janice Kaplan, who met him as a teenager when he came to Washington to speak about his experience. But to sit in Janice’s living room and listen to Yousef’s story, even as Israelis and Palestinians once again trade rocket attacks in a new round of violence, was to grasp the awesome power of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the Middle East, bitterness and resentment span multiple generations; the resulting hatred leeches humanity from otherwise decent people. Both sides, Palestinian and Israeli, often fail to see the other as fully human, which helps explain both the murder of the three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking near Hebron and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teen in east Jerusalem.
It is easy to imagine — easier, in fact, than imagining the path of forgiveness that he actually chose — Yousef responding similarly. Indeed, he was already inclined in the direction of hatred. “Before, mentally, I’m thinking these people are the worst people on earth — they have guns in my house, they shout at my dad, they imprisoned us,” he said. “Now, Israeli nurses, Jewish-looking people, are asking me how I’m feeling, they are the ones who are showering me, feeding me.”
He credits his father for steering him in that more positive direction. “When I was paralyzed, he told me, ‘This is a door for you. It can either end your life or give you a new life.’ ”
Yousef’s door opened to the United States, first for a summer, with the Seeds of Peace program that links Palestinian, Israeli and American teenagers; then at boarding school in Utah and college at Northeastern University. Now 25, Yousef is studying for his master’s degree in peace, conflict and coexistence at — of all places, and quite intentionally — Brandeis University.
Yousef has not gone home to Gaza since the shooting, fearful of not being able to leave. When his father died in 2009, he missed the funeral. Still, he imagines a future in which his still-to-be-born children will live in peace and come and go at will.
I am too realistic — too cynical, perhaps — to think that Yousef’s experience is scalable; anger tends to trump forgiveness. But as rockets fly and parents mourn, as decades of enmity flare anew, his example offers a lesson, both humbling and inspirational, in the all-too-scarce art of reconciliation.