Amin Khalaf, Cofounder

Hand in Hand cofounder AMIN KHALAF was profiled in the book Hand in Hand: Jewish and Arab Families in Israel.

I Started Asking, 'Why? What Happened Here?'

Between the little villages of Sandala and Muqaybli, there is a roundabout. To the left is a camp with a few border patrol guards, a monitoring tower, gates, barbed wire, and bulldozers that break stone.

Quickly you realize that this is one of the many gates of the ‘separation plan’ that will divide what remains of the West Bank from Israel, as the Olmert government draws its final borders.

The roundabout took me to the base. When I saw the patrol guards’ nervous and angry movements, I quickly turned back, frightened they would shoot and kill ‘according to regulations.’

This scene touched a deeply etched mark in my memory. Those of us past 50 may remember hearing the horrible news about 16 children from Sandala who were playing with a bomb on their way home from school. It exploded and killed them. Later, my school devoted hours to explaining the danger of mines, bombs, and suspicious objects. At the time, though, the teachers never responded to the question: Why did the army not find who was responsible for leaving the bomb out there in the open field?

I have carried this question for more than 50 years, along with a desire to know more about the explosion and the children who were killed. As I turned back from the camp, I didn’t know that I would meet the first eyewitness of this disaster, a woman now in her 75th year.

That day, when she arrived at the scene, she saw the children’s torn corpses, among them two of her dead brothers. She saw the third, Ghaleb, still alive. She embraced him, and his body was still warm; but he began to grow cold in her arms. She would not leave, waiting for someone to rescue him. When they arrived, they told her that he was gone.

This woman is Amin Khalaf’s mother. Amin, the cofounder and director of Hand in Hand, lives in Jerusalem. We returned with him to Muqaybli, where he was born in 1965, to the house where he was born, in the heart of the village near the drilled, dusty square.

“When I was a young boy," Amin said, "they legalized the building of a Jewish settlement northeast of our village, named Magen Sha’ul. I used to stand on the hill and wonder: Why are their houses beautiful, their streets paved, and they have everything — and in our village there is nothing? I started asking, 'Why? What happened here?'

“At the time, it was every student’s dream that when he got to 8th grade, the principal would choose him to raise the Israeli flag for Independence Day celebrations. I remember that the day before Independence Day, our teacher ordered us to decorate the room with flags and pictures. I refused. The principal said that all those who refused should stand in the square. Most of the students left the rooms to stand in the square; only two remained. The punishment was to bar us from a school trip, an award the school had won in a contest that I had had an active role in. That was my first rebellion.

"After that I went to the Mutran School in Nazareth and began my early political activism," Amin recalled. "I was a young man full of enthusiasm. Revolution and the struggle flared in my breast, influenced by the nationalist movements of the time and the notions of freedom and humanism.”

In the ‘70s, this revolutionary impulse – in the context of Land Day and a general nationalist revival – prevailed throughout the Palestinian Arab community in Israel. Amin’s brother Lutfi was one of the first communists in their village. The people of the village still remember the stories of Lutfi’s courage and daring as he confronted military authorities and state representatives and was followed and arrested several times. (Lutfi was later killed in a car accident.)

At school, as in the village, Amin never backed down from any role in the struggle. When he went to university, he said, it was natural for him to become active in the Arab Student Committee and its Arab-Jewish activism. He remains proud of how this experience refined his progressive political, social, intellectual and nationalist positions.

Amin worked as a teacher in Neve Shalom—Wahat al Salam (The Oasis of Peace) and at the Beit Safafa school, and also as a news broadcaster at the Israel Broadcasting Authority during the post-Oslo period. How could he, with his background, voice the very politics he resisted?

“I couldn’t continue the radio work," he said. "I left. During this period I met Lee Gordon, who was an activist in Arab-Jewish relations and was working to found an Arab-Jewish school, something I had also been pondering. We established the organization and I came to understand that this was my natural place, where I could realize many of my ideas and ambitions. This was especially true after my children were born and I began searching for the proper educational setting for them. 

"What we do may not change everything for the better," he said, "but it will make small ripples of change that will get larger with time. We pose all the difficult questions having to do with Arab-Jewish relations – this is the biggest challenge.”

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