Palestine, the Fight for Freedom: An Interview With Activist Yassar Dahbour

Yassar Dahbour is a Palestinian political activist who was born in a refugee camp in Syria after his family was expelled from Palestine in 1948. Now living in Sacramento, California, he is a founder and board member of the Sacramento Regional Coalition for Palestinian Human Rights, the president of the Palestine American League and a founder and Political Director of Democrats for Justice in Palestine. Dahbour is also an executive board member of the California Democratic Party and the Chairman of the Arab American Caucus of the California Democratic Party. This is his story of loss at the hands of a colonial power and the story of a people who have never stopped fighting for recognition, for a voice and for freedom. 

Dahbour’s father, Ahmad Dahbour, was a renowned Palestinian poet who fled the attacks of the Israeli militia on the city of Haifa in Northern Palestine, which is now Israel, during a series of expulsions in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee or were ejected. This destruction of Palestinian society and the large-scale, permanent displacement of the Palestinian people in 1948 is known as the nakba or the “catastrophe.” Ahmad Dahbour’s family left on April 21, 1948 — his second birthday. Ahmad was carried by his parents through Lebanon, and then to Syria, where they settled in a refugee camp that was initially horse stables the French colonizers had left behind on the edges of the city of Homs.

Central to understanding the establishment of the state of Israel is the Mandate System in the Middle East, which was a colonial method of administration forced on the former territories of the Ottoman Empire by the League of Nations in July 1922. What was key to the establishment of this system was the belief that the people in the region could not govern themselves, and was used as another form of imperial control. France was assigned the mandates over Lebanon and Syria, and Britain gained control of Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq.

After the British failed to enforce order during the nakba and left without a formal transfer of power, Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948. The establishment of the state of Israel permanently displaced over 75% of the Palestinian population and has forever changed the lives of over 13 million Palestinians as of 2023, most of whom remain in a permanent state of uncertainty as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon or Syria — with no promise of return or Palestinian citizenship. 

In 1947, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181, which became known as the Partition Plan. This resolution gave what would become present-day Israel 57% of historic Palestine and internationalized Jerusalem, meaning that the city would fall under international governance because of its importance in the Abrahamic religions. After Israel declared its independence in May 1948, a coalition of Arab states consisting of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt launched a defense on behalf of Palestine. However, the Arab coalition was outnumbered approximately two to one by the Israeli military and conceded by late 1949. 

Although it is illegal under international law (UN General Assembly Resolution 2625, XXV) to legitimately acquire territory through the use of military force, Israel occupies 78% of Palestine — 50% more land than the 1947 Partition had allotted following the 1948 war. The city of Haifa was in the original 57% of land allocated to Israel, so, regardless, Dahbour’s family would have lost their home.

The historical establishment of the state of Israel is often justified as “a land without people for a people without a land.” This statement fails to recognize the only aspect that differentiated Palestine from other formerly Ottoman territories such as Egypt and Jordan was Western recognition of their sovereignty. Nationalism as an acknowledged concept largely didn’t exist in the Middle East until after WWI. However, it is evident that for centuries Palestinians have understood that they had an identity separate from that of other Arabs — that they had an established ancestry, culture and a right to the land they had inhabited for generations. 

Dahbour’s mother was also from Northern Palestine. His parents met in the refugee camp in Homs, where Dahbour was born. He then spent his childhood in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, considered the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, before later moving to Lebanon. 

The remnants of the Dahbour family house are still in Haifa, referred to as “the possessions of the absentees.” Eventually, the Israeli government was allowed to assume possession of their family’s land under the Absentee Property Law of 1950. This law states that any Palestinian resident or Arab national from November 29, 1947 (the day the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Partition Plan which established the state of Israel from 57% of the land that was historic Palestine) until the end of Israel’s declared state of emergency from 1948 (which still has not officially ended) who resides in an Arab country or “in any part of the Land of Israel that is outside of the area of Israel,” (meaning Palestine) who owns land in what is now present-day Israel, forfeits their rights to this land, no matter if their absence was forced. Through this law, the property of hundreds of thousands of expelled Palestinians became a possession of the state of Israel. 

As an adult, Dahbour’s father soon became known for his revolutionary poetry and joined the Palestinian National Liberation Movement, presently known as Fatah. This is now the largest faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and is the party of Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of Palestine. When Dahbour’s father retired, he was the Deputy Minister of Culture for the Palestinian Authority. 

In 1984, Dahbour’s family followed the PLO as they relocated to Tunis, Tunisia, after the 1982 Lebanon War. In 1991, Dahbour moved to Sacramento, California to study political science and international affairs, where he became the president of the General Union of Palestinian Students at CSU Sacramento. Dahbour explained that “having witnessed my father’s involvement in the PLO throughout my youth, it was natural for me to be close to my cause, having grown up in a refugee camp and seen the suffering, the oppression, and the longing to return to Palestine.”

“Palestine was always portrayed as the promised land for us, a home to which we would eventually return, the alternative to our reality, to the suffering we lived through. When we cried as children, my grandmother would say, ‘Don’t worry, tomorrow a bus will come and take us back to Haifa.’” 

After the signing of the first Oslo Accords in 1993, which resulted in Israel recognizing the PLO as a representative of the Palestinian people, Dahbour’s father and mother returned to Palestine. At the age of 21, Dahbour visited his homeland for the first time. In 1995, after Dahbour received his United States citizenship, he was able to use his American passport to gain access to modern-day Israel. During previous trips, Dahbour had been confined to the Gaza Strip under his Palestinian refugee travel document. 

Dahbour would visit Palestine at every opportunity, enduring regular hours-long interrogations before being permitted to enter. However, as the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) worsened after the election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, so did the treatment of Palestinians entering Palestine. In 2000, the only airport in Palestine was destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), so in order to enter Palestine, travelers must first enter through Israel. 

In June of 2015, Dahbour was detained for three days in a prison cell at Ben-Gurion Airport after he was questioned about his personal contacts and demanded to provide Israeli officials with access to his social media and email accounts. Dahbour refused, citing a commitment to “maintain [his]integrity.” 

“It was very typical for me to be questioned upon arriving at the airport because of my Arab name. Usually, I would be asked if I was Syrian because my birthplace is written on my passport, but I always correct them and say no, I am Palestinian, but born in Syria. Once they discovered I am Palestinian, they took me to a room to wait for several hours.”

Dahbour was detained without legal representation and his belongings were searched. He could not contact his wife because his phone was taken, and even though both Dahbour and his wife contacted the American embassy, they were told, “There is nothing we can do for you in Israel.”

After being imprisoned for three days, Dahbour was deported to Canada on a connecting flight back to the US. Dahbour was escorted to the pilot by the Israeli airport authority with instructions not to return Dahbour’s passport until the plane had landed. The purpose of the trip was for Dahbour, as his parent’s only child, to take his ailing father to Jordan to receive medical attention. His father was left waiting in Ramallah while Dahbour was placed behind bars. Dahbour’s only crime was attempting to enter his homeland.

After he returned to the U.S., Dahbour went to Washington DC, where he met with Anne Patterson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs under the Obama Administration. However, the meeting was unproductive and did not result in any recourse on Dahbour’s treatment and the discriminatory restrictions on travel blatantly enforced in Israeli airports. 

In 2016, Dahbour returned to Palestine for two years because his father’s health had significantly deteriorated. Once again, Dahbour was subject to heightened scrutiny because of his father’s prominent position within the Palestinian Authority and his political activism. The first year of his visit Dahbour remained in Palestine legally, but then needed to extend his visa to continue caring for his ailing father. However, “every time I would request an extension, the period they would extend it would get shorter and shorter until at one point I would apply for an extension and when I received it the visa would have already expired.”

Dahbour’s every attempt to extend the visa would cost him hundreds of dollars. Further, because relations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority had declined drastically, Dahbour was unable to secure a Palestinian ID, so he stayed in his own country illegally. Upon leaving after his father’s death in April of 2018, he was informed by the Israeli government that he would not be allowed back. Dahbour has not been able to return to Palestine since.

At present, Dahbour hopes he will be able to return to Palestine under Israel’s visa waiver program with the United States. The visa waiver program would allow Israelis to travel to the U.S. without visas, but as of the end of March 2023, the US has not approved Israel’s entry into the program. Israel has met the 3% or less non-immigrant visa refusal rate but has yet to guarantee entry to all Palestinian Americans traveling from Israeli airports into the West Bank. 

Currently, the Israeli government has decided to maintain its policies of restricting access to Palestinians who are American citizens at the expense of allowing their own citizens greater access to travel. In 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that policies discriminating against Palestinians and non-Jewish Israeli citizens were necessary because “Israel is not a state of all its citizens, but rather the nation-state of the Jewish people and only them.”

As for Dahbour, he explains that “I haven’t been to Palestine since 2018, and I have been waiting patiently for the opportunity to return to my homeland and visit my parent’s graves.” He hopes that once the visa waiver is approved, he will be able to return to Palestine.

In January of 2023, 29 Palestinians, including five children, were killed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2006, as 170 Palestinians, including at least 30 children, were killed; however, 2023 is already set to surpass that. Dahbour explains that Western media has contributed to the ambivalence surrounding the deaths of Palestinians killed by the Israeli Defense Forces. He argues that the media tends to portray Palestinian civilians as terrorists who were rightfully executed, regardless of the collateral damage of unarmed civilians and children who are often killed in these raids. 

Dahbour clarifies that he is not excusing attacks by either side, but expresses his frustration that this is “where the story starts, discounting that the problem lies in the occupation and injustice committed against Palestinians since the establishment of Israel, and the refusal to understand that most of them are occupiers and immigrants brought to historic Palestine by a colonial power.”

In February of 2023, US congressional representative Ilhan Omar was removed from the US House Foreign Affairs panel for arguing that political donations from pro-Israel lobby groups drive support for Israel in Washington. She was labeled anti-Semetic by the media and other members of Congress and later withdrew her remarks. 

Dahbour uses Omar’s incident to explain that another issue with the Western approach to the Israeli occupation of Palestine is “conflating antisemitism with criticism of Israel, and the effort by the Israeli government to redefine antisemitism from discrimination against a religious group to anti-Israel policies. This is the weaponization of antisemitism as a tool to silence all criticism of Israel and its crimes.”

“It’s a fact that Palestine is occupied, it is a fact that Israel was built on lands that are part of historic Palestine, it is also a fact that Israel is a Jewish state. But as Palestinians we are fighting the occupier regardless of their religious background or identity. We are not fighting the Jewish identity, we are fighting the inhumane and criminal actions of the state of Israel.”

2023 has continued to be a year of extreme violence and aggression perpetrated by the IDF against Palestinians. During Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, the IDF stormed the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem during evening prayers for two consecutive nights, attacking the Palestinians with stun grenades and rifle butts as they were praying. The IDF dragged hundreds of Palestinians out of the mosque each night, with most of them — including children — released a few days later, having been beaten and interrogated while in detention. The IDF even prevented paramedics from accessing the wounded Palestinians on the scene by firing rubber bullets at ambulances. Following the attacks, the Middle East regional director for Amnesty International stated that, “Once again, Israeli security forces have shown the world what apartheid looks like.”

Dahbour explains that the Israeli state is an apartheid regime with two sets of laws favoring one group over another. “There are entire roads, settlements and communities even within the West Bank and Gaza that no Palestinians are allowed to use. There is a Jewish right of return [based on claims set out in a religious text, not a historical right], but Palestinians who long to see their homeland are not allowed to.”

While looking to a future of continued occupation of Palestine by Israeli settlers, with over 800,000 Israeli settlers encroaching on the West Bank, and an apartheid legal system enforced by the Israeli government, Dahbour says, “A two-state solution was flawed from the beginning. On a personal level, home for me is Haifa, [which is now part of Israel and inaccessible to him]. Politically, with the illegal expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestine, a one-state solution is the only solution.”

Although Dahbour remains hopeful about a future return to his homeland with his family, he states that “being under occupation means your fate is in the hands of the occupier.” Dahbour understands that what he references as the “American-Israeli colonial project” has little concern for the dreams of Palestinians, but he is committed to fighting for the rights and freedoms of the Palestinian people and the land of Palestine. 


Layla MoheyEldin
Layla MoheyEldin is a senior double majoring in International Relations and Middle East Studies. Having grown up in Saudi Arabia, her areas of interest include neocolonialism and security studies as they relate to the Middle East, specifically the Gulf region. In addition, she is particularly interested in the way Western intervention has shaped the domestic politics and international interactions of various nations in the region, and how this dynamic has contributed to proxy conflicts and power struggles between competing rising powers in the Middle East. Layla is a research assistant with USC Near Crisis Project Africa and has also interned for WeVote, Humanitarian Aid International, and California State Assemblyman Josh Hoover.