A Palestinian American in Seattle holds her family's history close as war rages in Gaza
abrene Odeh of Seattle has spent a lifetime advocating for human rights and she only just turned 29 years old.
She went to her first protest for Palestinian rights with her father when she was 4. Since then, she has participated in demonstrations for the Black community, taken to the streets in support of Indigenous people in Washington state, and continued her activism on behalf of Palestinian human rights.
When she’s not protesting, Odeh works for the International Rescue Committee as an advocate for survivors of human trafficking. She knows the multi-generational impact of trauma, both from her own life and from the lives of the people she helps.
That work and her lifetime of activism has prepared her, in some sense, to respond to the Hamas attack on Israel Oct. 7, the Israeli assault on Gaza that followed, and the escalating violence in the West Bank, where much of her family still lives.
But the ongoing violence has gotten to her and her family. Her father, Amin, who talks weekly with his siblings who remain in the West Bank, hasn’t been sleeping. He was recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
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The family urges Odeh’s 87-year-old grandmother, Zakieh, who lives in Seattle, not to watch the news because of her heart condition, but she watches anyway and shares what she sees with friends and relatives.
Recently, Zakieh fell and broke her hip. Odeh said her grandmother is convinced the fall was the result of the mental and emotional anguish she is suffering from watching the troubling news of her homeland.
Zakieh is the only surviving member of Odeh’s family who lived through what Palestinians refer to as Nakba, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and what Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence in 1948.
“It’s been a really difficult time, but it also feels difficult to complain or to share that when people are losing their lives,” Odeh said. “Our pain is not comparable, but many of us — many young Palestinian people — are trying to keep our parents and grandparents sane and it’s a heavy burden to lift.”
Odeh's keen awareness of her family's history is at the root of her identity as a Palestinian American. Both sets of her grandparents were displaced in 1948 from Al-Malha, a village just south of Jerusalem.
“There was a massacre that happened one town over,” Odeh said. “People were coming around from other villages and surrounding areas and saying, ‘Get your women and children out because they’re killing families, they’re killing children, they’re raping women.’”
Her grandparents, who were neighbors in Al-Mahla, fled with only what they could carry. They brought keys to their homes because they expected they would some day be able to return.
Both families were displaced numerous times. They lived in Jordan for a period, where they were once again neighbors. Her father's family eventually settled in a refugee camp on the West Bank, where her father was born and where his family continues to live.
Odeh's parents met when her mother's family was on a trip to the West Bank. Sabrene was born in Seattle, but has maintained close connections with her West Bank relatives. She went back this summer for the first time in 13 years, her first trip to her homeland with her husband, and her first time to visit as an adult.
"It felt like the bonds were really cemented on this last trip," she said.
Odeh tells the story of her half-sister’s grandfather, who dreamed of returning to Palestine, where he was born and raised. He applied three different times to be allowed access to return but was denied each time. He died this fall.
“So he will never again…” Odeh's voice trailed off. She regained her composure, and started again, her voice cracking with emotion. “He will never again be able to go back to see Palestine. And that’s the story for many Palestinians: They were exiled from their homes and they can never go back.”
It is based on stories like his that Odeh feels obligated to continue fighting for repatriation for Palestinians, not to displace Jewish people, but to right a lingering wrong.
“It is so difficult to watch a government dehumanize your people, your family members, day in and day out,” she said.
Even before the recent attack by Hamas, she said Israeli troops were randomly imprisoning Palestinians. She heard stories from her relatives about settlers armed with guns walking the streets, taunting Palestinians in the West Bank. People were killed and nothing was done, she said.
At this point, Odeh repeats a controversial phrase that many Jewish people believe signifies that Arabs do not recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state — “from the river to the sea.” The river is the Jordan, on Israel's eastern border. The sea is the Mediterranean, on its western border.
For Odeh, the provocative phrase is more about restoring the dignity of Palestinians and returning to a time when Jews, Arabs, and Christians coexisted side by side in the Holy Land.
“When we say we want our land back from the river to the sea, what we’re saying is we want to have full governance of our human rights from the river to the sea,” she said. “We don’t want any outside influence or decision-making or interference by any occupying power.”
Since the Hamas attack, Odeh finds herself being asked to condemn an act of violence that killed 1,400 Israelis. The question itself seems unjust, she said, because no one has been held to account for the Palestinians that have been killed by the Israeli Defense Force and Jewish settlers for years.
When she heard about what was happening on Oct. 7, Odeh said her body tensed up. She immediately feared Israel’s response.
“Any time in which Palestinians resist their occupation in any way, there is an immediate, disproportionate response that typically leads to loss of civilian lives. We’ve seen it happen over and over again in Gaza. We’ve seen it happen in the West Bank,” she said. “So, when I heard about what was happening on Oct. 7, I was terrified that what we’re watching now, the genocide that we’ve been watching for the last month, was going to unfold.”
While the world sees a violent response to a violent act, what Odeh sees is the result of decades of oppression, harassment, and occupation. Over the years, she has seen countless nonviolent approaches rebuffed, efforts to advocate for human rights diminished. As someone who has been an activist for most of her life, she is unable to see what’s happening now in Gaza or in Israel in a vacuum separate from the history that preceded it.
“We’re coming so hard to defend our people because we've seen it over and over again,” she said. “We get pushed to the side when we’ve come to the table nonviolently. But now that there’s this huge violent action, now we have to justify, now we're all spokespeople for Oct. 7. Personally, I'm not really interested in doing that. And I hope that you're hearing from many Palestinians that none of us are supportive of the loss of life, ever. We would never want anybody to be killed. So, I hope that that is highlighted more than anything else.”