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Researcher Speaks About Her Life Work in Gaza

Harvard Researcher Speaks About Her Life Work in Gaza

By Sonia Nettnin

Dr. Sarah Roy is one of the foremost scholars on the economy in Gaza. She is the author of over 90 publications on the Israel-Palestine conflict; and she is senior researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She spoke about her identity as a daughter of Holocaust survivors and her life work in Gaza.

“My parents cared about issues of justice and fairness,” Roy said. “They cared about people a great deal.”

It was not uncommon for her family to bring home a homeless person and sit them at the head of the table during Sabbath. Her mother came from a deeply religious and loving family. Her parents taught Judaism as a system of ethics and culture. As a result, it provided a context for Roy’s life, which included compassion and tolerance.

Her first experience with the occupation involved a Palestinian man who walked with his grandson. They had a donkey with them. Israeli soldiers walked by and asked: “Don’t you brush your donkey’s teeth?” The soldiers yelled and laughed at the man. His grandson – a boy no more than four years-old – cried.

Then, the soldiers demanded the elderly man stand behind the donkey and kiss its behind. Roy remembered the humiliation the man felt and the uncontrollable sobs of a little boy.

Since 1985, Roy lived, experienced and witnessed similar situations. When she was in a shelter with a Palestinian woman, they felt fear when Israeli soldiers banged down the door. She witnessed Israeli soldiers force young, Palestinian men kneel and bark like dogs or dance in the streets. When a Palestinian woman, who was pregnant, flashed a “V” sign to Israeli soldiers, Roy saw them beat her.

The grinding impact of the occupation on the Palestinian people and their daily lives led Roy to a dissertation on the economic development of the West Bank and Gaza under the military conditions of occupation. Her PhD is in planning and social policy. Her passion for her work brings her to the region frequently where she lives for several months.

Over the years, Roy witnessed home demolitions.

“The house is far more than the roof…it represents life itself,” she said. She says the demolitions uproot these families tragically, who live their lives from a stolen homeland.

Roy talked about the separation of Palestinian families, the thousands of people tortured and the thousands of olive and citrus trees uprooted from Palestinian land. She described the effects of Israeli settlements and road expansion as geographic fragmentation, because the topography of the land changes drastically in periods of several years.

Right now Palestinians live on three, noncontiguous cantons of land. Truncated pieces of land with checkpoints and detours not only make their lives difficult, but the formulation of a Palestinian state is almost impossible.

“Israeli occupation of the Palestinians is the crux of the problem,” Roy said. From her life experiences in the region, Roy sees no moral symmetry between the occupier and the occupied.

Since 09/11, the war against dissent stigmatizes people who articulate recourse for justice. In a world where Israeli soldiers admit to shooting Palestinian children for sport and governments look on; the distortion of commitment within the Israel-Palestine conflict under the Bush Administration reached the point where rhetoric cannot hide the stark violence on the ground.

When asked about the effects of the passing of Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat, Roy responded: “We are aware of the fact that Israel and the U.S. are framing this conflict around personalities and not issues.”

Roy’s candid and insightful lecture showed the values instilled in her. “I grew up with a mother and father who new fear and how they overcame it,” she said.

Despite the fact she lost over 100 members of her family in Nazi ghettos and death camps, Roy committed her life to documenting the living conditions of the Palestinian people.

When asked what advice her mother would give to Palestinians today, Roy said: “Maintain their moral anchor, remain steadfast, stay together as a community, don’t allow themselves to disintegrate…and don’t become what the oppressors would like to see them to be.”


North Park College’s Center for Middle Easter Studies sponsored Roy’s lecture, “Living with the Holocaust: The Journey of a Child of Holocaust Survivors.”


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.

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