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(photo credit: Adam Pines)
The Jewish Agency could not have seen him coming. Amnon's "aliya" began when he snuck across the border from Gaza nearly eight years ago. Formally "Ayman" from Khan Yunis, 28-year-old Amnon Itzhak Shahar left his Palestinian past in the Gaza refugee camp where he grew up. He converted to Judaism three years ago, and now looks forward to strengthening Israel against the "terrorists in the territories."
A vocal supporter of the Likud party, Shahar is featured in the party's upcoming promotional broadcasts lauding the tough stance it advocates for Israel against the Palestinians. He is hoping to sway Israeli voters to vote Likud - "the only party strong enough," he says, "to deal with the Palestinians."
Likud public relations people hold up his support as a prime example of the sense of nationalism that the party represents. Shahar's own feelings, however, have a much more private source.
From his modest one-bedroom flat in the old neighborhood of Rishon Lezion, Shahar recalls how his father and school teachers used to beat him for not joining in chants to kill Jews.
He composes songs on his synthesizer that tell the story of "a frightened boy, calling out to end the painâ€¦ [whose] soul knows the truth, but will not cry." In the end, "the frightened boy turns into a joyous man," who works full-time as a computer and stereo repairman and serenades his neighbors. He even boasts about recently completing the filming of a video clip for the song that talks about his conversion, and looks forward to seeing it broadcast soon on Israel's all-music Channel 24.
SHAHAR SAYS he aims to educate the Israeli public about the dangerous "true" face of the Palestinian people.
"From the time I was a little boy, I remember everyone would always call out to kill Israelis... that they are three-legged monsters that should be killed so we [Palestinians] could reclaim our grandparents' lands," he says.
Shahar traces the flight from his Palestinian and Muslim identity back to the early age of six, when he received a candy from an Israeli soldier operating near his home.
He suffered frequent beatings at the hands of his father and school teachers for questioning the gap between what he was told about Israelis and what he perceived for himself.
Shahar recalls the zealous hatred which his family, neighbors and peers expressed for Israelis, but says that fire never burned in him. Showing reservation when teachers led his class in cries for the destruction of Israel, he recalls the fierce punishments he received when he did not participate. His parents regularly expressed their shame over him.
When Shahar first ventured into Israel at age 11, joining his father at work at a construction site in Rishon Lezion, he relates, "I remember looking for that third leg that Israelis were supposed to have and not seeing it. I was confused."
Israelis at the construction site treated him kindly, he recalls; he yearned to go back again. At age 13, Shahar left school and returned to Rishon Lezion, where he spent several years residing and working illegally. Shahar says that while he severed contact with his family back in Khan Yunis, in Rishon Lezion he forged a connection and was "adopted" by the family who purchased one of the houses he worked on. He recalls joining the family for his first Pessah Seder and being mesmerized by the holiday and its story.
"I wanted that holiday to be mine. It is something amazing," he says.
When he turned 19, Israeli authorities arrived at the construction site where he worked and deported him back into Gaza. In a Palestinian court he admitted wanting to be an Israeli, and was thrown into a local prison where, while incarcerated, Shahar says he suffered repeated abuse.
"I was hung upside down," he recalls. "They threw hot water on me and gave me electric shocks."
At the end of his six-month sentence, the court placed him under house arrest at his parents' home. Shortly after, his "shamed" parents kicked him out into the street. "They were embarrassed by me," he explains.
Several months later, after scraping by and sleeping on the streets of Khan Yunis, Shahar eventually saved up enough money and crossed back into Israel, returning to work at another Rishon Lezion construction site. A heightened number of terrorist attacks at the time saw Israeli police out in droves, and within a few weeks Shahar was arrested again. At his trial, he expressed to the presiding judge his desire to become an Israeli citizen. Moved by his story, she aided in launching his naturalization process.
When choosing his Hebrew name, he accepted "Amnon" from his adoptive family, "Itzhak" from the biblical forefather and his last name came from the street on which his adoptive family resides.
Equipped with temporary status papers, Shahar rented an apartment in Rishon Lezion and worked while he waited for his citizenship to be processed. He was converted in Jerusalem, where he also had a bar mitzva, which he says made him feel like "a new, free man."
Now Shahar lives as an Ashkenazi Jew, according to the guidance of the rabbis who converted him. But he still jokes about his new immigrant status. "Where do they think I came from?" says the oleh hadash from Gaza. "I was already here."
Though he has not contacted his Palestinian family in years, he says, "I have more families than I can handle. Everyone I know here wants to take me in, and they fight over me."
ONE OF Shahar's greatest regrets is not serving in the military, a compromise he says he had to make if he was to be able to spread his political message of an iron fist against the Palestinians.
"As a soldier you cannot make political statements and I wanted to tell people what I knew," he says.
Last year, he vehemently opposed Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip; Israeli settlers should maintain their strongholds, he states, and not cede lands in what Palestinians might construe as their victory.
He claims Palestinians need to be controlled with an iron fist because, he says, any concessions they are given will be met with the same type of Kassam rocket barrages that have hit the areas surrounding Gaza since the pullout.
"All they want is to kill Israelis, that's what they are constantly told. They cannot be trusted," Shahar maintains.
He cites Hebrew scripture in claiming the Jews' right to the Land of Israel, and adds: "There are enough Arab states to which they can go."
He opposes the notion of a Palestinian state, which he claims would turn into a terrorist hotbed. Israel must assume control over the entire population, Shahar says.
"The Palestinians need to be controlled," he repeats. "Israeli forces should enter the territories and clean them up."
Even if one of his brothers were to rise up against Israel, Shahar says, action should be taken against him.
The Palestinians need to be afraid of Israel, Shahar believes. "They call an Israeli premier who doesn't do anything 'a barking dog that doesn't bite.' We need to bring a dog that will both bark and bite. They need to be taught a lesson on acting up against Israel."
Frustrated with the rise of fundamentalism on the Palestinian street and, now, in the Palestinian government as well, he says, "Maybe God sent me to [Israel] to show [everyone] that there have been enough attempts at peace with these people."