When I heard about the Encounter organization, I was quite interested (http://www.encounterprograms.org/home.html). One of my classmates sent me an email about a trip that Encounter was leading into the West Bank, into Bethlehem. I remembered a conversation I had with my sister in law a couple of years ago that inspired me to apply to be a participant on this trip. She helped me to realize I didn't know an awful lot about the present Israeli/Palestinian Conflict. I was sure I didn't agree with her, but I couldn't disagree with her either. I had to see things for myself. And although HUC has an incredible program, I knew I wouldn't be able to experience anything like this with HUC.
Thank God I was accepted to attend this trip. Rather than give an overall view of my experiences, I would like to speak specifically about each part of the experience. Here goes:
Driving into the West Bank, I didn't really feel any fear as many of the other participants felt. I wasn't scared for my life and I certainly didn't expect to experience any one thing in particular. We exited our bus and walked up a hill past a demolished home. It was explained to us that this was the home of a Palestinian extremist that had been blown up by the Israeli Defense Force. I had never seen a demolished house before. But, I pressed on.
The next place we stopped was at a truly remarkable school, the Hope Flowers School in El-Khader (http://www.hopeflowersschool.org/community.html). This school was the vision of Hussein Issa who said, "To suffer for peace is much better than to suffer for war." What an amazing thing to think and live. He started this school to teach young Muslim, Christian and Jewish children that non-violent, peaceful action was the way to achieve peace. This became a licensed school in 1989, and we were given the opportunity to draw and color with some of the children in the school. These kids were great, and I hope the knowledge they learn in school will one day help them to a better life!
We were then taken on a tour of the separation barrier around Bethlehem. I saw a movie a couple of years ago called "The Iron Wall." I remember thinking that this was a movie filled with propaganda to get people to feel sorry for the Palestinians. This was no separation barrier. This was a gigantic, intimidating wall that gave only one impression, to shut people out. I was terrified as I was looking at this huge wall, and I felt sadness for the Palestinians in Bethlehem. At the same time, I was impressed with some of the messages of peace drawn and written on the wall.
I was able to spend some time speaking with a very nice Palestinian Muslim named Tamer Halaseh. He said, "The Wall hurts the Israelis as much as it hurts the Palestinians." What a powerful statement. When I asked him to explain what he meant, he explained to me that the Wall continues to add to the already massive amounts of hatred and fear from Palestinians and Israelis to each other. This is a Muslim man who hates fighting and only wants to solve the conflict through peaceful ways. He has many great ideas, and I hope to continue my new friendship with him. I truly believe we can learn an awful lot from each other.
After a very delicious lunch and Minhah (afternoon services), we met with a couple of Palestinian Muslims who agreed to share their personal narratives with us. All of the speakers are employees of peaceful organizations working toward a non-violent solution. What struck me the most was the claim by these individuals that Hamas, the elected government in the Palestinian lands, was actually a good organization. We were told that what the media portrays about Hamas is not correct, and they are actually nice people. I was a bit confused, and certainly tried to be a respectful as possible. I asked one of the speakers, a nice man named Bassam, about his feelings toward Hamas. He explained that although he is a member of the Fatah party, the opposition party to Hamas, he supports Hamas. He told me that because the international community stopped financially supporting Hamas, they couldn't accomplish any of the things they wanted to accomplish. I guess this makes sense, but I am still a bit weary of Hamas.
We then met with some youth leaders from the Holy Land Trust, Peace and Reconciliation group. Their executive officer, Eilda Zaghmout was very nice and a great inspiration toward a peaceful resolution. We spent some fun time getting to know some of these youth leaders. Then we went to dinner with our new friends at a restaurant called "The Tent" in Beit Sahour. Dinner was outstanding, and it was just a great night of camaraderie. We spent a lot of time just chatting and getting to know each other. After a VERY long day, it was great to wind down. There I met my host for the evening, a very nice guy named Jiries Sa'di. His family is Christian, and they were very gracious to me and one of my classmates. We stayed up late discussing our views of the conflict. Actually, I asked a lot of questions, and listened to the answers. I learned quite a bit. For example, these very nice people are only allowed to enter into Jerusalem for about a month a year, and this is only if they are given a permit by the Israeli government.
Today was a very different day. While I awoke with a lot in my mind and a lot of new knowledge, today really scared me, actually terrified me. We started out visiting a village, Al Walage, which will be completely surrounded by the Wall that Israel is building. I don't need to tell you that this was a very sore subject for the members of that village. As a matter of fact, the woman who spoke with us actually stated that there were a few times in her life (for example waiting for hours on end just to get through a check point to travel to other parts of the West Bank) in which she actually felt she would have been able to kill an Israeli. This was very hard to hear, and I was a bit terrified. For the first time during this trip, I was almost brought to tears...
The most horrific part of my trip was leaving the West Bank and going back into Jerusalem. I really felt that I was entering into a prison, and this was entering into Israel. That, however, wasn't the hardest part. When we came to the checkpoint to enter into Israel, there was a line of Palestinians trying to get home from Jerusalem. They just let us through without even looking at our passports. These men were helpless, and all I could do was apologize.
If we, as Jews, want to be a "light unto the nations," we have to do some soul searching and realize that to take away the basic human rights of Palestinians isn't the answer. This doesn't mean I believe the blame lies directly on the Israelis. But, it doesn't lie directly on the Palestinians either. Who came first, the chicken or the egg? Do we view a person that has no hope in life who wants revenge as the victim, aggressor, or just a part of the problem? Do we view a person who builds land to further their claim to the land (either Palestinian or Israeli) the aggressor? Do we view the IDF soldier who is following his orders the aggressor? Or, do we view the person who blows himself up as the aggressor?
Clearly, their are multiple sides to this conflict. I don't have the answer, but I want to help find it. I am willing to go to the West Bank to meet with Palestinians to hear their stories and to meet with Jerusalem Israelis to hear their stories. Our last meeting today was with a representative of the Palestinian Authority. He suggested that we don't pick a side. He asked that we keep our loyalties to ourselves to enable us to speak to both sides. Only when we keep an open mind and try to understand each other will we be truly able to begin searching for peace.
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May it be God's Will!