This past month I went on a trip to Ramallah with J Street. I signed up for the
trip with very little in terms of expectations – I was merely looking forward to
a tour of Ramallah. Of course, I hoped the trip would be an educational
experience. I expected to hear insight from Palestinians, activists and UN
officials that I would disagree with. However, the most alarming encounters I
was confronted with were from the American Jewish college students with whom I
The 20 of us met at the International Convention Center across
the street from the Jerusalem central bus station. Most of the students were
first-timers to Israel – either having just ended a Birthright trip, vacationing
with family, or arriving only a few weeks ago.
We hopped on our charter
bus and went to meet with a member of the PLO negotiating team on the well known
Emek Refaim street in the German Colony. Not surprisingly, the man was filled
with anger. He started off by saying how difficult it is to be a Palestinian in
the German Colony seeing Israeli flags waving from houses that were once homes
He then continued on for the next 40 minutes playing the
blame game: “Why can’t there be peace? Because of Bibi. There are two things in
this world that will never change – and that is Netanyahu and Allah.”
he went on and on, I became lost in his web of contradictions and realized that
this man has been in the peacemaking game too long. I found it odd that the
students I was traveling with did not seem bothered by the bitterness of the PLO
negotiator, nor did they mention how they wished we could have heard from an
Israeli negotiator as well, which I believed would be beneficial to compare and
contrast the two sides.
We then continued on to the annexed part of
Jerusalem, called Shuafat. A woman from Machsom Watch, an NGO for human rights
in the occupied territories, referred to Shuafat as a refugee camp, though don’t
let images of tents pop into your head. The woman only took us a few steps into
the Shuafat entrance, which, in accordance with trends of most urban
environments, is not the most desirable side of town.
We were walking
among piles of trash, though it seemed no worse than walking through the streets
of Cairo. She pointed out the center for drug trafficking in Jerusalem, situated
right across the street from a Shuafat school. Not too from there were tens of
tall apartment buildings that resembled any sort of edifice you would see in
Jerusalem. She mentioned, however, that if an earthquake were to come, these
buildings would crash to the ground, killing everyone, because there were no
building regulations in Shuafat.
By showing us these things, I believe
the woman was searching for our sympathy, while also placing the blame for the
low quality of life on the Israeli government. The blame game once again ensued,
with no proposals of solutions to better the standard of living in Shuafat. As I
began to brainstorm ways to improve the situation in Shuafat, many parallels ran
through my head, such as the desolate neighborhoods in Washington, DC, only a
few miles from my college campus.
The United States can barely address
drug trafficking in poor urban areas that are undoubtedly situated near rundown
schools. I wondered, do the Palestinians really want an even greater presence of
Israeli police in Shuafat than it already has? And in terms of building
regulations – is Israel supposed to enforce these in Shuafat even though the
Palestinians have declared over and over again that they do not want to be under
Israeli control? When leaving Shuafat we exited through the checkpoint. During
our departure, some students gathered near the security exit to take
An Israeli soldier yelled at them to keep moving. One student was
astonished she had been yelled at, and went on and on about how “I didn’t do
anything wrong.” Apparently, she had completely forgotten what it was like going
through TSA security when she boarded her plane to Israel.
When we got
back on the bus, it was as if these students had just crossed through war-torn
Syria. They explained that they were “frightened” going through the
And how they felt “guilty” even though they had done nothing
wrong. A few even mentioned how that it was “scary” how much power these young
Israeli soldiers have, and how they are “filled with too much anger” to be in
possession of guns.
The students put so much emphasis on their own
feelings that they completely disregarded the fact that Israel faces security
threats. They believed these checkpoints were unnecessary and caused emotional
harm to the Palestinians. I mentioned to them that I was extremely grateful for
these checkpoints. As someone who has been living in Israel for the past six
months, public transportation is part of daily life. I don’t travel around
Israel on a Birthright bus, with a tour group, or in a taxi. These checkpoints
ensure my safety, and the safety of every Israeli, when we step onto a public
bus. It was extremely upsetting to hear such blatant disregard for the safety of
the people of Israel.
Finally, we were on our way to Ramallah. I was
searching for the images the media so often likes to portray – of a city
destroyed by war, stricken with poverty. However, I noticed how modern and
beautiful the city was, as we drove past sushi restaurants and five-star hotels.
We went to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights and met with a
man who was not of Israeli or Palestinian descent, but Asian. This man had no
relation to Israel or Palestine – just your typical civil servant.
spoke about human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories. He lamented over
Israeli settlers cutting down trees of Arab farmers, vandalizing mosques and
other actions of the sort. He completely glossed over the rocket fire from Gaza
into Israel (because that isn’t a big deal, right?) and barely touched on the
stone throwing by Palestinians at Israelis driving through the West Bank (which
has killed many).
The fact that he bypassed these subjects so smoothly
was the first thing that was of concern to me. The second thing of concern was
that this man did not know a word of Arabic or Hebrew. I wondered, how is he
supposed to gain a first-hand experience of the trials and tribulations of the
West Bank, Gaza and Israel when he files reports from within his airconditioned
building without speaking to anyone on the ground? Probably the strangest part
of the entire trip was going to the PLO headquarters to visit Yasser Arafat’s
memorial. I felt we stood there for an uncomfortably long of time. I did not
want to be disrespectful, but I in no way wanted to be mistaken as honoring him.
I felt chills as I stood at the monument of a man who was thought of as a hero
by the suicide bombers who killed so many Israelis over the years.
way back to Jerusalem we debriefed. The students continued to speak emotionally
rather than realistically.
Taking down a checkpoint because you are
“scared” is only going to make riding a public bus even scarier. They did not
realize that emotions clash with security needs.
And right now, I don’t
care if you are sad or mad, I just want the Israeli people to be safe and
I did not necessarily find what the PLO negotiator had to say
disturbing, because I expected it from him. What I found most upsetting was the
reactions from my fellow students, who were so out of touch with the Israeli
reality. Too concerned with the feelings of the Palestinians, these students
completely took for granted the safe environment the Israeli government and
military have established.
Whether clubbing at 2 a.m. on Ben
Yehudah Street, sitting at a café in Tel Aviv, or tanning on the beaches in
Eilat, the actions that Israel has taken to keep its citizens and its tourists
protected are invaluable.
Overall, the trip was emotionally exhausting.
But I signed up for another one to the Israel-Gaza border covering security. I
will be interested to see how J Street approaches the topic, while also
anxiously awaiting the reactions of my peers.
The writer attends American
University in Washington, DC, and studies international relations, economics,
and Arabic. She is currently in Israel, interning at the Jerusalem Center
for Public Affairs.