To Ramallah and back

A US college student’s perspective on Israeli security: The actions Israel has taken to keep citizens, tourists protected are invaluable.

Entrance to Ramallah 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Mollie Adatto))
Entrance to Ramallah 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Mollie Adatto))
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 traveled.
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 of Palestinians.
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.”
As 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 photos.
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 checkpoint.
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.
He 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.
On the 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 secure.
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.