To solve the conflict, look across the security barrier

There is a crisis of confidence today between the Israelis and Palestinians. Their societies are so polarized, so caught up with advancing their political and cultural interests, that it is nearly impossible to sit down and talk about the issues that matter most.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once said, “Most of the approaches to peace between Israel and the Palestinians have been directed at trying to resolve the most complex problems, like refugees and Jerusalem, which is akin to building the pyramids from the top down.” 

People often ask, “How do we achieve peace in the Middle East? What is a formula that both sides would agree to?” While everyone focuses on the “core issues” of the conflict, many forget its human side: the individuals and families that live in it every day.

As a student and teacher of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I was given a unique opportunity this past summer to travel to the West Bank with over two dozen North American Jewish leaders. The purpose was to sit and listen to Palestinians about their perspectives, narratives and beliefs regarding future advancements of Middle East peace.

The program was sponsored by Encounter, an independent, non-partisan organization that cultivates informed and constructive North American Jewish leaders on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It serves an important purpose. As members of the American Jewish community frequently visit Israel and hear about regional news from their Israeli family and friends, most have never met Palestinians face-to-face, nor have they visited Palestinian communities in the West Bank.

During our four-day expedition through Bethlehem, Ramallah, and East Jerusalem, we did just that. We went on a “listening tour” where Palestinian community leaders shared what they thought were the most critical issues facing their future, giving us a more holistic view of the conflict. Encounter introduced us to 15 guest speakers in total, all from various socioeconomic backgrounds.

There were people such as Abu Ibrahim, the head of the Village Council in Khalet Zakariya, a Palestinian village in the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank. There was Abdel-fattah, who was born and raised in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. We met people like Sam Bahour from Ramallah, a Palestinian-American who moved with his family from the United States to the West Bank in 1995 to help build up the Palestinian telecommunications sector. We met Dr. Khalil Shikaki, a professor of Political Science who is Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

The trip was both an educational and emotional experience. We heard presentations on a variety of related topics, ranging from the security barrier and the IDF to the future of Palestinian leadership. We also debated historical subjects such as the “failure” of the Oslo Accords, the outcome of the intifadas and the future of a two-state solution.

As I scribbled madly in my journal, trying to absorb a culture that I had approached mostly from an academic standpoint, the emotional side of the trip began to shape me.

The concept of empathy (the act of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the actions of another) was inherent during our four days together. Talking to people and asking them how they feel, what they want, and what they think may seem simplistic, but I found it to be invaluable. Having this dialogue is far less challenging than studying the conflict because it involves hearing real stories instead of endlessly speculating about the future. It’s a smarter way to understand the impact and gravity of the conflict.

Ultimately, Palestinians and Israelis both want their children to enjoy the kind of normalcy that can only be achieved through peace. This is the direction leaders should take: leading them from conflict to tranquility, from despair to hope and from intolerance to reconciliation.

I am and always will be a Zionist. I love the Jewish State of Israel and want what is best for the people and the land, yet I still believe in the prospects of peace with the Palestinians. However, this program underscored that this isn’t a one-size fit all problem. Everyone believes their own narratives, and ultimately those must inform solutions.

I hope my Encounter trip will help me become a better educator, student and global citizen of the conflict moving forward. Without this knowledge, we will continue to think about that top-down pyramid Netanyahu notes, rather than a bottom-up approach that takes the people into account.

This story was featured in the Volume 36, Issue 2 edition of The Lion’s Tale, published on Oct. 26, 2018.