It’s one thing to constantly watch the news about a country experiencing war and a complete other to actually be there, witnessing what its citizens go through on a daily basis.
Our final destinations on the Ibrahim Leadership Program were Israel and Palestine. As an American Arab Muslim, I knew how much hate the Arab-Israeli war caused among people of different faiths. This was one of many reasons that made me want to learn more about it and engage with people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Realizing that not everyone keeps an open-mind while negotiating this issue, I prepared myself for an exhilarating destination.
When I entered the Ben Gurion airport for the first time, I was overwhelmed. I wish I had a mirror. Was my face red with anger? Or pale from sadness? I was thinking about my life in Egypt and how talking about Israel was often ‘taboo’. Then I thought about my life in New York and how I was enrolled in one of the most diverse campuses in the state. My peers had no problem discussing the conflict, especially with all the interfaith events being hosted there year round. It was ironic how I eventually ended up in the nation most talked about politically in both my hometowns. This time, I was actually there able to witness what life was like for Israelis and Palestinians forced to share land. While some citizens advocated for a peaceful two-state solution, others wanted the opposite. Our interactions in Tel Aviv and Rawabi made that clear.
Tel Aviv was nice. Our first night there, my fellows and I were walking the streets with the ILD program looking for a place to eat. We came across a vibrant Mexican restaurant, crowded, and playing loud music.The streets reminded me of NY with its western culture and LGBTQ flags flying everywhere celebrating Pride Day. Inside we asked if they have room for eighteen people. One of my professors looked around and saw tables that would seat way less. I heard him say to a few of us “I guess you take only what you can get around here.” My colleagues giggled. I had an indifferent response and thought “Hmm. Maybe that should be the motto of this country.”
Two days later, we visited the new Palestinian city of Rawabi in the West Bank, north of Ramallah. On the way, our tour guide told us about the city’s founder and builder, Bashar Al-Masri. He spent millions of dollars building Rawabi but the project ultimately depended on water being made available by Israel. He was “taking what he can get” from this country even if it meant building a Palestinian city with a major water shortage.
Rawabi in Arabic translates to “the hills”. I felt like I was on top of a shattered world looking down on occupied land and settlements. But actually seeing Rawabi gave me hope for a better future. The city’s slogan is “Live, work, and grow.” Ironic if you don’t have enough water to give you the sustenance to grow. Rawabi is located in Area A of the West Bank under the civilian control of the Palestinian Authority. However, a section of its road is located in Area C, which is under Israeli military and civilian control causing access challenges for construction crews and residents. Nevertheless, the city was struggling to keep its location in the hopes of establishing a brighter future for Palestinians.
Although Gaza was not included in our interfaith trip, the Palestinian refugee camp Al-Jalazone was. In Jalazone, Palestinian citizens live off less than $10 a month provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). I was officially engaged in a national triangle of a lavish Israeli city, an under-construction Palestinian city, and a poor refugee camp suffering from the occupation. Despite the cynicism and depression of Al Jalazone, the contrast between all three gave me hope. I imagined Rawabi growing till it hosts as much Palestinians enough to end the need for refugee camps. I imagined Israelis and Arabs ending occupations and sharing what is considered the holiest of lands. If Rawabi and Tel Aviv can live in prosperity, why shouldn’t the rest of the nation? After continuous growth and struggle, why do some civilians still want to destroy one another?
Al-Masri had a different way of thinking. When BDS was mentioned, he said the goal is not to destroy Israel, but to form an independent Palestinian free state. According to him, if one really wants to help Palestine, he/she should help build it, not boycott its assumed “opposition” with most of their resources.
Rawabi’s presence and continued growth may be a new beginning to a peace process. But it takes more than one bright city on dark, occupied, hills to end a decades-long conflict. If negotiations and open-minds continue to prosper, so will this suffering nation. Maybe then will this lead to a revolutionary change in what is portrayed in the news, our mindsets, and our values.
Yarah Shabana is a member of the 2016 Ibrahim cohort.