Dear Students Accepted into SIPA Policy Trips to Israel,
As I’m sure you know, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a complex, intricate and often baffling one. It has a long history and there are a multitude of opinions and attitudes that can – and have – inflamed even the most cool-headed among us.
You’ve just been admitted to join a group of Columbia University students in a trip to a region with a complicated and contested history. If you were to take out the politics, you could see it as an opportunity to go on a subsidized trip to an interesting and historically significant place – who could say no to that?
But, as a Palestinian student at SIPA, I can’t help but express my concern that this trip doesn’t tell you the whole story. It’s a trip where you’ll mostly hear Israeli voices and will not expose you to many Palestinian experiences. Additionally, it will not expose you to the many opportunities that are available to learn about the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
During this eight-day trip, students participating in the Innovation and Policy group will visit the West Bank for one day only, including the administrative center of Ramallah and the innovative new development in nearby Rawabi. Having lived in Ramallah for the past five years, I can only speak highly of it – it’s a dynamic place and without a doubt one of the more underrated cities in the Middle East. Rawabi is also an exciting and inspiring project. But Ramallah and Rawabi are not necessarily representative of the rest of the West Bank, nor is one day in these cities enough to give you a comprehensive understanding of the myriad of challenges faced by West Bank residents.
Meanwhile, students participating in the Environment and Sustainability group will visit East Jerusalem for only half a day. Palestinians in East Jerusalem face a multitude of challenges, the most acute of which include revocation of residency rights, demolitions, settlements, and movement and access restrictions. Moreover, Jerusalem remains a contested city, with both sides aspiring to have it recognized as their capital. But half a day is not remotely sufficient to learn about these issues, especially within the larger framework of the conflict.
If you do choose to go on this trip, I urge you to do two things. The first is to be critical of what you are hearing and presented. Secondly, and most importantly, I urge you to extend your stay and visit the West Bank on your own. Expose yourself to additional, and possibly alternative opinions, experiences, histories and ideas about the conflict. See for yourself the impact of the occupation on Palestinian lives.
To help you do that, I’ve listed some Palestinian organizations that can provide political tours and briefings that will allow you to engage with different Palestinian perspectives and lived experiences.
West Bank Tours:
Green Olives Tours: a social enterprise tour agency that provides informative and analytical tours, covering the history, culture, and political geography of the West Bank. They provide weekly tours to different Palestinian cities and can also be hired to provide private tours for groups. The Bethlehem – Hebron day trip is highly recommended. Website: http://www.toursinenglish.com/
The Centre for Jerusalem Studies at al-Quds University: Al-Quds University offers alternative tours of Jerusalem, providing an understand of the city and many facets from a Palestinian perspective. They can also provide private tours to groups. Website: www.jerusalem-studies.alquds.edu/en/
Youth Against Settlements: a nonviolent Palestinian organization based in the West Bank city of Hebron that seeks to end the building and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements through non-violent popular struggle and civil resistance. They can provide private tours of Hebron’s Old City to groups or individuals. Website: www.yashebron.org/
Al-Shabaka (the Palestinian Policy Network): a Palestinian think tank based both in the US and Palestine. It aims to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law. Website: www.al-shabaka.org/en/
Al-Haq: Al-Haq is an independent Palestinian human rights organization based in Ramallah that has special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The center was established in 1979 to protect and promote human rights and the rule of law in Palestine by documenting human rights violations. Website: www.alhaq.org/
The Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ): an organization dedicated to promoting sustainable development in Palestine and the self-reliance of the Palestinian people through greater control over their natural resources. ARIJ has decades of experience working in the fields of natural resources management, water management and sustainable agriculture. Website: www.arij.org/
Some other interesting organizations are:
- Addameer (http://www.addameer.org ), a legal center for Palestinian political prisoners.
- Adalah (https://www.adalah.org ) and Mossawa (http://www.mossawa.org ), two advocacy organizations that promote human rights and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The West Bank has more to offer than just politics, of course. It also has a thriving arts and cultural scene – check out the newly inaugurated Palestinian Museum near Ramallah and the many art galleries within the city and keep an eye out for festivals and events where you can enjoy the growing alternative music scene across the country. It’s got great food, with terrific falafel found at Afteem near Manager Square in Bethlehem, delicious hummus at Bandali in Ramallah’s Old City, the best kanafeh (Palestinian cheesecake) in the world in Hilawiyat Al-Aqsa in the Old City of Nablus, and comforting traditional Palestinian dishes at Abu Mazan restaurant in Hebron.
The options I’ve listed above would be able to provide you with different perspectives and deepen your understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ultimately, thinking critically and being exposed to different opinions and ideas are among the core values SIPA and Columbia University wish to foster in us. Consider for yourself whether this trip will truly offer you the opportunity to engage with the different opinions and experiences that will allow you to form a more complete picture of the situation. If not, I encourage you to take it upon yourself to seek out as many ideas as possible if you go on this trip.