What We Saw: Reflections on SIPA’s trip to Palestine

By: Farah AbuSahliya, Amir Khouzam, Jasper Lo, Jacqueline Davalos, Mihret Moges, Sean Nelsen

Last January, the Palestine Working Group organized SIPA’s first student-led trip to Palestine, also known as PalTrek. Forty nine SIPA students travelled on an eight-day trip to learn about Palestinian history, people, culture, identity, and heritage. The trip revealed the reality of life for Palestinians, both in the Occupied Palestinian territories and in Israel, with the objective of elevating the stories and narratives that are often unheard or unheeded. As an organizer of PalTrek, my hope is that the trip can contribute to changing the discourse on the Israeli - Palestinian conflict here at SIPA and the wider Columbia community.

Some students who participated in PalTrek wrote the following reflections to share their experiences and thoughts a few months after the trip:

Mihret Moges, Class of 2020

Prior to going on the Palestine trip, my knowledge around the conflict was limited. Dates and events like the Balfour Agreement and Six-Day War swirled in my mind whenever I thought of Palestine and Israel. Unable to contextualize these events, it became easy for me to detach myself. Anytime I heard about Israel or Palestine on the news I would just scroll on, not taking the time to consider the impact of this long historical and political conflict on the reality of everyday life. It was easier to be uniformed rather than try to grapple with such a difficult and puzzling issue.

The Palestine Trek, a.k.a. Paltrek was the first time I was given the space to challenge what I thought I knew and understood. As we crisscrossed throughout the West Bank visiting major cities like Bethlehem, Nablus, and Ramallah, I had the chance to see the ingenuity of Palestinians and their determination to remain on their land regardless of the barriers put before them. One thing that stuck with me throughout the whole trip was how people lived with two different realities. The Israeli government created and continues to implement systematic and physical barriers to limit and erase dialogue and interactions between Palestinians and Israelis as well as between Palestinians. Often, I have heard how Israel is creating an apartheid state in Palestine but I never understood what that looked like. It looks like checkpoints for Palestinians entering and leaving their cities, it looks like limiting Palestinian access to water and electricity, it looks like creating two separate roads for Palestinians and Israelis to drive on and it looks like erecting a 20+ foot wall around Palestinian cities as a way of closing them in. And, this does not even begin to cut into the deeper consequences that an oppressive and militarized presence Israel has had on individual Palestinians. This divide didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow and methodical process by the Israeli government to push and try to delegitimize any Palestinian claim to the land and their rights on the land. Breaking down forms of communication and interactions, these structural practices are set in place by the Israeli government to distance people from one another and create a loss of empathy towards each other. The Israeli government justifies its actions and violations of human rights and international law towards Palestinians all in the name of “security”.

Going on the PalTrek gave me the chance to be confused, disheartened, frustrated, and learn first-hand from various local Palestinians who are looking to change and shape the future of Palestine. I was given the space to see the complexity of this topic. The pain, determination, ingenuity, memories, anger, and hopefulness all shapes the experience and perspective that Palestinians have both within and outside Palestine and the persistence to fight for their land.

Jasper Lo, Class of 2019

VENOM® is a high-capacity grenade launching system that can fire up to 30 canisters in just a few seconds. When used in a village, it can easily cover an entire football field. From end-to-end evaporated liquid compounds irritates mucous membranes, sticking onto clothes, walls, furniture, and ceilings. This munition is commonly known as tear gas, a less-lethal or non-lethal weapon.

As a resident in towns like Nabi Saleh, you’re lucky if you’re fast enough to dodge the walls of houses, run up or down the shifting terrain, and reach the end of the contaminated zone. It can be a harrowing sprint while the chemical compound attacks the enzymes in your eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs.

I only watched Israeli troops use them in videos, but I saw them mounted on trucks in the distance as we stood in the central West Bank. You don’t need to watch its effects to think: Why would anyone need to use scorched earth tactics in a less than lethal way? It’s carpet bombing because of the scale of its munitions employment and the lack of precision. The closest thing I could compare this use is carpet bombing, made famous by Kurt Vonnegut’s description of the firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five.

My visit to Israel and the West Bank taught me how dangerous it is to think that technology can solve violence. Thinking about weapons as a solution when its use is "non-lethal" is especially concerning. Non-lethal munitions can be a convenient replacement to real security policy like community-focused policing and people-first security. But even before we establish that this is a flawed weapon system, we're already distracted by the intricacies of security tactics.

Sean Nelsen, Class of 2020

On our final day in Palestine, we woke in Ramallah, the cultural, commercial, and governmental center of the West Bank. It provided us a center where relevant speakers from Human Rights Watch, the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], and the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, could extend their hospitality and knowledge on policy subjects. The night before, our movements throughout the city, especially the much anticipated evening excursion for ice cream, was constrained by IDF forces tear gassing a central business area in search for a Palestinian they deemed a suspect.

That morning, our destination that was Rawabi, Palestine’s “first planned city.” This moniker is a bit hyperbolic, but Rawabi is a development from scratch with a comprehensive scope. Through a detailed masterplan to curate the growth, Rawabi envisions a city that adheres to David Godschalk’s sustainability/livability prism model. The hope is to ensure that development accounts for equity and the environment while creating an urban fabric that is democratic and accessible. This is a critical aspect of Rawabi as comfort in the public realm is a luxury that rarely extends to Palestinians, no matter if you are in Area A, Area B, or Area C. While some critics of Rawabi, like Tina Grandinetti, contest the developments view on “neoliberal capitalism and consumerism as a new form of resistance,” the site is visionary in scale and detail, and no doubt will be home—physical and emotional—to many.

To end the day, we traveled to Taybeh Brewery where we learned about the entrepreneurial spirit in Palestine, issues around water access, and the imposed bureaucracy of distribution they faced, all while enjoying some incredible Palestinian beer.

Jacqueline Davalos, Class of 2020

Prior to this trip, my understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was limited to what I had seen in the news or discussions with friends. Having no personal ties to Israel or Palestine, and as an aspiring journalist, my primary goal was to gather facts rather than impassioned second-hand interpretation of who the guilty party was in the fight for land. In the week that followed, I came to realize the conflict was not about land, but for existence.

The most poignant moment of the trip was visiting Nabi Saleh, a Palestinian village of roughly 600 residents in the occupied West Bank. Far from a tourist attraction, the streets of Nabi Saleh were littered with cans that I would later learn were empty tear gas canisters. We were greeted by Palestinian activist, Manal Tamimi, who invited all 50 of us into her small living room and walked us through a day in her life. It was here that I learned about the systematic detention of children, Israel’s fractured judicial system, and the pernicious use of tear gas on even the most benign forms of peaceful resistance. It was not through a lens of politics but through her heartfelt account that I began to feel the omnipresent repression she and her family had endured.

Earlier in the trip, we also had the opportunity to speak to Dar, a young former IDF soldier who had shared his perspective and graciously answered any question our group pelted him with. He was patient, reasonable and open to hear our concerns. Over coffee, we came to learn he had no Palestinian friends and that he had never had dialogue with the people he felt needed to be walled off from Israelis. I thought nothing of this until I found myself in Manal Tamimi’s living room. These two experiences encapsulated the desperate need to find a space for shared humanity in the conflict.

As a policy student, I understand the inevitable intersection with politics, a force that can poison the ability to empathize. I no longer feel a distant compassion for Palestinians, but a fervent conviction to bridge the dissonance that has unraveled into an insidious oppression. Ultimately, this trip reinvigorated me in way that would be impossible to achieve by merely visiting the Al-Aqsa mosque, the Western Wall, or walking the streets of Tel-Aviv or Haifa.

Amir Khouzam, Class of 2019

A key thing to remember about a trip of this kind is that to organize, participate in, and celebrate it is not a neutral action. It is not just tourism, service, or sightseeing. It is activism. I tried to keep this in mind over the eight days we were there and in the many opportunities we have had to reflect on the trip in the two months since we returned. It is activism because the mere act of bearing witness to what is happening in Palestine is uncommon. From afar, it can be difficult to speak openly and truthfully about the dynamics of Palestinian society and the damage caused by the Occupation. Having seen these things they are impossible to unsee, and therefore impossible not to speak about.

It is also activism because having gone and had fun, having eaten, laughed, danced, and learned about Palestine in Palestine, and having done so with our friends, serves to demystify a place that is too often framed in terms only of violence and conflict. In the face of enormous challenges, Palestinian society is vibrant. It was important to see this so that we can encourage others to go see it as well. Having gone, we can tell our friends and family: visit Palestine, meet its people, hear its stories. Palestine need not be mediated through some other lens, Israeli or otherwise. Palestine is a place we can embrace directly. This trip is powerful evidence of that fact.