On this trip Israelis and Palestinians found remarkable differences in how we see the past and the present. We were surprised by what we learnt about refugees, impressed by what we found at an EcoVillage, we debated water issues and normalization yet found overlaps in our Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions.
i24 News followed us through Jericho to produce this thought provoking video
. Complementary video here
In Jericho, our mixed group of Israelis and Palestinians quickly broke the ice with a round of introduction. We were happy to see familiar and new faces, interesting personalities from across the political spectrum, including Jews who live in the West Bank and Palestinians who live in Israel, people of diverse upbringing and affiliations.
Surveying our surroundings from the ancient Tel of Jericho, in view of the refugee camp "Ein il-Sultan", we struck our first real conversation. Two of our group’s participants grew up in this camp and were happy to share their stories. Israelis were surprised to learn that the camp's UNRWA school is considered the best in all of Jericho; many of the refugees living here are highly educated and hold respectable jobs. Our participants explained how their community is exceptionally supportive and that non-refugees have moved into the camp and built homes there. Some Israelis asked:
“Why do some refugees prefer to stay within the camp while others exercise their right to move onto private lands elsewhere?
Why is it common to register one's children as refugees even when they are born off-camp to families that do not receive benefits from UNRWA?”
Still on the ancient Tel, we turned our attention to historical matters. We discovered discrepancy in the dating of the central mud-brick tower, located deep under the many archaeological layers of the Tel. Common knowledge states that Jericho is "the oldest city in the world", but we were also told it's dated to the year 743 AD. The nearby tourist information poster provided some clarification, indicating that the Tel was indeed a very ancient site, but it did not specify by name the civilizations that built-up, tore-down, abandoned and resettled Jericho in pre-Islamic times. Our participants were left to discuss among themselves their society's historical connection to the site.
Next, visiting Hisham's palace, we witnessed the amazing achievement of Islamic art and architecture, also dated to around 743 AD but of superior quality and technology compared with the mud-brick tower we visited earlier. Here we found extensive mosaic floors, hot baths, mosques, courtyards and chambers. We speculated that the mosaic of the "tree of life", featuring two peaceful gazelles, represents subordinate subjects while the gazelle under attack from the lion represents the fate promised to those who reject the Caliph's Islamic law.
On the recommendation of an Israeli participant who works with Palestinians and Jordanians on shared environmental protection initiatives, we went to Al Auja EcoPeace center. The center provides tools and education for thousands of visitors yearly on traditional and modern methods for protecting the environment, including Israeli technologies, adapted for local needs.
One major topic of discussion at the EcoCenter was water. We heard local villagers complain about the gradual decrease in their water supply, but we also heard from some Israelis in our group that water is being shared according to the Oslo Peace Accords, which is the relevant international law.
While we did not reach consensus on whether there is "legal water sharing" or "blatant water theft" taking place, we agreed that new delegations must renegotiate and settle the water dispute.
After staying the night together in a Beith Jala hotel we traveled the following morning to Bethlehem, escorted by kind local participants. Our Israelis enjoyed feeling like welcomed guests, stopping to chat with shopkeepers in Arabic and to buy sweets and other goods to take home.
At King David's Wells we discussed King David, another native of Bethlehem (some say Jew, some say Palestinian), and his refusal to drink from the wells after his commanders risked death by the hands of the Philistines to fetch him water:
David longed for water and said, “Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!” So the three mighty warriors broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the Lord. “Far be it from me, Lord, to do this!” he said. “Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?” And David would not drink it
. [Samuel II, 23:15-17
Recalling the personal risk we also took in coming together to Bethlehem we wanted to drink from this special well. One Palestinian offered a joke containing his truth, saying: "Don't let the Israelis drink from this well because 100 years from now they will return and say their ancestors drank from here!” Faced with this problem both sides agreed to drink simultaneously!
Our main attraction in Bethlehem is, of course, the Church of Nativity. Here we heard many Christian traditions, some of them carrying an echo in Jewish or Muslim traditions. In the old Christian quarter our expert guide pointed out a window decorated with two Stars of David and what may be Islamic decoration in the middle and with a cross above it. Not entirely sure about the significance of this landmark the group came up with interesting speculations.
We later visited Solomon's Pools at the outskirts of Bethlehem and learned how these pools supplied water to the Temple in Jerusalem via impressively long aqueducts.
Noticing how the Temple was contested on our previous trip in Jerusalem we can better appreciate how historical education plays a role in shaping opinion and influencing Israeli and Palestinian attitudes towards one another. This is exactly what we aim to address on our trips.
Finally, our conversation turned to the topic of "normalization". We understood there are people who try to discourage participation in bi-national Israeli/Palestinian initiatives which do not focus solely on political issues and the “occupation” specifically.
We feel our trips provide a unique opportunity for locals to interact while learning about the history and identity of the other. We offer a chance to listen and to explain how each one of us sees our place in the world, the future we desire and our relation to each other. We often discover on our trips that even the most basic information is not mutually understood, and that learning together can lead to more fruitful, respectful dialogue.
We do not aim to "normalize" the current situation but rather to promote mutual understanding and healthy communication that will lead to an improved situation for all sides.
Ending our two days of travel at the lovely Al-Makhrour
resort, with a stunning view towards the hills of Bethlehem, we took one final moment to thank and to congratulate our dear Dara
for her amazing role in taking Tiyul Rihla to where it is today. We wish Dara success in her future endeavors, especially as our official representative in the United States!
Special thanks goes to our committed Palestinian and Israeli staff and volunteers who cooperate to provide rich, sobering experiences at low cost.