By Linda Langston
Israel was surprisingly small, smaller than Iowa by a good deal — driving from the West Bank to Tel Aviv, is like driving up to Waterloo.
I came home from my recent visit with a new appreciation of the challenges faced by Israel and Palestine. I was an invited guest of Project Interchange, a non-partisan, not-for-profit that has been bringing people to the Middle East for 10 years in an effort to educate Americans. Our group consisted of five state electeds, four county electeds and one city official from Chicago. A diverse group with many perspectives, we all agreed it was one of the most amazing journeys any of us have been on.
We flew into Tel Aviv, knowing that tensions were high. However, we saw a vibrant city with incredible business development going on, including Microsoft and cutting-edge cybersecurity firms.
We visited the Golan Heights with a retired general while overlooking tank exercises within sight of Damascus. As the general left to go to Jerusalem, it was clear that something was in the works. Our drive from the north was a study in contrasts, towns of both Israeli and Palestinians, dotted by Bedouin encampments, on excellent roads divided by fences to separate the populations from one another.
We drove to Ramallah to meet with Prime Minister Fayyad, who is clearly an aspirational man. His work to gain recognition of Palestine by the UN is top of mind, but the divide between Fatah and Hamas is deep and a path forward between Gaza and the West Bank is not clear.
The effort getting through checkpoints underscored the animosity felt by Palestinians who traverse every day to go to work in and around Jerusalem. Ramallah was bustling with new hotels and businesses going up. The no-man’s land between Ramallah and Jerusalem gives a significant appreciation for the benefits of government. The streets are littered with tons of garbage, discarded tires and shells of old cars.
We also saw the eruption of violence between Israeli guards at the checkpoint and angry young men throwing rocks. Shots were fired into the air and tear gas was used to disperse the crowd. It was a scary moment as the young men looked into our vehicle, we chose to leave the area and try for another checkpoint.
Returning to Jerusalem, we had to give up our trip to Gaza, as rocket fire was escalating and it became clear that it was not safe. We instead met with psychologists at NATAL, an Israeli trauma center for victims of terror and war. The work they are doing is groundbreaking and the United States could learn from them as we prepare for the influx of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
A return to our hotel for a moment of down time changed as the sirens went off. I stopped for a moment realizing what this meant, but with no earthly idea of what to do or where to go. Luckily no rockets fell directly in Jerusalem, but rather just outside of town. The moment of fear I felt gave me insight into the lives of Israeli citizens who know that when the sirens sound they have but 15-30 seconds to get to bomb shelters.
Our final day was spent viewing holy sites, including the tunnels under the Western Wall, and shopping in the Arab market. I met amazing people from entrepreneurs, to rabbis working on reconciliation throughout the world, to Netanyahu’s press secretary, varied Knesset members, and an Arab Muslim journalist living in Jerusalem.
Most impressive was the mayor of Efrat, a suburb of Jerusalem whose pragmatic problem solving could offer solutions to intractable problems. Each shared a perspective that left me with an increased awareness of the challenges faced by a part of the world that has known strife for thousands of years. I do not know if the cease-fire will hold, but there are good people there whose lives depend on it.
Linda Langston is a Linn County supervisor. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org