Since my last post about Turkey almost 2 years ago, my travels have wandered around Brazil (highlighted by backpacking around a small island outside of Rio, where I bartered my iPod Nano when I ran out of cash for 10 days of food, beer, a surfboard, and a spot to hang my hammock on a secluded beach), explored India (highlighted by meeting a poor Rickshaw driver named Rasheed, being invited twice to his modest house for meals, and watching obscenely long Bollywood movies with his friends), and road tripped around our favorite island nation that rhymes with Tuba.
Since my last blog post, I’ve enrolled in an MBA program at Harvard Business School, which has been a great experience so far. In my huge 900 person class, of which about 1/3 of students are international, 6 classmates were born in Israel and were gracious enough to organize an amazing 10 day trip around the country. Among other reasons to go on the trip, I recognized that I hardly understood what was meant by the phrase we hear all too often “peace in the middle east,” so I decided to go on the trip to get a closer look at the conflict and educate myself about why this peace is so elusive. I can’t say enough about how great a trip my friends put on for us, or how much I appreciate the immense amount of work they put into organizing it.
Also, before writing more, I should emphasize that I’m trying to write this entry from as neutral of a perspective as possible. I recall many things from memory, so please forgive me if I make an inaccurate comment – its not meant to do so to twist facts or mislead you. I’m trying to recreate my experience for you all, and to present the facts, experiences, and conversations that I had in as unbiased of a manner as possible, so that you all can make your own conclusions, as I have. Further, I’d encourage anyone reading this to plan a trip to the Middle East yourself, as reading is no substitute for experiencing.
A bit of background
Here are a few words on the background of the history of the Israel – Palestine conflict, as I understand them (This lacks a ton of important details, but condenses a few of the most of critical points, I think):
The Jews have a long and tragic history of persecution, culminating in the tragic story of the holocaust. During WWII, a steady stream of Jews found refuge in Palestine. Following substantial conflict in the area, the UN approved the UN Partition Plan in 1947 dividing the country into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Arabs rejected the plan, and civil war quickly broke out. The determined Jewish people persevered, and after a year of fighting Israel had defended itself against attacks from five neighboring countries, a cease-fire was called, and temporary borders were drawn.
Responding to attacks in 1967, Israel launched attacks on Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, and captured the territories known as the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. These lands constituted immense strategic advantages to Israel, so Israel began to incentivize Jews to settle in these areas to ensure that they could not be easily won back, and they have controlled the land ever since. Meanwhile, many of the Arabs living on the captured land, the Palestinians, remained on their land, now under Israeli rule. This is the heart of the conflict in the Middle East. The Jews believe that Israel is land promised to them in the Bible, and therefore Jews don’t believe that non-Jews (the Palestinians) have any right to the land. The Palestinians, on the other hand, believe that Israel was unjustly taken from them, and don’t believe that the Jews have any right to the land.
Glamorous clubs, high-tech startups, and F-16s- The many sides of Modern Tel Aviv
Our trip began shortly after Final Exams by arriving in Tel Aviv after a red-eye flight from Newark. Since most of the trip had been planned by our Israeli organizers, I did very little research into Israel or Tel Aviv before arriving. I was therefore, pleasantly surprised to find Tel Aviv to be a thriving, beautiful, modern city located on a long and gorgeous beach. We immediately began to explore the city, and Assaf, one of the organizers took a group of us to the ancient Muslim quarter of Tel Aviv, Jaffa, for what he claimed to be “the world’s best Hummus.” After a chaotic exchange in Hebrew, the Hummus arrived, and Assaf wasn’t lying – it was certainly the best hummus I’d ever had. This was shaping up to be a great trip. After a lazy afternoon on the beach, Assaf and his family were kind enough to host our entire group of 80 students at their beautiful house in a nearby town, and after we learned why Tel Aviv is legendary for its nightlife.
The next day, we got to tour an Israeli Air Force Base and poke our heads around a pair of F-16 Fighter Jets. During the tour, a flight navigator gave us a fantastic discussion on her squadron. Service in the military is mandatory for all Israelis (male and female), and I certainly got the sense that they view the service with great respect and duty, as Israel is frequently under attack by its neighbors. The woman who spoke to us had been in active combat, and spoke of the role of their strong Air Force in defending Israel. She also placed great emphasis on the care they take when an attack on enemy territory is necessary to ensure that civilian damage is minimized to the fullest extent possible.
On a much lighter note, we then traveled to “Silicon Wadi,” Israel’s Silicon Valley – home to the highest number of start-up companies per-capita in the world. An all-star panel of entrepreneurs and executives greeted us with an interesting panel that described how Israel had created a fertile environment to create to nurture startups. They also explained how multinationals can expand to leverage Israel’s innovation and unique entrepreneurial culture. Interestingly, however, the panel didn’t really answer a question I asked, inquiring how non-Israelis could take advantage of the incredible entrepreneurial environment, and one of the panelists suggested that the entrepreneurial environment could be much more successful if it was more open to non-Jewish scholars, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople.
Jerusalem and the Holy Sites
Over the next two days we explored Jerusalem. Our first stop was the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The experience was incredibly powerful, and set the stage for much of our experience in Israel. The museum presented moving and emotional stories of individual holocaust victims, providing a face to the six million victims. As our tour guide said, the Holocaust is 60 years past, but it hangs over Israel like a dark cloud reminding the Jewish people of their tragic history, their shared heritage, and their need to guard against future atrocities for all mankind.
After the museum tour, we visited the Western Wall, aka the Wailing Wall, which Jews view as one of the holiest places in the world. Hundreds of orthodox Jews were praying at the wall alongside many tourists as well. People write prayers or wishes on small pieces of paper and stick them in to the side of the wall. We also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is one of the most important Christian temples in the world. Many Christians believe it to be the location of Jesus crucifixion, and some also believe he was buried in a cave on the grounds of the church. We also walked the 14 stations of the cross, the Via Delorosa. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit the Dome of the Rock, which is a Muslim temple, one of the most important temples in the Islamic faith.
One thing I didn’t really recognize is that Jerusalem is at the center of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In fact, the religions all share the same roots, and it all began with Judaism. All three religions believe in the Old Testament of the Bible. The Christians and the Muslims both believe in the New Testament, and only Muslims believe in the Koran. The Jews believe that Jesus existed, but don’t believe that he was the Messiah and are still waiting for the Messiah. Thus they accept the fact of his life and death, but reject the New Testament writings about his life – they do not believe he ever claimed to be the son of God, as the apostles wrote in the scriptures.
A major highlight of the entire trip was a visit with Tzipi Livni at the Knesset (the legislative branch of Israeli govt). Our Israeli hosts somehow organized this meeting with Livni, who is a fierce political rival of Benjamin Netanyahu, and a recent candidate for Prime Minister. She was incredibly articulate, smooth, and inspiring as she optimistically spoke of the need for and possibility of peace in the Middle East. She said that she is working to establish a two-state solution with Palestine, and disagrees with Netanyahu’s tactics for achieving peace with the Palestinians. Specifically, she was advocating negotiating with the Palestinians now, and turning over some control once the Palestinians form a stable, non-violent government, while Netanyahu proposes waiting for the Palestinians to get their act together before beginning negotiations. Though I don’t recall her taking a stance on settlement expansion, her stated policies are a bit more aligned with President Obama’s. Her outspoken clashes with Netanyahu (frequently covered in Israeli newspapers), and his contradiction with Obama made Netanyahu’s power seem unstable, and in fact we got to sit in on a session of the Knesset where a vote of no confidence was being debated for Netanyahu.
Wandering around Israel: Masada, the Dead Sea, and Eilat
We arose at 2am for a 3am bus departure to Masada, the famous mountain fortress where Jewish fighters all committed suicide rather than surrender to the Roman empire after a year long siege. We climbed to the top of the mountain at 5am and watched the sun rise over the dead sea. Next, we visited a resort on the Dead Sea and spent a few hours floating in the water. It is truly a unique experience, as the high salt content of the water makes it almost impossible to submerge yourself, and you float high out of the water without swimming. We also covered ourselves in Dead Sea mud, which is supposed to clean and renew your skin. After the Dead Sea, we journeyed on to Eilat, on the Red Sea, where we did a lot of much needed relaxing and also went scuba diving at an amazing wreck sight.
Nazareth, Jesus’s ‘hood, and tubing down the Jordan River
We boarded a short 1 hour flight to from Eilat to Tel Aviv, and then took a bus on to Nazareth, touring a church built on the grounds where Mary and Joseph were thought to have lived. The church contained dozens of pieces of art donated from different countries, all depicting Mary and the baby Jesus, with dramatic variations in style.
We then went white water rafting down the Jordan river. It was really more of a white water “floating”, but there was one actual rapid about one hour in to the two hour experience. Our hotel for the evening was at a Kibbutz, which is an almost-extinct communal style living that used to be common in Israel.
Jerusalem on Shabbat
One last experience I was shocked to see was when Justin and I returned to Jerusalem on the Shabbat (Sabbath). Orthodox Jews believe that the Shabbat is the day of rest, and will not do any work whatsoever. In fact, hotels in Israel have an elevator that will stop at every floor on the Shabbat so that you don’t have to even press the elevator buttons. Justin was wandering around, lost, looking for an ATM, when he found himself in the midst of an angry group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews rioting. He was unable to figure out what was happening at the time, but the next day the Jerusalem Post reported that the riot, which left 6 police officers injured, was a protest over the city’s decision to open a parking lot (attended by a non-jew) on Shabbat. The protesters pelted officers with stones, food and diapers. While I won’t comment on the religious beliefs, one can draw a parallel to Muslim extremists who resort to violence when they feel that their religion and daily life are put in jeopardy.
Why don’t you call me Indiana Jones – exploring the ruins of Petra
After spending about 10 days in Israel and finishing up the organized trip with people from school, Justin and I felt that we had a good sense of the Israeli perspective of the conflict. We had planned to relax on the red sea for a week, relaxing and scuba diving, but instead we decided that there’s two sides to every story, and we needed to better understand the Palestinian perspective, so we set off on a trip to Jordan and the West Bank.
We started off spending 2 days at Petra in Jordan, which is collection of about eight hundred 2000-year old tombs carved out of a mountain. One of the most impressive facades was used in Indiana Jones, and overall, Petra is the one of the most amazing place I’ve seen in the world. We spent 10 hours hiking around the gorgeous mountains, canyons, and cliffs, and exploring probably over 100 tombs, but we really only scratched the surface of the immense site.
Exhausted after a long day hiking in the scorching Jordanian sun, we went directly from Petra to feast on a huge, delicious dinner, when we began talking to a man sitting next to us named Tariq. Tariq, a Muslim, was a taxi driver who was born in Ramallah in the West Bank, and was 2 years old when the war broke out in 1967. His family fled to Jordan to escape the war, and he has never been able to return to visit his home or family that remains there. Clearly, this man had a strong opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was eager to share it. I should note, however, that while the conversation was pretty sensitive, Tariq was probably the friendliest person we had met on our trip, and he treated us to a local-style coffee (with Cardamom!) during out 3-hour conversation. His perspective was one of a displaced person, who resents the people who drove him out of his country and forbid his return. He was obsessed with Obama (as were virtually all Muslims we spoke with), but hesitant to think that he’ll help the region to reach peace. When asked if he would support a two-state solution, he refused to answer saying “it will never happen,” a response that we subsequently heard over and over. One of his most surprising statements was that he claims that many Muslims do not believe Osama bin Laden had anything to do with 9/11, and believe it was a US government conspiracy. From their perspective, it is not so hard to see why this belief may be common- the United States has used 9/11 to justify everything we have done lately, “do anything necessary to prevent another 9/11”, not the least of which is invading Iraq. Also, he emphasized that it was not in the nature of Muslims to commit such an attack. He claimed that Muslims are extremely peaceful, and the Koran forbids them of “even harming an insect,” and explained that the Afghani people are too simple to commit such a complicated attack. Tariq’s comments made me understand that violent extremists who support Jihad are rare exceptions, and do not reflect the beliefs or demeanor of the population at large. Indeed, we found the Muslims that we met throughout Jordan and the West Bank to be extremely friendly and welcoming (one of the most friendly and welcoming societies I’ve ever visited).
During out lively conversation with Tariq, the owner of the restaurant chimed in as well. The owner, a Christian, told us about his home town, Madaba, which is a small town near Amman (Jordan’s capital) that has some interesting ancient sites.
OK, now you can really call me Indiana Jones : Archeological dig near Madaba
Madaba sounded pretty interesting, so we set out to Madaba in the morning. Upon arriving at our guest house in Madaba, we noticed a number of Americans surfing the internet on their laptops in the lobby. We quickly found out that they were archaeologists from Andrews University working on a local site / dig. We talked to Randy, the director of the program, and offered our services as manual labor to help the dig. “We leave at 5am, see ya in the lobby” was the response. Randy, BTW, is Indiana Jones in the flesh – he looks, acts, and talks exactly as one might imagine a famous professor of archaeology searching the middle east for hidden treasure.
We got to the dig site at about 5:30 am. The site was an ancient town from Biblical times (the Iron II age, about 2700 years ago), which is a huge hill with about ten 10 meter x 10 meter dig sites spotted around the hill. Apparently, over hundreds of years, sand and dirt buried the ancient town, and left many of the structures and surrounding walls in tact below the hill that formed above it.
Over the next seven hours, Justin and I carefully dug through a 6’ x 3’ x 3’ section, collecting pottery, bones, and a seashell pendant (would have been a status symbol at the time), and sifted the dirt we excavated, finding many more tiny objects. It gave us a new appreciation for all of the archeological sites we’d been climbing around over the past week, since it took us so many hours to sort through a tiny portion of a small room in a pretty-good-sized ancient village. Interesting factoid of the day: archaeologists estimate that only 20% of the important sights in the middle east have been sufficiently explored. I’ve rarely been so dirty and after 20 minutes in the shower scrubbing dirt & dust off every inch of my body, said a silent word of thanks that I wasn’t a maid out our hotel. This was an incredibly cool experience, and recommend that everyone try it sometime. Check out http://digs.bib-arch.org/ for a listing of many ongoing digs, many of which allow visitors. Info on our dig site is here: http://digs.bib-arch.org/digs/tall-jalul.asp
First experience in the Palestinian Territories: Traveling to and around Ramallah
After we scrubbed off, we hopped in a taxi for the Israeli border. We were thoroughly questioned as we went through Israeli customs in a process that is quite harsh and intimidating. After entering Israel, we jumped in a bus to Jerusalem where we wandered around lost looking for a bus to Ramallah, the governmental and cultural capital of Palestine. Confused, I quizzically asked a Palestinian teenager “Ramallah?,” and he tried to point where we could catch the bus. Unable to communicate, the guy got up and walked us to the bus about 10 minutes away. I’ve rarely found someone willing to go so far out of there way for a stranger, but this was only the first of three times in the next two days this would happen in the Palestinian territories.
After a short ride North, we began to see the wall the Israelis are constructing around the West Bank. It rises about 15 feet and beyond the horizon in both directions. Crossing into the West Bank requires you to pass through one of the hundreds of Israeli military checkpoints throughout the West Bank that serve to safeguard the Israelis settlements in the West Bank and control movement of the Palestinians. Fortunately, the crossing was not a problem- the bus doesn’t even have to stop and unload (as it does returning into Israeli territory). Immediately upon crossing into the West Bank, passing tall, military style guard towers, the Palestinian feeling of oppression becomes evident. Huge, beautiful murals adorn the wall near the checkpoint, crying out to “Free Palestine!”, and “Free the Palestinian Nelson Mandela”.
Again, we found ourselves hopelessly lost when we got off the bus on the hectic Ramallah streets, and again, a local came to our aid. The incredibly friendly and hospitable man, who looked to be about 55 years old, helped orient us and later walked us to our hotel. Along the way, he recommended a restaurant to get a snack. That day Obama made his landmark address to the Middle East from Cairo, so it is not surprising that the conversation quickly turned to politics. The man lives in Ramala and works in real estate. Of anyone we spoke with, he was the most critical of Israeli actions. He talked about how the government turns off their water at least once a week and without notice (residents of nearby villages complained that they usually only get water one day a week), when Israeli settlement dwellers face no restrictions on filling their own swimming pools. He was angry about attacks on Gaza which he claim have killed hundreds of children, and cast the Hamas rockets being fired into Israel as nothing more than fireworks since they hadn’t actually killed anyone. He also blasted Americans for supporting Israel, and American soldiers for fighting wars overseas, saying that it was dishonorable to do so. His claim is that if you are defending your country (ie Palestine), then you are a freedom fighter, but if you are blindly fighting a war of choice for a corrupt government, then you are the terrorist. The conversation was still friendly, however, I instantly became worried that the conversation would escalate since I was with Justin, who fought in Iraq and the man was essentially calling him a terrorist. Surprisingly, Justin listened calmly, even empathized a bit with him when he told of visiting the United States and being called a terrorist just because he was a Muslim who believed in the Palestinian cause. He was very critical of American media, saying it was a tool of Israeli propaganda and that the US government was also a pawn controlled by the Jews. After our conversation and hours after we got off our bus, he walked us around the town in an attempt to find our hotel, which turned out to be 3 doors down from the restaurant, exactly where our bus dropped us off.
To the village! Making friends with the locals
The next morning we were jolted awake at 3:45am by the loudest Muslim prayer I’ve ever heard. It sounded like the city speakers were directly in our room on full volume. It happened again at 4:30, but luckily no more. We slept untill 9am, ate a falafel sandwich for breakfast, and visited the produce market, which was just getting in to swing about 10:30am. While walking around, we met a 19-year-old kid with the nickname “Jonny” who was eager to speak with us to practice his English and just hang out. Johnny explained that he was planning to head to his village, where his family would be gathering to pass the weekend together. He invited us to join and we quickly accepted his kind offer. Along the way we passed multiple checkpoints, and Johnny expressed the incredible hardship they place on the Palestinians. At times, he said, soldiers close the checkpoint to traffic, requiring everyone to walk a 1-mile stretch of the road. He further explained that the soldiers can be unpredictable in the amount of time they take to let people pass through the checkpoint, which can be extremely problematic if you have to be somewhere (say work, or school) at a specific time. He explained that at worst the checkpoints make it impossible for someone to live in a village and work in town, where he or she can earn much better wages, and at best, the checkpoints are a daily hassle and incredibly time consuming. He also showed us his green ID card, which he is forced to show when passing through any of the checkpoints. This designates him as a Palestinian, and prevents him from visiting certain areas, such as Jerusalem. I later heard an American man volunteering at a Palestinian refugee center (more on this later) compare the ID cards to the yellow Star of David Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust; an incredibly controversial, yet provocative, comparison.
We arrived in Johnny’s small village and headed to his brother’s house, where we were greeted with incredible hosptiality. On the outside, the home looks like a partially demolished construction site – the street level rooms don’t have walls, lots of rubble, and a cement staircase that leads to two apartments upstairs, only one of which was finished. Apparently the house, containing an apartment for the parents and two apartment for the brothers, had been under construction for years, but economic difficulties prevented them from finishing it. While we are talking with the family, word spreads around town that we are there and people start coming over to see us – friends, sisters, brothers, other relatives, and Jonny’s mother and father. His mother thoroughly scolded him for not warning her about our visit so she could have prepared a proper Palestinian meal, and she sent him to the store for food, and then prepares us a great lunch of hummus, meat, cheese, pita bread, and salad.
Our conversation was incredibly enlightening, as we felt it gave us a glimpse into the perspective of how the Israeli occupation has affected common Palestinians. Everyone laments the suffering of the Palestinian people, but the family (especially Jonny’s sister) is especially critical of the Palestinian leadership. She contends that Fatah is too weak and had not improved the life of the Palestinians, so, while she condemns the violence Hamas is infamous for, she actually supports Hamas as the lesser of two evils because she feels that Hamas is fighting for the future of the oppressed Palestinian people. We later find out that Two of Jonny’s older brothers have been in prison, one for 2 years and the other for 1.5 years. While they admit that the former was arrested for being part of the “movement” (presumably Hamas), and claim the later was detained for no reason. According to them, the brother was traveling to Ramallah with his fiancée to make arrangements for his upcoming wedding, and he was inexplicably detained at the checkpoint. Apparently he was never given a cause for his “detention,” and when we finally got a court appearance 1.5 years later he was immediately released because they had no reason to keep him. While we certainly can’t verify this, it is true that Israeli soldiers can “detain” a Palestinian without cause for an indefinite period of time (think: Guantanamo Bay), and according to one man, there are over 10,000 such detainees. This further complicates the problem of the checkpoints and magnifies their ability to prevent the movement of the Palestinians, as they claim to fear going through checkpoints because they might be inexplicably detained. Overall, his family gave the sense that many Palestinians feel “bullied” by a powerful Israel, and some feel that they have no choice but to resort to violence to improve their lives.
The conflict up close: Hebron and Bethlehem
That night we stayed at a guesthouse at a Palestinian Refugee camp just outside of Bethlehem. The refugee camp was set up in 1948 and enlarged in 1967 to support Palestinians displaced from their homes. While it was intended to be a temporary camp, some have stayed for over 60 years for a number of reasons. First, some still don’t recognize Israel’s right to the land where they grew up, and they are waiting to be able to return to their homes. Second, many do not have the resources to leave. Apparently there are some jobs near the refugee camp, but it was explained that wages are as much as three times higher in Jerusalem for similar jobs but Palestinians are unable to work in Jerusalem. Therefore, many are unable to save the necessary amount to purchase a new home and leave the refugee camp.
The next day we traveled south to Hebron, which was perhaps the most striking view we had of the conflict. In most places throughout the West Bank, the Israeli settlements are a few miles outside of Palestinian towns. However, in Hebron, the Israeli settlements are within center of town, and are slowly consuming the once vibrant town. We got off of our bus in the middle of a bustling market, snaking along a narrow cobblestone street and flanked by hundreds of small shops in buildings that appeared to be hundreds of years old. After a few minutes of walking, the market began to thin out, with fewer people and many closed stores. The next thing you notice is chicken wire above the market, covered in trash and stones, and further above an Israeli flag flies proudly in the wind. Apparently, some of the buildings above the market are a part of the Israeli settlement, and the chicken wire was hung to protect Palestinians from objects thrown down at them by the Israelis. As you continue down the market, its empty streets provide a stark contrast to the busy market where we entered. Here, most shops have closed, in all we were told that over 850 shops in the area had closed in the recent past, and few people wander the streets. Apparently this is because frequent conflicts with the Israeli settlers have made Palestinians stop visiting the market to purchase their goods, as they can likely find them in other areas. One man who ran a store surrounded by dozens of closed shops explained that business is hard because Palestinians must pass through many checkpoints to reach the market (there are 16 checkpoints within the city), so they prefer to visit shops where they don’t have to pass checkpoints(he explained that he usually spends about two hours each day passing through checkpoints), and this reduced traffic forced hundreds of businesses to close their doors and their owners and workers to leave their homes and move out of the city. Among the many conflicts that Palestinians claim to have stopped consumers from visiting areas of the market, the most shocking conflict was a massacre in 1994, when a physician named Baruch Goldstein entered a mosque and opened fire, killing over 50 and wounding 150 unarmed Muslims as they prayed. Palestinian rioting immediately followed the shooting, leading in the following week to the deaths of 25 Palestinians and five Israelis. Following the massacre, Israel imposed a two-week curfew on the Palestinian residents of the city, while the Jewish settlers remained free to move around. Perhaps most shocking of all is that Israeli Settlers constructed a monument to Goldstein within the settlement (we were not able to see it).
As we understand it, the Israeli settlements within Hebron were originally illegal, but were eventually recognized by the Israeli government. Further, were told that the settlements continue to expand and further strangle the struggling town. While the Israeli government makes some efforts to demolish the illegal settlements, Israeli settlers sometimes retaliate against Palestinians in something called “payback,” where Israeli settlers vandalize Palestinian homes, after their illegal settlements are demolished (according to the Jerusalem Post). We spoke with one Palestinian man that explained that when he defended his house by throwing rocks at Israeli settlers, he was imprisoned for 3 years. One surprising statistic is that for all of this controversy, there are only about 500 Israeli settlers in Hebron, supported and protected by about 2,000 Israeli soldiers. This is compared to over 150,000 Palestinian residents, a number that is rapidly declining due to the conflict.
Currently, one of the most contentious issues between Israel and the US is Obama’s call for a complete halt on settlement development, including natural expansion, something Prime Minister Netanyahu has rejected. When I first heard this demand, I didn’t fully recognize why it was so important, and why Obama was making such a big deal about it. However, after visiting the Palestinian territories it is clear that it is absolutely at the heart of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. One expatriate we spoke with that has spent significant time in the area questioned how Israel could be serious about a two state solution while it continues to expand settlements. He further emphasized his belief that allowing “natural expansion” provides a major loophole for Israelis to continue to expand the settlements, a belief shared by many Palestinians we spoke with. For many Palestinians, continued expansion of the settlements eliminates the hope that they may see some relief from the restrictions the Israelis impose to protect the settlements. Perhaps his most controversial claim was that the settlements are partially expanded by rich Americans, who purchase homes in the settlements but don’t live there, and that Israeli soldiers will enter the unoccupied homes to turn on and off lights to make them appear that they are inhabited.
Overall, this trip provided an incredibly enlightening experience, and I now feel that I can know enough about the issues to have an educated opinion. I hope that this blog presented a new perspective, though it should certainly only be one source for you to create you own opinion. While there are certainly strong opinions from all perspectives, I think we can all agree in hoping for peace in the very near future.