For most Americans, the on-going conflict in the disputed
territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip seldom is at the forefront of their concerns. Questions over the viability of a two-state solution, or some compromise between Israelis and Palestinians, are rare these days.
But for Falls Church’s Sarah Eggleston and McLean’s Nadia Itraish, the conflict and the fate of the two peoples was daily life for two weeks last August.
The two ventured to the West Bank region as part of the Congressional Accompaniment Project’s (CAP) latest trip from Aug. 8 – 18, 2009, a travel program organized by a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Darrell Yeaney, and his wife, Sue.
In conjunction with the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, the 2009 trip took 12 U.S. citizens on a tour of the West Bank territory, and allowed them to meet with Israelis and Palestinians from different walks of life – homeowners, researchers, community leaders, among them.
The program’s aim was to familiarize Americans with the trials of everyday life in an Arab-majority territory facing stiff Israeli constraints and the increasing encroachment of Jewish settlements.
The roughly 200 Jewish settlements have become the subject of a legal debate between the two sides, with the Palestinians arguing for a cessation of settlement building before the peace process continues.
However, the settlements are only part of a larger question of Palestinian statehood. The territory’s complex history dates back to the 1948 and 1967 wars that saw an expansion of Israel into Arab-held lands.
The resulting claims over territorial ownership, and the lack of a viable Palestinian government, have made the experience hard for the more than 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank.
For Itraish, a Palestinian American, the trip was her first return to the region since 1988, during the first Intifada – a Palestinian uprising that left hundreds of Israelis dead, as well as thousands of Palestinians.
“It was shocking to receive second-class citizenship,” said Itraish, whose father lives in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank. “Every time I showed my passport, I was treated with disrespect.”
On more than one occasion, Itraish said she faced long interrogations as Israeli border guards, situated throughout the West Bank, examined her paperwork. “It was so crucial for me to have the support of my travel partners there waiting,” she added. “If it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure how I would have lasted.”
It was Eggleston’s first time to the Middle East, and as an American with no Jewish or Palestinian roots, Eggleston said the experience was “eye-opening.”
“We were expecting a military occupation,” said Eggleston. “But it was amazing to realize how normal the occupation is, with the walls and checkpoints.”
Aware of the political nature that the term “occupied territories” carries for some, particularly pro-Israel organizations who view the term as biased, Eggleston said “there’s no question this is an occupation.”
“There are a number of roadblocks and impediments put up to keep Palestinians out of Israel and to make getting to work and home difficult for the Palestinians,” she noted.
Itraish, Eggleston and the other 10 U.S. observers met with several scholars such as Dr. Jad Isaac of the Applied Research Institute, as well as with a few Palestinians who shared the stories of their lives, the stories of farmers and homeowners who deal firsthand with the growing numbers of Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
On their trip to Bethlehem, Itraish and Eggleston encountered Daoud Nasser, a Palestinian farmer who lives with his wife and children on the city’s outskirts. His farm is surrounded by seven Israeli settlements. Nasser told the CAP group about his own fight.
Nasser said settlers have tried to build a road cutting through his farmland, which he has contested in
Israeli courts. In the process, settlers uprooted hundreds of olive trees on his land, without any police intervention. A pro-peace group, Jews for Peace, did, however, intervene, and donated 250 trees to Nasser’s farm.
To date, the Israeli authorities have cut off power and water to Nasser’s farm, forcing him to innovate environmentally sound ways to survive. In response, Nasser has built a rain water cistern and solar panels.
Itraish said she was “so impressed with the people who accompanied them on the trip.” The group consisted of people active in peace movements in the U.S. and Canada, she said, including a mix of Jews, Muslims and Christians.
“I think it is so important now more than ever for Americans to learn about the Israel-Palestinian situation and get involved,” said Eggleston. “It’s one of the most important issues in our world today.”
The Yeaneys maintain a Web site for the Congressional Accompaniment Project, http://middleeastawareness.org. Itraish and Eggleston said they plan to present their experiences in the West Bank sometime in the near future at a local Mid-East peace forum held regularly at Washington, D.C.’s coffee shop Busboys & Poets.