Olive Tree Initiative Revelations in Israel

Conflict and violence have been a part of the human condition since we first crawled out of the sea (or woke up in the Garden of Eden, depending on your narrative). I ask you, dear Reader, to keep this in mind as you read on, and to remember this is my own personal perspective.

The Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) is an on-campus program concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its objective is to foster dialogue and understanding between the two sides in an effort to ultimately bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

OTI, now in its second year at UCI, aims to achieve this by gathering students who harbor all sorts of opinions about the conflict, from the pro- and anti-Israel parties to the pro- and anti-Palestinian parties, and everywhere in-between. The program sends these students on a two-week trip to Israel to gain firsthand experience by talking to speakers and those directly affected by the conflict. Now that the region is more secure, this year’s batch of students was also able to journey through the West Bank.

I am one of those students. I went in with a heavy pro-Israel narrative, certain that I was going to make this conflict a part of my life career, not necessarily in an effort for peace, but to fight for the Jewish state. What I experienced in the region has drastically changed and challenged nearly everything I thought I knew about it. To write about the entirety of my experiences would fill several issues of The New University alone, so I’ll limit myself to the experiences that impacted me the most.

We landed at Ben Gurion Airport and spent the first few nights in a hotel in Bethlehem, where people have late-night parties that can be heard throughout the neighborhood and stray animals socialize in the night. There, we met with pro-peace Palestinian organization leaders such as Zhougbi Zhougbi of Wi’am, an organization similar to OTI that seeks to foster dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

Those first three days were, for me, the most important of the trip. Because of the people we met with in Bethlehem, I learned that not all Palestinians are terrorists who want to destroy Israel. Many just want to get on with their lives. I began to think that peace, or even just co-existence in the region, was not impossible, and felt enlivened by the prospect.

We floated in the Dead Sea, walked the labyrinths of Jerusalem’s streets and soukhs until our feet cried out from pain, debated over a marble memorial to Qalqiliyah residents who died during the Second Intifada. Some may call them martyrs, but others call them terrorists.

We were struck wordless by the beauty of the Baha’I Gardens in Haifa, toured the raging nightlife of Tel Aviv and ran our hands over rusty, exploded Qassam rockets in Sderot. There, we saw bomb shelters built every few hundred yards and I wondered how fast I could move in 15 seconds. Would I stop to help one of my friends if they fell? A stranger?

I fell so in love with the friendliness of the people and architecture of the buildings that I felt legitimate depression upon returning to the obedient residents and ten-story file cabinets of Irvine.

We visited the Israeli Gaza crossing that sends truckloads of supplies into Gaza per day, a crossing surrounded by high cement walls to protect the civilian workers from the very people they’re working to help.

In Tel Aviv, we met with people who had lost their sons or brothers due to actions of the Palestinians. I wondered how I would cope if a group of people murdered any of my younger brothers, my father, my mother, any of my best friends or even people who are a little more than friends to me.

Would I seek revenge? Am I emotionally able to bring death upon another human, even if he deserved it? Am I capable of forgiveness?

We stood in a circular room walled with thousands and thousands of black binders containing the names of six million Jews in the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. Standing there, surrounded by a testimony to humanity’s lowest moment that was staggering in sheer number, I was moved to the greatest empathy I had ever experienced. And I cried.

And then we came to Hebron.

Believe me when I say this. I want the Middle East to be able to enjoy the leisure of peace. I want Israelis and Palestinians to be able to drive in and out of the West Bank and Israel to go to work like they were able to before the Second Intifada. I would give almost anything to see peace in the region before my time comes.

The hope that I gained in Bethlehem was sapped away in Hebron. There is so much mistrust and hatred there.

I’d like to believe this hatred and mistrust is largely because of the Arab massacre of some 60 Jews in 1929, or the Goldstein Massacre of a dozen or so Muslims. And maybe it is.

A Muslim member of our group was refused entry to the Jewish side because of her burqa. The rest of the group and I were refused entry to the Muslim side because we simply weren’t Muslim.

Dear Reader, I just cannot reasonably expect any peace for these people.

This is not to say OTI failed me. It succeeded far more than I expected it to. My pre-conceived notions about the conflict, which were that nearly all Palestinians wanted to kill all Israelis, was dispelled. I recognize that Israel has made some mistakes and can even understand the Palestinian narrative.

I now see that understanding the other’s narrative is crucial to any conflict.

The Olive Tree Initiative has changed my life and my perspective in so many more ways than I can share with you, dear Reader. I may have returned even more pessimistic than before, but that is me. Many others returned optimistic. My only request of you is that, whatever side you choose, you acknowledge and understand the other side.