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Sofia Panuelos | Staff Writer

The Olive Tree Initiative, a UCI organization that promotes dialogue and understanding amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, held its Welcome Back Event on Thursday, Oct. 21 in the Crystal Cove Ballroom. Students and faculty spoke about their recent trip to Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

The Olive Tree Initiative, founded in 2007 in response to increasing tensions on campus between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups, has traveled to the Middle East every year since 2008. On this year’s trip, the 22-person group visited Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and many other locations, hearing from local experts and politicians about the ongoing conflict.

Thursday’s event focused on the students’ experiences in the Middle East, their plans for future outreach and education in the community and a brief question-and-answer segment. The event served as a way to both thank and inform those who donated funding to the organization. Chancellor Michael V. Drake addressed the crowd, stating that the Olive Tree Initiative “exemplifies, in many ways, the things we speak of in other venues.”

All of the students that participated briefly spoke about their experiences and what they took away from the trip. While the group had many different opinions, common themes included the difference between the actual conflict and how it is portrayed in the press and media, the willingness of the Israelis and Palestinians to work through their issues and the need for collaboration between the groups.

Aran Aghapour, an Olive Tree Initiative participant, stated in his speech, “This trip cut through the ‘talking points … The notion of finding ‘the solution’ is a flaw in our understanding of the conflict.”

Aghapour went on to say, “Peace cannot and will not be defined by handshakes on the White House lawn … Peace is a verb.”

Others spoke about the effect of the conflict on children from both nations, the generally improved state of refugee camps, and the issues created bydani Israeli checkpoints. UCI alumnus Oren Klein, who participated in the OTI trip during 2009 and 2010, also performed a song entitled “From Jordan to the Sea (Palestine Will be Free),” which he wrote based on his experiences on the trip.

After reflecting on the trip, students and faculty spoke about the future of the group and the community outreach planned. The general goal of the events is to promote educated dialogue on the Middle East conflict. The group intends to speak at high schools to inform them about the situation in Israel and Palestine.

The question-and-answer segment, while short, was intense and many controversial topics were brought up, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, the state of Palestinian workers in Israeli settlements, and the fact that the group did not tour the Gaza strip.

This point in particular frustrated Abdul Yusef, who stated in an interview, “35 percent of the Palestinian population lives inside the Gaza strip … I think it is extremely important to get a balanced view.”  Also brought up in the public forum was the desire to hear the group speak at community colleges.

While the question-and-answer segment was heated, the general opinion of the students and audience was that the night was successful. OTI Director Daniel Wehrenfennig said, “I think it was great, people from the community came out. It shows how interested people are.”

“I felt [the evening] went well.,” Klein added. “My biggest thing is I like question and answer, and I wish there was more time for that.”

“What these students are doing is just inspirational,” Sara Naor , a first-year student, said, “The Olive Tree Initiative seems like a true hands-on learning experience and the presentation really motivated me to take a more active role.”

The Olive Tree Initiative will hold two more community forum events in 2010: on Nov. 4, OTI will meet and discuss the results of the midterm election and their relevance to Israel and Palestine; on Dec. 2, a discussion about the year’s progress on peace will be held.

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