20 August 2009
Fourteen-year-old Jum’a Ismail lives 50 km from the Mediterranean but had never seen the sea. The Palestinian youth had never set eyes on an Israeli civilian or an airport.
Juma’a’s horizons expanded this summer, when he left Jalazoun refugee camp in the West Bank with “Birthright Replugged” on a trip taking Palestinian children to Israel to visit the villages of their ancestors.
“It’s an attempt to get out, while they still can,” said the program’s creator, Dunya Alwan.
Once Palestinian children turn 15, they must carry Israeli-issued West Bank identity cards and are no longer able to travel through Israeli checkpoints without special permits.
“Birthright Replugged” is partially funded by the Carter Center’s Peace Program, founded by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. It takes groups of 20 Palestinian children into Israel twice yearly.
Alwan, an Iraqi-American from a Jewish-Muslim family, calls her work a counterweight to “Birthright”, the program offering Jewish youth from around the world an all-expenses-paid, two-week trip to Israel to foster ties to the Jewish state.
Movement from the West Bank to Israel was easier before the second Palestinian Intifada that began in 2000. Suicide bombings on Israeli buses and cafes triggered a security clampdown that is only now loosening, under international pressure.
Palestinians must still carry ID cards to move around the West Bank. That puts the Mediterranean coast and Israel’s Ben-Gurion international airport out of range. Alwan says her little trips may be the first and last opportunity for the youngsters. On their return to the West Bank, they cannot stop talking about the sea, the airport, how Israeli Jews and Arabs coexist, and how they have no roadblocks to worry about.
“They don’t ever seem to think about if there is going to be a checkpoint ahead or not,” says 14-year-old Haneen al-Nakhla. “We’re always worrying and calculating those kinds of things.”
They are puzzled to see Israelis who are neither soldiers carrying weapons, or settlers, who also tend to be armed.
Some 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank. Israel is home to 7 million people, of whom around 20 percent are Israeli Arabs.
“We had no idea how many Jewish people there would be. There are more than Arabs,” said Haneen. “The Arabs and Jews talk to each other, like it’s normal. I thought it was really strange. We don’t ever talk to Jewish people at home.”
Alwan’s tour does not alter sentiments; the students all support a Palestinian “right of return” to homes and land lost during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 – a demand Israel says would destroy the Jewish character of the state.
For Alwan, simply showing the teenagers their former homeland turns an idealized dream into realities they can discuss.
Lydda, or Lod in Hebrew, was where their grandparents once lived. It’s now part of the sprawling airport outside Tel Aviv.
“These kids see the challenges and complexities. They see that what they have rights to now has an airport on it,” Alwan said.
Sobering it may be, but the airport is a big hit. Most of the teenagers have never flown or even been close to a plane, and they take countless photographs.
“I had to take pictures to show my family. They’ve never seen an airliner either,” said Jum’a, who at home hardly notices the watchtowers, razor-wire fences and high concrete walls of the barrier Israel has erected in the West Bank.
The normality of Israel’s heartland shocked them. “I really felt how much I live under occupation,” says Haneen.
She has decided she “would really like to become an airline stewardess”, and Jum’a says: “I definitely want to be a pilot.”
Back home, the Jalazoun kids seem conflicted. They start a sentence arguing for peace and freedom for Palestinians and Israelis, then end up saying there’s no hope of it.
But a talk with participants of past trips, who are a bit older now, suggests that ideals of coexistence tend to develop.
Ahmawd Ghazawy, 19, from Jenin refugee camp, was on the first Birthright Replugged trip in 2007.
“Before 1948 there were Jews and Arabs and they lived in peace,” he says. “It could happen again.”