By Kiran Palla, Class of 2020
If you’d asked me at orientation where I thought I’d spend spring break, I would not have guessed the Occupied Territories of Palestine. I decided to go on Pal-Trek for a few reasons: learn more about the Israel-Palestine conflict, talk to Palestinians to understand their perspective, see the situation for myself and draw my own conclusions, and get to know Palestine beyond the conflict and experience its culture.
Though only a few Boothies went, there were 350 grad students on Pal-Trek representing UChicago, MIT, Columbia, Berkeley, and Harvard. With this incredible group, we visited 12 cities, heard from 14 speakers, had at least 6 plates of knafeh (honestly, I lost count), and returned with countless memories to last a lifetime. I could spend hours talking about our trip, but here I’ll share experiences from the first two days.
I was most excited for our first stop, Jerusalem. For Muslims, Jerusalem is one of the holiest cities. However, because of security concerns and travel restrictions, very few Muslims get to visit it. Just entering the vicinity of Al-Aqsa Mosque brought a sense of calm over me. Praying fajr, morning prayer, under its golden dome and watching the sunrise with my friends is a memory I will cherish forever. As we toured Jerusalem, its religious and cultural importance was apparent. We saw worshippers and visitors from all faiths and backgrounds and even ran into our classmates on Boothright, showing that no matter what perspective you approach the situation with, there is a shared history and a shared future. We ended the day with authentic Palestinian dinner and our first (but certainly not last) Palestinian dabke dance lesson.
If Day 1 was our most uplifting day, Day 2 was the most solemn. That morning, we met a former Israeli soldier who now dedicates his time to speaking out against the military occupation of Palestine through the NGO “Breaking the Silence”. He described the intimidation tactics and excessive force used on civilians during his time stationed in the Palestinian city of Hebron. He warned us that visiting Hebron would be a difficult experience, but even his warning couldn’t prepare me for what we saw. Hebron holds the tomb of Abraham, making it another holy site for Abrahamic faiths. In Hebron, however, I didn’t feel the calm I did in Jerusalem. This is because Hebron is under Israeli occupation with a strong military presence. In Hebron, we experienced regular checkpoints and soldiers posted at every corner. At one corner the soldier asked us if there were any Muslims in our group, a scary question regardless of the answer. Restrictions placed on Palestinians dictate where they can and cannot drive or even walk within the city. Because it is illegal for Palestinians to walk on certain roads, many are forced travel by jumping from roof to roof. This has led to businesses closing and families abandoning their homes, creating more refugees in an already troubled region. It felt inhumane experiencing these oppressive conditions for a day, let alone for decades as it has been for Hebron’s residents. Walking away from Hebron, we felt saddened, bewildered, and worst of all, hopeless.
But I want you to know, I left Palestine with a sense of optimism, resilience, and hope because I saw those characteristics in every Palestinian we met. They believe that things will get better, that a solution will be found, and that the Israeli and Palestinian people will peacefully coexist. As future leaders and citizens of the world, we have a responsibility to be a part of that solution. I encourage you all to take some time today to read about the conflict, the ways that we’re involved, and the ways that we can help. And please reach out to any of us on Pal-Trek for questions, concerns, and conversation. We plan to continue to share these stories, so keep an eye out for future articles exploring the many facets of this occupation.