A report by Karl Agius
JERUSALEM – Students from all around the world met in Jerusalem for a 6 day program in September to discuss the political situation in the Middle East. Karl Agius and Taina Mosiander from the Social Affairs Committee of the European Students’ Union were present, together with other students and youth from Belgium, South Africa, Norway, Germany and Greece.
The participants held several discussions in various sites which are symbolic within the Middle East. In Tel Aviv participants visited the place where Israeli Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in the struggle for peace on 4 November 1995 by a far right Israeli. It was argued that several individuals who attempted to promote peace have been hindered sometimes by people of their own nationality.
A visit was also carried out at some sites which had been exposed to the violence of the 2nd Intifada, a period between 2000-2005 during which areas were bombed or experienced terrorist attacks also leading to death of civilians. The participants then visited “Better Place” a company working to introduce sustainable electric cars in Israel. The company is also seeking to expand its project in Europe. In this context it was argued that the Middle East is not just a region of political instability and conflict but also a region seeking to become greener and to do its part to make the world a better place.
Participants met the Parent Circle - Family Forum, a forum of parents both Israeli and Palestinians who had lost their children, in Jerusalem. Two spokespersons, one from Palestine and one from Israel, explained how they were going through a reconciliation journey together and how they try to promote peace so that no other family will go through the trauma they had gone through.
The delegation furthermore attended a Synagogue and participated in the Shabbat ceremony. The participants were also greeted by the Rabbi at the end of the ceremony. Participants also had the opportunity to join a family for the Sabbath and experience the unity of the family through the typical dinner.
A visit was also held out of the Gaza strip which is governed by extremist Palestinian party Hamas. This area was occupied by both Israeli and Palestinians but recently the Israeli government ordered all Israeli to leave the site to reduce conflicts in the area. Members of the Palestinian political party Fatah have also left due to lack of safety in the region and have now settled in the West Bank. The area close to the Gaza strip was described as unsafe and schools and public buildings were reinforced by concrete ceilings. Playgrounds were also covered with metal structures. Participants were told that habitants of the areas also suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The delegation furthermore visited a tent put up outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem by the family of Gilad Shalit, a soldier who is being kept as hostage by Hamas in the Gaza strip. The family is doing a campaign to pressure the Israeli government to negotiate with Hamas and try to bring Gilad back. The family is not aware if Gilad is being offered education and what conditions he is being kept in.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer, author of the book “The Transforming Fire: the rise of the Israel-Islamic conflict” held a discussion on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East. In his talk he made reference to the Arab spring and how the fall of Mubarak in Egypt was accepted by Israel yet this might have negative implication on Israel if the Muslim Brotherhood will take over. He also expressed his concern on Iran due to its support and involvement with third parties to supply weapons which are then used against the Israeli state.
The conflict in the Middle East was then discussed from a religious point of view. In fact a visit was held at Harm Al Sharif, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, sites which are holy for different religions, Christians, Islam and Judaism. Later the delegation made its way to Beit Hakehilot situated within the Valley of the Communities to visit the Holocaust museum in which several photos and other objects are present to remember the 6,000,000 Jews who were killed during the 2nd World War all over Europe.
At Gush Etzion the group met with Dr. Samuel Lebens a settler who explained that settlements were a big issue in the quest for peace in the Middle East. The group also met with David Horovitz, former Editor of the Jerusalem Post who spoke about the security of Israel vis-à-vis its narrow nature. In a meeting with Ron Dermer, Special Advisor to the PM it was emphasized the Israeli state was more concerned on the nuclear weapons being produced by Iran and the Palestinian propaganda against Israel across its youth. The group then moved to Ramallah for a meeting with One World Palestine, an organization working through several campaigns such as the “September bid” campaign to make Palestine a state and introduce peace in the region. The event was concluded by Dr. Doron Shalom Avita, member of Parliament from the Opposition party Kadima who spoke on the conflict from various points of view and on his experience in combat operations. The group then had a debriefing session and thanked the organizers, World Union of Jewish Students for the event which was a great learning experience and an opportunity to motivate youth to make their part too to work for peace and justice in this region.