Matthew is a part of a delegation of British pre-campus students who intend to be active in leading pro-Israel activity when they get to university. In Israel with StandWithUs UK, they are engaging in an intensive week-long summit prior to beginning their studies when they return home.
This is a daily diary of their experiences in Israel.
Our group in Tel Aviv
Day 3 – Perspectives
After an early wake up the group embarked on a tour of the ‘settlement’ city of Ariel in the ‘West Bank’, or as they prefer to refer to it, the Shomron (Samaria).
The citizens believe that the term ‘settler’ makes them seem nomadic so these terms are in inverted commas because as we quickly became aware, the ‘settlers’ believe they are there to stay. We visited three places in the city which were established in 1978. It is a modern city built on the ruins of an ancient biblical city.
Our first stop was at one of the 200 companies in the industrial park. The factory we visited produce plastic items like chairs and bins and there are 50 Palestinians and 40 Israelis employed in the factory. The owner explained that they worked together in perfect harmony and believes that the industrial park should be expanded as clearly it was doing good things for Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Our next stop was a local Arts Centre which further helped to integrate the two cultures by performing plays; the message was that if theatre and the dramatic arts can transcend the conflict, there is hope for peace. The visit ended at the Ariel University which was founded in 1982 and given full university status in 2012. We spoke to an Arab student and an Israeli student, both of whom only had positive views of the university which was nice, especially for students like us who are about to start university – showing us that academia shouldn’t have borders. We then spoke to professors who, whilst loving the university, resented the fact that the international community condemned its research on account of Ariel’s location in, what is according to some, the occupied West Bank.
I feel this part of the trip was vital – there is so much written about ‘crazy’ settlers who march up a hill, plant an Israeli flag in the ground and claim land. Whilst these people exist, it was helpful to our understanding of the ‘settler’ movement and their place within Israeli society in general to see that some ‘settlers’ have logical, cogent arguments for their existence and as we saw, co-existence with the Palestinians. This is made particularly pertinent when one remembers that for many of us, myself included, one of the main aims of the trip was to understand the major controversies within Israeli society so we could discuss it intelligently, and purposefully, on campus.
The group receiving a strategic briefing in the north of Israel as tensions mount between the West and Syria
We then met with Avi Melamed, the current Eisenhower Institute Middle East Expert and an Independent Middle East Strategic Intelligence Analyst. He brought us up to a windy mountainside in the Golan Heights overlooking the Syrian cease-fire line. From here, he gave us a fascinating insight into the Syrian conflict and its geo-political implications, particularly the conflicts implications for Israel. In the main, he argued four things.
Firstly, that the civil war merely represented a wider, more historical conflict between the Shiite (or in this case, as represented by the Syrian government, the Alawite offshoot of the Shiite) and the Sunni Muslims. Secondly, that the conflict would quickly spread to surrounding Arab countries as each would support its religious sect brethren on either side of the conflict. Thirdly, he told us about a crack in what he named the ‘Axis of Resistance’, a collection of anti-Israel countries in the Middle East, seen through friction between Iran, Iraq and, Lebanon. Finally he spoke about a potential threat of the Syrian war spilling over and, to that end, said that Israel is preparing to defend itself in case of an emergency on its north-eastern border. In terms of bringing a message home, this was a superb talk. Avi immediately caught our attention by explaining that we were merely a 45 minute drive from the warzone in Damascus. I think it is fair to say that few people we meet on campus next year will have had a tour as up-close-and-personal as we had.
Next we went to see the Mechva Alon IDF base which is for soldiers that need education or for more challenging soldiers who may have been in prison or have psychological problems. Army service is, of course, mandatory in Israel. The IDF is thought to be the only army in the world that has bases, like this one, solely for the purpose of educating its soldiers. We spoke to newly recruited immigrants to Israel who told us about the education they were receiving and their arduous, day-to-day routines. We also spoke to older officers who recounted stories about the difficulties of working on a base with sometimes troubled soldiers.
We ended our day over dinner with a Druze family in Osafiya. The Druze community is known for their fierce loyalty to the country in which they reside and it was admirable hearing of their commitment to Israel, and the pride with which these non-Jewish Israelis serve in the IDF.
The day really provided me with new perspectives on Israel’s security challenges and the communities that affect challenges like this. The day served to open my eyes to new, at some points quite challenging, ideas and overall helped aid our understanding of Israel and Israeli culture, something that for most of us, was a motive for coming on the trip.