Itamar and Zach talk in the Old City
Our first-ever Congressional Leadership Learning Mission was more incredible and fruitful than we could’ve imagined. For six days, Rebuilding Alliance led a delegation of seven Congressional staffers and concerned constituents throughout the West Bank and Israel, learning about the Occupation and gaining valuable firsthand perspectives and experiences. Our delegation included six Democrats and one Republican. Our trip also included eight constituents who came to accompany their Congressional offices. It was a great chance to build a network of influential partners on Capitol Hill and in each district, and give them the opportunity to see, feel, and hear for themselves why it is so important that our leaders must support Palestinian rights.
Most of the group got in late in the evening on Saturday, April 28, though some of us arrived in the wee hours of Sunday morning. We wasted no time and headed to the Ofer Israeli military prison complex at around 10am on Sunday, after lots of coffee and an engaging orientation by Gerard Horton and Salwa Duaibis, founders of the human rights organization Military Court Watch. We then met with parents in the waiting area and joined several hearings of boys arrested for allegedly throwing stones. The trial process can take months or even years while the children are held in detention. This would be one of the only times the parents could see their child. Court proceedings are in Hebrew with translation into Arabic so that the accused can hear what is being discussed. Remarkably, one of the judges was from New Jersey. The conviction rate in the Israeli military court system is 95%. Several members of our group thought this first visit to the military court to be the most impactful.
Following this, we ate a delicious lunch in Ein Karem and explored the Old City of Jerusalem, led by our fantastic tour guide, Itamar, who is part of the Green Olive Collective, our tour company.
The next day we toured the greater Jerusalem area, drove through the huge nearby Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim and its elite suburb, Kfar Adumim, and then went to Khan al Ahmar, a Palestinian village for which Rebuilding Alliance advocates. There, we heard from Eid, the spokesperson for the village, as well as Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom who has worked with the village for a very long time, and Ezra Korman who is an Israeli settler living in Kfar Adumim and is part of a settler group who supports Khan al Ahmar’s rights.
On Tuesday we met with the American Consulate in Jerusalem. This was the most disappointing activity of the whole trip for much of the group. While it was good to chat with consular staff, they talked a lot but didn’t say much, so to speak. Fortunately, we were able to spend some time later in the day with the very compelling mayor of Al Aqaba village, where Rebuilding Alliance built a kindergarten in 2008 and continues to support construction of homes, the library, and the kindergarten scholarship program. This place is a wonderful example of how a village can thrive when it is not demolished. Later in the afternoon, we swung by Jaba’ village to learn about an antiquities restoration project by RIWAQ. We were guided through ancient homes by architect Ranad Shqeirat, and then had a lovely dinner at Darna Restaurant in Ramallah where we were joined by special friends of Rebuilding Alliance and also the local Rotaract club (Rotaract is a Rotary membership program for young professionals).
Wednesday was another busy day. We visited Banksy’s Walled-Off Hotel in Bethlehem, and then toured the AIDA refugee camp in Bethlehem, led by UNRWA's Director of West Bank Operations, Scott Anderson. Bethlehem, of course, carries a lot of cultural significance for many religions, so some members of the group visited the Church of the Nativity. We then traveled to the village of Susiya for an incredible homemade lunch. Aysar, the young man who addressed Congress last September, took everyone on a wonderful tour to see all the birds he is raising!
Somewhere in the midst of all this, we spent an evening with Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan of the Parents Circle. Both had lost their daughters, one murdered by a soldier's rubber bullet, the other killed by a suicide bomber. Their lives were never the same. We were all deeply moved by their stories and their profound friendship with each other.
We spent the following morning at the UNRWA headquarters, listening to speakers from Gaza tell us about their organizations. We heard from Dr. Yasser Abu-Jamei of Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, Anas Jenna from We Are Not Numbers, and UNRWA Gaza Operations Director Matthias Schmale. Then, the most amazing surprise: the door opened and in walked Tarneem Hammad, also from We Are Not Numbers, and Mrs. Najah Ayash from the Women’s Project Center in Rafah. Their permits to leave Gaza and travel to Jerusalem had been approved the day before! This was Tarneem's first trip out of Gaza. They shared their stories with us over a delicious vegan lunch, and then everyone parted ways for the afternoon. They visited Jerusalem before returning home to Gaza in time to satisfy the requirements of their day-long permit.
Friday, we toured Hebron. This was a difficult experience for several people, as Hebron is a hotbed of Israeli settlement. There are frequent clashes in the city and the tension in the air was palpable. Though we were fortunate to not encounter any violence, the experience was unsettling. To decompress, we spent the rest of the afternoon in Jaffa – swimming in the Mediterranean and smoking hookah with the locals. The group gathered for one last delicious dinner together before the staffers headed off to the airport and Rebuilding Alliance's team went to Ramallah for a few days, with Donna, our Exec. Director, heading off to Gaza.
Since the trip, we’ve maintained great working relationships with the staffers that joined us. They have all said how impactful their experience was; one even called it "a life-changing experience." They are motivated to promote Palestinian human rights at the US government level and all are already working with us to open doors and strategize about how to bring Congress around on this issue. We're planning our next Congressional Leadership Learning Mission for August 9-15th! Click the the link below to ask your members of Congress to join the trip. If you yourself would like to come along, there's another link where you can apply.
This trip was my first to the region, and I truly can't imagine a more impactful experience. It was really meaningful to see for myself the place that I have been advocating for over the past several years. I'm so glad I was able to participate in this trip before I head off to graduate school at the University of Chicago in the fall - it left a lasting mark on me and I know that no matter where I go, I'll continue my activism to the best of my ability. That said, this will probably be the last report from me! Thank you all for your support of our work and for giving me the opportunity to work with you.
***All photos included in this report were taken by Joshua Grossman.
The group walks into Khan al Ahmar
Tamsin & Donna walk w Mayor Haj Sami in Al Aqaba
The group gets up close and personal with the wall
The group after talking w boys at the AIDA school
A delicious lunch made by the women of Susiya
Dr. Yasser of GCMHP speaks via conference call
Nawaid and Tarneem chat after lunch
We visited the Tyre school in Khan al Ahmar
Here we are with our speakers from Gaza