THE participants gather outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s old city for a group photo. They look like any group of college students visiting Jerusalem on a summer trip.
The photographer counts to three. “Free Palestine!” they yell in unison, and laugh.
The 41 delegates, half of them Christian and half of them Muslim, all between the ages of 18 and 25, are here on a two-week trip called “Know Thy Heritage.”
Most are from the US, but a few are from Australia, Canada, England and France. All but seven are women, says Rateb Rabie, president and founder of the sponsoring group.
“This is good because they are the ones who are going to raise the children, and this will help them understand their roots,” he said.
“They see how the Palestinians are living here,” Rabie said. “They see how Palestinians are building a state under occupation. An agreement is coming regardless of what we hear on the news and we will be ready to run this state.”
Many of the participants have visited relatives in the West Bank before, and speak at least some Arabic, but they say this trip is strengthening their Palestinian identity.
“I’m getting to know who my people are and what I want for the future,” Noor Diab, 23, a recent college graduate from San Diego said. “It’s given me a sense of pride but I’m also saddened by the situation here and by the (Israeli) occupation and the separation between Israelis and Palestinians. Throughout the trip, you feel happy, frustrated and sad but at the same time you’re experiencing the reality of the holy land.”
Diab said she found the visit to the mosque inspiring, but was angered by the Israeli security checks before she reached the site.
“When I’m in the mosque, I feel like I’m home,” she said. “But the journey there was a little difficult because going through metal detectors and checkpoints really takes away from the spirituality of the land. I would like to come here one day without being asked my race or my religion.”
To reach the mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, visitors must pass through an Israeli-controlled security checkpoint. They then walk up a narrow bridge onto the large plaza where the Al-Aqsa Mosque stands.
Several students complained that the Israeli security forces detained them for seven hours as they crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Israel.
The delegates also visited Paltel, where Kamal Abu-Khadijeh, the Deputy CEO, described the difficulty his company faces.
“We can’t service Area C,” he says, referring to the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under sole Israeli administrative and military control. “If we can’t install our own towers, we can’t provide service. You have to be part of an Israeli network to operate from one place to another.”
That means that many Palestinians have two cell phones, one with a Palestinian number and one with an Israeli number to cover the whole West Bank. He also said that the core equipment switches are located in Jordan and London while the company operates in the West Bank.
The Know thy Heritage program is loosely modeled on the popular Birthright program, which has so far brought almost 300,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel for free ten-day trips to strengthen their Jewish identity.
Some of the students also say they would like an opportunity to hold discussions with Israelis.
“I would like to meet the young generation of Israelis,” Wassam Rafidi, 21, from Houston, Texas, told The Media Line. “The older generation was involved in wars and fighting and there’s too much harsh sentiment on both sides. You always remember, you never forget, but we have to learn how to forgive. It’s the young generation that will make or break this thing.”
But for most of the participants, the focus of the trip is in strengthening their ties to the West Bank and to their Palestinian heritage. Hadeel Abnadi, from San Diego, is visiting for the first time. Her mother was born in Jordan, her father in Lod, which is today part of Israel. In 1948, he fled and moved to Jordan. At age 14, he moved to the US and attended Michigan State University. After college he returned to Amman, where he met his wife.
n The article was written for The Media Line.