(This is a report from Friday, August 28)
Our departure day. We began with a 7 a.m. luggage call, then hopped on the bus to go to visit an Israeli settlement and a Palestinian village that are cooperating with each other, sharing common interests over water in particular. Unfortunately, after getting to my room circa 1 a.m. after a few drinks with the UN folks, I had gone on a chocolate rampage, eating all the chocolate in my room. The alcohol and chocolate, combined with the early hour and the windy bus ride, did not go well together. By the time we arrived at Wadi Fukin, the Palestinian village, I was quite woozy and had turned green. No one noticed, though… I guess that is a sad commentary when nobody can tell that you are off!
We visited both Wadi Fukin and the Israeli settlement of Tzur Hadassah, led by EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East. EcoPeace is a wonderful Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli organization that received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship earlier this year, so I was delighted to see social entrepreneurs Munqeth Mehyar, Nader Khateeb and Gidon Bromberg at the site.
These villages are about 12km southwest of Bethlehem and share a unique spring system at Wadi Fukin. While there is still a checkpoint between the village and the settlement, it was clear that Palestinians and Israelis in these areas were working together well. Residents of Wadi Fukin and Tzur Hadassah came together to protest the path of the separation wall, which would have cut off Wadi Fukin from some of its agricultural lands and cut off recharge into Wadi Fukin’s springs from the nearby aquifer. Their combined action led successfully to delay—and perhaps ultimate stoppage—in construction of the wall. It was a most optimistic meeting to close out the trip. At one point, I remember thinking how was encouraging it was to see a local rabbi and the Palestinian village council chief speaking with one voice, with obvious mutual respect, in sharp contrast to what we had seen throughout much of our trip.
The Elders delegation then conducted a Q&A with the Palestinian and Israeli villagers. Munqeth of EcoPeace was pleased with the session and, as a special treat, he presented me with his tie (!) which he felt would go well with my suit. I shall wear it proudly and think of Munqeth whenever I wear it!
Finally, before departure, The Elders conducted a live interview, held at UNSCO, that was streamed live over The Elders website.
The trip now over, much of the group then headed to the airport…Archbishop Tutu, Gro Bruntland, Mary Robinson and Ela Bhatt…we all arrived together.
At the airport, we ended up being held for some time in the VIP lounge, while Israeli security asked a number of questions. I was surprised to find that no one there seemed to know even Archbishop Tutu, much less the rest of the group.
Archbishop Tutu later commented on his fears, based on the things he had witnessed in the South Africa context, that a continuation of the situation on the ground risked dehumanization of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. “I am hurting because of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians and what they are doing to themselves.” For him, it was “not just a relief, it was exhilarating” to go to Tzur Hadassah and see Israelis and Palestinians working together, person to person.
In closing, we all left the region with a better understanding of the issues confronting all sides there.
The trip achieved its aims of meeting with a cross section of society from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and highlighting both the work of organizations striving towards peace, as well as concern about humanitarian conditions in Gaza. The meetings with youth, civil society, business and political leaders reinforced the notion that we are at a crossroads for peace in the region and that the U.S. must take a firm leadership role now to compel Israel to freeze settlements and end the blockade of Gaza. In addition, it is clear that there is a role for business and the international community to play to improve conditions in the region over time.
This region is the nexus of three of the world’s great religions and all the major powers of the world have an interest here. Peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians would go a long way towards creating stability in the Holy Land, in the Middle East, and in the world.