Opinion | Three weeks in the world’s longest-running conflict


Juan Bustillo, senior political science and screenwriting major

For three weeks this summer in Israel and Palestine, student leaders from University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Los Angeles and San Diego State University joined Chapman students at the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) to speak to nearly 100 politically active locals, geopolitical experts and politicians, each with unique perspectives about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

OTI is a university-based organization that promotes conflict analysis and resolution through academic preparation, experiential education and leadership development. Working with several California campuses and one in the United Kingdom, students who have shown leadership and academic excellence are selected to go on this trip.

The only thing the 21 students who attended the trip agreed on by the end is that, even after intensive studying, the Palestine-Israeli conflict is still confusing. It is structured around opinions and beliefs, not hard facts, which makes it difficult to navigate. Here are a few takeaways about engaging in sensitive conflicts that all students can benefit from.

Every story has multiple sides

It’s often said that every story has two sides. But after three weeks of listening to contradictory speakers, attendees understood that every story has as many sides as there are people who experience it. Understanding this allowed the group to fully appreciate our time abroad. We reviewed our speakers’ stories together with daily reflections, and unpacked our emotional and logical reactions.

Peacebuilding requires getting comfortable with discomfort

Each of us can describe being faced with a speaker who is credible and legitimate in their own right, but whose presentation appeared uninformed and discriminatory. Under different circumstances, we might have voiced our disagreement, but not here. We learned to sit straight-faced while some of our most closely-held values were scrutinized and criticized by speakers who disagreed with us. This is a crucial element of peacebuilding. Through OTI, we learned the art of turning outrage into genuine curiosity to learn more and accept another person’s understanding of the truth.

Students care about politics, but people on the ground have different concerns

When discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, U.S. students are often prepared to talk about its body count, tactics like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and one- or two-state solutions. But people who actually live in the conflict region, primarily Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip, are more concerned about getting their next meal, having enough water to drink and sustainable employment. This disconnect between big-picture issues and the reality for the area’s inhabitants means that crucial aspects of the conflict go largely ignored by people in the U.S.

Be ready to define “peace”

From Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hamas military leader Mohammed Deif, there’s not one legitimate actor in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict who is explicitly anti-peace. But the rockets and warplanes tell a different story. That’s because “pro-peace” is an easy catch phrase that’s difficult to argue with – meaning that some attendees couldn’t articulate a vision for peace until later on in the trip.

Everyone has something to add to the conversation

As provocative as they were, the speakers were certainly not the only ones challenging us on the trip. The different nationalities, genders, ideologies and university majors represented in our group brought a variety of insights and ideas to every meeting. No identity or experience can be discounted on a trip like this. If you’re apprehensive about engaging in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because you don’t have a personal or familial connection to it, it’s still important to be involved. Peacebuilding requires being impartial, and it thrives off of the input of people with diverse backgrounds.

Attendees are still processing what we learned and how we feel. Most of us are unsure of our roles in the conflict, but we recognize that we have a strong responsibility to share what we learned. OTI isn’t an easy organization to be a part of – it involves engaging in emotional and often overwhelming work. Despite this, we left the region recognizing the weight of the stories we are bringing from Jerusalem to California.