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,” sponsored by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation.
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 told The Media Line.
The participants pay for their airline tickets and the Foundation, with additional sponsorship from the Bank of Palestine and the Palestinian telephone company, Paltel, picks up the other costs.
“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 told The Media Line. “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 is wearing a sky-blue head covering or hijab, which she put on when she went into the mosque, and decided to keep on for a subsequent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. She 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 both the Al-Aqsa mosque and the gold-cupola Dome of the Rock stand. On the plaza, the independent Muslim Waqf Trust is in charge of security, although Israeli soldiers are allowed to patrol and conduct searches in the plaza.
An uncomfortable moment for the group ensued when Muslim guards refused to let the Christian delegates inside the mosque, saying entry was restricted to Muslims. Western tourists were also excluded. Several group members, including Rabie’s wife Rocio, who is an Ecuadorian citizen, went to the administration and complained. Most of them did eventually manage to enter.
“It was very disappointing,” said Mohammed Iftaiha, a financial advisor and the group leader from Virginia. “This was the first time the issue of religion had ever come up. What made it worse was we saw Israeli security escorting a group of Israelis into the mosque. So the Christians thought, why are we being singled out?
The students stay in Bethlehem but they are also warmly welcomed in Ramallah, the Palestinain financial capital. Hashim Shawa, the chairman and general manager of the Bank of Palestine, tells the young people that they should consider what they can do to help build a future Palestinian state.
“The country should not just be built from American aid – what’s really needed is investment from our own people,” he said. “Doing good is investing in bricks and mortar. Consider working here for a year or two.”
He also said that Visa and Master Card used to consider the West Bank part of Israel, but the Bank of Palestine convinced them to consider the West Bank as a “separate country” and now all processing of credit cards goes through the Bank of Palestine, the largest bank in the West Bank.
Several students complained that the Israeli security forces detained them for seven hours as they crossed the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Israel. The Christian Ecumenical Foundation’s Rabie seconded their frustration.
“We all have Western passports and instead of helping us out, the Israelis hold us and question us,” he said.
Shawa urged the students not to let these kinds of incidents frustrate them.
“You’re always going to be held up – is that going to stop you from visiting?” he asked them. “In Israel these days, you get stuck in a traffic jam. Let’s not use that as an excuse.”
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. The family of casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson has announced that they will donate an additional $13 million to Birthright to reduce the long waiting list.
Rateb Rabie says the Know thy Heritage trip is different than a Birthright trip.
“The Jewish people offered some good things and we thank them for bringing this (idea) to us,” he said. “But we have a completely different agenda and we are not involved with politics or religion.”
Rabie says that even the world “diaspora” is a Jewish term, which the Palestinians have now adopted to refer to the seven million Palestinians living abroad.
Just as the Birthright participants do not meet Palestinians from the West Bank, (although they do meet Arab citizens of Israel), the Know thy Heritage delegates do not meet Israelis.
Rabie says he is open to the idea of holding a dialogue with either Israelis or Jewish Birthright participants.
“Dialogue is the most important thing in anything you want to do,” he said. “When people sit face-to-face, they come to their senses. It would be a pleasure to do that, but we need that cooperation.”
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.
“I wanted to do this program because I kept hearing stories about our land,” she told The Media Line. “I would watch CNN and Al-Jazeera and see the land that was being fought over. I wanted to learn about the culture and my roots. Whey you come and see it, it puts it all in perspective.”
Sarah Ikhnayes, 23, tells a similar story. Her father was born in Surif, and lived in the Deheishe refugee camp adjacent to Bethlehem. She was born in Kuwait where she was raised in a refugee camp called Talibiye until she was 8 years of age and then headed to New York.
“It was nice to come back to the land where my father, my grandfather and my great grandfather were born,” she said. “This took us to a whole new level of knowing our heritage.”