Written by Nadia Hakim, Managing Editor and Public Diplomacy graduate student, Syracuse University
In the classroom and news, everyone talks and reads about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, but there is no textbook or feature story that can completely prepare you mentally, as an outsider. You are able to feel the bullet holes along the sides of the buildings, and you meet so many people who lost their fathers, brothers, and friends to the conflict.
This summer I’ve been working with the Near East Foundation in the West Bank. The Near East Foundation (NEF) is the oldest development organization in the United States. In recent years, much of the organization’s focus has been on providing development support and assistance to countries in the Middle East and Africa. Based in Syracuse, NEF has offices around the world including Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon. There is even an office in the West Bank, where I spent six weeks working on NEF’s Olive Oil Without Borders project.
Olive Oil Without Borders is a project that is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development focusing on building relationships between Israeli and Palestinian olive farmers, mill operators, and business owners through economic cooperation. They have worked together to identify the common problems that they are facing in the olive oil sector, and they will continue working with each other toward solutions. The hope is for the project to continue beyond direct assistance and be completely self-sustaining over the next few years.
During my time in the West Bank, I met with farmers and business partners involved in the olive oil trade, attending workshops and meetings to build my understanding of the issues facing the industry. In the office, while generating reports and analyzing surveys, I came to better appreciate the skills developed through my statistics and public relations research classes.
Being in the West Bank, I was reminded that public diplomacy is about people.
In spite of the occupation and checkpoints, the Palestinians are some of the kindest people that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Within my first days there, I stumbled into my neighbor’s garden one afternoon and she insisted on having me stay with her cousins for tea, pastries, and ice cream. Every other day was spent eating a home-cooked meal and drinking tea at someone’s house.
Israel restricts where the Palestinians are allowed to travel, and many are unable to leave the West Bank. As a result, they are obsessed with foreigners and want to know everything about the outside world.
They ask why I am an American, but do not have blonde hair and blue eyes. They complain that American movies always show Arabs as terrorists. They wonder why Lady Gaga is so crazy. They ask that I never forget them or Palestine.
The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of any other organization, agency, or department.