By Simone Pass Tucker
At the beginning of July, I traveled to Israel with 26 other college students as part of the 10-day Let Our People Know trip. Organized and paid for by J Street, it was billed as an “alternative Birthright” trip. We spoke with Palestinian politicians, Israeli settlers and advocates for peace on both sides. We saw the conflict and occupation up close in a unique and powerful way.
Like Birthright participants, we visited the Kotel, the Dead Sea and the Galilee. But rather than simply showing me Israel’s highlight reel, Let Our People Know opened my eyes to my own biases and privilege, while redefining my Jewish identity and fostering a healthy connection to not only the land of Israel, but also to the Palestinian and Israeli people I was fortunate enough to meet along the way.
In Susya, a Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank, I saw things I know I will never forget.
With an Israeli settlement and two visible water cisterns on the horizon, Susya community leader Nasser Nawajah recounted for my group just how difficult it is for them to get water. Though there is a water pipe running directly below their current lodgings, the Palestinians are barred by the Israeli government from accessing it. If a Palestinian made their way from Susya unsupervised to the nearest faucet, they would be stopped for questioning by armed IDF soldiers and would likely receive a hefty fine or even be sent to prison.
When residents want to obtain water, they must register with the IDF weeks in advance so that it can send an armed guard to escort them. Once the scheduled day arrives, it is a gamble if they will even be able to get water. As Nawajah put it, “sometimes the guards come, sometimes they don’t” — and when they don’t, residents go thirsty.
Even if a guard does come, water is not guaranteed. Since the closest access point is on an Israeli settlement, if a single settler objects to Palestinian presence then Susya is without water until the town is able to schedule another monitored visit.
As Nawajah was explaining the situation us, children flitted in and out of sight. After our speaker was done, I asked one of the children in broken Arabic if she wanted water, holding out my water bottle. She smiled at me but glanced around, presumably looking for an authority figure or soldier, and ultimately said no. My heart broke that day in Susya.
The government of Israel justifies denying water to thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank by arguing that they are building illegally by erecting small shelters on land that was once theirs. While the residents of Susya may be breaking Israeli building laws, the settlers who are living on stolen land are breaking international law. According to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 of 2016, “the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967… has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”
The settlements in the West Bank also go against Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, which states that during war time “the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territories it occupies” — precisely what Israel has been doing since it first occupied the West Bank in 1967. Unfortunately, all of this is not common knowledge.
Before I went on the trip I believed that the establishment of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land was morally wrong. I still do, but it wasn’t until I went on J Street’s trip that I knew it was also illegal.
I can honestly say that this trip changed my life. I learned so much about Israel, Palestine, the conflict, the world and myself. It allowed me to redefine my Jewish identity and forced me to ask important questions like “How do we quantify suffering?” and “What is the best way that I can help from thousands of miles away?”
The answers? We can’t quantify suffering, but we can convey our accounts of it in the hopes that it will inspire others to action.
The best way to help is to take action — realize that America is a part of this occupation and hold our government responsible, educate others, inspire discourse and plant seeds of hope wherever we can along the way.
Simone Pass Tucker is a rising senior at The College of William and Mary majoring in philosophy and minoring in Judaic studies. She grew up in Northern Virginia and Washington.