U students travel to Mideast, return with different views

Elizabeth Dunbar

Two University students traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories this summer, bringing back distinct perspectives of the conflicts between the areas.

University seniors Katie Bonn and Stephanie Nygard went with different purposes: Bonn traveled with Internationals for Justice in Palestine members, and Nygard traveled with the Israel Advocacy Jewish Leadership Conference, sponsored by the national Hillel Jewish student organization.

Both experienced the fear of traveling in a conflict-ridden area, yet returned with experiences that reinforced what they already knew.

Bonn spent two weeks traveling in the Palestinian territories inside Israel. She visited a refugee camp in Jenin where a confrontation in April between the Israeli army and resident Palestinians resulted in either dozens or hundreds of deaths – the number is disputed between the groups. According to a U.N. report, however, at least 52 Palestinians were killed, half of whom were civilians, and 23 Israeli soldiers died in the conflict.

Nygard traveled to Jerusalem where she had spent her junior year abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She met the U.S. ambassador to Israel and visited several suicide bombing survivors.

Bonn said her belief in human rights and equality motivated her to get involved in the Palestinian cause.

“I heard about how the Israelis were treating the Palestinians and I didn’t think it was justified,” Bonn said.

Bonn said Palestinians are forced to stay in certain areas and must go through security checkpoints if they want to travel.

She also said the people she visited in the refugee camp were living in extreme poverty.

“The conditions are so terrible that they will either make people die or leave,” Bonn said. “Degradation is part of everyday life for Palestinians.”

Nygard, head of the Israel Committee for the Hillel Student Board and Friends of Israel member, met with Israelis who survived suicide attacks.

She said she met a man who had lost his hand in a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem cafe this spring. Nygard, who has been to Israel six times in the past six years, also said people are afraid to go out or to use public transportation because of the attacks.

“I think now more than ever Israelis are really scared of the situation,” Nygard said. “(Israelis) try not to let terrorism consume them, but it’s impossible.”

Both Nygard and Bonn have vivid memories of the risks they took while traveling in this part of the world.

Bonn said that when her group went to Jenin, Israeli security kept their passports and told them they couldn’t stay overnight.

“They wanted us out of there because they didn’t want us to see what was really going on there,” Bonn said.

Nygard said a decision she made to go to a disco one night saved her life.

“I woke up late and missed the bus I was supposed to take to Tiberius (a city north of Jerusalem),” she said. A car with a bomb crashed into that bus on the highway between Tel Aviv and Tiberius, killing 17 people and injuring 30, Nygard said.

Nygard and Bonn said their experiences reinforced their beliefs about the situation and also had an emotional effect.

“It made me more skeptical of the situation because of how much the violence had escalated,” Nygard said.

“I took it more personally,” Bonn said. “It doesn’t really sink in until you see it for your own eyes.”

Though Bonn and Nygard support different sides, they both continue to be active in educating people about the situation.

“I think I’m more active now,” Bonn said. “The experience changed me in the sense that no one can argue with me and no one can tell me that Israel is justified in what they do.”

“My hopes for peace are still with me, but I was sad to see that things hadn’t improved since the last time I was there,” Nygard said.