Summer study abroad to Israel-Palestine brought to sudden end

Students studying abroad in Israel-Palestine this summer were forced to evacuate the region four weeks early. As airstrikes between Israel and Hamas began to intensify and violence escalated in Gaza, the university suspended the study abroad program.

Yehuda Lukacs, the associate provost of International Programs and the director for the Center for Global Education, said that the threat of conflict in the area is always present, but that there were no indications before the trip that increased fighting between Israel and Hamas would break out.

“With the murder of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank and the murder of the Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem, tensions have begun to rise in the [West Bank] and Jerusalem,” Lukacs said. “Violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli police and military began to spread beyond the West Bank and Jerusalem and even to Nazareth in northern Israel.”

Students on the trip reacted with both shock and anger at the program’s termination. Andrew Dieckhaus, a senior at Mason majoring in Global Affairs, was upset that he would be unable to complete the research he started at the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, West Bank.

“At first it was fear. I felt that maybe something big was going to happen that I could not foresee, and that the director knew something we did not. This was quickly replaced by anger, as I was not going to be able to complete my research project for Holy Land Trust from the United States,” Dieckhaus said. “I was a little annoyed that I was being forced to reinforce the common notion that Americans leave at the first sign of trouble, but overall I understood and respected the director’s decision to cancel the program, as it was in my own self-interest as well as the university’s.”

David Prater, a second year Masters candidate for a Masters of Science in Conflict Resolution at Portland State University, felt that the decision to send students home cheated them out of their experience.

“If a university is going to send students on a program specifically designed to examine the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and then order them out as soon as the conflict starts to develop in a way that we can really conceptualize and learn from, then I think they are doing something wrong,” Prater said. “We were there to learn about a conflict that encompasses every aspect of these people’s lives, and the program made us leave right when we started to witness how far-reaching it really was, which I believe was a tremendous missed opportunity and injustice for us as students of the conflict.”

The university also threatened to withhold the students’ credits for their program if they did not return to the United States. Lukacs said the university made this decision to stress the level of severity of the situation to students and bring them back to safety.

“This was an extremely serious situation and we needed to make sure the students understood the seriousness,” Lukacs said. “We also were very concerned with the students’ safety and felt we needed to do whatever we could to have the students come back home quickly and, ultimately, safely.  We understood that this request to return home would cut short the experience the students were obtaining through the program.”

This trip is not the first Mason study abroad program to be terminated in the Middle East. Students were in the region with the same CGE program in 2006 when the war with Lebanon broke out in northern Israel. However, students residing in Tel Aviv were given the option to remain in Israel for the duration of the trip, as the city was under no threat of attack.

According to Lukacs, the situation in Palestine this summer was different.

“This summer, most of Israel was affected by the missiles fired from Gaza,” Lukacs said. “Moreover, daily clashes also occurred in the West Bank, which could have impacted our students’ safety. Consequently, it was decided that it would be in the best interest of the students and their safety that the program be suspended.”

Despite the university’s concern for student safety, many students on the trip felt that their safety was not compromised in their daily activities.

Emma Durband, a sophomore at Mason majoring in Global Affairs, says she felt fairly comfortable living in Tel Aviv; however, some aspects of the city required adjustment.

“Everyone is carrying around automatic weapons in malls, grocery stores, on public busses and trains and on the beach,” Durband said. “This caused me to be apprehensive at first, but then it became so commonplace that I simply became used to it.”

Dieckhaus had positive experiences with his Palestinian neighbors in Bethlehem.

“I felt safer walking through a refugee camp in occupied Palestine at 3 a.m. than I do walking through Washington D.C. at the same time,” Dieckhaus said.

After the program was suspended, many students experienced difficulty in returning home.

“During the train ride [my roommate and I] were both visibly upset about how things ended so abruptly and the amazing educational opportunities we were going to miss out on,” Prater said. “Conversely, we also recognized the tremendous privilege we both had in being American and having the ability to pick up and leave a conflict zone while 1.8 million people in Gaza where literally reduced to ‘fish in a barrel,’ to use a bad idiom.”

Durband, unlike many of the other students, felt that returning home after the program was suspended was necessary.

“While having the ability to live in a country known for conflict during an escalation provides valuable insight, I felt unsafe and unprepared to deal with the psychological and physical aspects of enduring a conflict on that scale,” Durband said.

Lukacs believes that the students on the trip gained something valuable from their experiences.

“I think students had a unique experience that highlighted the complexities, dangers and seriousness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, even though the program was cut short, the main academic and cultural objectives of the program were achieved,” Lukacs said. “Most importantly, every single student who participated in the program has returned home safely.”

Despite the tensions in the Middle East, Dieckhaus says he hopes to return to Israel-Palestine in the future.

“I would love to return to Israel and Palestine. Apart from the conflict, the region itself is downright gorgeous,” Dieckhaus said. “My host family made Bethlehem a new home for me, and they have generously opened their home to me should I ever find myself in the region again. The only question is when.”

This story was originally published in the Sep. 15 issue of Fourth Estate.