“This is a great opportunity. You know, this will probably be the only opportunity that will ever be presented to you to go to Israel and Palestine… ever. Go for it!”
When I first told my parents about the Peace and Dialogue Leadership Initiative (PDLI), they did not like the idea. I am a Tunisian citizen born and raised, and my family has always sided with Palestine in the conflict. As soon as I uttered the word “Israel,” I was bombarded with worried questions in Arabic:
- Who is organizing this trip?
- Who told you about it?
- Why did they tell you about it?
- Why would you want to risk your future and go?
- What’s the purpose?
- Who is funding the trip?
- Why are they funding your trip to Israel?
- Who convinced you to apply?
Risk your future. To be honest, I laughed when I first heard these phrases. But deep down, I knew that my parents’ concerns were somewhat justified, particularly in a Tunisian context. After all, one of the reasons why the former Minister of Tourism, Amel Karboul, was taken off her position was because people discovered that she was pro-Israel and that she had gone on a trip to visit the country earlier in her career.
Yet, even though my parents had many reservations, they fully supported my desire to go on the trip. “This is a great opportunity,” my dad told me. “You know, probably this would be the only opportunity that will ever be presented to you to go to Israel and Palestine… ever. Go for it!” His advice came from personal experience — before the end of his term as the Minister of Tourism, my dad, along with several Ministers of Tourism in neighboring Arab countries, requested visas to go to Israel but were unable to acquire them. As a result, he knew that as a Tunisian citizen, I certainly would not gain access otherwise. When I heard about PDLI, I knew this would be a unique opportunity to see Israel, a country that would have otherwise been off-limits to me because of my Tunisian heritage.
Even so, the process of obtaining the proper paperwork and navigating the complexities on the ground was not easy. The first problem that I encountered was actually getting to Israel from Tunis. The visa application required a copy of travel itinerary, and initially I thought I simply needed to buy a round-trip ticket from Tunis to Tel Aviv. But it was not that easy. First of all, there are no direct flights; I would have to transfer somewhere to fly into Israel. And it gets worse; according to my father, if I were to buy a plane ticket from Tunisia to Israel, I would not be allowed to board the plane. Travel to Israel is not forbidden by Tunisian law, but most people grew up in the country watching Palestinians being slaughtered by Israelis on Al-Jazeera, gaining a thoroughly one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and those who support the state of Israel. Simply wanting to go to Israel would label me a sympathizer and subject me to resentment from my peers. To be clear, not everyone in Tunisia shares this sentiment, but it’s certainly a majority position. And I understand why people feel the way they do. I remember when I was a kid, there was a period of time when anti-Israel activists handed out sheets of paper that listed products such as Coca-Cola and urged Tunisians to boycott these products to “Boycott Israel.” These lists still exist today. I remember very vividly hearing an activist yell: “Do not buy Coca-Cola — for each liter you drink, a liter of innocent Palestinian blood is spilled.” This is just one example, but it can tell you a lot about how hatred towards Israel is normalized and prominent in the Arab world. I am not claiming that this hatred is based on lies, neither that it is 100% justified; if it was that easy to tell, the conflict wouldn’t have existed in the first place. Therefore, buying a round-trip ticket from Tunisia was not an option. Luckily, I had a valid French Visa, and there were a lot of flights going back and forth between from Tunis to Paris and Paris to Tel Aviv. This way, government officials who check my Tunisian passport would see that I left Tunisia to go on a trip to Paris, not Israel. What’s funny is that if anyone were to check my passport right now, they would see that I am untraceable for about 10 days, because I have a stamp saying that I left Paris on May 26th and a stamp from when I checked back into Paris on June 6th, but no indication of where I had visited in between. The Israeli authorities did not stamp my passport.
Once in Israel, many people were shocked that I managed to pass through customs when they learned about my Tunisian citizenship. When I first arrived in the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, all I did was show my visa, which was printed on a separate sheet of paper, and the customs officials let me pass without a second glance. But when I went to visit the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and had to present my passport, the guard was really surprised to see that I was Tunisian, and he kept asking me about how I got a visa since, he said, “it is rare to see other citizens from Arab countries come to Israel.” This was also the case when we went to the West Bank where I spoke with numerous Palestinians in Arabic. In fact, almost everyone thought I had an American passport. Even our bus driver, Firas, told me he had a hard time believing that I used my Tunisian passport to get into Israel. I find this incident both funny because someone mentioned that I was probably one of the only Tunisians in the entire country, and also a bit sad, because it reminded me that most of my countrymen will never be able to travel to Israel or Palestine to see the situation on the ground.
With this in mind, I tried to document my journey as thoroughly as possible with my camera. Like everyone else on the PDLI trip, I wanted to post my pictures on Facebook, but that was not an option. Given my parents’ concern about the trip, did not allow me to post any pictures taken in Palestine and Israel on Facebook, and had me ask some of my friends to un-tag me from pictures they posted. This was not the case, however, for the pictures taken around the Al Aqsa mosque. These pictures were deemed acceptable because people in Tunisia had a positive impression of religious sites. But despite all of the precautions that my parents made me take, I still endured some unpleasant encounters when I returned from PDLI.
“Why did you go to the Palestinian Occupied Territories?” a Yale Arab student asked me over the summer when he saw my photos.
“You mean Israel and Palestine? It’s a trip,” I responded, giving him a description of PDLI. …,”
“There is no such thing as Israel,” he said. “The conflict is between us (Arabs) and Zionists, not between two countries.”
The conversation went on for a while, and it turned into a heated argument that we decided to continue back at Yale. To be honest, I do not have a problem with having these conversations with people, and I believe that every person is entitled to his or her own opinion. One of the key reasons why I participated in PDLI was to form a strong, nuanced opinion, one that I could share and defend in conversations about the topic. But I soon found that my time in Israel is often seen as a reason for some to reject my opinions. Many of my friends back home told me during conversations like the one above that I can no longer be trusted to make objective arguments about the conflict. Few people found out about my time in Israel, but those who did make sure to tell me that I had been “brainwashed,” and most of these people were highly-educated friends of mine who are in medical and engineering schools both in Tunisia and abroad.
Despite all of what I had to go through and am still going through, I am happy to have been a part of PDLI. I believe that it was the right step for me to take, and I believe that it will allow me to help others understand what’s happening on the ground, or at least make them question what they see on TV. I am not claiming that I know the truth, but at least I can see some parts of it, and for that I will be forever thankful.