While they live thousands of miles from their homes in Israel and Palestine, some students have found their lives and the lives of loved ones affected by U.S. intervention in the region’s ongoing conflict.
The Israeli-Palestinian territorial conflict, which began with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, is one of the longest running conflicts in the world today. While many geopolitical factors influence the fluctuating levels of violence, peace and stability in the region, U.S. foreign policy has historically had a significant impact.
Waleed Hijazi, a graduate student who grew up in Hebron in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, said he thinks it is obvious that the U.S. sides with Israel in the conflict. Hijazi thinks U.S. provision of military and financial aid to Israel, and failure to prevent the spread of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, proves where U.S. loyalties lie, he said.
The U.N. considers the settlements in the West Bank to be in violation of international law, but in November, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed the U.S.’s historically similar position.
Hijazi thinks this is disheartening because the settlements, which occupy prime Palestinian land, further reinforce existing ethnic divisions, he said.
“Even when we travel, we have different roads,” Hijazi said. “It’s like apartheid. You don’t see (the Israeli settlers), it’s impossible. If you even approach like miles of (a settlement), you would be shot.”
Etamar Bhastekar, a junior who grew up in Mizpe Ramon, near Tel Aviv, Israel, does not support the expansion of Israeli settlements but thinks most of the current settlements have existed for so long that they should remain, he said.
"I think that if we are there for such a long time, I think we have the right to own this land,” Bhastekar said. “Especially after the ‘67 war, I don't think it's fair to give back the land.”
While Hijazi thinks U.S. policy has been consistently pro-Israel and anti-Palestine, he thinks moves made by the Trump administration, like relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, have been especially inflamatory, he said.
“Whenever the great powers like the U.S. come out with an executive order, that would just upset the Palestinians, and they’d just go out, they take it to the streets, they protest,” Hijazi said. “Especially the Trump orders, like those that have to do with Jerusalem.”
Hijazi said that although the West Bank does not see shelling and other severe violence like in Gaza, the conflict has still taken its toll on his family, friends and homeland as a whole. Several of his friends and loved ones were injured or killed in clashes with the Israeli Defense Forces, and his brother was jailed for five years at 16 on charges of building bombs, Hijazi said.
Hijazi said he denies the charges against his brother.
Bhastekar, who was enlisted in the IDF for three years, is pleased with most of the policy moves the Trump administration has made so far, particularly the embassy relocation, he said.
Bhastekar thinks strong support from allies like the U.S. is necessary to keep the Jewish state safe from violence perpetrated by the military wing of Hamas, the political party that governs the Gaza strip, he said. The U.S. and the EU and consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
"I think the question about peace is important, but more important is the question about Jewish land,” Bhastekar said. “The Jewish people always suffered from discrimination and racism and bloodshed.”
Mohammed Abdalhadi, a doctoral student from Gaza, has spent the past 19 years working in human rights and obtaining two master’s degrees and a doctorate degree, returning to Gaza when he can, he said. Abdalhadi said life in Gaza is very difficult, especially since an Israeli blockade was instituted in response to the election of Hamas in 2007.
Abdelhadi was in Gaza working for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine when the 2008 Gaza War broke out, and he witnessed immense devastation, including an Israeli rocket landing in his apartment’s kitchen while he was out, he said. Abdelhadi thinks Trump’s policies in the region, especially his reduction of funding for UNRWA and cutting of all United States Agency for International Development projects in Palestine have made an already-dire situation much worse, he said.
UNRWA provides support for Palestinian refugees displaced by the decades-long conflict, and USAID funds job-creating economic development projects. Many of Abdelhadi’s family members and family friends have lost humanitarian aid and jobs due to these cuts, he said.
While they disagree on whether U.S. foreign policy should change, there is one thing Hijazi, Bhastekar and Abdelhadi all agree on: coming to a peaceful resolution will require Jews and Arabs in the region, particularly the younger generations, to interact more with one another. Hijazi thinks restricted freedom of movement between the Palestinian territories and Israel, which prevents most Palestinians from ever meeting an Israeli, holds back the peace process, he said. When Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, some of whom live and work together inside Israel, are able to grow up side by side, mutual understanding, respect and discourse can be developed, Hijazi said. Bhastekar agrees.
"I was not exposed (to Arabs),” Bhastekar said. “Which may be the problem, too. We are not mixed.”
Abdelhadi, whose views on Jews changed drastically when he traveled to Europe for school and met Jewish people, thinks the power lies in the hands of the people who are able to seek the same kind of exposure he did, he said.
“If the conflict was left to the people, maybe the problem would be solved more than the government,” Abdelhadi said. “The lack of communication, this is the problem.”
This story was updated Jan. 19 to reflect that Hijazi denies the charges against his brother.