Six Lessons from Our Wartime Journey to Israel-Palestine

Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip is getting worse by the day.

Leena, a sixth-grade Palestinian student at the Ramallah Friends School (RFS), passed us a folded, handwritten note. “Palestine is witnessing a genocide right now,” it read. “A child is dying every five minutes of the day. Gaza needs a break. The Palestinian people are desperate for a ceasefire which will allow them to get the supplies they need like food, water, and medical kits.”

Leena and nearly all of the other students that we met during our recent trip expressed their hopes for an immediate ceasefire to end the war.

As we landed in Tel Aviv on Thursday, Jan. 11, a small rainbow streaked across the Holy Land sky. A good omen, we hoped. A few hours later we joined the rest of our peace delegation, convened by Churches for Middle East Peace, to start a two-week journey through the region. Our trip included extensive visits with patriarchs and heads of churches, pastors and local Christians, Jewish and Muslim leaders, heads of state and other political officials, peace activists, and human rights leaders in Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory, Jordan, and Lebanon.

The stories they shared simultaneously broke our hearts and gave us inspiration to keep pressing for an end to a brutal war that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Here are six urgent takeaways from our time in the Middle East:

  1. It’s Time for a Ceasefire in Gaza Now

Leena’s call for a ceasefire was widely echoed among Palestinians we met. For more than 120 days, communities have witnessed unspeakable atrocities in Gaza, with 26,000 killed and counting — the majority of whom are women and children. Tens of thousands more are wounded or trapped under rubble, as Israeli hostages remain in captivity. The United Nations warns of a famine in weeks if urgent action to open up humanitarian access is not taken. Mass atrocities and war crimes are underway with signs that suggest systematic ethnic cleansing and potential genocide in Gaza.

More war is not the answer. It’s time for a ceasefire to protect innocent Palestinian and Israeli lives, ensure safe return of all hostages, and address the humanitarian crisis exploding in Gaza.

  1. Diplomacy Is Needed to De-Escalate the Middle East

For months, the Biden administration has said that its goal is to prevent regional escalation. It was clear during our trip that the regional war is already here and is getting worse by the day. While in the occupied West Bank, we made the decision not to fly to Erbil, Iraq, due to Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps airstrikes. We learned the United States had struck Houthi targets in Yemen while we were at dinner with faith leaders in Bethlehem. Israel and the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah continue to trade strikes at the Lebanon-Israel border, with a mounting death toll. Settler violence and Israeli military raids are escalating across the West Bank.

It was clear during our trip that the regional war is already here and is getting worse by the day.

On our last day in Jerusalem, air raid sirens shrieked through the desolate Old City, devoid of tourism. During our travels to Lebanon, we heard stories about the tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians who had to evacuate from the Israel-Lebanon border for fears of an even greater conflagration.

Several days after we flew out of Amman, a drone attack killed three US service members in Jordan — a tragedy to which President Joe Biden has now begun to respond with force. These events are directly connected to the war in Gaza and will continue until there is a ceasefire and robust regional dialogue.

  1. The US Must Do More To Increase Humanitarian Access

We caught a shuttle with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) through the Allenby Bridge into Jordan. During the ride an UNRWA employee named Nisreen told us about her work in off-hours to evacuate Gazan children in critical condition for emergency medical treatment. She showed us pictures of their severe burns and amputated limbs — disturbing images we won’t soon forget. In total, they have been able to save more than 50 children, getting them safe passage to Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, Oman, and elsewhere, all accompanied by a “plus one adult and their siblings.”

Despite her being able to secure medical evacuation to a hospital in Florida, she explained that many families refuse to get treated in the US out of fear. “We tell them that there are very good doctors and medical facilities, but they are too scared to go to the United States,” Nisreen said. We praised her for her passion and inspiring work. She replied, “I’m doing it to not surrender to the fact that there is no justice.”

American Friends Service Committee staff in Jordan told us about the severe challenges they face in delivering aid in Gaza. Three of their aid workers there have lost family members and were internally displaced at least eight times in the past four months. Aid trucks must endure onerous inspections at multiple locations before getting through Rafah. Each day, only 100 trucks are allowed in, compared to 500 before the war. As a result, Gaza is only getting 8% of the aid it needs.

Less than a week after we got back to the States, 12 individuals of the 13,000 UNRWA staff in the territory were accused of taking part in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. Despite UNRWA firing the individuals and opening a full investigation, the US has paused funding to the agency. Without these funds, Nisreen and other UNRWA staff won’t be able to serve Palestinians who are facing the world’s worst hunger crisis. It’s time for the US to restore this funding and use leverage with Israel to increase humanitarian access.

  1. Urgent Steps to End Mass Atrocities Are Needed

As we arrived in Israel, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was just opening South Africa’s case against Israel invoking the Genocide Convention and the world was watching. On our first evening, an Israeli human rights leader told us that, for a group of people coming from the United States, we were already much more informed of what was really happening in Gaza than the general Israeli public. Throughout the trip, we saw more clearly the realities of ethnic cleansing, as well as blatant warning signs of the 10 stages of genocide. As one human rights defender told us, “This is not just a war against civilians; it’s a war against children.”

Shortly after we both returned to DC, the ICJ issued its ruling ordering Israel to take urgent actions to prevent genocide, punish incitement, and open aid access. The United States should actively support these measures as well as push for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, which is necessary to properly provide humanitarian assistance and comply with the court’s orders.

The US government should also live up to its policy commitment that preventing mass atrocities is a national security priority and leverage interagency atrocities prevention tools. The United States and the international community must urgently reaffirm the rule of international law and humanitarian protections for civilians.

The US government should also live up to its policy commitment that preventing mass atrocities is a national security priority and leverage interagency atrocities prevention tools.

In addition, independent human rights monitors and an atrocities assessment team should be deployed into Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The distribution of weapons to settlers, as reported by Axios, should be halted immediately and steps to demilitarize the settlements and prevent community violence must be taken. The International Committee of the Red Cross must be ensured access to all hostages and prisoners on both sides.

  1. The US Should Become Complicit in Peace, Not More War

Children at the school repeatedly asked us why the United States continues to support what they see as Israel’s genocide in Gaza by sending bombs and military assistance. Through tears, the third-grade cousin of the Ramallah Friend School graduate who remains paralyzed after being shot in a November hate crime in Vermont asked, “Can you tell people in the US to stop crimes of hate against Palestinians?” His teacher gave him a big hug.

We were at a loss for words trying to explain our government’s actions with people we met, especially children. A few eighth-grade RFS students thanked us for our advocacy after our last assembly. For that we were humbled and grateful but knew we could not stop advocating for a ceasefire and an end to US complicity.

Sounds of gun fights and warplanes flying overhead peppered our nights in Ramallah, giving us a window into Palestinians’ reality in the West Bank. This experience was timely. While we were there, the Senate voted on S.Res.504, US Senator Bernie Sanders’ historic resolution invoking Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act to investigate Israeli human rights abuses in Gaza. Although the vote only received support from 12 Senators, we did our best to explain to people why this was an important move by Congress that opens the door for more action to condition aid and end US complicity. One eighth-grade student approached us after an assembly and said, “That’s 12 more senators than I thought who support Palestinian human rights.”

  1. There Is Hope for the Way Forward to a Just and Lasting Peace

While we were in Ramallah, we spent many hours with the Carter Center’s Israel-Palestine team, including one meeting on recent polling of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Progress. They found several data points that challenged mainstream narratives including that support for a two-state Solution is now at 57%, almost a 20-point jump since before Oct. 7.

According to the poll, if there were an election, Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned Fatah-aligned Intifada leader would beat Hamas leader Yahah Sinwar with 66% of the vote. Many have referred to him as the Nelson Mandela of Palestine. Later in the trip we met with Marwan’s wife, Fadwa Barghouti, who is renewing her international campaign to secure his release and the release of all Palestinian political prisoners. “As a wife, I’d miss him,” she told us. “But if he’s released to Gaza to help Palestine, I support it.”

Later that week, we joined Carter Center staff at a Fatah conference where leaders of the central committee spoke of their visions for the party’s future, and the public was able to express opinions and ask questions. Many called for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to step down and for the “one-man show” and authoritarian rule to end.

In addition to the devastating toll the war in Gaza has taken on Palestinian society, it was clear from our conversations that Israeli society is still reeling from the atrocious massacre of Oct. 7 while anxiously hoping for the safe return of more than 100 individuals still held hostage. In many ways, the US government supports and amplifies voices from the radical right-wing segments of Israeli society and the government, while failing to emphasize the voice of a mass segment of the Israeli population calling for an agreement, including a ceasefire, that would promise the release of all hostages from Gaza.

The US and international community need to invest seriously in both the immediate negotiations to end the war and a long-term, inclusive, comprehensive peace process, defined by those who live side by side.

Palestinian Dreams for the Future

Throughout our trip, we sought to listen deeply, share openly, and speak courageously. People across the region welcomed us with grace, hospitality, partnership, and solidarity. We learned more than we could absorb and received gifts of the spirit in every interaction. We were humbled by the words of appreciation we heard for being there and we were encouraged to redouble our efforts to build the world we seek — free from war and the threat of war, with equity and justice for all, where every individual’s potential may be fulfilled, where our Earth is restored.

So often you hear people in DC talking about “day after” scenarios in Gaza. Many of these ideas omit one key element: Palestinian perspectives and dreams for their future. While the challenges ahead are immense, lawmakers must look for willing partners in peace and stability to advance shared goals. There is still time for an independent Palestinian state, and the international community must create space for Palestinians to determine their future.

As we left on the long plane ride home, the urgency of our mission to achieve an immediate ceasefire was clear. The Gaza war must end, the hostages must be released, and Palestinians must be free to choose their own destiny.

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