As a group of six college newspaper editors boarded their plane in Rome 10 days ago, bound for Tel Aviv, the news on the airport televisions was clear: The fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip was intensifying.
Far from flying into the fighting, the students soon found themselves in a surreal place where the abnormal was the norm, people on the trip say.
“It was a big culture shock for them. They couldn’t imagine that they were 50 miles from this escalating military conflict and people were going to work,” says Patrick Ryan Morris, one of the trip’s organizers. “It was New Year’s Eve and people were going out, getting a beer.”
Morris, who is based in Washington, D.C., is a program associate for Project Interchange, which coordinated the weeklong trip. Six college newspaper editors, including Nicole Jones, the managing editor of DePaul University’s student newspaper, made the trip.
“It’s such a polarized issue, and especially coming from a really lively campus where it’s either, you’re pro-Palestine or pro-Israel, it seems like there’s no middle ground to have that conversation,” says Jones, editor of the DePaulia.
The trip was planned months in advance as a way for college editors to get a first-hand view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by meeting with academics, reporters and religious leaders on both sides of the conflict. The itinerary called for spending time in Sderot, a town in Israel just east of the border with the Gaza Strip, as well as other stops in the south of Israel.
“We had to go to Plan C, which was not going to the south at all,” Morris says. Instead, the group spent time in Tel Aviv before visiting the Golan Heights, near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, as well as part of the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Jones says there were few obvious signs Israel was mounting an aggressive attack on Gaza.
“At first you don’t really feel it and it’s really shocking how much of a bubble Tel Aviv is in,” Jones says. “The slight things I did notice were security in cafes, (armed officers) checking your bags. Other than that, that’s it.”
While the fighting seemed far-off for the group it provided an invaluable backdrop for understanding tensions in Israel, Jones says.
Meeting with Israeli professors and journalists, among others, exposed Jones to a middle ground in the conflict that she says has often been missing from debates on the issue. One highlight for the group was a panel that included Russian Israeli reporter Ksenia Svetlova and Palestinian reporter Khaled Abu-Toameh.
“It was very interesting for them as journalists to hear these two journalists say, ‘Well, this is what we think is going on,’” Morris says.
He adds, “It was definitely a scary time, but it was much more exciting for them to be there as journalists at a time when history is unfolding."
Jones says being able to talk with such a diversity of people on the trip, and not just hearing strongly pro-Israel or pro-Palestine voices, made the trip eye opening.
“Meeting these people face to face and being there on the ground totally changes your perspective and makes the world a lot smaller,” Jones says.
Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.