By Ahmad Omeir*
I’d previously wondered if the one to two hours we’d spend with an audience on a college campus would lead to anything beyond superficial discussions. I didn’t expect them to be this well-informed and ask such direct, poignant questions. The level of engagement by the students that attended the events impressed me, and many became interested in opening OneVoice chapters at their universities.
Of all the places we toured, Gallaudet University, a leading liberal arts institution for the deaf and hard of hearing based in Washington, D.C., left a special mark on me. A student asked me why, given all our efforts on the ground, we hadn’t achieved an agreement, and why we expect America to help us where we’d failed as two peoples?
Such tough questions to grapple with pushed us to examine, and sometimes revisit, our answers. Danny and I came on the tour with the understanding that the differences in our narratives and the pain shouldered on both sides needs to be overcome to achieve peace. It’s a complicated conflict, with deeply entrenched prejudices, mistrust, and fear, and we need help untangling the mess.
Time and time again, the students across all our campus events wanted to delve into the roots of the problem. They seemed oversaturated by news of day-to-day developments on the ground and wanted to learn more about the history. I wanted to focus on the work we are accomplishing in our communities, which is seldom covered in the news, and the importance of taking concrete steps today that reinvigorate the conviction on both sides to end the conflict.
The chance to share with students the sentiments on the Palestinian street and raise their awareness of the issues gained further urgency when we realized many Senate and congressional staffers were recent graduates themselves. They could well be drafting U.S. policy on the Middle East within the next year or two, and reaching out to them now may have a positive effect on the region tomorrow.
On the Hill, our mission was to counteract the growing tide of fatalism and apathy among U.S decision makers. The determination and deep commitment that Danny and I expressed on behalf of the thousands of youth we represent seemed to reenergize the sense of hope among the officials we met. I’d like to think we left them with a couple of novel ideas to help Israelis and Palestinians get back on track.
Several policymakers expressed interest in Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s state building initiative and inquired about Palestinian civil society’s contribution in the undertaking. I took the chance to highlight the active role Palestinian civil society has played in aiding the Palestinian government’s efforts. At Young Entrepreneurs Palestine (YEP), where I serve as acting executive director, we’ve introduced policy changes and offered assistance to young Palestinians starting their own businesses. In doing so, we instilled in them the necessity of achieving a viable, independent, and secure Palestinian state to safeguard their livelihood.
I came away from the tour feeling reinvigorated and eager to redouble the effort to build grassroots momentum for a two-state solution.
Israelis and Palestinians have a personal responsibility to the end the conflict, and at OneVoice, my fellow youth leaders not only rise up to the challenge, but also motivate those around them to get involved. Our job is difficult, and we need the continued support and engagement of the international community, and specifically the U.S., to end the Israeli occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state, leading to a permanent agreement that guarantees security and peace for both sides.
*Ahmad Omeir is a senior OneVoice Palestine youth leader. He recently participated in OneVoice’s International Education Program’s 10-day speaking tour of Washington, D.C., Virginia, and North Carolina and met with top U.S. policymakers.