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Professors witness realities of Palestinian life during peace mission


July 9, 2012

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KANSAS CITY, Mo - By definition, politics almost always require two sides to every story. Reality can oftentimes hit more directly.

Coburn by a signThat was just one of the overarching observations and conclusions drawn by Carol Coburn and Steve Iliff during their two-week trip to Israel and Palestine as part of a nine-person, three-country (U.S., Canada and New Zealand) interfaith delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams. Politicians from Israel and Palestine tell differing sides of the conflict over holy land that dates back to the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.

The realities of that conflict came across as much more one-sided, Coburn and Iliff discovered.

“Separate (living) conditions are real,” said Coburn, Ph.D., professor of women’s studies and religious studies in Avila University’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. “Where you get the separate discussions is why.”

peace missionCoburn and Iliff, Ph.D., dean of Avila’s School of Professional  Studies and associate professor of communication, both said they came away from the trip with one unmistakable truth – living conditions and human rights conditions for Palestinians couldn’t have been more different than those of Israelis. In fact, they likened it to the American West and Anglos forcibly claiming land from Native Americans eventually moving them to reservations.

They saw large Palestinian families living in tents with no running water or electricity, surrounded by walls separating them from relatively more opulent Israeli settlements. They witnessed Palestinian school children detained at Israeli checkpoints on their way to school. And, everywhere they looked, they saw fully-armed Israeli soldiers, watching over every movement of the Palestinians.

“What I saw over there made me think of France during World War II, when it was occupied by Germany,” Iliff said. “Palestine is a country occupied by Israel. I think if most of Israel’s people knew what was going on, it would be abhorred. It’s a lot more convenient to ignore it.”

Coburn and Iliff made the 10-hour flight from Newark, N.J. to Tel Aviv May 23 and immediately made their way into the old city where they headquartered at a hostel that has been open since the 1200s. There, they first spent four days speaking with both Israeli and Palestinian representatives, gaining background information on Palestinian rights.

They then took a bus to Bethlehem, where they spoke to more Israeli and Palestinian representatives before venturing out into the territories and encampments. A large part of their mission, they said, was to embark on patrol walks and be seen by Israeli soldiers, who wanted to avoid negative publicity and backed away from aggressive acts when spotting international peace workers. Coburn and Iliff took part in regular night patrols, patrols of schools, mosques and even tours of Palestinian areas held for Israeli settlers.

group inside tenttent

One night while on patrol, Coburn and Iliff came upon a group of young children in a park who were apprehended by Israeli soldiers for allegedly throwing rocks. They witnessed one child, who they surmised was under 12, being slapped before being handcuffed and led away. The CPT patrol followed the soldiers and their prisoners, cameras in hand and pointing the entire way before the soldiers eventually relented and turned the boys over to the Palestinian Authority.

What Coburn and Iliff said struck them most during their visit was the unwavering spirit of survival shown by the Palestinian people, especially in terms of the ways the people there find for non-violent protest against their plights, “acts of positive defiance,” Iliff said.

Those school children detained by soldiers at the checkpoint? Iliff said teachers that day simply brought books and other school supplies out to the checkpoint and taught the children there.

Coburn and Iliff spent time in Sussiya, a tent city that served as a Palestinian village. They were told that, the day after they were to leave, the village had been threatened with demolition for the eighth time. Seven times the families had seen their modest shelters plowed under by bulldozers. Each and every time, they had rebuilt.

“Almost everybody we met were people just trying to go to work, take their kids to school,” Iliff said.

Coburn added, “Most people were just trying to make a living, trying to raise their families, trying to get health care when they needed it. They showed defiance by simply continuing to exist. You feel the injustice of it.”

Coburn and Iliff arrived back home in Kansas City on June 4, their viewpoints greatly changed by what they saw and experienced firsthand.

“I came away with, as a solution, shine the light,” Iliff said. “Let more people see what it’s like there. If people saw what we saw, they’d want change.”




Avila University is a private, co-educational, values-based liberal arts institution founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, offering undergraduate, graduate, and adult degree programs. Avila University is located at 119th and Wornall Rd in southwest suburban Kansas City, Mo.