Olive Tree Initiative aims to hear both sides in Middle East conflict

At multicultural UC Irvine, the Middle East and U.S. policy in that region can create fervent debate.

While tensions sometimes escalate on campus — as they have with the Irvine 11 case against student protesters — in 2007 a group of students decided to respond to Middle East tensions in a way that wasn't polemical or political.

Instead of debating the different sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the confines of the UCI campus, they would travel to the region — meeting with officials, academics, religious leaders and activists — and come back to the community with the results of their conversations.

They called their organization the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI).

Since its inception, the group has organized three university trips and two community trips. Fifteen to 20 UCI students go on the two-week trip, splitting their time equally between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"I think OTI is a really great example of an innovative campus program that has developed a really constructive way of addressing campus tension," said Megan Braun, a UCI graduate who went on the 2010 trip.

Other UC campuses, such as UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz and UCLA, have taken a cue from OTI's accomplishments by starting chapters of their own.

OTI recently came under fire for meeting Aziz Duwaik during a 2009 trip to the region. The student group had intended to meet with a member of the Palestinian Authority, but that official didn't make it to the meeting. Duwaik, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, filled in for the official. And unbeknownst to the OTI delegation, Duwaik was also a Hamas representative in the West Bank.

Hamas, a militant Palestinian group, is on the U.S. State Department's list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

Since the 2009 trip, OTI has tightened scheduling policies.

To the group of 15 to 20 students who make the yearly summer trip to the Middle East, they think that the publicity about the incident distracts from OTI's mission, which isn't to take sides or point fingers, but to start an intellectual dialogue with those representing different perspectives.

"For many OTI members, investing ourselves in an organization based on education rather than advocacy … can be difficult, as it becomes a source of controversy and criticism from our respective communities," said OTI member Armaan Rowther.

Braun believes the 2009 meeting has allowed them to put one of their many fundamental beliefs to the test: listening to all sides.

Although she does not agree with the moral or political position of Hamas, she said, it does not mean that students cannot engage with that group academically.

"I think it would be impossible to claim we can understand the area without considering Hamas," she said. "If you really want to understand that region, then that narrative needs to be part of the overall study and experience."

Isaac Yerushalmi, a former OTI member who is now studying in Israel, hopes people understand that OTI will always be non-partisan and educational.

"Educational initiatives like the Olive Tree Initiative are a friend to all those who seek peace and coexistence in the region — Israelis and Arabs, Jews, Muslims and Christians alike," he said in an e-mail.

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), believes the students are pioneering an important educational project by engaging with the region hands-on.

"You're dealing with people that are in conflict with each other," said Ayloush, whose organization is based in Anaheim. "It's not about agreeing with them," he said. "It's about hearing the unique narratives of each of the sides there and learning how to maneuver around it to get the parties closer together to promote peace."

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