Students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program use all the usual resources for their extended essay. Books, websites, news articles, magazine articles. Senior Eden McKissick-Hawley went the extra mile for hers — 6561 miles, to be exact. That’s how far Eden traveled to Beit Sahour, Israel to research the conflict between Israel and Palestine in the Gaza Strip.

To her surprise, the conflict exploded the day she landed.

Eden is no stranger to human rights issues. Her mother, Holly, is a minister and has taken Eden on trips around the world. She wanted Eden to learn by experience, but never be exposed to anything too traumatic. Through Eden’s travels and studies abroad, she has seen the remnants of an apartheid in South Africa, a country trying to rebuild; former concentration camps in the Czech Republic and Germany and WWII sites all over Europe; poverty in developing nations like Guatemala, Mexico and Losotho.

But there’s one conflict that Eden’s been closer to than any other.
Although it’s a long distance to Israel, this half-a-century-long war between the Israelis and Palestinians, for Eden, hits close to home– her aunt’s home, that is. Eden’s Palestinian aunt came to the United States in the 60s as a refugee and has been living here ever since.

“At Thanksgiving every year, we are always with her side of the family that is Palestinian and hear about the conflict and hear about what’s going on and hear about their desire to be able to live in peace with Israelis,” Eden said, “[She tells us about] their frustration with Hamas and terrorists and [terrorist like] acts on both sides, so I’ve just grown up hearing about this.”

Hearing her aunt talk about Palestine led Eden to develop a keen interest in the conflict with Israel. So when it came time to pick her IB extended essay topic, the Gaza Strip conflict was a natural choice for her.

“It involves social justice issues and conflicts that have been going on for almost a century and I wanted find a way to get people to talk about it and care,” Eden said.

Eden wanted to get first-hand knowledge about her topic, so she decided to go a step further than most candidates. This past summer, she applied for a tour of Palestine and Israel to see what books couldn’t give her.

* * *

The sky was pink when they landed in Tel Aviv. Eden was under the impression of everything being tranquil; relaxing. Looking back, Eden considers it “a bit of light before the darkness.” Because when they met their guide, Muhammad, something did not seem right.

“We were heading to the inn that we were staying at and I remember he had a bizarre expression on his face,” Eden said. “I asked if something was wrong and he said something was going to happen and we don’t want to be here when it does.”

Security was tight and everyone seemed tense. The group was thoroughly questioned by officials. During their hour and a half drive to their inn, they went through two security checkpoints.

“I remember when my mom had been before she said everything was just very lovely and just very relaxed and calm and nice and hospitable,” Eden said.

But Eden’s visit was quite different than her mother’s.

Once they got to their inn in Beit Sahour, all the guests were huddled around the television. Videos of civilians screaming and buildings being bombed to pieces streamed across the screen. Everyone sat in awe. The writing on the screen was all in Arabic. Earlier that day, a Hamas military leader was killed by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) so Hamas fired back by shooting rockets at Tel Aviv. Eden had just flown into a war.

“The idea of a war happening where we were is just a foreign idea and a foreign experience,” Eden said. “Like if that were happening here it would feel like a movie we had all been in. I felt like I was in a war movie. Instead of Angelina Jolie being there, it was a bunch of people who couldn’t leave. I had a sad snapshot of what they go through every single day.”

In the days that followed, Eden got more than she bargained for. She was experiencing her topic firsthand. She avoided airstrikes by hours, talked to locals and through it all she learned more than she could have in any amount of hours in the East library.
Instead of flipping through pages, she was hearing straight from the mouths of the citizens. She heard both sides’ point-of-view of the conflict. After talking to Israeli teens, she learned that although there is a mandatory draft, there are some ways to get out — claiming insanity, depression. After visiting the homes of some Palestinians, she saw the value they place on hospitality.
Segregation is extremely bad in the city of Hebron, which Eden considered to be the most depressing thing she had seen. It is a city of 400 Israelis that are being protected by 1,500 soldiers from the IDF.

“The Israeli’s have literally segregated the town road by road,” Eden said. “I was actually really infuriated when I went to Hebron. It was probably one of most rough or hardest things I’ve had to see. They had divided road by road between the Palestinians and Israelis.”

No matter where the doors to their home are, Palestinians are not allowed to walk on Israeli roads.

“There are 80-year-old women climbing on roofs and ladders and through windows to get into their homes,” Eden said.

Not only were the streets segregated, but so were the holy sites.

“When the Israeli government reclaimed the city of Hebron, they cut the Israeli mosque in half and said this half is a Jewish temple and put bulletproof glass along the tomb of Abraham, that is the sacred tomb for Muslims,” Eden said.

This isn’t the only area where the Israeli government had control. On the outskirts of Hebron, the group went to a place called Tent of Nations, where a man named Dahur and his family have had his land since 1916 and runs a summer camp out of his farm for 50 Palestinian kids from his village. His motto for the camp is “we refuse to be enemies.”

“The sad reality is that Israeli government can come in at any time and take everything from this man,” Eden said.

For as long as he can remember, his family has been living out of caves they built on their property because the Israeli government won’t allow them to have building permits. They won’t give him a permit because they have settlements surrounding his property and they want his to be able to connect them all.

“They survey this land to try to catch him building without a permit. Every time they see that he has built or added to his land soldiers come to his property and destroy it,” Eden said. “He simply asks that they leave their machine guns outside of the property so it doesn’t scare the children. They tear down whatever they say is ‘threatening their security’, even though it may be his source for safe drinking water. Then they leave and he get gets right back up and rebuilds.”

The violence is what sparked her interest to visit the area, and it’s what sparked her necessity to leave. Their trip was cut short when 35,000 IDF troops stood at the Gaza border to scare Hamas. Hamas wasn’t ready for a war and didn’t have the resources to go fight.

“We were pretty sure that violence wouldn’t end up breaking out,” Eden said. “But the reality is that both sides kept acting like they were going to go through with the war and if there was a ground war and a ground invasion, Israel probably would’ve shut down the Tel Aviv airport or important borders that we would need to pass through to leave.”

* * *

“You don’t know what you don’t know.”

That’s what Eden always says.

“You can’t say for sure that an entire group of people acts a certain way,” Eden said. “You can’t say for sure that everyone in a group of people is a terrorist or everyone is oppressive.”

She has learned to really ask questions and actually evaluate both sides — especially her own. She wonders the ways that she can maintain her connection and help spread the word, such as possibly going to work at Tent of Nations this summer. Her motto for this way of thought is “you can think global while acting local.”

“Everything from where you shop to what you talk about with friends can impact what’s happening overseas,” Eden said. “I think that although we aren’t overseas and in the middle of that conflict by doing things here at home we can greatly help peace efforts and the same applies to situations like this all over the world.”

She believes that it is her obligation to her friends and family that are directly affected by this conflict to help to others get more involved and shine light on the overlooked issue.

“I think I owe it to my Jewish friends as much as I owe it to my palestinian family to work towards and talk about and try to open discussions about ways we can find peace,” Eden said. “I think every American truly has kind of an obligation to be aware of the conflict and be educated about it. I think we all owe it to ourselves and to Israel and Israelis and Palestinians as well to learn about the conflict and resolve it because its about time.”