Cathy Sultan

(WOMENSENEWS)–When Cathy Sultan left her home in Eau Claire, Wis., and flew to Israel in March 2002, she didn’t have press credentials or the backing of a major news organization. She wasn’t representing any organization, large or small.

All the Midwestern housewife turned citizen journalist had was a burning desire to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a few phone numbers and eight years of personal experience raising a family during the Lebanese civil war (1975 to 1990) near the Green Line, which divided warring factions in East and West Beirut. Sultan, 63, a native of Washington D.C., is married to a Lebanese American doctor.

In 1983, the family moved back to the United States and settled in Wisconsin. But after the second Intifada began in 2000–which the United Nations says was sparked when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon entered East Jerusalem’s Harem el-Sharif Mosque, forbidden to non-Muslims–Sultan decided to go to Israel in search of a middle ground.

“I just really felt I needed to go and see for myself what was going on, on the ground,” Sultan recalled. Over the objections of her husband, she made plans to travel to Israel with a U.S. peace group, but the situation deteriorated, and the trip was canceled. She then found another woman to travel with from a nongovernmental organization. Once in Israel, she struck out on her own, using her knowledge of the conflict and the few connections she had made in the United States to meet people who would talk with her. When Sultan left Jerusalem two weeks later, she had taped interviews with more than a dozen Israelis and Palestinians who spoke candidly about their lives and views on the conflict. The interviews, along with follow-up phone interviews, form the basis of her new book, “Israeli and Palestinian Voices,” published by Scarletta Press in April.

The book offers an on-the-ground look at one of the world’s most enduring conflicts through the eyes of ordinary citizens, including three Palestinian teen girls, an Israeli peace activist, two Israeli soldiers and an 85-year-old Arab woman living in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

‘Unvarnished Voices’

M. J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for the New York-based Israeli Policy Forum who writes the organization’s weekly column on the Arab-Israeli conflict from Washington, said the book is remarkable for the candor that Sultan captures. “She gets unvarnished Israeli voices and Palestinians as well,” he said.

One 43-year-old Palestinian midwife, Seham–identified only by first name to protect her–spoke with Sultan as Israeli Apache helicopters hovered over the refugee camp in Ramallah where she lived. Her husband was killed in 1989 by Israeli soldiers, but Seham told Sultan that she objects to both suicide bombings and U.S. military aid to Israel.

“Please come and change places with us. See for yourselves how awful our lives are,” she is quoted. “Please tell your government to stop selling arms to Israel. We have no army, no weapons, no tanks, no Apaches or F16s. We are defenseless against such powerful weapons.”

Others, including two Israeli soldiers in their 20s Sultan met near the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, described the Palestinians as a direct threat to their security.

“I served in Lebanon. I also served in the West Bank,” one of the soldiers told Sultan. “I do not like to see people die. I do not like to see our women die. But what can we do? We must defend ourselves.”

Discontent Among Dissenters

Sultan also found discontent among some Israelis over its government’s treatment of dissenting voices. Identified only as Shira T., she is a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and describes how hundreds of Israelis had shown up to protest the government’s closing of a road that provided access to a Palestinian hospital. The border patrol “threw tear gas at us and hit us with large batons. One of my friends, a 72-year-old woman, sustained a severe blow to her head,” she recalled.

Sultan also met with Sam Bahour, a U.S.-born Palestinian businessman living near Ramallah. Bahour, who was visiting family in the United States last week, says Sultan’s book puts a human face on what conventional media often reports only in terms of body counts and missiles launched.

“She approaches the issue from a more humanistic point of view than a deep political point of view and that’s valuable,” he said. “People aren’t going to be educated by 30 seconds from a congressman or a sound bite from Condoleezza Rice.”

The book took Sultan through plenty of danger. Her first night in Jerusalem, Sultan was riding in a taxi from the airport when a bomb exploded in a school a block away.

After several days in the West Bank, Sultan and a French architect working in Ramallah were forced to flee the city ahead of an Israeli military crackdown. They scrambled down a dirt road on foot and clambered over a fence to the checkpoint as the sun set, all the while being tracked in the gun sights of an Israeli tank.

Warning Shots Whizzed By

While visiting an ecumenical institute in Bethlehem, Sultan attempted to take a photograph of Jewish settlements from a rooftop and felt warning shots fired by Israeli soldiers whiz by her head.

She relates her experiences to illustrate the violent reality of everyday life for many Israelis and Palestinians. The book is divided into three parts: a travelogue that describes her trip, transcripts of her interviews and a brief history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sultan grew up in Washington, D.C., but dreamed of living abroad. After college, she met Michel Sultan, a Lebanese doctor. They married and had two children. In 1969, the family moved to Beirut where Sultan fell in love with its pristine beaches, turquoise water and cosmopolitan culture.

But Beirut’s peace was shattered in 1975 when war broke out. Sultan recounts the next eight years in her memoir, “A Beirut Heart,” published last year by Scarletta Press.

After she returned to the United States, she began what she describes as a lifelong journey “to understand one thing properly.” Sultan now serves on the executive board at the Washington D.C.-based National Peace Foundation and is a member of the international network, Women in Black, founded in Israel in 1988. Members stand in silent vigil to protest war, ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses. Last year she began an Israeli and Palestinian dialogue group in her hometown.Sultan considers herself a peace activist, but when she traveled to Israel and the West Bank, her agenda was to listen and to learn and to report what she heard without bias.

J. Trout Lowen a freelance writer and editor living Minneapolis, Minn.

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For more information:

National Peace Foundation

Israel Policy Forum Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire

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