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Tuesday, August 16, 2005 | Though he’s only 19 years old, San Diegan Paul Dana has seen parts of the West Bank that most Israelis can only imagine. His U.S. passport grants him free travel through military zones restricted to all Israeli citizens, where, he says, an impoverished Palestinian community drags on, obscured in the minds of outsiders by fear of violence emanating from a land they cannot know.

Even soldiers at crossing points question the activist’s sanity.

“They ask, ‘What’s your problem? Why would you want to subject yourself to such danger?’ The reality is, there’s very little danger for Jews and non-Jews alike,” said Dana.

So little danger, in fact, that today Dana will lead a small group of American students on a tour of Israel and the West Bank to help them see the land and its conflicts through vivid first-hand encounters rather than politics, ideology or fear.

“Our goal is to take young people of all backgrounds from America to Israel and Palestine to see through a new light, to see the region from everyone’s perspective – from a Jewish perspective, an ultra-Jewish perspective, to someone living in a refugee camp or someone who’s considering becoming a suicide bomber,” he said.

Called Bina Kehilla, the group takes its name from the Arab and Hebrew word for “building and understanding community,” according to Dana. In its first year of operation, Dana says the effort was inspired by an eye-opening trip he took to the Middle East last summer, which forced him to challenge the unfailingly pro-Israel message he received as a Jewish Academy student.

“I got to see the region from the angle of giving everyone equal rights and equal standards of living. That definitely resonated with me much more than unconditionally supporting a country’s actions regardless of how negative they may or may not be,” said Dana, speaking on a cell phone from his hotel in Bethlehem.

Their trip comes as Israel attempts a massive, painful pullout of its 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, which would return to Palestinians a piece of land bordering Egypt that was conquered in the 1967 war. Because of that effort, Dana says he and the delegation will not be able to travel into Gaza.

But being in Israel while it negotiates the difficult pullout gives Dana and his students a first-hand view of the country’s climate. Although he says he’s seen a lot of orange ribbons – the colors of the fervent anti-pullout movement – none of the hotel clerks, taxi drivers or other common people he’s spoken to have aired passionate disagreement with the government’s plan.

“I think that the orange ribbons and the movement that’s seen in the media and around Israel is really a reflection of the ultra-orthodox minority within the country, because the reality is that most people in Israel are secular Jews – they are not ultra-religious, they don’t believe in settlements as a biblical right, they simply believe in living their lives every day and getting by,” said Dana.

Those misconceptions are similar to the ones Dana, a Carmel Valley Jewish Academy graduate, believes many Israelis have about the Palestinian-controlled areas just across the checkpoint.

“The common belief by the average Israeli is that if people around me who are

In fact, he says, he’s been welcomed – even thanked – by the Palestinians he’s met, a striking difference from the media’s occasional, but ominous, reports from the area.

“A lot of the dangerous situations we hear about are not as common as we believe. We hear about these things on the news and that’s really all we know as Americans,” said Dana.

The eight students making up the inaugural Bina Kehilla delegation arrive Tuesday. Dana said he strove to pick a group from diverse locations and socio-economic backgrounds: all the delegates are between ages 18-24, from varying religions, and will travel to Israel from places like Puerto Rico and Columbus, Ohio. Only Dana is from San Diego.

When they cross between Israel and Palestinian-controlled areas, Dana said, the delegates can expect a radical change similar to the one experienced when crossing from San Diego into Tijuana – with one difference.

“A lot of the poverty and sadness of Palestine is to me a direct result of Israeli occupation. It’s very sad to be continually walking by these 18- or 19-year-old Israelis with machine guns flung over their shoulders and see the Palestinian unemployment and suffering because they’re no longer allowed to enter Israel for work.”

As for entering what he admits is a “war zone,” Dana said he isn’t concerned.

“A lot of the misconceptions by Israelis and people around the world are that this place is very dangerous and very scary, because people don’t actually come here or they aren’t allowed. In just about eight days we will see what 90 percent of Israelis will never see, likely, in their entire lifetime.”

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