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Confronting Terrorism

McLean High School graduate travels to Israel for counterterrorism fellowship.

Kathleen Swan knew for months that her daughter was planning to travel to Israel in the summer of 2006. She had never been thrilled about the prospect, but when war broke out between Israel and Lebanon in early July — just a few weeks before the scheduled trip — Swan panicked.

"I was on the phone going 'this is ridiculous, you should wait until there is peace in Israel,' and Sandra just laughed at me and said 'yeah right,'" said Swan.

Swan's daughter, Sandra Beutler, grew up in McLean and is a graduate of McLean High School. This month, the 20-year-old will begin her senior year at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire where she is studying international relations.

For the past few years, Beutler worked as a research assistant for Allan Stam, a Dartmouth professor who specializes in counterterrorism. Stam recommended a special two-week counterterrorism fellowship program to Beutler, and she decided to submit an application.

BEFORE BOARDING A PLANE to Israel on July 29, Beutler took a moment to think long and hard about her decision to travel to a country immersed in violent conflict.

"There was time where I sat down and really acknowledged the risks of getting on a plane to Israel during a time of war, but I trusted the foundation to keep us safe, and my trust was well placed because they always put our safety first," said Beutler.

Beutler put her safety in the hands of the Foundation For Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan policy institute that is "dedicated exclusively to promoting pluralism, defending democratic values and fighting the ideologies that promote terrorism." The foundation's annual Undergraduate Fellowship on Terrorism takes 45 selected applicants to Israel for two weeks of intensive training in counterterrorism tactics.

In Tel Aviv, the students learn how terrorism threatens democracies around the world, and attend several lectures by experts in the field of terrorism. The students are also escorted to border zones to visit military and police facilities, and engage in hands-on, live-fire exercises.

Across the nation, 184 college students applied to this summer's program. Of the 45 who were accepted, six dropped out at the last minute due to the outbreak of war in Israel. However, Beutler said that she never really feared for her well-being — in fact, she extended her stay by one more week because she "could not bring herself to leave."

"At the end of the day, there were few times when I felt worried for my personal safety," said Beutler. "In Tel Aviv we did not go north until after the cease-fire had started and we had our security detail and several Israelis that traveled with us."

Beutler said that she felt that the learning experience of traveling to the northern border of Israel outweighed the dangers of the journey.

"It was so worth it," she said. "We could not have learned what the face of terrorism looked like any better, than by going there."

Beutler was amazed at how quickly citizens would mobilize after a bomb would hit.

"It was devastating, but what was heartening was that even though the damage of a katusha rocket is pretty significant, seven hours later, they would already be reconstructing," said Beutler. "So Haifa remained very beautiful as a city which was amazing."

BEUTLER and the other fellowship participants had the chance to meet with several high ranking officials including Israel Defense Force commanders from undercover units, the Indian Ambassador to Israel, Israeli lawyers and several Arab Israeli politicians of Palestinian descent.

"It was interesting speaking with people of Palestinian descent and getting their thoughts on the situation," said Beutler. "Their perspective was very valuable and so sad. They feel they are a part of the nation and they enjoy the freedoms that they have as Israeli's, but at the same time, there are people attacking their country."

In one city, Beutler spoke to a mayor of Palestinian descent who told her that "there was no happiness for him to have."

"He said that he knew people were coming for his land and making it unsafe, but that when Israel goes to fight them, in many cases those are his aunts and uncles," said Beutler. "There is no pride in this situation for them."

When Beutler traveled to the West Bank, she had the opportunity to meet with a former Israel Defense Force commander who told her about the time he arrived at a checkpoint with his wife and seven children only to have four men fire 369 bullets into his car. His son who was sitting in the front seat was killed instantly, and 40 bullets were pulled out of his wife before she died as well.

"What was so amazing was that when I was speaking with this man, there was no hate in him," said Beutler. "He told me that he spoke with his children later and asked them if they wanted to leave the West Bank, and it was just so touching as he described how they wanted to stay in their homes ... and then he was part of a seven-year operation that required him to drive through that same checkpoint everyday."

THE CONSTANT NEED for vigilance and security in Israel left a lasting impression on Beutler. In the evenings, she and the other students like to unwind at a local bar called "Mike's Place" that had been suicide-bombed twice in the past year. Every night, their bags would be searched for explosives at the entrance.

"Security is a way of life there," she said. "Dealing with danger is something that Israelis struggle with on a daily basis ... I mean, I'm from McLean, Virginia — you can't really get any more opposite than that."

According to Beutler, it was not uncommon to see citizens walking around McDonalds with M16s. Bags were constantly being searched, regardless of whether you were a man or woman.

"Over there, even a pregnant woman can be a suicide bomber," said Beutler.

Experiencing a daily existence so drastically different from her own only served to strengthen Beutler's resolve to stay involved with counterterrorism efforts.

"I love the American way of life, and I want to maintain that level of innocence that is granted to Americans in terms of not being afraid and being able to go about their everyday life," said Beutler. "Terrorists generally try to target places with the highest number of civilians and with the youngest civilians ... there is nothing pure about this fighting — the rules of war have just been thrown out and at the end of the day it is unacceptable to target civilians to prove a political point."

Now that her daughter is home safe and sound, Kathleen Swan feels somewhat differently about the trip.

"It was so worthwhile," said Swan. "The people they met and the experiences they had extended her view."