It was a regularly scheduled research trip to the Middle East.
Little did Kansas University professors Deborah Gerner and Phil Schrodt know they would find themselves in a unique position to observe the historic departure of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the political scene.
Speaking by phone from her hotel in the West Bank Palestinian town of Ramallah, Gerner described a region reeling from events and facing an uncertain future. Sharon, prime minister since 2001 and leader of the new centrist Kadima party, had a massive stroke on Wednesday.
"The biggest issue of course is: What happens with his political party?" Gerner said. "The question is: Is the Kadima Sharon or does it have a life of its own? There is no agreement now. At the moment, the whole area is so shocked."
Gerner and her husband, Schrodt, have been in the Middle East since Dec. 21. They attended an international conference on creative nonviolence in Bethlehem. They also are doing research for a project, funded by the National Science Foundation, examining the relationship between repression and dissent in several Middle Eastern countries.
Gerner said the trip will help keep her current on Middle East politics, a subject she teaches at KU.
The journey has taken them to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Gaza, visiting shops, restaurants, and nongovernmental organizations. They've met with a variety of residents and read the local newspapers.
The reaction to Sharon's illness has been diverse, Gerner said.
"Everyone agrees that it is a profoundly important event and that whether one adored or detested Sharon's policies he has certainly been one of the most important military and later political figures on the Israeli scene," she said.
And there is no question that a great change in Israeli politics is ahead, Gerner said.
She said some Israelis visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray for Sharon.
"Many are rallying behind him, either because they agree with his policies or for humanitarian reasons or just because he is the leader of the country," she said.
But others aren't showing their support. Those who objected to his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza or other actions and policies are unsympathetic, Gerner said.
The reaction is mixed, too, among Palestinians. Gerner said a Reuters photo showing a Palestinian child holding a sign telling Sharon to go to hell did not represent the Palestinian reaction.
"We walked all over Ramallah and observed nothing similar," she said. "People were very somber. Again, many of them disagree with his policies but were not expressing it in this way."
Israeli elections are set for March 28. Sharon brought together people from the Likud - his previous party - and Labor parties to form the new Kadima party.
Now those parties are working to draw back Kadima members. Much will depend on the ability of other Kadima leaders to hold the party together after Sharon is gone from the scene, Gerner said.
The question will be: "How successful are they in holding onto the people that left their own political parties to join Kadima?" Gerner said. "That in turn will depend on what kind of political list for the election is developed. If people think that Kadima can still have a good political list that has a success of winning, then maybe they will continue their membership in Kadima."
In Ramallah, Gerner said the focus was on the Palestinian elections, which are set for Jan. 25. Political posters hang everywhere. And residents are planning for the upcoming Eid al-Adha or "feast of the sacrifice," which is celebrated at the end of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. There is activity in the streets. But inside shops, in private conversations, residents talk of Sharon, she said.
"It wasn't jubilant. It was serious. Sometimes people, maybe, were happy or sad, but they weren't saying: 'Hurray, Sharon is dying. This is wonderful.' They were saying: 'This is very serious. We don't know what it means.' No one knows what it means. Maybe in three or four or five days we'll have a better idea," she said.