Going Out of Their Way for Coexistence

They depart from Israel on Saturday: Four Palestinians and four Israelis will try, in their words, "to break the ice far away from the Middle East." The delegation, Breaking the Ice 2004, is heading to the frozen continent of Antarctica for a long trek across the massive ice fields.

They depart from Israel on Saturday: Four Palestinians and four Israelis will try, in their words, "to break the ice far away from the Middle East." The delegation, Breaking the Ice 2004, is heading to the frozen continent of Antarctica for a long trek across the massive ice fields. The initiative came from Heskel Nathaniel, a 41-year-old Israeli who for the last 10 years has been living in Germany, and Doron Erel, a professional mountain climber and veteran adventurer.

The delegation's departure was officially announced in July at the Reichstag in Berlin. The 35-day trek will begin with a flight to southern Chile. There the participants will board two yachts with sails bearing large drawings of the Israeli artist Menasheh Kadishman and the Palestinian artist Suleiman Mansur of Ramallah and sail for a week through difficult conditions to the shores of Antarctica. Two days after docking there, they will set off on a 10 -day trek on the ice fields of the South Pole.

Antarctica was selected as the destination for this trek because, among other reasons, it does not belong to any country. It was declared an international continent and is used primarily as a research venue. The delegation plans to reach the summit a previously unclimbed peak while coping with extremely difficult ground and weather conditions. The peak they plan to scale is about 20 kilometers inside the continent, and they will travel there over two to three days tied to each other with ropes, advancing slowly and dragging their gear and food on sleds across the ice. On the peak, the team will hold a ceremony giving the place a name that reflects their desire for peace.

There are two women and six men in the group. In addition to Nathaniel and Erel, the initiators of the project, the participants are: Palestinian journalist Ziad Darwish, who lives in the eastern part of Jerusalem; Olfat Haider, a physical education teacher from Haifa; Yarden Fanta, who immigrated to Israel at 14 from Ethiopia by embarking on a long trek across the wilderness of Sudan and is now completing a doctorate in education and psychology; Avihu Shoshani, a Tel Aviv lawyer; Nasser Quass, the manager of a Palestinian soccer team who was in the past sentenced to three years in an Israeli jail because of his membership in Fatah; and Suleiman al-Khatib, who at 14 was imprisoned in Israel and then released 11 years later.

Doron Erel says this is not a regular trek, and there is a lot of excitement surrounding the preparations. The delegation met in the summer for a week-long preparatory trek to Chamonix in the French Alps and already then special relationships began to develop among the group members: because of the makeup of the team, issues such as mutual assistance and working together to face challenges took on special meaning.

Erel does not hesitate to admit that this is a "naive" project, but immediately stresses that the naivete is the participants' way of doing something that makes clear their shared desire for peace.

"When eight people march for long days tied to each other with a rope that is meant to save their lives, and when they sleep in small tents in difficult conditions, there is a fraternity created that goes well beyond political-diplomatic disagreements," he says. Those going on the trek, he says, have a strong desire to combine a challenging and interesting adventure with an intense need to initiate shared projects for the two peoples. Cynical remarks that it would be better to send the two peoples in their entirety to Antarctica and not just a small delegation, do not elicit a smile from him.

Attracting attention from the local and international media is one of Erel's declared intentions. Until now, the delegation members have prompted great interest abroad, including Arab media outlets, but they have encountered a certain degree of apathy from the Israeli press.

The team is being funded by international organizations working to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer together, the sale of the broadcasting rights to a feature-length television documentary that will be filmed during the expedition and sponsorship from individuals and commercial enterprises.

Erel says that the delegation has received endorsements from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox; the president of the German Bundestag, Wolfgang Thierse, and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat.

When the delegation returns to Israel, says Erel, the organization he set up with Nathaniel to arrange the trek, Extreme Peace Missions, will continue to initiate educational and extreme adventure projects for children of the two nations.