U.S. Dialogue Camps for Israeli, Palestinian Teens Struggle Through Gaza-Israel Conflict

Challenging process is made even more so by events in at home.

Hands of Peace.
Hands of Peace.

NEW YORK – Travelling to beautiful seaside San Diego from Jenin or Jerusalem would ordinarily be a huge treat. But right now, for Mariam, Ayala and other Palestinian and Israeli teenagers participating in the Hands of Peace dialogue program, being far from home is excruciating.

“It’s been a hard day for me,” 18-year-old Mariam, who is from a religious Muslim family in Jenin, in the West Bank, tells Haaretz in a Skype interview. “Reading posts on Facebook about children and people dying. My mom just called me. The fact that people are dying and no one is doing anything about it ...” Her voice trails off and she begins to cry quietly.

Mariam’s participation in one of Hands of Peace's programs is controversial in her community. “I come from a very closed-minded society about peace programs,” says Mariam, a computer engineering major at a Nablus college. After her first experience with the program, during the summer of 2012, she was accused by relatives of being “brainwashed.” Her name and those of other participants quoted here have been changed.

She is one of 24 teens in a first-ever Hands of Peace program in California. There are another 43 participants in Chicago, where the organization was founded in 2002; it offers both a summer camp as well as a leadership training program.

HOP describes itself on its website as "an interfaith organization developing peace-building and leadership skills in Israeli, Palestinian and American teens through the power of dialogue."

The structured dialogue process used in the encounters, in which the Middle Eastern participants, along with American teens of various religious backgrounds, present and defend their people's narrative before learning to listen to their peers and eventually, in most cases, coming to develop empathy and understanding for them – is always a difficult one, HOP administrators say. But with deadly violence raging in the Gaza Strip and incoming rockets sending Israelis running for shelter – this year the tension has been made far more acute.

When HOP's programs began on July 6, it was just a few days after Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s burned body was discovered in Jerusalem, and a week after the bodies of the three murdered Israeli youths, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrah, were found near Hebron.

Though the contents of the dialogue sessions are confidential, the mother of one Israeli Jewish participant said her son told her that a Palestinian participant called Zionism a terrorist movement, and “almost fell off his chair” when the son described himself as a Zionist.

“Everybody did come with a level of intensity that we haven’t seen for a long time,” says Julie Kanak, the program’s executive director. “I really thought that we might get some Middle Eastern parents calling and thinking about pulling their kids out,” she adds, but that didn’t happen. “All of the participants are worried about what’s going on at home," and they are checking "more often” with their families.

A shift in perspective

Ayala, 17, who is from Rishon Letzion and will be a senior in high school, is considering serving in intelligence in the Israel Defense Forces after her induction.

“While we are having the activities during the day, I don’t think about it or feel it,” she says of the grim reality at home, in an interview also conducted by Skype. But when she has time to herself, Ayala says she has “a feeling of guilt that I’m not there. My family can’t go to the beach, has to go to shelters three or four times a day. Knowing that I have friends that have to be in the army all day [and] my parents are taking care of relatives – it doesn’t feel good. Today I was hearing what’s going on the radio and I started crying.”

Mariam and Ayala are in the HOP Extaordinary Leader (XL) training program for teens who previously participated in a summer session.

Mariam has had a lot to overcome while getting to know Israeli participants: Her family was kicked out of its home by IDF soldiers five times from the time she was 10 to 13 years old, she says in the interview.

“The first time it was Ramadan and my birthday, there was a knock on the door in the middle of the night and they said only ‘take your stuff, get out of the house.’ We never knew when we’d come back. We went to family houses nearby. They never tell you why. I have two sisters and one brother," Mariam explains.

"My younger sister, she is 13 now, still lives in fear of soldiers. Every time she hears a gunshot she starts crying. My brother still has nightmares. It's left a lot of anger and hatred, and a feeling of sadness because you don’t have a normal life."

When Mariam had to tell her story at the first HOP program she attended two summers ago, “there were Israelis who didn’t want to hear it. We had Israelis apologizing and we had [other] people arguing that [certain things] needed to happen. When you grow up with the fact that the only Israelis you see are soldiers, you come here expecting that everyone will abuse you, basically.”

Getting to know some Israeli Jewish peers has, however, helped shift her perspective, Mariam says now: “I still believe that the Israeli soldiers are what they are, but I also say that I met some pretty amazing Israelis who want the best for me, like I want the best for them.”

“The dialogues were really hard,” says Ayala. “Just hearing things that you never heard before. It’s eye-opening. I thought I knew everything about the conflict, and then I realized there are so many things Palestinians see us as, and we see them as. You don’t really know what’s going on until you know someone personally, even if you think you’re open-minded.”

Six of the participants in the 18-day HOP program in San Diego are Jewish Israelis, six are West Bank Palestinians, and three are Palestinian citizens of Israel. There are nine Americans – some Muslim, some Jewish, some Christian and some atheist. The program has operated in the Chicago area since 2003, where at present seven Jewish Israelis, seven Palestinians from the West Bank, four Palestinian citizens of Israel, and 14 American Jewish, Christian and atheist teens are getting to know one another.

The IDF’s ground incursion into Gaza last Thursday began midway through the HOP programs. “There are Palestinian kids who have relatives in Gaza, Israeli kids who have brothers who are soldiers. So far, our kids’ relatives and friends are safe, to the best of our knowledge,” says Scott Silk, the program’s site director at the Pacific Ridge School, in the San Diego suburb of Carlsbad, where he is also a teacher.

When the Israeli army moved in, Azim Khamisa, a California-based trainer in nonviolent communication, and Ami Yares, an American-Israeli who plays music about peace were due to make presentations. Silk and other HOP staff decided to mark the solemnity of the day by asking for a moment of silence to acknowledge the suffering of everyone in the region. Then, Silk says, “an amazing thing happened.” An Israeli-Jewish teenager stood up as a sign of respect. Slowly, one by one, all the others rose as well. “There was not a dry eye in the house,” according to Silk. Jewish kids ended up singing along with Yares in Arabic, and the Palestinian kids in Hebrew, arm in arm.

Last Friday, the group attended services at both a local mosque and a Reform synagogue.

“We as a staff were extremely anxious about this,” says Silk. “We had a three-and-a-half-hour meeting discussing whether or not to attend the services. What would the reaction be from congregants? Would there be dirty stares, someone saying something? What if the Israeli kids got up and walked out of the mosque, and the Palestinian kids from the synagogue? We had tremendous trepidation about what was going to go down.”

But much to the staff’s relief, the visits went smoothly.

The current crisis, Silk notes, “has added a level of heaviness and despair to the program that we hadn’t previously seen, but also shockingly it has really served as a unifier for the kids and has been a very, very powerful thing for them, recognizing the importance of the work they are doing.”

'No one truth'

The launching of Operation Protective Edge led to the cancellation of part of another endeavor in which Americans, Israelis and Palestinians participate: the two-year Building Bridges Middle East-U.S. program for 10th- and 11th-grade girls. Denver, Colorado-based Building Bridges MEUS teaches participants leadership and communication skills that they can employ in their own home communities, and involves regular gatherings in those communities, intense summer sessions, retreats and so on. But don’t call this a coexistence or dialogue program.

“The word coexistence takes on a specific political perspective in Israel and Palestine, and it’s an important part of our approach that we don’t have a particular political ethos or political outcome,” Jennifer Sarche, the co-executive director, told Haaretz. Since 1994, about 1,200 women have graduated from Building Bridges MEUS.

The Israelis and Palestinians in the current cohort were due to gather this week in Turkey. But instead Building Bridges is running an intensive facilitator-training course in Colorado.

“With the current conflict and violence we had concerns about the safety of travelling,” says Sarche. “For the teens it’s very difficult to be away from their families. They want to be with them and it detracts from the community we try to create, which is very focused within.”

Seeds of Peace, operating since 1993, is possibly the longest-running summertime dialogue-and-coexistence program for Israelis and Palestinians operating in the United States. It works with participants from the United Kingdom and South Asia, as well as Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Yemen, and also focuses on domestic U.S. immigration issues within various communities.

The program for Israeli and Palestinian participants is due to begin in early August, and staffers from the region are being trained now.

“It’s incredibly hard and we are not naïve to think it isn’t harder for young people to participate in this climate,” says Leslie Adelson Lewin, Seeds of Peace’s executive director. Participants range in age from 14 to 17: A total of 60 Israelis, both Jewish and Palestinian, 45 Palestinians and 15 teens each from Jordan and Egypt will attend the camp in Portland, Maine.

“Campers will have been personally affected on a day-to-day basis, by the pressure of their communities and the fear and hatred we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks,” says Lewin. “There is very real anger, very real frustration and very real emotion that is always part of the process and even more so this year.”

Seeds of Peace continues to work with camp alumni in their home countries long after their summer experience, engaging both the teens and their parents in ongoing dialogues, as well as training conflict mediators. The program has about 5,000 graduates, whom they call “seeds,” around the world.

Hagai Efrat, 23, is from Mevasseret Zion, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He attended the Seeds of Peace camp during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and again in 2008. He was discharged from his army service last March, and in September will begin studying Arabic. He returns to Seeds of Peace this summer as a counselor.

“Both sides are coming from a current trauma, both sides are experiencing war. It will be hard for them to listen to other people,” says Efrat. “It’s hard to hear things whose existence you weren’t aware of.

"I grew up knowing that Israel won the ‘73 [Yom Kippur] War. Egyptians think they know they won. It sounds ridiculous. Hearing that was the first time I understood that there is no one truth. Just different ways of looking at truth,” he adds. “It’s very hard every time it’s done. People are really into their own suffering. It’s going to be especially hard this time.”

Seeds of Peace camp counselor Eias Khatib, 25, of Palestine, center, talks with a camper in Otisfield, Maine. July 17, 2014.Credit: AP

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