Battling Israeli-Palestinian Animosity With Words

Article published on Sept. 27, 2009
community published
Article published on Sept. 27, 2009
16 young Israelis and Palestinians met last month for a 5-day seminar of dialogue in Aqaba, Jordan ■ What began in suspicion and hostility ended in an exchange of e-mail addresses – and an agreement that there’s a long, hard way ahead for both sides  By Desert Dweller Take 8 Israelis and 8 Palestinian, girls and boys, all in their 20’s; box them up in a hotel conference room for 5 days; try to
overcome years of mutual hostility, frustration, suspicion and anger; throw in the hardest, most sensitive political questions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and then attempt to bring the sides to understand and come closer to one another.

 It may seem less of a picnic and more like a potential fist brawl, but that is exactly what the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace, based in Jerusalem, Israel, has been trying to do for the past several years. The Institute arranges dialogue seminars that bring Israeli and Palestinian youngsters together in order to meet “the other”, learn about his/hers aspirations and frustrations, and try to see the person in front of you and understand him/her a little better.

Sadly, since the beginning of the second Intifadah (“uprising”) in 2000, few on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides – neighbors, to remind you – actually meet the people behind the stigma. The Palestinians’ interactions with the Israelis are mainly at roadblocks and during army raids in the West Bank, and with the Israeli settlers living in the area; the Israelis usually meet the Palestinian during the obligatory army service, when they commit terrorist attacks, and not on many other occasions. And of course, both sides feed on their local medias’, and the international one’s, coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict, biased or not, accurate or not, to get to know the neighbor.

With the barriers of suspicion and hostility raised so high in recent years, the chances of both sides to sit down and talk at eye-level are, therefore, quite slim. That lack of direct communications and dialogue is exactly what the Adam Institute’s people, along with their colleagues in the West Bank and with the support of the Canadian embassy in Tel-Aviv and Consulate in Ramallah, are trying to tear down.

To work

The method, as noted, is quite simple: put both sides in a hotel in a neutral country (Jordan), and bring up everything that hurts to the table. After a short reception and introduction, the participants were quickly thrown into the deep waters, and all the burning issues were brought up: Jerusalem\Al-Kuds, Israeli independence (“Atzma’ut”) versus the Palestinian disaster (“Nakbah”), the occupation, roadblocks, the “siege” on Gaza, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, Israeli army raids into Palestinian cities, and more.

Naturally, the debate heated up quickly, but the unique dynamic of the seminar prevented chairs and fists from flying: since no Israeli was fluent in Arabic, and the Palestinians didn’t speak Hebrew, everything said by one side had to be translated to the other side’s language by the translator. While breaking the fluency of the discussion, this also allowed both sides to cool down for a few seconds after speaking or before responding. There was just no point at yelling at the translator.

The counselors, Israeli and Palestinian in turn, tried to make each side see the other's perspective. Several sessions were held with the group divided along nationalities, each group with its own counselor, trying to reflect inwards. “Aren’t you trying to turn the Palestinians into the same type of thinkers as yourselves?” Israeli counselor Ruthy Pergament-Rubin questioned her counterparts several times.

The seminar faced frequent crises, with both side repeatedly failing to see how the other “can be so ignorant”. Different states, environments, educational systems, national narratives, along with plenty of bleeding wounds on both sides – all boiled down in the beginning into mutual accusations.

From an Israeli point of view, it felt that the Palestinian opinions on all subjects raised were tightly coordinated, almost monolithic, while the Israelis were much more diverse in their views on different issues. The Palestinian right for self-defense, “enclosed in the Geneva conventions”, as they put it, especially enraged the Israelis, who saw it as moral approval for committing terrorist acts. How, they asked, does firing rockets from Gaza on purely civilian population, such as the cities of Sderot and Be’er Sheva, or blowing up civilian buses, serve the Palestinian right to defend themselves? “Because of the siege”, the Palestinians answered, and then reversed the question – how can Israel justify bombing civilian targets, regardless of what the army says about nearby armed fighters or weapons caches? At one point the arguments almost escalated to a blowup, but during the whole seminar the mediators on both sides skillfully maneuvered the discussions away from the dangerous spots.

Easing it up

Part of the seminar was dedicated to learning a method of conflict management, and then letting mixed groups of Israelis and Palestinians find their own way to solve a conflict-oriented problem, using the proposed guidelines. This turned out to be an insightful exercise, as it helped both sides to learn more about the other side’s stance on the issue, and show them that a solution, albeit a theoretical one, was not completely out of hand. Ironically, it was two of the strictest hardliners from each side, put together in one group, that concocted an agreeable formula for joint sovereignty over Jerusalem\Al-Kuds.

As the seminar progressed, both sides also got to know each other better. The Israelis were pleased to hear opinions from the Palestinian side, which did not abide to the hardline tone presented in the beginning. The Palestinians, in turn, were surprised that not all Israelis believed Jerusalem\Al-Kuds to be exclusively theirs, and that some participants offered joint or international rule of the city in order to solve the problem around it. It was here that one of the Palestinians offered “freedom of religion, without boundaries” within the city, and got a vote of agreement from the Israeli counterparts. It seemed like a small crack in the solid-looking Palestinian wall.

The Palestinians were also unaware that many Israelis do not approve of the settlements in the West Bank, and that all participants highly condemn violence towards the Palestinians from the settlers. One of the Palestinians later confessed he thought that all the Israelis were as extreme in their political agenda as the rightist settlers, and was surprised instead to find a plethora of opinions, many of which opposed them. The distance between both sides at the beginning of the seminar could have been measured in light-years; towards its end, though the gap was still wide and deep, they found several points of correspondence, and even – hard to believe – agreement.

Where conflicts subside

Outside the debate room, the atmosphere was significantly lighter. Unsurprisingly, young people in their 20’s have similar interests, despite (not so) different backgrounds. Hanging out at the pool during breaks, for instance, it was discovered that bikinis have a similar effect on men from both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides…

Dining together was another effective ice-breaker. Meal conversation revolved around more “earthly” topics, such as the dating scene in Nablus, where to buy cheap car parts, and mutual teaching of fundamental terms in both languages (“shawkeh” in Arabic equals “mazleg” in Hebrew equals fork). When the conversation swayed to religion, one of the Palestinians was shocked to hear that one of the Israeli delegates is an atheist. “So why are you here in this world?” he questioned Liat (26) unbelievingly. The rude reply he got shocked, but also amused, him…

Regretfully, the divisions between the groups also surfaced after formal hours. Though the tourist city offers many attractions, the Palestinians politely refused Israeli invitations to hang out together during free time in the evenings. The reason, as the Israelis were later told, was that one of them has relatives in Aqaba, and being seen walking around with Israelis might cause trouble back home. This also corresponded with the fact that some of the Palestinians participants had not made it public that they were traveling to Aqaba in order to talk to Israelis – a fact which could cause repercussions (this is the reason this article deliberately omits the names of the Palestinian participants, or any detail about them).

Peace, Love and Understanding?

The seminar concluded with everyone giving their own thoughts about the process they underwent in the past 5 days. One Palestinian said that the seminar taught him a lot about the other side’s concepts and standpoints about the conflict, and they learned more than from watching TV or reading newspapers. A colleague of his added she knew the conflict is difficult, but the past days taught her she didn’t comprehend it was this difficult, and her friend joined in and said that she now sees things in a wider prospective. However, she added, she was not optimistic.

Sivan (25) from the Israeli side said that sitting and talking was the only way she saw of reaching any solution to the conflict, and that the strongest thing she feels is the need for a solution of two countries for two people. Hila (26), in contrary, said that she was deeply depressed by some of the things she heard during the seminar, and that she’s leaving Aqaba much more pessimistic and extreme in her opinions than she came. Amir (29), on the other hand, said that he arrived with firm opinions on the conflict and the ways to handle it, and that now he feels he need to think them over.

The seminar ended in a shaking of hands and exchange of e-mail addresses and Facebook user names. Perhaps a cliché, but time will tell if the bonds established during 5 days of rigorous debate and heated arguments, alongside joint meals and sunbathing, will have an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, 16 young Israelis and Palestinians doubtlessly learned and were influenced, one way or another, during this short seminar. And maybe, if more people from both sides met together more often, we could all be wiser about the ways to compromise and end this decades-old conflict.

• The writer was part of the Israeli delegation to Aqaba, organized by the Adam Institute for Democracy and Peace.