By: Rachel Culley
Rachel is a 17 year old high-school senior in MercerMaine. She attended two recent sessions of Seeds of Peace International Camp for Coexistence as a member of the American delegation.
“You are all dirty terrorists!” “Your soldiers are monsters! They wear uniforms that say – ‘Kill Palestinians.’” “We have no water. We cannot wash – we cannot wash anything.” “I am so terrified to go on a bus.” “Jerusalem is our holy land, and you take your soldiers there!” “We have suffered more. More of our people have died.” “You kill our children!” “You kill our children!”
A thin Palestinian girl started to cry, and an Israeli boy leaned back in his chair and sighed with frustration. Mashour, a dark eyed refugee from Ramallah, rolled up his sleeve to show a scar on his forearm – “From your soldiers.” Her curly head bobbing indignantly, Noya related the daily fear of Israelis, and the death of her aunt, killed by a bus bomb. The room exploded into argument: yelling, crying, words in English, Hebrew and Arabic. At Seeds of Peace camp in Otisfield Maine, Middle East teenagers were learning about the reality of “coexistence.”
The newspapers, T.V. and magazines all discuss the Arab/Israeli conflict, explain the significance of Jerusalem, and highlight key incidents of violence and terror. What they rarely delve into is the concept of “coexistence,” an unavoidable reality of the conflict. Despite the violence of the conflict, both Israelis and Palestinians exist on the same land, and will continue to do so forever. At Seeds of Peace, I watched kids my own age struggle to understand and achieve a “peaceful coexistence.”
In daily “coexistence sessions,” the Israelis and Arabs at first recounted their sufferings, and the ways that the “other side” had wronged their people. Both sides wanted to show that they were the blameless victims, that they had suffered more. A Jordanian girl said – “If you Israelis would just admit what you did and get out, we could solve this conflict.” The Israelis recounted the story of the Holocaust, the horror of suicide bombings, and constant fear. The Palestinians told stories of squalid refugee camps, poverty, and constant military occupation. Abigail, tears streaming from her eyes, said - “We suffer every day because of you. We suffered in the Holocaust. How can you compare?”
In the camp, they also had to live together. Ola didn’t sleep at all the first night. I woke up and saw her sitting in her bed, completely alert. “What are you doing?” I mumbled sleepily. She replied – “I can’t share a bunk with an Israeli.” Later that day, she had to play soccer with an Israeli partner. At the end of the practice, she walked over to me. “It was…it was OK,” she said “She’s not very good at soccer either.”
One day, Mashour said something new, “I think that maybe the Israelis also suffer. I think also that it is wrong for us to compare suffering. We both live there. We both suffer.” Across the room, Mohammud leaned forward to ask – “Well, but how can we both live there?” Silence. Then Abigail, who had barely said a word until now, spoke up: “We have to.” Ofer asked: “What do you mean?” Abigail said quietly: “Mashour sits at my table for breakfast, and we played tennis together. We talked about our families. What he said – his words really made me feel. He’s human, you know?” By seeing the enemy as a human being: as another person with a face, a family and real feelings, Abigail began to see that not all people from the “other side,” were suffering too, and that they had a right to live on the land as well.
It soon became apparent, that for every event in history, there were at least two versions of the story. Israelis told the forming of Israel as a great and sorely needed action. Palestinians recounted it as “al-Nakba,” or “the catastrophe.” Facts became subjective – there seemed to be two truths for every event, two records of each action. Slowly, the two sides realized that they had been taught completely different accounts of history. As they shared their “facts,” a new and more objective version of events emerged: one which recognized the biases of each side. The friendships that they had made allowed them to talk as people, one-on-one, not as representatives of their government, but as children who were tired of the situation.
An hour later, my group was out on the soccer field, running and playing. Joo-Joo, her blue head-scarf fluttering, passed a ball to Hadeel, who raced towards the goalpost. She paused. An Israeli girl was standing next to the net, in the perfect position to kick the ball in – her team-mate. Then she passed. Her team scored. I saw a new look cross Hadeel’s face. When the team gathered to celebrate, she walked up to the Israeli girl and gave her a high-five. Later that day, they would argue about politics, settlements and of course, Jerusalem, but for a moment, I just saw two girls playing soccer.
When people talk about the seemingly impossible situation in the Middle East, they often say, despairingly – “Will they ever learn to live together?” I don’t know the answer to this question, but I can tell them that I have seen it happen: I’ve seen Israelis and Palestinians come to the realization that they are both human beings, and both sides are suffering. I’ve seen them overturn their personal biases, and explore both versions of a historical event. Coexistence does not mean fluffy, idealistic visions of peace, nor does it mean a strict division enforced by a military. Coexistence is simply the idea that two human beings can come to the realization that both of them are suffering, both have been taught hatred and prejudice, and both have a right to exist on the land. Respect is necessary, and so is direct communication between both sides. I saw children my own age: victims of violence and hatred, come to a peaceful coexistence, and one they would take home with them. Coexistence is an intelligent, objective goal, based on the realization that neither side is going away, both have the right to exist, and both have suffered greatly in the conflict. It means refusing to be Pro-Palestinian or Pro-Israeli. It means refusing to be a tool of continuing unrest, and bringing a human face to the conflict: the face of a friend on the other side. To be a Seed of Peace.
Accounts of dialog experiences like this show people that there really is another, better way. MidEastWeb extends warmest thanks to Rachel for sending us this article and hopes that others will help us share their dialog experiences with the largest possible audience. Visit Seeds of Peace Web Site for more information about Seeds of Peace.
Comments about this article may be sent to MidEastWeb or posted at at our Web discussion forum.
Copyright 2002, by MidEastWeb for Coexistence and the author.
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