Mideast peace at the grass roots

During this black October, as the ground opened up under the Israeli peace movement, 30 Muslim and Israeli children from mixed economic backgrounds played tennis together three times a week in the affluent coastal town of Caesarea.

Eighteen children would arrive after school, as usual, from the nearby Arab villages of Jissr al-Zarka and Faradis. They'd take lessons with nine Jewish youngsters from upscale Caesarea and three from the adjacent working-class Jewish town Or Akiva. These third- and fourth-graders - who never would have met but for this tennis program -are part of the philanthropic Co-Existence Project, run by the Israel Tennis Center.

This during the height of fierce battles between the Arab Faradis residents and Israeli police. In three days of violence from Oct. 1 to 3, police were besieged by mobs throwing stones and grenades; some say gunfire, too. Police responded with live bullets, wounding several villagers.

Through all this, the children of Faradis continued to arrive at the tennis program in Caesarea.

Jissr al-Zarka is one of the poorest towns in Israel. From the highway overpass outside the village, residents hurled boulders down on passing cars. On Oct. 7, one hit a Jewish driver in the chest, killing him. Now police patrol the village and a police car sits every night on the overpass. Still, the children from Jissr kept coming to Caesarea.

In their months together, the children have become friends. There have been outings to visit one anothers' towns. In the spring, the children went on a day-long trip to Jerusalem, where they were hosted by the city's mayor. At the program's inauguration last autumn, an Arab lawyer delivered what was probably the first public speech in Arabic in Caesarea's history.

Then on Oct. 12th, when two Israelis were lynched in Ramallah, the coach in Caesarea got a phone call as the TV was showing their bodies being flung to the ground and mutilated. The Arab children would not participate "until the security situation calms down." One of the victims lived in Or Akiva.

Ironically, a delegation of donors from the United States has arrived to celebrate the tennis program's first anniversary this week. Mirroring the dramatic drop in foreign visitors to Israel, a third of the donors cancelled their trips.

"The future of the whole program is up in the air," said their coach. "Small as they are, the kids are bound to absorb something from home."

This tiny attempt at coexistence on the courts and its uncertain fate is a symbol for the many initiatives throughout the country during the past few years: Jewish-Arab camps, art workshops, Internet projects, conflict-resolution seminars, teacher conferences. This past month's catastrophe made individuals who crossed ethnic lines feel that their efforts have crumbled overnight. The despondent head of the veteran peace institute Givat Haviva said its decades of effort had proved "a complete failure."

Yet amazingly, throughout the country, there is a tentative grass-roots phenomena, a hesitant reaching out of hands in a society awash with hatred.

"Peace tents" have been cropping up on highways where Jews and Arabs drop in to try to resume normal dialogue. The first was in the northern Galilee, where some of the worst Arab-Jewish violence had taken place, including involvement of the Arab village Arrare, where two Israeli Arabs had been killed.

Yet even the peace tents have not been spared random vigilante violence.

One "peace tabernacle" set up by the Arab villages of Tira and Taibe, in cooperation with the Jewish towns of Tzur Yigal and Kohav Yair was torched; but the next morning, activists began to rebuild it atop the ashes. Eighty-five Jews and Arabs put a joint announcement in the Ha'aretz newspaper calling for an end to violence. There are vigils, peace walks and last weekend a bi-national demonstration in the mixed-population city of Haifa.

These phenomena may be dismissed as numerically insignificant gestures.

But unlike belligerence, conciliation doesn't make good news copy.

Maybe it's not just a fringe movement. An annual music festival in the Arab town of Abu Gosh recently drew large Jewish crowds. People are again eating hummus in an Arab restaurant in Herzlia, targeted by arson earlier this month.

And exactly a week after its interruption, the van from Jissr and Faradis pulled up with the children at the Caesarea tennis court.

"They're back!" said the jubilant coach. "And the whole group all behaved exactly like usual. Kids live only in the present."

Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer and writer living in the Tel Aviv area. She writes an opinion column for The Jerusalem Post.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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