The bonds of friendship in a bitter war

In a year of unspeakable horror, Israeli and Palestinian teens join in a Maine refuge to seek a path toward peace

By

In the end, Ariel Tal came back and Saja Abuhigleh stayed.

Simple acts, perhaps. But also acts of courage and hope at this wooded Maine camp, a refuge from the devastating daily violence of the Middle East, a place where teenagers from Israel and Palestine meet in an effort to find solutions rather than propagate hatred.

Ariel had twice before attended Seeds of Peace, as the camp is named. But that was before a suicide bomber in Jerusalem last December blew up his friend just 20 feet from the ice cream store where Ariel was sprinkling jimmies onto a cone. Had he not lingered a few seconds, he knew, it could have been his funeral for which the neighborhood turned out.

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Amid the carnage, he looked down and realized he was wearing his green Seeds of Peace sweatshirt. "I got really confused," Ariel says. "I didn't know what I was looking for here, and why I was chasing it so hard."

Even before arriving for her first year at camp, Saja had her doubts about sharing a bunkhouse and breaking bread with Israelis. On her second day, she called home and learned Israeli soldiers had occupied Ramallah, her hometown. They had detained her great-uncle's son and struck the elderly man when he asked why.

"When [my family] told me, I started crying, and I said, 'I want to go to my home in Palestine right now! I can't stay here,' " Saja says, stumbling over her words in the rush to get them out.

But Saja stayed and Ariel shed short-lived thoughts of vengeance and came back, one of the small group of returning campers who offer support and mentoring to new arrivals each year.

Their experiences, however, attest to the challenges facing a camp that some call naively idealistic and others see as the only sane response to a world situation that seems to have lost all reason. Journalist John Wallach founded Seeds of Peace in 1993, prompted in part by the first bombing of the World Trade Center. He invited 46 teenagers that year, hoping to teach young people from this bitterly divided region how to listen to one another.

But the camp has never faced a summer quite like this one. Working for peace in the Middle East has always been a courageous choice. Doing it amid the horrific violence of the current intifada, and Israel's brutal backlash, is practically inconceivable. It is a violence that has become personal, even for teenagers, even for children.

And if the camp is to succeed – if the three weeks teenagers from each side spend laughing, arguing, and living together is to mean anything – it is a violence they somehow must find the strength to look beyond.

Getting acquainted

On June 24 – the same day President Bush called for the ouster of Yasser Arafat in a much-anticipated Middle East policy speech – 166 teenagers arrived at this sleepy lakeside retreat 30 miles northwest of Portland, where only the names of the campers and the constant presence of police cars at the gate indicate that this is any different from the dozens of other camps nearby.

Almost all the campers are sponsored by Seeds of Peace; all went through a lengthy, competitive application process to get here, and all were selected by their education ministries in part for their potential to lead.

Their mission: to get to know one another as individuals rather than as the enemy, in a place removed from the hatred back home. Though Seeds of Peace has expanded over its first decade – it now accepts young people from other regions of conflict and has established a year-round Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem – it still rests on the same simple premise: that interaction breeds understanding.

You don't have to like each other, camp director Tim Wilson reminds the campers at the opening ceremony – just recognize that each individual is a human being deserving of respect.

"You can go home, and yes, there are things there we have no control over," Mr. Wilson tells them. "But here, we do have control. You have the right to sit down and talk to someone you normally would not talk to."

The campers listen eagerly, applauding vigorously. When it comes time to sing the Seeds of Peace song, they belt it out: "People of peace, rejoice, rejoice/ For we have united into one voice...."

When the gathering ends, however, they cluster with others like them, finding comfort in a shared language and traditions. It takes a few days, or more, says Wilson, before many start branching out. When he sees girls from different sides "sitting around talking about P. Diddy," or boys discussing the World Cup, he knows they've reached common ground.

The camp is designed for informal interaction. Six to nine campers, grouped by conflict region, share each of the well-kept bunkhouses that line the shore of Pleasant Lake. Campers eat with a second group and join a third for the daily 90-minute "coexistence session." With this third group, they also play sports and participate in activities intended to build cooperation and trust, from a ropes course to a dance exercise in which they mimic each other's movements.

One of this year's new campers is Sami Habash, an articulate, blond Palestinian from Jerusalem who plans to attend Israel's prestigious Hebrew University next year although he's only 16. An intense young man, he's pleased to be in an environment where everyone wants peace. But his first interest is in scoring political points.

"I want to tell [the Israelis] that we don't have water at night. I go up to drink, and no water." During debate, Sami hopes "to see Israelis themselves freely admitting their country's mistakes."

Adar Ziegel, an Israeli from Haifa who for as long as she can remember has dreamed of being her country's prime minister, has less formulated plans. She's heard great things about the camp from her boyfriend and is excited to see whether teens on opposite sides of the checkpoints can find solutions.

Adar shares her bunkhouse and her coexistence session with Saja. Sami will be in a coexistence session with Ariel. The Monitor chose to focus on these four teens – two Israelis and two Palestinians – to gain some insight into the small triumphs, epiphanies, and setbacks that occur in these weeks of typical camp fun mixed with not-so-typical discussion and debate.

All four arrived with hope, but also a degree of skepticism – their homeland, after all, is in tatters. Saja, who has never met an Israeli before, came armed with photos, downloaded from the Internet, that graphically portray Israeli soldiers' abuse of Palestinians. She cannot forget the day she saw a soldier strike a small boy on the head, causing blood to spurt out.

And Sami, though ready to listen, has a long list of grievances from life under occupation to share with his Israeli counterparts.

In past years, says Ariel, discussions focused mainly on policy. "We just argued about the past and whether or not we want Jerusalem to be united." This year, "the new kids have personal experiences. I have experiences of my own."

Trying to win

In a nondescript one-room cabin, words – and allegations – fly.

Facilitator Marieke Van-woerkom had eased into the coexistence session with a rather vague question: "What does it take to have peace?"

But after a few predictable, detached responses – "Stop war," "End the bombs," "Both sides have to trust each other" – the campers switch gears to get at specific gripes, often using a "we-you" phrasing.

"We can't trust you," says one Israeli. "We gave you weapons in Oslo. Today, we see those weapons being used on us." And, he asks, why did Arafat reject Israel's offer at Camp David two years ago?

"It wasn't enough," responds a frustrated Palestinian. "We want our land, but also to be free in this land. We want borders like other countries. A government, like other countries."

"What – do you want us to build a government for you?" the Israeli shoots back.

"When you give us the land, you must trust us."

Saja objects when one Israeli refers to suicide bombers as terrorists. A fellow Palestinian likens them to messengers, delivering a message from a people who have no other resources.

"Do you think the message is being delivered in the way you want it delivered?" an Israeli girl wants to know.

After about 90 minutes, Ms. Vanwoerkom brings the session to a close with a final suggestion: "What I'd like for you to think about is, what it is inside of us that makes it so hard to truly listen and understand each other? You feel you're not being listened to, but where are you not listening?"

Ariel, in his third year, has seen campers doggedly stake out their own positions before: "They come to win." So did he, when he first arrived, a camper with right-wing politics and the view that the best solution was to remove all Arabs and "put them somewhere else."

"It changes," he says. "They face the reality and say, 'OK, we can't win. What next?' You realize understanding is the important part."

Still, even during this particular heated session, the teenagers have accomplished what many of their compatriots back home seem incapable of. They've carried on a debate without violence or, for the most part, raised voices.

Besides, reaching consensus is not really the goal. Vanwoerkom says she's wary of pushing campers too far, too fast. The "brick wall" they hit when they get back home will be that much harder – especially this year. "I'm trying to find that balance," she says, "between learning, development, growth – and going back home and being able to build on those lessons."

Facing challenges

Midway through camp, Adar finds her political foundations shaken.

She considers herself progressive, even pro-Palestinian.

But when Saja compares the Israeli occupation of Palestine to the Holocaust, Adar loses her composure. Her grandparents narrowly escaped Poland and Germany. Many of her relatives died in concentration camps.

"[Saja] said that from their point of view, we can just go back to Germany and Italy and stuff," says Adar angrily. "I myself would never go back to a place that put numbers on my grandparents' arms."

Still, she thinks carefully about how to teach as well as react, giving Saja a copy of "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl." "She's actually reading it," Adar says a few days later. "I feel that once she reads that book she'll have a much more wise understanding."

For Sami, facts have been the primary source of tension.

The Israelis in his coexistence session, he says, get them all wrong. "When I'm talking to [one Israeli settler], I'm counting on some facts that I know. When he changes the facts, I say I'm sure my facts are correct. He's changing my facts just to make it more difficult for me to talk!"

Like Saja, Sami in his session pressed the point that Israelis should leave Palestine. He remains baffled by the outburst his comment provoked.

"They got really crazy about it," the normally mild-mannered Palestinian says resentfully. "They said they were offended because some of them understood it as 'Go back to Hitler.' Others understood it as, 'I don't agree with the idea of a Jewish state.' "

Neither is true, Sami insists. What he wants is for Israelis to acknowledge they took land that wasn't theirs. Finally, he lets it drop. But the experience leaves a bad taste in his mouth. "At the beginning of camp, I had some more positive ideas about the people I was negotiating with. But now – some of [those opinions] have changed."

Final days

If the informal mingling of Israeli and Palestinian teens signals success, then camp this year could get high marks.

The camp's color games – three days of athletic competition – further erode national allegiances. The competition here is between blue and green, not Israel and Palestine.

"My team won!" says Saja brightly. She played baseball and canoed for the first time. Now she's running around like a senior before graduation, asking everyone she knows to write indelible-ink messages on her T-shirt.

Adar, meanwhile, eagerly recounts tales of the talent show, for which she coached a boys' bunkhouse in a ballet routine.

Now, with a teenager's bent for melodrama, she says she's heartbroken at the thought of leaving. "I'm going to hug a tree and carve myself into it," she sighs. She's already making plans to visit Nada, an Egyptian girl in her cabin, and says she's even forgiven Saja.

"We have the best bunk ever," Adar says firmly.

But all hasn't been perfect.

In the middle of color games, John Wallach, the camp's founder, died in New York.

"I didn't want to continue any more," says Ariel, who knew Wallach. "I was unable to think. But I realized the kids are looking up to me, and if I were to leave color games, they would do the same. [So] I kept on going."

Just days after Wallach's death, Dateline NBC runs an hour-long special about the camp, focusing on five teenagers from its first summer. One Israeli is now a right-wing settler, and a Palestinian he befriended at the timeis active in promoting nationalist causes. The other three also seem to have drifted a long way from the idealistic teenagers who shook hands with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat 10 years ago.

The camp may create an aura of hope, Dateline implies, but the dreams the teens walk away with will likely wither in the heat of the violence back home.

It's a charge the camp's leaders are familiar with. They accept that some campers will lose the lessons of peace.

Still, Bobbie Gottschalk, the camp's executive vice president, says she's heard from most of those original campers since Wallach's death. One, an Egyptian named Tamer Nagy, is this year's program coordinator. Koby Sadan, who attended Seeds of Peace in 1994 and '95 and just finished his three-year stint in the Israeli army, is also working as a counselor this summer.

Seeds of Peace now has more than 2,000 graduates, Ms. Gottschalk says. If just a few of them hang on to what they've learned – and eventually become leaders in their region – they could have a big impact.

"We're just trying to get people to think for themselves," she says. "And to care about people who are not like them. If we can expand the circle of their concern to go beyond people who are not exactly like them, then we've gone a long way toward building a citizen of the world."

Heading home

No one can say what makes the camp's message stick with one person and fizzle with another. All that's certain is that it will be tested back home, one reason the camp has created a year-round center in Jerusalem to continue work with former campers.

Saja is excited to have made Israeli friends. But she hesitates when asked what life will be like when she returns to Ramallah. "Here, I can do everything I want," she says. "But [in Palestine] I can't move.... To go to school from Ramallah to Jerusalem, I have to pass three checkpoints. When I stand there I think that I want to kill these soldiers, and I don't want peace with them."

Adar insists the bonds she has formed in three weeks, with Palestinians as well as Israelis, are stronger than those she's formed over three years back home. She still feels her country is "falling apart," but she takes heart from something Tim Wilson, the camp director, told her. "Tim [who is African-American] asked his father when segregation will end. And his father said, 'When this generation dies.' " She and her fellow campers, Adar hopes, will form a new generation.

Sami, however, finds it harder to imagine how Palestinians his age, pushed to a boiling point, might respond to a message of tolerance. "They're going to tell me, 'Can't you see what's happening? Aren't you living in this country? You still want peace after all you can see?' "

To a point, Sami shares their rage. He is furious when he thinks of Israeli tanks and guns overpowering unarmed Palestinians. Still, he has thought carefully about the situation. "There is no way but peace for Palestinians. The Israelis have power. They can manage with peace or without peace. We Palestinians have rocks. We have nothing. So, of course, I will keep trying."

A few days after he returns home to Jerusalem, Sami is already thinking about contacting the Israeli friends he made and visiting the Seeds of Peace center. Recent events have changed one plan, though: He no longer wants to attend Hebrew University, shattered last month by a cafeteria suicide bombing. The Technion, in Haifa, he reasons, is as good a school – and less of a potential target.

From what Ariel suggests, much of what Sami, Saja, Adar, and other new campers learned at Seeds of Peace this summer has yet to sink in. He has learned that the emotional highs campers take with them from Maine can quickly crash to devastating lows. Only then can they begin to decide whether what they experienced was illusion or truth. "The experience is different [for each one]," says Ariel. "Camp is a bubble."

Ariel, who toyed with the idea of vengeance after the suicide bombing he saw in December, is now firm in his own path.

"I got to a conclusion that we have no other way [but to work for peace]," he says. "We can do this. We can't do anything else."

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