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In Israel, Jews and Arabs aim to bridge 'independence' and 'catastrophe' narratives

As the Jewish state celebrates Independence Day on Wednesday, a small but growing band comes together to share experiences.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2009

In Beit Oren, west of Haifa, Israelis and Palestinians light candles to honor the loss of family, friends, and countrymen at a two-day meeting that jointly marks Israel's Independence Day and the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe.

Ilene R. Prusher/The Christian Science Monitor

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Bet Oren, Israel

It happens every year around this time: Israelis celebrate the founding of their state in 1948 while Palestinians solemnly mark the same period in history they call the Catastrophe, and never the twain shall meet.

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Except, that is, when people insist that they do. On this hilltop not far from Haifa, Israelis and Palestinians are gathering for a two-day event that incorporates both narratives under the banner of "Together in Pain, Together in Hope." A program marking both Haatzmaoot and Nakba – "independence" and "catastrophe," respectively – aims to expose participants to the experience of the other while not denigrating one's own. For some, this is one small route to the elusive Middle East peace that many of their compatriots see as passé.

Another round of Fatah-Hamas unity talks ended fruitlessly Tuesday in Cairo, with Palestinians still unable to reach consensus on how to respond to international demands for peace negotiations. On the Israeli side, the rise of a new center-right government that has not affirmed its commitment to a two-state solution. This diplomatic stalemate has resulted in a dominant perception among Israelis and Palestinians that things are only going worse. The least one can do, many feel, is to spend these emotionally charged days with others who think like them.

While Jews and Arabs at this joint event don't claim to be the majority, they do appear to be growing in number – from 40 when the gathering started in 2003 to 230 participants this year, not including scores of latecomers who had to be turned away for lack of space. What's also noticeable, both the organizers and returnees note, is that the event is continually drawing new faces, including more "mainstream" people and not just year-round specialists in peace and coexistence work.

"I felt after this last war in Gaza, I couldn't just celebrate Independence Day as usual, so I was glad to find another framework entirely," says Beni Gassenbauer, a dentist who lives in Jerusalem and immigrated to Israel from France 30 years ago. "I didn't see myself staying in Jerusalem and having a party as if nothing has happened."

Still, the idea of sharing the most important secular holidays in the Israeli calendar – Tuesday was Memorial Day, honoring war veterans and victims of terrorism, and Wednesday is Independence Day – with Palestinians commemorating the Nakba (officially celebrated May 13 this year) was one he felt he'd do better to keep from his family.

"My family is very right-wing, and we find it harder and harder to speak about politics," Dr. Gassenbauer says. "I didn't tell my father I was coming here."

Nadia Mahmoud Giol, who grew up in a small Arab village in the Galilee and now lives in Upper Nazareth, has come back to the gathering for a second year. Last year's experience so moved her that she convinced a few other Palestinian friends to come. Others told her she was wasting her time.

"I heard reactions from Arab friends saying, 'the Jews don't believe the truth, they don't believe in our Nakba,' and I say, 'You haven't met them to talk about it,' " Mrs. Giol explains. "People says it's nonsense, these gatherings – you're just talking. But I don't think so; I think it's crucial. And I think being here has an effect, in that you affect the people around you when you go home. As for me, I'm trying to bring up my children to know both sides of the story."

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