Building Jewish - Palestinian bridges, Israeli student Hava Kretzmer attended a Shabbaton in Gaza, December 19-20, 1997. Sponsored by Netivot Shalom - Oz VeShalom, 84 Israeli university students met with 140 Palestinian students for this remarkable weekend. Hava's 5-page article vividly captures both the tensions and difficult feelings that such meetings raise, as well as the strong hope that, through exchanges such as these, the gap between the two peoples can be bridged, and real peace can flourish.

A Weekend in Gaza
by Hava Kretzmer

On Friday morning, while gathering up under a tree and waiting for the bus, I was thinking for the second time that morning whether spending the Shabbat in Gaza was really the right thing to do on such a rainy weekend. However, judging by the surprisingly large number of students who arrived, it seemed like quite a few people had decided this was definitely an opportunity not to be missed.
Arriving at the Erez Crossing at the entrance to the Gaza strip, after a shorter drive than I had expected, we were met by Israeli men and woman soldiers, who took our IDs, in order to swap them temporarily for `passports' - our visitor permits. A big sign struck us, indicating that this was the end of the Israeli area of jurisdiction, and from here on we were in the area of the Palestinian Autonomy Authority. This had the effect of turning a distant reality, known as the Palestinian Authority (PA), from theory into concrete reality, a notion which ended up being the main motif of the whole weekend in Gaza: information and opinions changing their theoretical substance into a substance of flesh and blood.
Our first event took place there, at Erez, discussions about what we expect of the weekend, under the loud sounds of rain on the roof of the shelter which was so often described in the newspapers as the hosting place for Israeli-Palestinian leadership meetings, but more often mentioned as the place where people wait hours on end for their permits for entering or leaving the Gaza strip, to be confirmed.
The participants from the Israeli side were students from universities throughout Israel, mostly religious, and often with clear views about the necessity of the peace process, but not always; some of the non-religious students belonging to the peace movement `Dor Shalom' (a movement who has cooperated on a number of times with Netivot Shalom), and others who had just come across notices to do with the weekend, and had decided to join. There were a number of students who not only did not belong to our movement, but also objected to its political ideas, but thought it was important to meet Palestinians and to be aware of their reality.
At the other end of Erez, the `Blue Police' was awaiting us: they are the body in charge of internal security, as opposed to the `Green Police', which is seen by the Palestinians as the army, which is in charge of guarding the Autonomy's borders.
The police drove in front of our bus, while we passed through the refugee camps Burej, Marazi, and Nuseirat. The fact that Gaza is known as the most highly populated place in the world was not yet apparent on the outskirts of the city itself. Inside the big open areas we passed through, still quite a few kilometers away from the centers of population, was the house of the Gaza mayor, amidst the mud, surrounded by a tall concrete wall and piles of earth.
But in the areas of the refugee camps, although less crowded than expected, the poverty was obvious. Toddlers with summer clothes and no shoes were walking in the rain, looking at us with curiosity.
Passing by Netzarim, the Jewish settlement, it seemed like the clear ideology of those living there couldn't be ignored, and it didn't take great understanding of the political conflict to realize the clear statement that was being made. The red roofs and the greenery guarded by an Israeli soldier, formed a scene that stood out in the Gaza landscape.
Whether one claims the presence of Israelis in the strip as a blessing, or whether it is seen as a curse, there is one thing that cannot be argued: it is definitely a presence, and a strong one, if I judge by what we later heard during the Shabbat from the Palestinians.
All the facts I had heard and read about Gaza's sadness and ugliness, came to life when reaching the actual city. Although it was Friday, and therefore most shops were closed, we came across a few open ones, such as a vegetable stall which held one cabbage, a few bananas, and not much more. It was impossible to miss the huge pictures of Yasser Arafat everywhere, even in our hotel room. Strikingly disturbing was the fact that all the houses we came across, with no exception, looked unfinished. Sitting in the mostly muddy roads, there were wires and scaffolding still sticking out of everywhere; the color of concrete being the dominant one, it seemed as if someone once had an idea of building a home, then abandoned the idea in the middle in every case.
The few patches of attempted beautification and serenity, such as the garden by the entrance to the authority's buildings, and even our hotel which was considered luxurious, always turned out to be illusions: Gaza could not be escaped. The gardens only looked ironic, instead of pretty, in the gray and battered scenery surrounding them; the hotel's illusion was broken when finding out the bathrooms in many of the rooms were out of order. It was as if everybody was aware of how hopelessly depressing Gaza is, but here and there, there were attempts to make things look different - attempts which only sharpened the sadness of the city.
When we arrived at Hotel Palestine, on the Gaza beach, we were met by a long line of Palestinian students, accompanied by more policemen and television cameras. The line was much longer than we'd expected; some one hundred students turned up, as opposed to the twenty we'd expected. To our surprise, there were only a couple of girls, and later on even they left. We were quite disappointed at this, and the explanations given, about it being too cold for them to come, etc., were somehow not convincing.
Friday evening was the `warm-up' before the heart of the matters came up. Socializing and getting over the first feelings of embarrassment and strangeness, took up the beginning of the evening. But after the opening greeting speeches, which mostly expressed the general good intentions of peace on both sides, and therefore stayed on the level of formalities, the conversations in groups came.
We sat in groups of about twenty participants, with one person in each group who was able to translate. In the group I was in, it took a while to break the ice, but through out the whole session there was a definite sense of eagerness on part of the Palestinians to hear our point of view, while not being afraid to express their sometimes very harsh views of Israel.
When discussing the issue of terror - an issue which came up often during the weekend - it was obvious that they weren't aware of the devastating effect the terror acts had had on the Israeli people. One of the Israeli participants pointed out that if the Palestinians who were for a peace settlement would have made a bigger effort of voicing their objections to terror, and by doing that, portrayed a more positive picture of the Palestinian people, the political situation today might have been very different. The response to this was great interest, and it seemed to sink in with significant impact, as far as raising the awareness of the responsibility the Palestinians have towards this issue, as their own interest.
On their part, they expressed the other side of the coin - the tremendous difficulties involved in living under the circumstances of closure, when even in relatively peaceful days the economical situation is unbearable. One Palestinian participant said: "In Israel everybody's making such a fuss over the unemployment in Ofakim; but an unemployed in Israel earns more than a fully employed Palestinian in Gaza." I felt that these sessions on Friday evening had a significant effect on both the Jewish and Arab students who took part, on a few levels: the social level, of having such contact with the `other side', and finding ourselves joking with each other, but also on the more directly political level of being able to express painful points face to face, with honesty and strait-forwardness.
Strangely enough, as the atmosphere eased up, the debates and conversations became more direct. Participants said things which weren't always easy to hear, and the feeling that was dominant on the first part of Friday evening, when speeches bordered on clich‚s (especially on the Palestinian side), faded away and gave place for real dialogue to be formed.
What seemed to me as the second high point of the weekend, at least through the eyes of an Israeli, was the lecture given by Hisham Abd el Razeq. Abd el Razeq is a member of the Palestinian Authority, and belongs to the `Fatkh.' He had formerly spent twenty years in an Israeli prison, after he was caught during an attempt to carry out a terrorist act in Israel. The scars on his face and hands acted as reminders of his past to the spectator.
Although at first when he was introduced, I had an instinctive feeling of discomfort, I ended up seeing things very differently. The fact that such a person, who twenty years ago was so full of hostility and sense of despair that he was willing to commit such a terrible act, today holds totally changed views of the situation, turns his words into more powerful than those of others. He spoke with great passion of the situation, and expressed the feelings of the Palestinian people towards the static position of the peace process lately.
Netzarim turned out to be as it had seemed on our bus trip: a point of anguish to the Gaza citizens. Abd el Razeq said that the area of Netzarim, which is populated by a small number of families, is practically the same size as one of the refugee camps, which holds approximately 120,000 people. He spoke fluent Hebrew and most of the time translated himself to Arabic. But in the flurry of his excited words, and his enthusiasm to convey his massages to the Israelis, he often went into Hebrew, leaving the Palestinian students crying out for his translation.
When questioned about the activity of the Palestinian Authority to stop terror, Hisham Abd el Razeq said that a lot was being done, but Yochanan Tzoref, who throughout the weekend translated and coordinated between both parties, responded by expressing his disappointment from the lack of what he called "reading the Israeli public" by the Palestinians. If objection to terror would get more publicity, if the fact that people such as Abd el Razeq had made such a drastic change of views through understanding that the only way to solve the conflict is by forming an agreement would be known, if there would be publicity of the fact that in many ways not only was the Oslo agreement a step towards peace but also a sacrifice not only to Israelis but to Palestinians, too, this would reflect positively on the whole process.
The delay in carrying out the rest of the agreement is based largely on the feeling of the Israeli public that the Palestinians do not want peace, are not trustworthy, and "will always ask for more." But if the Israeli public would know that, as Abd el Razeq pointed out, the sacrifice of a dream of a whole Israel was given up not only by Jews, but also by Palestinians, and even formerly extreme ones such as himself, the feeling of cooperation and trust towards the peace process might be much bigger.
During the time spent in Gaza, a few of the Israelis made attempts to question the Arab students about the way they see the Palestinian Authority. These attempts came to nothing, and it seemed as if this subject was a taboo. These silences reflected the internal problems of the Palestinians in the Authority, which, according to Tzoref, are a cause for delay in their own progress in building a society. The Israeli presence in Gaza, Judea and Samaria since the Six-Day-War, taught them forms of political leadership which today do not exist in their own authorities. Tzoref stressed that the feeling today towards the PA is that the people are treated with disrespect, paternalism, and distance. The Palestinians will not let this continue for long, and at some stage they will insist on forming a more democratic, and maybe more Israeli, form of leadership.
Later that afternoon, Yitzhak Frankenthal spoke of the importance of peace as reflected in Jewish sources. When, later on in his talk, he told the participants about the murder of his son Arik three and a half years ago by the Hamas, the power of meetings like the present one seemed to sharpen in my eyes. At this moment, the pain of the conflict in its harshest form - the death of a son - was weighed against the option we were trying to experience; the option of understanding and compromise, while looking each other in the eye, and seeing a companion for peace, instead of hostility.
That evening, after long talks in informal groups, and a joint stroll down to the sea - the beauty of which seemed like it was there as a message of condolence to Gaza - we gathered back once more for parting speeches. The atmosphere was one of laughter, and even triumph that the weekend had turned out so well.
Into this atmosphere, Nabil Sha'at, Arafat's advisor, walked in, led by security forces and television cameras. His impressive appearance was followed by greeting us, and expressing hope that one day we'd come back and spend a weekend in the hosts' homes. He added humorously that "we will manage to succeed with the peace process despite Netanyahu"... And after this came the unexpected: Sha'at announced that "the president" was going to welcome us in his office.
We set out into the streets in a big crowd, joining hands, and guarded constantly by amused policemen, and after a few minutes walk we arrived at Arafat's office, which held a big room that we were told served as a mosque. When Arafat arrived, he went round shaking every single person's hand in the circle we were standing in, and then said a few words of welcome and expressed the importance of peace. Although this meeting with Arafat was only a formality, and even a gimmick, it meant that the authorities found this event interesting and important enough to call on the "president" to dedicate some moments of his time to greeting us.
On the way home, I felt a great feeling of optimism, and later found out that many of the others left Gaza with a similar feeling. The terrible sight of Gaza, the sharpening of the understanding of the conflict by seeing it in "real life," could have had the opposite effect. But somehow, seeing that words we had said and words we had heard throughout the Shabbat had fallen on ears of those whom are eager for some peace and quiet, of those whom we had known from a distance that "they" are flesh and blood - now seen face to face - made us feel that even if this whole activity was only on a small scale, it may have some effect and, if followed up, it may one day bear fruit.

Hava Kretzmer lives in Jerusalem and studies at the Hebrew University. She may be reached at

The weekend sponsor,Oz Veshalom-Netivot Shalom, is an alternative Israeli expression of Zionism committed to promote the ideals of tolerance, pluralism, and justice which have always been central to Jewish tradition and law.

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