Published in U.S. News & World Report, June 30, 1997
Making peace where politicians fear to tread
Israelis and Palestinians who defy the extremists
By Alan Cooperman
Few Israelis enter Hebron anymore, and those who do generally bring their guns. Dahlia Ravikovitch brings chocolates. The 60-year-old Jewish poet from TelAviv totes a sack of hazelnut-malted milk bars for her 10-year-old Palestinian friend, Zidan, and walks calmly through the cobbled streets, ignoring both the Israeli riot police hunkering behind sandbags and the quizzical looks of Arab shopkeepers. When Zidan spots her and comes running, she folds him into her arms and tousles his wavy hair. Hatred may surround them, but Ravikovitch and her young friend, a Muslim butcher's son, are at peace.
With the breakdown of formal peace talks, most Israelis and Palestinians seem frozen in apprehension, waiting to see if their political leaders will come to terms before violence convulses the region. Just last week in Hebron, more than 100 rioting Palestinians were wounded by Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets.
But through it all, a significant minority has been doggedly trying to build peace from the ground up, devising ways to break through decades of enmity and suspicion that separate two peoples who have shared the same land through hot war and cold peace. Dozens of grass-roots peace organizations hold summer camps for Israeli and Palestinian children, train Palestinian doctors in Israeli hospitals, jointly publish an Israeli-Palestinian journal, and even pair Jews with Arabs for camel treks through the desert.
There are probably at least as many peace activists as militants on both sides. But they are overshadowed; violence always gets media coverage, while efforts toward coexistence and reconciliation seldom do. Critics call the peace groups naive or, worse, collaborators. Last week death threats from right-wing Israelis forced Irish pop star Sinead O'Connor to cancel a planned concert capping five days of seminars and art exhibits organized by Israeli and Palestinian women's organizations under the rubric of "Sharing Jerusalem: Two Capitals for Two States."
But mostly, the "peaceniks" labor against public indifference. "Everyone wants peace, but everyone thinks someone else should bring it," says Ravikovitch. She decided to make her own contribution last fall, as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was negotiating the handover of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority and shooting racked the city almost every day. She asked some men from Tel Aviv to go to Hebron with her, but "all the men either had backaches or tennis games," she says. In the end, she and three women friends--her hairdresser, an actress, and a novelist--impulsively piled into a car and drove to the West Bank. "We wanted to talk to our soldiers, to tell them not to treat the Palestinians like animals, and to show the Palestinians that we're not animals, either," she says.
In Hebron, Ravikovitch befriended Zidan and also linked up with a local Boy Scout troop. This month, she arranged for the Scouts to spend a day with Israeli teenagers in the Mediterranean port of Haifa--the first time most of the Palestinians had ever been in Israel proper or spoken to an Israeli other than a soldier.
Such meetings are the staple of grass-roots peace work. The goal is to break down stereotypes and give the "enemy" a human face. But fewer than 1 percent of Israeli students take part in such sessions each year. And decades of conflict have left so many raw nerves that every effort at dialogue carries an equal risk of stirring up new ill will. Perhaps the highest-profile attempt to promote understanding from the ground up, a joint Israeli-Palestinian production of Sesame Street, has been beset with endless disputes. First the Israeli and Palestinian producers each insisted that their respective Muppets had to live on their own street. The idea of characters from both sides meeting in a park was dropped when the Palestinians demanded that the park include a sign demarcating the border.
Some of the real-life encounters between Israelis and Palestinians have also had mixed results. Riding in a bus after a day of excited conversation and a swim at Haifa's beach, 14-year-old Hebron Boy Scout Wisam Ishak looked out the windows and said, "Now I see how beautiful our country is, and I know why the Israelis took it." When Israeli youths see Palestinian refugee camps for the first time, some are shocked into compassion, others simply repulsed by the squalor.
"People who come to these encounters do not come happily," says Nava Sonnenschein, who directs the School for Peace in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a planned village near Jerusalem where 30 Muslim, Jewish, and Christian families have lived together for 20 years. "They come to bring up issues and release their despair."
No choice. That hard edge of realism among many of the peace activists beliesthe charge of naive idealism. "I must tell you, I don't love the Palestinians. They have murdered my son," begins Yitzhak Frankenthal, director of Oz veShalom Netivot Shalom, an Orthodox Jewish peace movement. Frankenthal's 19-year-old son, Arik, a soldier in the Israeli tank forces, was abducted and shot three times in the head by Hamas gunmen in 1994. "But there is only one way to stop the murders: to make peace. And there is only one way to make peace. It's compromise."
From a Jerusalem basement furnished with cheap metal chairs and decorated with photographs of Arik, Frankenthal has built a group of 50 families of terror victims who support the peace process. The 2,700-member religious peace movement that he heads also marshals arguments from Halakha--Jewish law--in favor of territorial compromise. "Those who say it's very important to keep the land, even if it means being unfair to the Palestinians, have lost their values. It's not right. It's against Judaism," he says.
Because he is an Orthodox Jew, Israelis cannot easily dismiss Frankenthal. Nor can Palestinians doubt the bona fides of Ghassan Andoni, president of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between Peoples, located in the town of Beit Sahour near Bethlehem. He was a guerrilla in Lebanon in the 1970s, until the shock of that country's civil war. "Everybody was killing everybody," he recalls. "I realized how bad it is to use any means just because your cause is just."
During the intifada, the Palestinian uprising from 1987 to 1993, Andoni was imprisoned four times. But he was defended by Israeli attorneys, and a conversation with one of them prompted him to open the Rapprochement Center in 1988. Throughout the intifada, the center urged nonviolent resistance. Yet Andoni worries that Palestinian society "has a thick layer of educated people who communicate well with the world, but only a thin layer of grass-roots activism." Most Palestinians, he says, "are still convinced that the issue can only be settled in militant ways, and education for nonviolence does not have a deep grounding in our society."
One constant headache is finding places to meet. Because of security fears, Palestinians have difficulty obtaining permits to cross into Israel's pre-1967 borders. Israelis can enter the West Bank and Gaza, but most are afraid to do so. The Rev. Thomas Stransky, a Catholic priest from Wisconsin, hosts meetings at his Tantur Ecumenical Institute, which fortuitously straddles the border between Israeli-controlled Jerusalem and Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem: Israelis enter through the front gate, Palestinians over a back wall. One of the most active peace groups, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), recently flew 56 Palestinian and Israeli teachers to Turkey for a five-day workshop.
Since Netanyahu's election last year and the stalemate in the formal peace talks, Palestinian participation in unofficial activities has dropped. "We are under a lot of criticism from the Palestinian side," says IPCRI's education director, Marwan Darweish. "They say you cannot do peace education when there is no peace. We say it's just the opposite--you need peace education precisely when there is no peace."
Picture: Palestinian Boy Scouts from Hebron having lunch with Israeli students in Haifa (Will Yurman--Gamma Liaison for USN&WR)
Picture: Peace activist Yitzhak Frankenthal. To his right is a small photo of his slain son. (Will Yurman--Gamma Liaison for USN&WR)
Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group
1448 Cedarwood Drive, San Mateo, CA 94403
Voice: (650) 574-8303 • Fax:(650) 573-1217