Only weeks ago, before returning home to the Middle East from their historic 2004 Israeli-Palestinian expedition to Antarctica, the courageous mountaineers inspire Jews and Palestinians of Santiago, Chile to begin transcending their own local conflicts and come into face to face relationship.
"Breaking the Ice" is on the Web at http://www.breaking-the-ice.de/ .
Palestinian Ms. Olfat Haider, and Jewish Doron Erel and Heskel Nathaniel are
the expedition's representatives for an important few days in DC.
Thursday the were honored with the Common Ground Award for "Diplomacy through Sport." It brought tears and a huge ovation from hundreds at the Austrian Embassy, where one speaker said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent the future."
They showed their video and spoke to 200 deeply attentive Jews in the sanctuary of Temple Emanuel's Shabbat service last night in Kensington, MD. All night, Rabbi Warren Stone's welcome and prayers, and Cantor Boxt's beautiful chanting, affirmed and blessed the courage and vision of "Breaking the Ice."
The Washington Post published a fine article and photos. CNN News and the CNN morning show is telling their story of teamwork.
Today, National Public Radio will interview the expeditionists live by phone from a DC home, where a Jewish couple and a Palestinian couple will co-host a gathering of Palestinians and Jews to see once again that "an enemy is someone whose story we have not heard" -- and to begin their own Dialogue.
Tonight an auditorium at American University will host students and a variety of Washington, DC citizens -- and more cameras and reporters. And a bonus will be words from Dr. Harold Saunders, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, and pioneer of Sustained Dialogued and this public peace process. The week's calendar is at:
Appropriately, we conclude with Lauren Gelfond, the extraordinary Jerusalem Post journalist, reporting personally and deeply on "Breaking the Ice" in this weekend's Magazine.
May these moments and stories add up to this: each of us "breaking the ice" where we live.
The Jerusalem Post Magazine,
March 19, 2004
An unlikely crew of Israelis and Palestinians
which journeyed to Antarctica last month
reflects on nature, faith, politics, and snow
By LAUREN GELFOND
It took Suleiman al-Khatib a few moments to catch his breath. Though his loyalty to Fatah and memories of 10-plus years in an Israeli jail are always with him, the vision before him transported him to another reality.
A soaring iceberg the size of several buildings and etched with rainbow reflections stared him down, sweating and hissing. The echoes of fizzles, cracks, and finally a cavernous boom enveloped him as the massive ice tip heaved back and forth, fell, and carved violent waves into the icy, still waters.
For a few minutes, or perhaps only seconds, he and the other crew members who ran up on deck gripped the rails, paralyzed with awe. Such dramatic silence in the wake of a stunning explosion is common, though this time, far from home, the shock felt almost giddy, they would later say.
After the moment of silence, and gasps for air, exclamations started to stream: "wow", "oh my God," and then, laughter.
Eventually, a joke about the cursed Titanic made the rounds, as the waves continued to pound rhythms against the sides of the small yacht.
Khatib spent months getting ready for the joint Israeli-Palestinian expedition earlier this year to Antarctica: preparing physically and psychologically, reading about the landscape, and considering the political and social demeanor he would carry.
But nothing could have prepared him for the power of nature, he says.
"It's like magic. What made it? A great force? God? You feel so small and weak before nature, and like you are on a different planet or a star, where there are no Jews or Arabs. Before nature I didn't see differences between Jews and Arabs... political and religious differences are there, but you suddenly didn't feel it."
Sailing in storms and by glaciers, trekking on ice, and climbing in near-zero visibility to a previously unclimbed peak in Antarctica set the unlikely backdrop for the atypical teammates, who time and again would share such moments of awe, humility, and unity, contrasted against powerful division.
TIRED OF the political status quo, two Palestinian Fatah members and two former Israeli commandoes, brought together by a new organization Extreme Peace Missions, were among the eight Palestinians and Israelis (see box at end) who decided to make over the face of the usual dialogue and peace groups. Instead of sitting down to talk, they would join forces to accomplish a physical goal, one in which they would depend on each other for survival. And instead of the usual players - politicians or peaceniks they would round up a diverse team of doves and hawks to duke it out - or work it out. The only goal: climb and name a virgin Antarctic peak - together.
Now home for one month since the 40-day adventure on ice, the group is somber. Reflecting on the power of nature, faith, politics and snow, they re looking back on their journey to the end of the world to ask themselves if they indeed broke the ice.
Soon after they left the Middle East, flew to Chile, and set sail on January 1 for Antarctica via Cape Horn, the trekkers got their first taste of the local weather's capriciousness. Strong southern winds bumped the nose of the boat to and fro in the icy waters, and the teammates went flying. Tending to seasickness and bad bruises occupied much of the first days at sea.
Local Palestinian Fatah leader Nasser Quos and former IDF commando Avihu Shoshani joined forces to clean a stuffed toilet without proper equipment, as fellow shipmates suffered from seasickness.
Finally at Antarctica's outer coast, they arrived at Deception Island, a volcano.
"It looks impossible to anchor there, but there is one opening - in a crater. Inside it's fantastic," said Israeli group leader Doron Erel.
Despite the beauty of the island, where the crew took a five-hour practice hike into the volcano's snowy caps to get their first glimpse of penguins, the calm quickly gave way.
"The first week the boat was shaking day and night. The moment we got to the Antarctic shore we had a lot of time for coffee. Suddenly emotions came out that had probably built up for a long time," says Heskel Nathaniel, an Israeli developer who co-conceived of the expedition with his old friend Erel.
"I thought, my God, it's possible to leave the mission now. This might become violent somehow. We fought about the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, holy places. People left the room. Olfat cried. Avihu didn't want to speak to the Palestinians any more. But we had to sit together again [at the next meal]. We didn't want to talk - but we had to ask for the salt. And
somehow, the conversation starts again."
The first argument about Jerusalem was the worst of the trip, says Olfat Hyder, a Palestinian Israeli, who is a volleyball league player and gymnastics coach.
"Some Palestinians said Jews have no claim to the Temple Mount, no history, nothing. I didn't agree - another Palestinian and I fought against this. I also had an argument with Avihu [Shoshani, Israeli lawyer, former IDF commando and right-wing activist]. He said Israel is not violent; it just protects itself. This hurt me. I think it's beyond that."
At a certain point everyone was hurt by everyone else, most later said.
The group quickly recovered from alienated to sociable, but deep political values dividing the group had been exposed, and makeshift groups and sub-groups were established.
But in the wild, they say, the divisions soon became unimportant.
Following the afternoon hike, while visiting a bay of whales, a tourist ship suddenly shifted its attention to the expedition yacht. With a sail hand-painted by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman of a dove with Israeli and Palestinian flags, the passengers were busy snapping photos. "'You people are fighting over there, what are you doing here together in Antarctica?'"
the amazed tourists asked, says Palestinian journalist Ziad Darwish, laughing.
In the evening, the crew encountered some Ukrainian scientists who were stationed on a research base, and invited them on board for dinner. Darwish volunteered to cook. Armed with cinnamon, cumin, red peppers, and other spices he brought from home, he whipped up a large tray of his specialty: eggplant with meat and pine nuts.
"All of the sudden there was a very strong wave and I'm holding the tray. I have to decide if [I should] throw the food to the floor and hold on, or hold the tray and fall down," he says, now laughing harder.
"I decided to save the food for my colleagues. I flew into a chair and had a bruise on my rib for a week."
"[The Ukranian scientists] brought music and alcohol and we partied until early morning," says Nathaniel of that night.
"When I looked around suddenly I saw people from east Jerusalem, little Palestinian villages, Israel, and Russia, all just enjoying ourselves, dancing with different flags. It was one of the most bizarre things I ever saw in my life. We were hugging, and even loved each other this night."
The isolated way-station in Antarctica became the catalyst for many jokes.
"Why not make a state for the Palestinians here, where they can't disturb anyone? You are such trouble-makers," the Israelis quipped over and again. Laughing in response, the Palestinians always agreed: "Fine, as long as you are here next to us. We don't want to separate."
Sailing south to Prospect Point, the departure point, the boat headed across the ocean littered with broken sea ice and towering icebergs until it reached frozen land.
"We spent three days dragging sleds, with ropes tied to harnesses, roped together in groups with heavy loads, snowshoes, ice axes," says Erel. "There are dangerous crevasses. If one falls the other will catch him."
Navigating the crevasses, a few unlikely links between doves and hawks were born, they say.
ACROSS THE harsh landscapes, Yarden Fanta, an Ethiopian immigrant, was often reminded of her journey on foot at age 13 across the Sudan to Israel, where she lost her sister, niece, and uncle. Though she says she wanted to journey to the ends of the world this time to just sit and talk with Arabs, the idea of traveling with two Fatah activists terrified her.
"I never thought that I'd sit with former convicts from the territories. But I discovered that they are simply amazing, full of love," she says.
Just weeks earlier she'd infuriated Palestinians when she brushed off their talk of independence, saying Arabs already have 22 states, Khatib remembers. "She changed because of our good relations," he says.
The self-described right-winger did not give up her beliefs about Israel, but embraced the Fatah activists as friends, calling them moderates, and eventually making jokes about her own earlier fears.
"My attitude changed about [Palestinian] convicts: you can talk and respect each other even if you are different; even be friends with someone who is extreme. Convicts are first of all human. What a discovery! I was afraid they'd kill us, but they were so normal. The Palestinians told me it affected them a lot, too, to see that we can live together, even though the big things didn't change."
"Why are you giving the knife to the Palestinians?" she laughed as they divided the food equipment to carry up the summit.
"[The Palestinians] also joked that Hamas and Jihad take responsibility for terror attacks, but they were instead 'claiming responsibility' for our health. Everyone laughed."
Hyder had a similar revelation, she says.
"There were arguments and fights politically, but on the personal side we treated each other as human beings. Avihu and I [for example] fought a lot - he's right-wing and his opinions don't suit me. But as a human being, he's a good person. When I got hurt he helped and was always by my side. He didn't treat me that way he speaks of Arabs - but as a person."
Though Hyder forged new relations with unexpected Israelis, she says the biggest surprise was with fellow Palestinians.
"I have lived with Israelis and know their side, but what touched me was hearing about the Palestinian problems. I always hear the news, but this is the first time I met two Palestinians who had been in jail."
THOUGH ISRAELI right-wingers Shoshani and Fanta made some surprising connections with the Palestinians, they also shared a certain disappointment.
Fanta raised the hackles of the Palestinians when she several times referred to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as a terrorist.
"What hurt and surprised me was that they need permission from Arafat for everything. I said, 'You see - if Arafat can tell you if you have permission [for the expedition], he is definitely giving permission for terror attacks. They were angry," she says.
"From what I saw, the three Palestinian men came to make a political agreement about Palestinian identity," says Shoshani.
"They played at friendship but it wasn't real. They were [even] against Olfat because she is Arab-Israeli and disconnected from the Palestinians. I understand Arabic and heard Suleiman and Nasser. They had three different conversations, one with us, one with the cameras, and one with each other. I asked myself if maybe [the reason they promote certain ideas is because]
they get their salary from Arafat, but if that's true I don't think they should have been on the trip. I don't owe opinions to anyone and they shouldn't either."
Most of the Israelis and Palestinians said they, too, had mixed feelings at certain times, and everyone agreed before signing on to full public disclosure - for better or worse.
"I thought the whole journey was worthwhile when we saw the the leaders of the Jewish and Palestinian communities of Chile together. They lived next to each other and never exchanged a word [before]," says Nathaniel of the group's welcome by the two communities, during a stopover on the way home. After their first meeting, they published stories in their local Jewish and
Arabic papers, and remain in contact today.
"But something wasn't right. The Palestinians got invited to visit the Palestinian ambassador. I would have wanted him to invite all the team. It upset me [also] that they took a framed picture of the four Palestinians and the Palestinian flag on top of the mountain, it felt for a moment like we weren't even there, like half the picture.
"Afterwards, I realized that in the life of individuals in the Palestinian Authority you can't just say what you want. We Israelis grow up in a democracy, we could never really understand. We were very insulted. Palestinians speak more freely when no cameras are around.
"Avihu didn't take part in the mountaintop photo shoot because Arafat had signed the flag. I could not resolve it," says Nathaniel.
Khatib shrugs the incident off to bad chemistry.
"The Israelis also requested a signature, but [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's office didn't answer. Avihu just has a problem with the Palestinian flag. I didn't always feel I'm Palestinian [but human] with Hezi or Doron. But with Avihu - he was so extreme, he supports occupation and the fence and he doesn't want peace. We can't talk," he says.
"I was in prison from 1986-97: 10 years and five months, for Fatah involvement and causing problems, throwing rocks at soldiers and settlers, violence. I stabbed a soldier. But I read a lot of books in prison it changed me," says Khatib.
"I'm still connected to Fatah. I couldn't partner without the support of Arafat. But if I didn't believe in peace I wouldn't have gone. We want two states. We don't do terror. I personally don't use violence.
"I can't [however] tell other people whose lands are stolen not to throw rocks at soldiers. Settlers have always taken our land by force and many times the government doesn't even know about it. It causes violence. I hope both sides can get by without any more violence. I'm ready to understand the problems of terror attacks and the fear of getting on the bus. And we tried to explain how we live every day, what it's like to be in jail, to travel to Ramallah."
"It changed my mind that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will happen - unless the Israelis change their thoughts about Palestinians," says Quos.
Beyond politics there were even fights over money. According to Nathaniel, he and Erel had spent a good deal of their personal savings to finance the project.
"Our Palestinian colleagues had the feeling that we were making money from the expedition and using them. It was impossible to explain to them. It's ridiculous; you go on a peace mission and can have fights about who pays the telephone bill. We weren't always brave, mature, and noble. The dark side of human nature came up," he says.
Not finding a solution for every problem, though, is okay, he holds.
"We accept the fact that we have different opinions and are still friends. We spent many hours explaining to the Palestinians why we worry, mistrust, and are afraid, and they started to hear our words. And we definitely learned what they go through when they told stories of curfews, checkpoints, and humiliations."
THE CLOSER the group got to the summit the more they became overwhelmed by the natural beauty and their own raw emotions. Snow-saturated winds blew at 180-200 kilometers an hour, at times causing a total white-out.
Once at the summit all the members cried, especially Darwish.
"The feeling of reaching that mountain - tears came to my eyes. I remembered my people being killed, I remembered my brother, why did it come to me at this moment? I just wish the two peoples could see how we cooperated and gave a hand to each other; it would change a lot of relations. We hugged each other and shouted. We did it! It'd be na ve to tell you that we resolved the [political] issues, but we opened a very small aperture to understanding and hearing."
While the three Palestinian men kneeled in prayer, Hyder had her own revelation.
"It was very emotional," she says.
"Everything was white. When I saw the view and the beauty I forgot why I was there. I forgot about Jews and Arabs. That is something big. The message? Everyone thinks differently, but can be together. I don't need to think the same but we can let the [other] live in peace."
Looking at the Israeli and Palestinian flags in the virgin snow, Nathaniel described the moment as "the most emotional" of his life.
When Khatib stood up after prayers, he remembered his commitment to Fatah and the Palestinian people, yet he also felt transported to a consciousness beyond national, religious, and ethnic identity, he says.
"It was cold, it got colder, it got harder, we were roped together. Everything was white. We felt like we were in the sky. We are so small in front of this. Is there a message? I need to be a better man. I survived, I succeeded, I had fun. Now I really respect life more."
They laughed. They cried. They disagreed bitterly. They even sometimes hated each other. But in fiery debate or in icy storms they didn't kill each other - or even try. In fact, even the most extreme among them went out of his or her way to help the others survive. As a result, six now say they have ever so slightly thawed Israeli-Palestinian relations. But one Israeli and one Palestinian say their hearts are more frozen than ever.
"My friends and neighbors said it was madness to participate and many advised me not to go because the Israelis don't believe in peace. I am sorry to say they were right and I'll say in a loud voice I'm sorry for my participation. The Israelis just care about themselves and are ready to build their lives without caring about other people's pain," says local Jerusalem Fatah leader Nasser Quos, who frequently locked horns with the Israelis and even with some of the Palestinians.
His most bitter rival on board was right-wing Israeli lawyer and former commando Avihu Shoshani. The two paired up to scramble eggs, clean toilets, and watch the other's back on ice, but agreed on only one thing: the trip was great fun but a disappointment.
"Everyone said that the Israelis all returned more left-wing, but for me it's not true," says Shoshani.
"So many [negative] things I thought before [about Palestinians] still seem right. I'll tell my three kids to keep trying, because it's not clear if it would have been different with three other Palestinians. I don't want my kids to throw away hope even though I'm left without much."
"They [Nasser and Avihu] are both f-- extremists," says Palestinian journalist Ziad Darwish, in reaction.
"The majority believes in peace and coexistence and nothing will change if we don't. Israelis and Palestinians have arguments but we can do it peacefully. [Our trip] was reported in Palestinian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Gulf newspapers [and] I haven't had any negative comments about it. It's time to sit down and understand each other."
Israeli right-winger, student Yarden Fanta, says she is proof that it's possible. Before the trip she was terrified of traveling with Fatah activists.
"So everyone didn't agree politically. But we are a symbol - everyone helped and gave a hand [to the others]. We can do this. It will help educate the next generation, by setting an example. We can talk, listen, and even respect the other," she says. "Everyone has humanity."
Fatah activist Suleiman al-Khatib of the West Bank says he has donated a positive image to his society.
"[West Bank] neighbors, friends, and people I don't know came to look at the [expedition] pictures and see two different flags. Some accept it, some are against it," he says. "But [they see and hear that] there were good Jews from Israel, so loving, so good, not like the pictures [they usually see] of soldiers and settlers."
Suleiman is still in contact with some of the Israelis.
"About a week ago I wanted to speak to Suleiman, I was so happy to hear his voice," says Israeli Heskel Nathaniel.
"He said 'you know Hezi, I'm looking at the pictures and starting to cry.' The emotional example is so deep. It's not that we answered any questions and made solutions. But we learned to listen. I am not a leftist or a rightist. I can develop emotions for the so-called enemy but have seen how deep the differences are. We have listened to arguments from both sides and have more questions than before. This is one of the achievements. And after that experience I don't think any of us would ever hurt the other."
"I believe that not only [are we now less likely to do harm to the other] but our children, our friends, are less likely [also]," agrees Israeli Arab Olfat Hyder.
"We are small seeds. Even people who hear about it now know it's possible [to be together even if we disagree]."
"I still think about it all the time," says Israeli climber Doron Erel. "I'm not sure I have conclusions. I understand some things better. People do not change so fast, but the experience we shared made us close - we will all take that with us, and it will influence our family and friends. I won't go to Ramallah because it's not safe - but I will be happy to have my kids meet their kids."
For now, they say, a humble beginning is enough.
For their efforts, the eight climbers were honored this week by the international organization Search for Common Ground with an award recognizing conflict resolution initiatives.
Nasser Quos, 36, of east Jerusalem, soccer coach and head of Fatah in
the Old City of Jerusalem, who spent three years in an Israeli prison for
throwing a firebomb in the first intifada and later was bodyguard to PLO
Jerusalem representative Faisal Husseini.
Fatah member Suleiman al-Khatib, 33, of Hizme in the West Bank, who spent ages 14-25 in prison for Fatah activities, including stabbing a soldier.
East Jerusalem journalist Ziad Darwish, 53, whose brother was killed in an Israel Air Force raid in Beirut in 1982.
Olfat Hyder, 33, Haifa gymnastics coach and Israeli national volleyball league player.
Professional climber Doron
Erel, 44, who was in an elite IDF commando unit and went on to climb
the highest mountain on every continent; he was the first Israeli to climb
Lawyer and right-wing activist Avihu Shoshani, 44, who was in an elite IDF commando unit.
Real-estate developer Heskel Nathaniel, 41, currently living in Berlin.
Yarden Fanta, 32, a PhD candidate in literacy studies who trekked on foot from Ethiopia via Sudan to Israel, illiterate, at 14. Three family members died in transit.