Pales­tinian, Is­raeli girls camp­ing for peace in US wilder­ness

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

Liza Masri had learned as a young girl dur­ing the blood­i­est days of the sec­ond in­tifada to fear the sol­diers pa­trolling her neigh­bor­hood in the be­sieged West Bank city of Nablus. But it wasn't un­til af­ter the up­ris­ing that her mis­trust was most shock­ingly vin­di­cated as she wit­nessed Is­raeli troops shoot­ing dead her Pales­tinian neigh­bor as he smoked a cig­a­rette on his bal­cony. "It's flash­backs I can re­mem­ber... the am­bu­lance, the way they took him down the build­ing," the 21year-old tells AFP, as if the in­ter­ven­ing decade has sud­denly melted away. "We weren't al­lowed into the streets. We were afraid they would kill us. It's some­thing I will al­ways re­mem­ber-it's so painful."

Some years later, her neigh­bor's be­reaved daugh­ter in­tro­duced Masri to "Cre­ativ­ity for Peace," an or­ga­ni­za­tion in Santa Fe, New Mex­ico, that brings to­gether Pales­tinian and Jewish Is­raeli girls in a bid to bridge the emo­tional fault lines cre­ated by 70 years of con­flict. Half a world away from the cor­ri­dors of the United Na­tions, they get to­gether at a ranch in the tim­bered foothills of the south­ern Rocky Moun­tains to hear for the first time the sto­ries of en­e­mies they have grown up learn­ing to hate. Since 2003 more than 200 girls of ages 15 to 17 have par­tic­i­pated in the Cre­ativ­ity for Peace camp, where Masri has re­turned this year as a "young leader" af­ter tak­ing part in 2013. It was at the camp that she be­friended Naama Shlomy, a Jewish Is­raeli who lives some 60 miles (100 kilo­me­ters) south of Nablus, on the bor­der with Gaza.

Trauma

Shlomy was three years old when her home town of Sderot was tar­geted by Ha­mas's Qas­sam ar­tillery rock­ets, the first of an es­ti­mated 8-10,000 to rain down on Is­rael from Gaza since 2002. Fewer than 30 Is­raeli civil­ians have been killed but the psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma has been pro­found. Al­most half of Sderot mid­dle school­ers sur­veyed for the Jour­nal of Ado­les­cent Health in 2008 showed signs of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, while high lev­els of mis­car­riage and de­pres­sion are a fact of daily life. "It's hor­ri­ble, I can't de­scribe it. It's a trauma that's in me. I'll need to deal with it for the rest of my life," Shlomy, 19, tells AFP at an open day as the three­week sum­mer camp.

When Ha­mas launches a rocket, an alarm sounds and the peo­ple of Sderot know they have 15 sec­onds to get to the near­est shel­ter, day or night. "Each time you need to drop ev­ery­thing and go to the shel­ter. It's just so stress­ful to keep wor­ry­ing about your fam­ily all the time, and your­self," says Shlomy. Ev­ery year up to 20 girls-half Jewish Is­raelis and half Pales­tini­ans from Is­rael, the West Bank and Gaza-are in­vited to New Mex­ico by Cre­ativ­ity for Peace, which is funded pri­vately, not­with­stand­ing a 2015 US gov­ern­ment grant.

The girls share their ex­pe­ri­ences of the Arab-Is­raeli con­flict as part of a to­tal of 40 hours of di­a­logue founded on the no­tion that "an en­emy is a per­son whose story you haven't heard." Us­ing English as their com­mon lan­guage, they go shop­ping, visit the movies, divvy up chores, share bed­rooms and at­tend art ther­apy classes to­gether. Al­most all have lost fam­ily and friends to vi­o­lence and most will never have spo­ken to mem­bers of the op­po­site side be­fore.

'Baby steps'

"We teach our young women that both sides are right and both sides are wrong. Their job is not to de­bate pol­i­tics or go over his­tory, but more to un­der­stand one an­other and find com­mon ground," says Dot­tie Indyke, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor for the last 11 years. The fact that both sides have suf­fered of­ten comes as a rev­e­la­tion to the girls, although re­sent­ment can still run deep. Masri points to the 400,000 il­le­gal Is­raeli set­tlers in the West Bank, and the nu­mer­ous check­points that have choked Nablus, a thriv­ing trad­ing post since the days of the sev­enth cen­tury Umayyad Caliphate that now finds it­self in penury.

"I un­der­stand that we both suf­fered. It didn't change my mind to­wards the other side. I feel them, un­der­stand their sto­ries, but that doesn't mean I should change my per­spec­tive, that they are not do­ing some­thing wrong to my coun­try," she tells AFP. But she is per­se­ver­ing in the process-even turn­ing around her ini­tially un­sup­port­ive fam­ily-be­cause she be­lieves in the in­trin­sic value of di­a­logue as driver of change.

"Maybe we are not re­solv­ing the con­flict but it's a long process, it's about trust," she says. "As long as we trust the other side many things will start to hap­pen." Per­haps the tough­est part comes af­ter the camp, when the girls are asked to go back to their com­mu­ni­ties as "peace­mak­ers" who can be an ex­am­ple of com­pas­sion, friend­ship, and courage. "Each girl can go to her fam­ily and change the way they see things, then they can change their com­mu­ni­ties," says Sana Za­halka, 17, an­other young leader who first came to the camp in 2015. "It's like baby steps. But they all lead to this amaz­ing big step." — AFP

Pales­tinian and Is­raeli Jewish girls take a group photo to­gether at the ‘Cre­ativ­ity for Peace’ camp which ev­ery year brings up to 20 girls, half Jewish Is­raelis and half Pales­tini­ans from Is­rael, the West Bank and Gaza to Santa Fe, New Mex­ico. — AFP pho­tos

Pales­tinian and Is­raeli Jewish girls with art­work pro­mot­ing peace at the ‘Cre­ativ­ity for Peace’ camp.

Pales­tinian and Is­raeli Jewish girls en­joy a tram­po­line at the ‘Cre­ativ­ity for Peace’ camp.

Pales­tinian Lama Khaled (left) and Eden Vakni from Is­rael (right) spend time to­gether at the ‘Cre­ativ­ity for Peace’ camp.

Pales­tinian and Is­raeli Jewish girls share a meal to­gether.

Pales­tinian and Is­raeli Jewish girls share ac­tiv­i­ties to­gether.

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