Bridging the divide between young Israelis and Palestinians | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 22.08.2014
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Bridging the divide between young Israelis and Palestinians

While bombs are killing people back home, a group of young Israelis and Palestinians are in Germany trying to make sense of it all and come up with a solution for peace.

It is a difficult beginning. Israelis and Palestinians fill the conference room near the German city of Bonn with crying and arguing, accusations and reproach. Sitting together seems impossible, unbearable. Yet when those participating in the two-week event start to talk about the fates of their families, the lines that divide them begin to fade.

The some 50 Israelis and Palestinians communicate in Arabic and Hebrew, with translators on hand to help express the intensity of their experiences and feelings.

"You hear tough stories, and its really touching when other people have empathy," Palestinian Suad said. Sitting across from her is Amit, an Israeli who increasingly realizes how little the two sides know about each other.

"I don't believe our media, it is too much a part of the conflict," she said. Like others here, she wants to form her own, comprehensive picture of the situation, to have the chance to speak "directly" with those deemed to be the enemy.

Two female participants (photo: KfGD)

The participants get to know each other while they are in Germany

Back home, Amit and Suad only live 20 minutes apart. But they are, in fact, worlds apart. Amit lives in Jerusalem, Suad in the Palestinian territories, and to cross the border she needs special permit. Now they are both in Germany, in a building near the city of Bonn with others like them.

Private initiative

The event is organized by the Committee for Basic Rights and Democracy, a group run by peace activists and funded exclusively by private donors. They have been facilitating meetings between young Palestinians and Israelis far from the scene of the conflict since 2002.

Their idea is to offer participants the opportunity to forget their prejudices and learn that people on both sides share the same basic yearnings and feelings. The association covers all costs, but relies on partner organizations such as "Breaking Borders" to use word of mouth to find potential participants in the conflict region.

All told, some 2000 young adults, including many students, have so far been able to travel to Germany to meet others like them and share their stories. Against the backdrop of the current Gaza conflict, many of those in Germany now told their relatives and friends back home that they were going to a holiday camp. For many, the truth is simply too sensitive.

White lies

Barbara Esser, one of the organizers of the "Holiday from War" project, understands the reasons for these white lies.

"It is not acceptable where they come from," she said. "Anyone who attempts to make contact with the other side is deemed a traitor." She recalls one Israeli who wanted to be friends with a Palestinian on Facebook but didn't know if he could without upsetting his friends.

Barbara Esser (photo: DW/W.Dick)

"Anyone who attempts to make contact with the other side is deemed a traitor," Esser said

At the heart of the program is a mutual willingness to listen. Esser says it is not about forcing friendships, but creating understanding and tolerance. They use role play to stage peace negotiations and come up with suggestions for solutions to the Middle East conflict.

Amit describes the experience as a chance to dream. "Positive visions of the future help generate hope and to believe in the goal." But very few participants believe the conflict will be solved by a younger generation.

The basic problem

During their discussions, Israelis and Palestinians pinpoint the basic hurdle to progress. It is the fear of having to make too many concessions and ultimately being the losers. There is a broad base of agreement on the importance of overcoming that feeling.

Suad is positive about the work they are doing together and sees how it can break down barriers. "Even the right-wing conservatives on both sides have started to change their thinking," she said.

Youth in classroom (photo: KfGD)

Some 50 young Israelis and Palestinians share their experiences and feelings

Whenever things get particularly tense, and those in charge show participants how they are slipping back into old patterns of thought, both Israelis and Palestinians are surprised.

Ultimately the ice breaks whenever there is a chance for people to get to know each other better. Apart from playing games and going on trips, there are designated evenings devoted to the presentation of the different cultures.

After cooking and eating together, there is often music, and then Israelis and Palestinians even dance together. No photos are taken, for fear that they could be misunderstood. There is a meeting of the ways here, and although participants agree that they did not have a holiday from war, they did lay the groundwork for talking about the possibility of working together.

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