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Israelis, Palestinians team up in Germany to aid Gaza

Sarah Judith Hofmann in Berlin
March 17, 2024

In Germany, a unique Israeli-Palestinian initiative is sending aid to Gaza, focusing on immediate needs such as sanitation and shelter. They say acting from afar eases their anxiety about the war's devastating effects.

Participants in the dialog workshop between Israelis and Palestinians in Berlin: Tom Kellner, Seba Abu Daqa, Gali Blay and Elisha Baskin (from left)
Tom Kellner, Seba Abu Daqa, Gali Blay and Elisha Baskin (from left) recently met in BerlinImage: Slieman Halabi

The toilet cubicles measure just 1 square meter (about 11 square feet), sealed with plastic sheeting attached to simple wooden slats. They provide a tiny amount of privacy in the former village of Al-Mawasi, a place where thousands of displaced people have now crowded together. Though Israeli army may refer to it as a "safe zone," the site lacks the corresponding infrastructure.

A Clean Shelter toilet cubicle in the Al-Mawasi refugee camp in the Gaza Strip
The Clean Shelter project has provided toilet cubicles like these in the Al-Mawasi refugee camp in GazaImage: Clean Shelter

"My family, my parents are in Al-Mawasi. I asked them: What do people need most? And they said: toilets, showers, tents. So when Tom asked me if she could help, I said yes," said Seba Abu Daqa, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip.

Tom Kellner is a Jewish Israeli from Haifa. Both live in Germany: Abu Daqa in Munich, Kellner in Berlin. The two would likely never have met in Israel or Gaza. But in Germany, they have teamed up to appeal for donations from friends, acquaintances and relatives in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Germany and beyond.

Abu Daqa used her networks in Gaza to organize materials and the construction of sanitary facilities and tents. It was clear from the outset that they would only be able to work with what was already available in the enclave, with even large aid organizations unable to deliver materials due to restrictions imposed by the Israeli military.

Since their Clean Shelter project began in January, 28 toilets, some with showers, have been set up, as well as 30 tents, each of which can accommodate 10 people. One toilet costs between €200 and €500 ($220 and $550)

Feeling isolated in Europe

The two women met through a dialogue project for Israelis and Palestinians living in Europe. After meeting online regularly for weeks, they recently convened in-person for the first time at a joint workshop in Berlin. The dialogue group was initiated by Slieman Halabi, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who holds a doctorate in social psychology and, like Abu Daqa, now lives in Munich.

"We live in Europe and feel very lonely, especially now that there is a war," said Halabi.

Halabi was trained as a facilitator in the village of Neve Shalom, or Wahat al-Salam, which translates to "oasis of peace" in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. Located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the aim of the village's School for Peace is to facilitate encounters between Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinian Slieman Halabi together with Gali Blay, a Jewish-Israeli participant of the workshop in Berlin
Palestinian Slieman Halabi (left) recently met with Gali Blay, a Jewish-Israeli participant of the workshop, and others in BerlinImage: Sarah Hofmann/DW

"It's a learning experience. It's not seeking an immediate solution to the conflict, but we believe to find a solution people really need to understand each others' perspectives and not act separately without knowing the underpinning mechanisms that lead people to act in certain ways regarding the conflict," said Halabi.

Palestinians from Gaza, Syria and the occupied West Bank also took part in the School for Peace's first dialogue group outside of Israel and met with Jewish Israelis. This was only possible because they all now live in Europe.

The idea to create a group of "exiled Israelis and Palestinians" had been on Halabi's mind for a long time when he scheduled the first online event for October 8, 2023. The 17 participants had no idea they would experience that first meeting in a state of shock after hundreds of terrorists from Hamas and other militant Islamist groups broke through Israel's border fortifications on October 7, killing 1,160 people and taking around 250 hostages, most of them civilians, including many women and children.

Halabi remembers watching the news that day. "I couldn't do anything but sit there and watch this and go crazy," he said.

'We need to talk — now more than ever'

Many of those who had received an invitation to the meeting asked whether it ought to be canceled. But Halabi didn't want to do that, under any circumstances. "I told them: Please come. We need to talk—now more than ever," he said. All 17 participants showed up for the video call the next day.

Among them was Gali Blay, who created the website for the Clean Shelter project. Her cousin's family lived in Be'eri, one of the kibbutzim communities where the terrorists committed the worst atrocities.

Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip at the end of February
The Israeli army launched its offensive in the Gaza Strip soon after the October 7 attacksImage: Israel Defense Forces/REUTERS

"At the time, I didn't even realize the extent of it. I was just in shock. Everyone was in shock," she told DW. Blay later learned that some of her relatives had been murdered. And yet, she also thought about the people of Gaza. "My biggest fear was that I knew the reaction would be very hard and innocent people would be affected," she said.

Shortly after October 7, the Israeli military launched heavy airstrikes on Gaza, followed by a ground offensive and a far-reaching closure of the coastal strip. According to the Hamas-led Health Ministry, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of the offensive. The widespread destruction and displacement of the population has led to a humanitarian crisis, with the United Nations warning that famine is imminent for many. 

Meanwhile, more than 100 Israeli hostages are still being held by Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the EU, US and other countries. The chances of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians could not be more fraught.

'This situation cannot go on forever'

"At the start of each new group, we decide on common rules about how we want to talk to each other," said Halabi. Nobody wants to be insulted or hurt, he added. The most important rule is that everyone listens to each other. "Some Palestinians asked, for example: What is going on inside an Israeli soldier who is bombing Gaza?"

Such sensitive topics evoke strong emotions. Both Halabi and Blay said there were plenty of tears during the meeting in Berlin, but there were also hugs.

"It felt like living in a different reality, a world full of love and respect for each other," said Blay. In Europe, and especially in Germany, the dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "toxic," she added, describing how people immediately label each other. And, in her opinion as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, the accusation of antisemitism is dished out far too lightly. "It's not the kind of discourse we do in our groups," she said.

Tom Kellner (right) hugs another participant at the workshop in Berlin
Tom Kellner (standing right) shared a hug with another participant at the workshop in BerlinImage: Slieman Halabi

Since October 7, it has been clearer than ever that something has to shift for Israelis and Palestinians. "We want to have a change. This situation cannot go on forever," said Halabi. "There is a lot of fear and defense mechanisms that people have because of beliefs that are so deep-rooted from childhood, from their memories, from their education. They are socialized to fear and to hate the other side. But I've seen people changing. I've seen people in groups coming out totally different."

The aim of the group is to encourage people to get involved and become activists to bring about grassroots change. Seba Abu Daqa, Tom Kellner and Gali Blay have all become more active as a result. Clean Shelter's sanitary facilities don't just offer privacy, but will also potentially save lives. Aid organizations have warned of the potential for disease outbreaks caused by a lack of hygiene and clean water in Gaza.

Tents from Clean Shelter, partly built with tarps from Unicef that were already available in the Gaza Strip
Tents from Clean Shelter were partly built with UNICEF tarps that were already available in GazaImage: Clean Shelter

The group does not know how long the tents and toilet cubicles they provide will stand, as the Israeli military has announced a ground offensive in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. It remains unclear what this could mean for Al-Mawasi.

"I'm worried all the time, anxious all the time, every call that I get from Gaza," said Abu Dada. "The only thing that keeps me alive is to do something and that it's not about waiting anymore. And that it's us who do something and not just others who define what is happening." 

This article was originally written in German.