Seeds of Peace: The Young Show the Way | THE EGYPTIAN GAZETTE
BY SAMIR RAAFAT | Strange but true. Last August, against all odds, 46 11-14 year old Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian boys (from Gaza and the occupied territories) traveled 8,000 kilometers to meet.
The venue was a summer camp in the state of Maine, USA, sponsored by a budding American non-profit program called Seeds of Peace. The purpose of this exercise was to encourage the three groups to interact away from the scenes of prejudice, the intifada, and other every day reminders they were on opposite sides of the fence.
For the Israelis and Palestinians who live side by side in circumstances and conditions that are diametrically opposed—one is the occupier and the oppressor and the other is the occupied and the oppressed—it must have been a particularly difficult, if not traumatic experience. But a meeting such as this could not have been conducted otherwise; far from home and away from hate, death, and destruction.
What started out with hostile exchanged and the opening of old wounds, gradually metamorphosed into sensible, sometimes emotional dialogues and debates between “enemy” camps. The Israeli boys naturally brought up the Holocaust, evoking how their great grandparents had been murdered by the Germans in Europe. The Palestinians retaliated by referring to the summary imprisonment and deportation of Palestinians from their homeland and to the on-going massacres where their fathers, uncles, and older brothers are victims of armed Jewish settlers and the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces).
Every one seemed to have a larger-than-life chip on his shoulder. In the words of the program’s founder, the Rubicon of pain had to be crossed before harmony and understanding could be reached.
At the end of the day the consensus was reached. The camp was an unforgettable experience. Sports, debates, trekking, pranks, and practical jokes were all part of the menu along with debates, lectures, and group projects.
It did not end there. Trips were planned to different parts of the East Coast. A brief stop in New York included a Broadway show, a visit with the mayor at Gracie Mansion, a football game where they talked with the Giant’s Jumbo Elliot and a session at United Nations— the home of dozens of unresolved resolutions pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict. A 13 year old Palestinian could not resist asking Gillian Sorenson, a senior UN official, why the resolutions concerning the illegal occupation of Gaza and the Territories by Israel were constantly ignored while the wrath of God was put behind those dealing with Iraq. Even at this young age, Fadi was confused as to why the UN was not consistent and why the organization sanctioned double standards.
As though in contrast to the world’s idiosyncrasies reflected in the UN’s halls, the boys were taken to a nearby eatery where they couldn’t find anything to argue about, even if they tried. At MacDonald’s the vote concerning the merits of the Big Mac was unanimous!
When the boys set off for the United Nations, neither they nor their sponsors imagined that they would attend a historic ceremony at the White House. Neither did the ceremony’s signatories for that matter. But the unthinkable happened.
On Monday, September 12, 1993, Rabi and Arafat shook hands while Bill Clinton encouragingly prodded them along. Ironically, this was once case where the grown ups had been led by the kids, for the Israeli and Arab boys had already shaken hands several weeks earlier. Witnessing history unfold from their front row seat on the White House lawn were the 46 bewildered boys from the Middle East. They had been personally invited to attend by none other than Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Seeds of Peace was the brainchild of John Wallach, an American Jew who works as a foreign editor for Hearst newspapers. John and his wife Janet are co-authors of the book Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder. Assisting them on the project’s Board (which includes several important personalities including Zbigniew Brezezinski, Clovis Maksoud, and Edmond Muskie) are Mohammad Hakki, former Press Counselor at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington and Christine Covey, wife of Jack Covey the former No. 2 at the US Embassy in Cairo.
As for the boys (Seeds), they were selected by their respective educational establishments on academic and character now that an unusual friendship has been born between 46 children in the United States, what is next? Capitalizing on this unique experience, Seeds of Peace is branching out in different but related directions. There is a newsletter so that participants can stay in touch. A stateside road show was held for the posters that were made at the summer camp. More summer camps will be held. A fund raising dinner will come also to be attended by the senior delegated (Palestinian, Israeli, and others) who attended the Peace Conference. There, they will listen to live testimonials from Seeds of Peace returnees.
Hopefully, there will be some cross-border visits between the Seeds of Peace alumni. In Egypt, the returnees have already spread their message to eager listeners including Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, and Minister of Youth Emara.
As Tarek Mohana remarked, the 14 year old Egyptian returnee (CAC student) said, it is now up to the “trees of peace” to make the next move.