As warfare continues in the Gaza strip, Israeli and Palestinian teens at camp in Maine struggle to find common ground.
Israeli and Palestinian kids coming face-to-face at a camp in Maine are finding ways to bridge a divide that has again cast their war-torn homelands into chaos as the international community looks to their leaders to follow suit and forge a peace agreement that will end the bloodshed.
“I just knew the other side as being people with guns, people who ban me from traveling, people who destroy my father’s land, people who kill us and torture us,” said a 17-year-old Palestinian named Salma, who lives in Gaza. “I realized that some of them are capable of being changed, and some of them just have this thing that makes me feel OK talking to them.”
Seeds of Peace Camp in Otisfield, Maine, brings together teens from international conflict zones using games, group activities and open dialogue in the hopes that putting a human face to their enemies will change the way they look at the war.
The monthlong battle raging in Gaza has made this summer’s session particularly tense for the 182 campers, more than half of whom are Israeli and Palestinian, who are looking to find common ground, Associate Director Wil Smith said.
“One of the best things about camp is when you see two kids who are adamantly opposed to each other in the beginning and as camp goes on you see them wander off two by two and you know by their hand movements that they’re having a pretty intense discussion around the conflict and they’ve gotten to a point where they’re ready to hear each other,” Smith said.
To force them to interact, campers at Seeds of Peace are assigned to mixed cabins and lunch tables. They’re required to speak English and political discussion is restricted to daily 90-minute facilitated sessions, where things can get heated.
“I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you can listen to the other side’s stories and you can also represent your own opinions,” said Omri, a 15-year-old Israeli. “How can you be friends with people who want you to die and support organizations that want you to die? Nobody wants armies. Nobody wants checkpoints. Nobody wants borders, but this is what reality has made us do.”
Ophir, 17, an Israeli, said she made her first Palestinian friends at camp and admitted that she “didn’t have a clear point of view” on Palestinians before she arrived.
“I didn’t really have hatred toward them and I was really open-minded and really wanted to hear and learn more,” she said. “They tell their own personal stories … There was this tough story of a father of one of my dialogue group. He was in the Israeli prison for like 14 years … It was very hard to hear that.”
“When I came to camp, I was really shocked to see what they have to say and the amount of anger they have toward Israelis,” Ophir said. “It was really tough at the beginning for me to hear ‘genocide’ or things like that. For me, it’s really hard to hear this comparison, because my grandfather was in the Holocaust. So, to hear the word ‘genocide’ compared to the situation in Gaza was just really overwhelming.”
Smith said some may never warm up to the other side, and that’s OK, because the memories will linger and at least they’ve had the chance to share their feelings and hear the same from the other side.
“It’s those informal moments that create the relationships that ultimately allow them to be heard by one another,” he said.