The get-together between Israeli and Palestinian young people that is currently wrapping up in the American state of Maine hasn’t been easy. The winds of war from Gaza naturally had their impact on the discussions. The discussions in this program sponsored by the Seeds for Peace organization between the young Israeli and Palestinian and other Arab participants have never been easy, but this time the friction was greater.
The weather along the lake had never been better. After the sun came up, comfortable temperatures and reasonable humidity served as a backdrop to a gathering of more than 300 young people, including Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians as well as Indians and Pakistanis, Afghanis and others.
Seeds for Peace, which has been around for 22 years, has never attracted such keen media attention. With the Middle East ablaze, it was as if this summer camp in Maine was the only place where any sort of hope of dialogue, if not peace, could be transmitted. Various American media representatives came in large numbers to see the camp in action. NBC, for example, devoted a major report to the gathering on its evening news broadcast and its morning show the following day, as well as an additional program on its sister network, MSNBC.
In truth, however, none of the media representatives got access to the young people’s actual discussion groups – and for a good reason. The goal of Seeds for Peace was to provide the maximum level of openness in the discussions, beyond the limelight and without the presence of cameras, microphones and pens. In the groups, the Palestinian participants spoke of Israeli cruelty toward their people. The Israeli young people spoke of their moments of fear during the war and leveled their own similar allegations against the Palestinians.
Frequently, sparks flew. At one point, the Palestinians wore black shirts in protest over Palestinian victims of the hostilities and the fact that most of the participants from Gaza did not manage to attend the Maine conclave. The Israelis on hand didn’t like this, and it ran contrary to what was accepted conduct in the program: All the participants were to wear the green shirts that they received as soon as they arrived for the program. The Israelis thought about responding in kind but in the end decided to restrain themselves.
At another point, one Israeli recounted that a Palestinian participant told him that one day the Palestinian would kill him. In in the end, tempers cooled.
The Israeli group of 60 participants was chosen by the Education Ministry and represented the diversity of Israel’s population. About 20 percent of the Israeli group was Arab and both left- and right-wing views were representation in the delegation. Seeds for Peace was involved in selecting the Palestinian participants. Initially 32 Palestinians were due to participate in the camp, but only two of the seven Gaza Palestinians managed to make it to Maine. As a result, the director of the program increased the number of Palestinians from the West Bank, which ultimately resulted in 38 Palestinians.
By the way, some of the Palestinians come from households where they were seen as traitors for being willing to spend part of the summer with Israeli young people. Usually the participants in the program, which lasts almost a month, begin the discussions set in their views but gradually become more open to listen to the other side. Sometimes they also change their views, but this year it appeared to be more difficult. At least during the course of my visit, a considerable number of the young people remained adamant in their positions. At the same time, however, I did see Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians having a laugh together, hugging each other and promising to keep in touch.
As a group, they beat another summer camp in soccer 12:0. Their team included Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Americans and others, coming together to beat the opposing American side. Within the Seeds for Peace camp itself, a sense of camaraderie was developed by organizing sports competitions in which participants of various backgrounds were intermingled.
One of the heads of the Israeli delegation, a teacher by profession, said a camp like this has a profound effect on young people. One day, perhaps when an Israeli participant is a soldier at a West Bank roadblock, he will view the Palestinian standing before him in a different, more humane light. And the same can also be said when it comes to the Palestinians. Even if they don’t become lovers of Israel, they will at least be able to see that those on the other side are human beings like them. And in turbulent times like the current period, that’s no small accomplishment.
The summer camp is not the end of the process. Graduates of the program can participate in programs designed for them in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah. And a considerable number of them will also get together on their own. The organizers’ hope is that at some point, the participants will become leaders in their own countries. And if until then today’s adults don’t sign a peace treaty, perhaps these graduates of Seeds for Peace will be the signatories of tomorrow.