OTISFIELD, MAINE | Fighting in the Middle East has made for a summer of high tension, tearful phone calls and unlikely friendships between Israelis and Palestinians attending camps in the U.S. that host participants from the region.
Seeds of Peace, a lakeside camp in rural Otisfield, Maine, has brought together teenagers from countries at war for more than 20 years. Its counselors, also from Middle Eastern countries, say they all are united by fear of the violence raging overseas and a hope that their generation will be the one to end it.
Among the 50 counselors at Seeds of Peace in Maine are Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians who are spending the summer breaking bread with colleagues who are on opposite sides of the conflict.
Eias Khatib, 25, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian and counselor in Maine, said a bomb went off near his uncle’s building just this week. He said being away from family is unnerving and fills him with guilt. But spending time with Israelis and Egyptians who share his hope for peace is uplifting, he said.
“Things have to change. We, as a young generation, agree that this is wrong,” said Khatib, whose mother’s family is from Gaza. “But I don’t see it ending.”
More than 200 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israel started launching airstrikes in response to rocket attacks from Hamas and Palestinian fighters. On Friday, Israel upped the ante with the beginning of a land offensive. President Barack Obama has said he supports an Egyptian effort to broker a cease-fire.
Cairo-born Monica Baky said she is conflicted about what role Egypt can play in bringing about peace. The 22-year-old Christian said she fears for her country’s national security if it opens its borders but is sympathetic to the concerns of her Israeli and Palestinian colleagues about their homelands.
“In a sane world, people would actually sit down and talk to each other, rather than holding up their guns,” said Baky, who’s serving as a counselor at the Maine camp.
Hagai Efrat, a Jewish Israeli born in the Jerusalem suburbs, said he talks with family every few days about the air raid sirens that go off in their neighborhood. Efrat, who was an infantry soldier in the Israeli military at the Gaza border in 2011 and 2012, said he feels united with many of his colleagues at camp in opposing Israeli air strikes.
“I am a strong opponent of everything that is going on,” the 23-year-old said. “I am so upset with what my government is doing.”
Hands of Peace is in its 12th year of bringing together high school students from four groups: Americans, Jewish Israelis, Palestinians from the West Bank and Palestinian citizens of Israel. This year, there are 43 teenagers living with host families in the Chicago suburbs and another 24 in San Diego.
Camp founder Gretchen Grad said the growing violence in the Middle East has stressed many of this summer’s participants.
“Kids are calling home, wanting to be in closer touch with their families to see if they’ve been affected. It puts them in a more fragile emotional state,” Grad said.
At Maryland’s Camp Shoresh, 14-year-old camper Nesiah Ely of Potomac, Maryland, said the fighting in the Middle East is disheartening.
“I think it’s really hard to deal with, especially because we’re in America, and it’s really hard to think that you could change it or have something to help,” she said.
In Maine, Seeds of Peace will welcome about 180 teenage international campers — including many from the Middle East — on Aug. 3. It will be a tense transition, but it’s also a good time to help young people learn the power of dialogue, Khatib said.
“The kids are going to come over and they’re going to be full of anger. They are already living in conflict, living in death and danger,” Khatib said. “I need to be there for them, as a brother, as a father, as a friend.”