BY TATIANA MORALES | This week’s withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip has raised new concerns of conflict, along with renewed hope for peace. With that backdrop, The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith met Wednesday with a group of young men and women directly affected by the tensions in the region, graduates of a unique summer camp program designed to bring them together.
They share a worldly view, though not always the same opinion. Smith revisited the Seeds of Peace international summer camp in Otisfield, Maine, where he first went in July. He says he got the chance to learn a thing or two about trust during that visit, and Wednesday’s.
For the past 13 summers, the camp has brought together teens from areas of conflict, places where violence, distrust and hatred rule everyday life. The goals: finding common ground, and making friends. This week, 125 alumni campers, now in their twenties, returned to Maine for a leadership summit.
Smith talked Wednesday to three Palestinians and three Israelis, whose youthful idealism has been tempered by real life.
“I haven’t seen my parents for the past two years because of the closure on the Gaza City,” says Hani, a 21-year-old Palestinian. “However, I’m still coming here—I insisted to come—and to make peace.”
Israeli Prime minister Ariel Sharon has said he was extending an olive branch to the Palestinian people by having the Israeli settlers leave Gaza. If returning Gaza to the Palestinians after a 38-year occupation by Israel is an important first step, Smith says, the campers all know there is also a difficult journey ahead.
“Getting out of Gaza doesn’t mean that we get our freedom back,” says Ruba, a 25-year-old Palestinian. “I hope it’s going to be for the best of everyone but, seriously, I don’t trust the Israeli government now.”
“I grew up in the West Bank,” says Inbal, a 22-year-old Israeli. “My brother still lives there … I identify with the settlers who are being kicked out of their houses today.”
Their views of the world differ sharply but, Smith says, because of Seeds of Peace, they’ve learned to agree to disagree.
All three of the Israelis Smith spoke with have served in the military. They know they’re symbols of hatred to every Palestinian.
Says Yossi, a former Israeli soldier, “We all have our own fears and, when we come to speak about peace, we’re not talking about hugging every day and all day, but we’re talking about hard situations and how we can find a solution for it.”
So they spend their days at the camp talking. It is words that become the connective tissue, Smith says, among people who have been torn apart by years of conflict.
Abood, a 23-year-old Palestinian says, “I put the hatred on the side, because I’m here for peace. I’m not here to blame because, if we go on blaming, it’s going to end up with nothing.”
The big picture of Israeli-Palestinian peace is almost too much to tackle, Smith says. So these former campers talk about what each can do as individuals.
“You don’t have to be the prime minister to have influence,” Ruba insists. “I can influence my kids, I can influence people I work with, I can influence my friends, my family, all these people.”
“I believe that, in order to navigate where a ship is going, you have to row the paddles,” says Shai, a 24-year-old Israeli. “I mean, if you want to make a difference, you first have to contribute your share to your society.”
The seeds are growing, Smith says, and perhaps proving that the notion of making friends out of enemies can work, even if the long-term goals feel beyond reach.
Says Yossi, “We can find a common ground to start from, but our governments … our governments need to find that too.”
While the camp isn’t a panacea, Smith concludes, it does introduce dialogue that would otherwise not take place. The former campers he spoke with hold on to hope of a peaceful co-existence, recognizing there really is no other option.