ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Dialogue for Peace

Palestinians and Israeli Jews work together for justice and peace in the Holy Land.

It is a hot, muggy day in the Holy Land. The heat has driven most people to the cool shelter of their stone houses or to the relief of air-conditioned shopping malls. Nevertheless, a hearty group of 20- to 40-year-olds has gathered on a busy street corner in predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem. Dressed in shorts and sandals, they wait patiently for a hired bus to take them to the Christian Arab town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem.

While no one would have blamed them for choosing a Tel Aviv beach over Beit Sahour, the members of the Jerusalem-based Rapprochement Dialogue Group have no regrets. They fall into easy conversation, catching up with old friends and welcoming newcomers.

During the 20-minute ride to the picturesque town where church steeples dominate the hilly landscape, the discussions take on a political tone. The group of 15 – comprising American Jews who have immigrated to Israel, a handful of Jewish and Christian students studying at Israeli universities, and a couple of native Israelis – enjoys the natural rapport that is a part of everyday life in Israel. By the time they arrive at their sister institution, the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement in Beit Sahour, just about everyone is commiserating over the snail’s pace of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

When the Palestinians arrive a few minutes later, the veterans are disappointed. The Palestinian contingent consists of only four or five people, and only one of them is a current resident of the West Bank. As they serve cold drinks, the Palestinians explain that most of their “regulars” are away on summer vacation. Perhaps feeling a bit intimidated by the size of the Jerusalem group, they suggest that the planned dialogue be postponed for a couple of weeks.

“Let’s talk for a while and then decide whether to go to a cafe,” says Shraga Gorni, an Israeli organizer in his fifties. “Let’s give it a try.”

Giving things a try is what Rapprochement is all about. Founded in June 1988, just a few months after the start of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, the nonprofit organization has tried to foster Israeli-Palestinian understanding and mutual respect through face-to-face meetings and grassroots activism.

Rapprochement was founded by Israeli peace activist Hillel Bardin, Palestinian physicist Ghassan Adoni, and a core group of Israeli and Palestinian academics and professionals. The organization has weathered the most violent days of the intifada, including terrorist attacks and military retaliation, security closures of the West Bank and Gaza and the divisive Gulf War, when Palestinians largely supported Iraq.

After a decade of frank, often painful meetings with the “other” side, Rapprochement’s organizers admit that dialogue alone cannot change the world. Andoni, for example, sees dialogue as a necessary tool to overcome mistrust, but rejects the notion that it can end the long-standing conflict.

“I don’t think dialogue will stop the problem. We must fight for justice, but at the same time we cannot get caught up in the cycle [of violence]. Dialogue isn’t a way to solve political and national crises, but it makes the fighting more human.”

Though far from acting as a panacea, the dialogues have served a vital purpose, Andoni says. “We have managed to build a reservoir of activists from both sides who have a certain level of trust in each other and share some common ground. These people work together, sometimes in projects, sometimes in peaceful resistance against injustice.”

Gorni, an Israeli engineer who has taken a leadership role in Rapprochement almost from its inception, says the meetings have prompted debate not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but within the respective groups.

“In the beginning, if I asked a question of a group of Palestinians they would all give the same answer. Now you’ll hear 10 answers and the Palestinians fight among themselves.”

Msgr. Denis J. Madden, who became interested in the group’s mission almost 10 years ago, credits the participants’ tenacity for getting them through the tough times.

“When I first went to Jerusalem, the intifada had just begun and Israelis and Palestinians were doing everything but talking to each other,” he recalls. “The Palestinians were throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the Israelis while the Israelis were firing live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas at the Palestinians.” Through it all, CNEWA’s Associate Secretary General says, the organization “met and continued to meet in honest but not always tranquil dialogue. While the peace process continues to falter, the Beit Sahour Rapprochement Group continues to struggle for the rights of both Jews and Palestinians.”

As part of that struggle, Rapprochement has over the years hosted thousands of participants, including native Israelis and Palestinians, university and seminary students, interested tourists, visiting peace organizations and religious groups.

Today the organization has three branches (Beit Sahour, West Jerusalem and Nablus), each with its own advisory committee.

Although they meet both jointly and separately, the branches each have a representative to the organization’s umbrella committee.

Funded in large part by European Christian organizations, and affiliated with the Mennonite Central Committee, Rapprochement has strong ties to the world Christian community. This seems particularly fitting since, in the Gospel according to Luke, it was in Beit Sahour’s Shepherd’s Field that an angel surrounded by a supernatural light appeared to the bewildered shepherds: “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and singing, ’Glory to God in the highest: and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.’”

In this spirit of goodwill – and prompted by the realization that mutual distrust has brought them no closer to peace – Rapprochement’s Palestinian and Israeli members organize both intimate parlor-like meetings and formal panel discussions in which human rights activists, academics, prominent religious figures and politicians often participate. In one recent meeting between Israeli and Palestinian women, the groups addressed problems such as incest in the Palestinian community and honor killings, when a male family member murders a sister, cousin or daughter for “disgracing” the family name.

Working on the assumption that action must accompany words, the organization has sponsored countless candlelight marches, prayer vigils, demonstrations and, when possible, cross-cultural visits. Over the years, the participants have tackled such thorny issues as Israeli land confiscation and the demolition of Palestinian houses, water rights, administrative detention by Israeli and Palestinian security forces, terrorists and Palestinian support for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

In an attempt to build trust, in 1989 thousands of Beit Sahour residents pledged their support for peace with Israel in the presence of Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And every Christmas, thousands of Israelis join Palestinians on a march to Shepherd’s Field, where candles are lit for peace.

Israeli families have spent weekends in Beit Sahour, but it has been a long time since the Palestinians have been able to reciprocate. While Palestinian members of the group used to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath with Israeli families, joint projects within Israel are almost impossible to arrange today. This is because the Israeli security forces severely limit the number of permits granting entry to Israel proper.

“For me, the major disappointment after all these years is that our work is extremely limited by this lack of mobility,” says Andoni. “The only Israelis we can speak to are those who come to our areas. By definition, we’re meeting with people who decide to cross the border into the West Bank. The minute they come, they’re part of the left-wing peace camp.”

Even so, Andoni rejects the notion that Rapprochement is preaching to the converted. “That’s simply not the case. There are lots of issues where we Israelis and Palestinians differ,” he asserts.

Judging from today’s dialogue meeting at the Beit Sahour center, Andoni is right. With the exception of a few key issues, there appears to be very little consensus.

Sitting in a circle, with the Palestinians clustered together on one side of the room, the participants begin a spirited, rapid-fire discussion that could, at any moment, turn into a full-scale shouting match. The fact that it does not says a lot about the program and its leaders.

As with all Rapprochement discussions, this one revolves around the headlines: the fact that Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian cabinet, recently resigned from the government on the grounds that the Palestinian Authority was corrupt; Yasser Arafat’s failing health; Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes; and the fact that many Palestinian children are systematically taught to hate Israelis. If there is one point of consensus, it’s on the issue of corruption in the Palestinian Authority.

“Are Palestinians happy with the way their children are being raised?” asks Ariel with an edge in his voice.

“Palestinians raise their children the way Israelis raise their children: to be soldiers” counters Muhammad. “Let’s face it; both of us are doing the same thing.”

Muhammad also defends the fledgling Palestinian entity, which he, like everyone else in the room, believes will become a sovereign state. “This is only the third year [of limited Palestinian authority in parts of the Israeli-occupied territories] and we’re better than other Arab countries,” he says. “We’re a lot better than Syria, Iraq, even Jordan.”

And how does Palestine compare with Israel, asks Seri, an American Israeli. “Let’s not talk about Israel as if it’s the most democratic country in the world,” says Khaled. “Israel has nothing to feel superior about.”

Breaktime has the group heading for an outdoor restaurant. They order sodas and beers. There is a great deal of camaraderie and quite a bit of shared laughter. In contrast to the session, where English is the neutral language used, a couple of Palestinians now converse with the Israelis in fluent Hebrew.

Taking time to digest the dialogue he has just experienced, Elli Sacks, an American Jew who immigrated to Israel two years ago, marvels at the fact that he is sitting in a Palestinian restaurant wearing a yarmulke. Since the start of the intifada, he notes, most Israelis, especially religious Jews, have felt unsafe venturing into Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza.

“I feel safe because I’m a guest of the Palestinians. Usually I wouldn’t walk by myself wearing a kippa [yarmulke]. But everyone here knows we’re guests, and in Arab society guests are always treated with respect,” he says. Ron Malool, a native Israeli who just returned from a five-year stint in San Francisco, says the dialogue offered him a new perspective.

“I was once a soldier and I used to serve in the territories. At the time I didn’t have any moral dilemma. I was young and basically concerned about my personal safety, not about politics. But as time passed and I grew older, I saw that we need to learn more about each other, to learn how the other side feels.”

If he has one word of criticism for the dialogue meeting, it is the fact that so few native Israelis are in attendance – a problem that has plagued the organization since its founding.

“We need to hold meetings between real Israelis and real Palestinians because we’re the ones living through the conflict,” he says. When asked whether he would invite some of his Israeli friends for the next meeting, he says, “I’ll try, but it’s difficult. When I met some friends over coffee and told them I was going to the dialogue they said I was crazy. I think the fact that I was away for five years and didn’t have to serve in the army during that time definitely opened my mind politically. Most people I know don’t have that option.”

Khaled al-Khatib, a Beit Sahour Palestinian who is studying in Berlin, asserts that it is time for Israelis and Palestinians to stop blaming each other and take responsibility for their own actions.

Al-Khatib, who spent two months as a self-described “security prisoner” in an Israeli jail in the early 1990s, maintains that “there are victims, but it is time to stop the victimization complex. We have to start working on another level. We Palestinians can’t blame Israel if a Palestinian is killed in a Palestinian prison. It’s time we shared in the building of a new society.”

Michele Chabin is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

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