by Danielle Kerem
Seeds of Peace -- the youth peace-building organization founded in 1993 -- boasts of an impressive list of funding partners. Exxon Mobil, USAID, IBM, and Chase Community Giving are among the 25 corporations, government agencies, and organizations recognized as Seeds of Peace ‘partners’. While foreign contributors are undoubtedly an important source of financing for peace-building initiatives in Israel and Palestine, members of Palestinian civil society have expressed frustration with the failure of cooperative peace projects -- and their perceived donor-driven agendas -- to address domestic concerns and satisfy local needs.
Following the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993, hundreds of initiatives for dialogues and joint meetings emerged. According to a 2007 report commissioned by the UNESCO ‘Civil Societies in Dialogue’ program, between 1993 and 2000, international donors allocated between 20-25 million dollars to the funding of these dialogue programs. Yet, with the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, enthusiasm for these initiatives diminished and organizations were confronted with heightened opposition -- particularly within Palestinian society.
“They [the Palestinians] do not want to work toward normalization in education, dialogue, economic development, or reconciliation with Israeli partners before the occupation is over. This is because they are frightened, and rightly so, that if Israel can reach normalization and cooperation without ending the occupation, it will have no reason to do so...normalization is a factor that enables the continuation of the occupation,” said one NGO director in an interview with the authors of the UNESCO report.
Huwaida Arraf, a co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement and a former program coordinator at Seeds of Peace’s Jerusalem Center, echoes these concerns. Prior to assuming her position at Seeds of Peace, Arraf rented a Washington D.C. apartment from a United States congressman. As Arraf recalls, “I called the congressman to tell him that I would not be renewing my lease because I had accepted this job with Seeds of Peace. His response was something like, ‘Oh, I know that group…Those kids in the green shirts that sing about peace...they visit Congress every year.’”
According to Arraf, instead of highlighting the need for urgent American political intervention in favor of an end to the Israeli occupation, support for bi-national programs similar to Seeds of Peace serves as a “feel-good mechanism for international organizations, donor agencies, politicians, and other personalities, and it keeps them from applying the kind of pressure on Israel that is needed for a change of policy.”
The Seeds of Peace organization’s neutral positioning vis-a-vis the Israel-Palestine conflict was an additional source of frustration for Arraf during her time at the Jerusalem Center. As a coordinator, she had noticed that many of the youths participating in the program were unaware of Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes in Jerusalem. In response, Arraf organized small groups of Israeli and Palestinian students and took them to “sit-ins” at homes threatened with demolition. Although her colleagues in Jerusalem were supportive of the initiative, once word of the “sit-ins” reached executives in New York City, the group visits were terminated. “So, in other words, Seeds of Peace kids could not engage in a project criticizing Israeli policy, even a policy that has been declared by various human rights bodies to be a violation of international law, collective punishment, even a war crime,” said Arraf.
Seeds of Peace’s most recently published annual report indicates that conversations regarding normalization have been taking place within the organization. In 2010, the organization coordinated a two-day uni-national seminar -- consisting of 55 Palestinian participants from across the West Bank -- to discuss “objections within their society to meeting with their Israeli peers.” Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether Seeds of Peace has considered an organizational redesign that might neutralize criticism that it is organizationally detached from the Israel-Palestine conflict’s asymmetric context.
Qaterannada Rehan, an 18-year-old resident of Ramallah’s Al-Amari refugee camp and a rising sophomore at Massachusetts’ Mount Holyoke College, has fond memories of her experience at Seeds of Peace. “It was the first time I came to the United States and the first opportunity I had to meet other kids my age from Israel, Jordan, India, Pakistan and Egypt. It was the first time I was really able to talk to an Israeli kid my own age,” she said. “Seeds of Peace was an exceptional experience because it was an opportunity for me to learn how to really listen.”
While Rehan firmly believes that she cultivated important interpersonal skills during her time at the summer camp in Maine, she is skeptical of the program’s ability to meaningfully impact the conflict. “When I left the bubble that I was living in that summer, I realized that the time we spent together at the camp didn’t mean very much in the larger picture. I still went back to Al-Amari and the Israelis still went back to Israel to join the army. Seeds of Peace also made the division between us more obvious.”
A few months after returning from Maine, Rehan and her family were passing through Qalandiya checkpoint on their way to Jerusalem. She was surprised to recognize a face among the cluster of IDF uniforms guarding the checkpoint -- an Israeli participant from Seeds of Peace camp. For Rehan, the recognition was jolting. “I realized in that moment that this boy who had been my friend was unreachable. If I moved to say hello to him, I would probably be assaulted because the other soldiers would see me as a threat. If I told my Palestinian friends that I knew an Israeli soldier, they might think I was a traitor,” she explained.
“Seeds of Peace was a great moment in my life, but it was only a moment,” said Rehan. According to her, the short-term coexistence facilitated by Seeds of Peace needs to be accompanied by an organizational commitment to actively challenging the conditions that make coexistence outside the idyllic town of Otisfield, Maine untenable. Otherwise, she says, the memories of camp bonding will inevitably be eclipsed by the oppressive reality of a continuing and accelerating occupation.