DevMode
I admit that I chose the movies. Whether it was a conscious choice or a result of unacknowledged masochism I'm not sure, but my husband and I found ourselves at a recent Jerusalem Film Festival having our hearts ripped out by scene after scene of inter-ethnic violence: Hindus against Muslims in Bombay, Serbs against Croats in Serbo-Croatia, Albanians against Macedonians, Protestants against Catholics in Belfast - burning, shooting, stabbing and bombing drowning out the cries of pain and protest of the peacemakers. After I catch my breath, how does this make me feel about us, Israelis and Palestinians who are trying to find ways to lessen the suffering here, to create a livable framework now, as soon as possible, before the pain is unbearable? Are we contributing anything?

Facing Reality

One of the creations of the Intifada turmoil was grass-roots dialogue between Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israelis. As I look back, I see it was an avenue for middle-aged participation in the uprising: none of us was political leaders, another approved middle-age stance, but neither were we IDF soldiers or shebab. So we took part by talking, and the talking in small groups led to large-scale non-violent activities, such as the Prayer for Peace uttered by thousands in a church in Beit Sahur or the mass picnic on Mount Gerizim in Nablus.
Eventually we formed an organization, the Rapprochement Dialogue Center. While continuing to organize small dialogue meetings, we wanted to demonstrate in the mass activities that there are a good many people who aren't afraid of each other, who feel they have a common goal that isn't completely expressed by political slogans, but also has a moral basis, and this moral sense is strong on both sides. After all, the movies reminded me that the actual level of violence here is relatively low, although the expectation of violence and fear of harm is extraordinarily high - and here I speak as an Israeli. This expectation of the worst clouds perception of reality, and it is just this sense of reality that we hope to provide in face-to-face meetings.

'The Transformation of Suffering'

There were a lot of very pale faces, stomachaches and cases of motion sickness among the Israelis on the bus to a full-day dialogue in Nablus. This was one of a series of intensive contact workshops, running from a full day to two- or three-day stays in the West Bank, organized on the theme of "The transformation of suffering." We are trying to bring in people from the mental health field, alternative medicine and others who were not politically involved in the past. They are often really scared. Even a documentary filmmaker, who had done a film on Middle East peacemakers, admitted her fantasies of the impending horrors: "After 500 previous bus trips in the Middle East, I was certain this was the one to explode. After 18 months of going all over the West Bank, I imagined we'd be assaulted by furious Palestinians driving us back over the Green Line...." Instead, by lunchtime she found herself in a group wandering with our hosts in the notorious Casbah, eating falafel and chatting about politics and peace with other shoppers.
One Palestinian who stopped to talk identified himself as from a small village near Nablus. Which village? "You probably never heard of it: Beita." A full circle. He had just finished four years in jail as a result of the day trip of the teenagers from Elon Moreh, one of the most dramatic and wrenching incidents of the early Intifada. Two of us in the group had spent many hours in' the military court in Nablus at the time, "witnessing" the proceedings between the settlers and the accused Palestinian boys. For us, it Israelis to Nablus on that day four years later; for him, it was the beginning of a jail term. When he heard what we were doing there, he asked to join . the dialogue in the afternoon. So we are still traveling on the same track, or somehow parallel tracks.

Second Generation

The workshops in Nablus have taken place in one of the women's centers, where there are educational programs for women, and children are treated by speech therapists, and receive other kinds of treatments, massage and healing techniques to overcome traumas of the occupation. Some of these techniques have been brought to Nablus by Israelis, and others by teachers we have imported to train dialogue facilitators: Christopher Titmuss, from the International Buddhist Peace Fellowship; Dr. Paula Green, from the Karuna Institute; and Dr. Louise Diamond, from the Institute for Multitrack Diplomacy. In Beit Sahur, Christopher spent two days at the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement with a group of youth leaders. They've created for themselves an ambitious project to deepen a positive Palestinian identity, increase contact among youth in different areas of the West Bank and Gaza through travel and discussion groups and to instill democratic values. The Beit Sahur youth group is the second generation of our original set of, as I described it, middle-aged Intifada workers. Now we see ourselves more as chaperons of the dialogue, as it takes on new forms with different age groups.
Maybe the "peace of the brave" was more than a sales pitch by Arafat for the Oslo agreements. Are Israelis brave to venture into the West Bank to meet Palestinians? From within, I feel this is a ridiculous description. On the other hand, I know how hard it is to seduce Israelis into coming, even a fraction of those who would stand for hours in a crowded square in Tel Aviv with peace signs. Of course, the whole business of peacemaking is hopping on one foot: we cannot invite equally "brave" Palestinians to us, since they have been officially uninvited to Israel.

Bethlehem - No!

A friend of mine is visiting now, a (Jewish) research physician who is trying to organize a two-day conference on the effect of dioxin in the environment on human health in the Middle East. When he realized that Palestinians would not be able to attend the conference as planned in Beersheba, he agreed that Bethlehem would be the most convenient location for everyone. I was most curious to hear the response of his Israeli colleagues. An immediate no. Much too dangerous, they wouldn't set foot in the Palestinian Autonomy area and he is certainly out of his mind to think they would sleep there. And what is more, they said, any such Palestinians seen to be meeting with Israelis would certainly be putting themselves in great danger. (Of course we were invited to hold the conference in Bethlehem by Palestinians.) Is this real fear, or is it cowardice? Whichever, it is a stark denial of reality and as much an obstacle to peace as our prime minister.
Here are some comments of participants in a recent Rapprochement workshop which may give a sense of the impact of dialogue:

Palestinians:

"These years have been a tragedy for me. However, I am learning how to make use of my suffering. To use it as a path to peace."
"With the closure, our people feel depressed. We gave up everything for peace, but we are still in prison. My will for peace collapsed. However, coming here has helped me to feel that there is hope. It gave me the motivation to continue, because it restored my trust in people."
"During the many years I spent in jail, I struggled constantly not to allow anger and hate to destroy my faith. Now I have a chance to build on that for peace."
"I now understand that to achieve peace is to reach reality. We have both been living a big lie all these years."

Israelis:

"I know now that the purpose of this workshop is not only to make peace, but also to know what peace really is. This gives a tremendous energy."
"It is amazing to be here [in Nablus] and feel the sense of security and warmth and protection. They look after us as their children."
"Though I am immensely frustrated at what is happening now, after two days I have received a big motivation to continue. Peace-building is the most important thing that we can do."
There is an appropriate sneer in Israel to express skepticism about every kind of political activity on the left: dialogues, demonstrations, letters of protest, vigils, solidarity visits, appeals to the court... We are so abundantly self-critical, and impatient with other's efforts, that we can easily become paralyzed. One thing makes me feel easy about our work: coming back on the bus from Nablus, there are no stomachaches, but lots of talk and laughter, sounds out of which peace can emerge.

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