As the Israeli-Palestinian peace process atrophies, so have contacts between Palestinians and Israeli Jews.
Palestinians used to visit Tel Aviv beaches and restaurants, while Israelis shopped in Nablus. Intellectuals from both sides lectured at each other’s universities.
Those links vanished after a second Palestinian intifada and the decline of the peace process. Gaza is closed, a fence cuts the West Bank off from Israel, and most Palestinians only meet Israelis at military checkpoints.
This separation widens the gulf of distrust between the two peoples, especially among the young. Meantime, Israel’s Arab citizens — 20 percent of the population within the country’s 1967 borders — are increasingly alienated by discriminatory laws.
That’s why, on a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, I sought out participants in Seeds of Peace (www.seedsofpeace.org), a visionary program that has brought Israelis and Palestinians together at a Maine summer camp for nearly two decades. I wanted to learn whether bonds forged during summer weeks could withstand the political strains of the last 10 years. What I discovered is both hopeful and sad.
Ruba Huleihel and Alina Shkolnikov are as unlikely a pair of best friends as you could meet in Israel. Ruba is an Arab citizen of Israel whose grandparents’ village was destroyed during Israel’s 1948 war of independence. Alina emigrated from Ukraine to Israel with her family as a toddler.
Both young women are undergraduates at the elite Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya; they have been tight since Seeds camp in 2002.
I met them in a spartan student apartment off campus. “Seeds is a shocking experience,” Alina told me. “People talked about how it was to live in Gaza.” One boy related how his teenage cousin was shot by Israeli police during a riot at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, and died in his arms. “Everyone of us cried,” she said.
When Alina learned that Ruba went to the same mall and liked the same music she did, she was stunned. “The image (of Arabs) in Israeli society is of religious fanatics,” she said. Seeds tought Ruba how to react to other people’s opinions “in a way that is not emotional. I can look and think from the outside.”
Alina dumped a boyfriend whose brother told her that Ruba would kill her, and Ruba ignores Arab acquaintances who say her friendship with Alina is unrealistic.
Both struggle to separate their personal bond from the worsening political situation. It bothered Ruba when Alina went to do her compulsory military service (army duty often causes friction between Israeli and Palestinian Seeds). Now a reservist in the army spokesman’s office, Alina had to get permission to keep contact with Ruba.
But the Israeli Seed still believes the organization can affect politics in the future. “The role of Seeds,” she says, “is to create leaders who have friends on both sides — unlike the current leaders, who can’t feel the pain on the other side.”
Ruba is less hopeful. “I study conflict resolution,” she says, “and the ‘hummus-falafel’ approach to resolving conflicts says you must concentrate on building personal relationships. But at the end we have a political problem to solve.”
The disconnect between the personal and the political is felt even more directly by Seeds on the West Bank. Rasha Mukbil, a 1999 Seed, works in Ramallah with a Stars of Hope, a Palestinian organization empowering women with disabilities.
“My generation lived the struggle but never talked about it, never talked about the humiliation at (Israeli) checkpoints. But there I was (at Seeds camp) telling stories and crying all the time,” she said.
Soon after Rasha returned to the West Bank, the second intifada broke out, and she entered a nightmare. “I was living in Hebron to be nearer to my school, and every night we were attacked by shooting (as Israelis fired at Palestinian fighters nearby). My mom ran around me to try to catch the bullets before they hit me.”
At that time, she felt she “had betrayed my country by being with Seeds. Israeli Seeds go to the army and could be shooting at me.” But then, an Israeli friend from camp called her, frantically asking, “Is there anything I can do?”
“It gave me hope,” Rasha said. “She never called me a terrorist, nor me her. We still talk.”
But Rasha can’t get a permit to enter Israel to see her friend. Nor can her Jewish friend visit her in Ramallah. This lack of physical contact undermines friendships, although Seeds organizers can sometimes get permits for large reunions in Jerusalem.
Some Seeds want the organization to become more political, but others say this would wreck the program. “Most Palestinians who go (to Seeds camp) have mixed feelings,” says Rasha. “You feel you didn’t change any public opinion in Israel. You didn’t achieve anything.”
Yet Rasha’s extraordinary family continues to be involved with Seeds. Her father Ismail Mukbil, a respected English teacher and school principal, urged her and her older sister Bushra to attend the camp in the 1990s, although his relatives criticized him sharply.
It was easier to be optimistic when Mukbil got involved with Seeds, just after the Oslo peace process began in 1993: “We had twinning of schools, we met teachers, we exchanged visits. It was a good opportunity to build trust.”
“These days, to tell the truth, we are not very encouraged,” he says. He hasn’t been able to get a permit to visit his two brothers in Jerusalem for the past 10 years, nor can he and Israeli friends from Seeds visit each other. However, he won’t give up: he was a Palestinian delegation leader to Seeds camp in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
And he still hopes personal contacts made by Seeds will one day morph into political progress. But it is getting much harder to hold on to the dream.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org