Israeli and Palestinian Youths See Each Other's Humanity as They Argue for Their Own Side

Seeds of Peace President Aaron Miller brings participants to UCLA to describe their unique experience.

By Leslie Evans


"Peace will not be created by the right or the left. It must be created from the center where most Israelis and Palestinians live."

Shira Kaplan of Herzliya, Israel, is a veteran of the Israeli army. She shares the fears of most of her compatriots that a trip on a bus may end in being blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber. Until she was fifteen she had no face to face contact with Palestinians. Fadi Elsalameen is a Palestinian from Hebron in the West Bank. "In Hebron I saw Israelis only as settlers or soldiers," he recalls. "The only interaction I had with them was I threw rocks at them and they shot at me." The two met, not in Israel but at a camp in Maine. That was six years ago.

Shira and Fadi went to Maine not as part of the small left-wing peace movement of Israel or the isolated Palestinian families who want to end the war and come to a resolution with the Israelis. They were chosen by their respective governments to go and live with the enemy for three and a half weeks, to argue the case for their side face to face with teenagers of the other side. This unique program is sponsored by Seeds of Peace, founded in 1993 by the late journalist and author John Wallach. Shira Kaplan and Fadi Elsalameen told their stories at UCLA March 18 in a meeting sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. They were accompanied by the current president of Seeds of Peace, former presidential Middle East advisor Aaron Miller, who explained the organizaton's difficult mission.

Miller served for some twenty-five years as a high State Department official under six Secretaries of State. He was an active figure in the negotiations leading up the signing of the Oslo Accords at Camp David in 1993. The Seeds of Peace organization began with forty or so teenagers at its camp in Maine, and now brings some 500 every summer. It has participants from 22 countries, primarily from Israel, the Palestinian National Authority, Jordan, Tunisia, Qatar, Morocco, Egypt, and Cyprus. In 1999 it opened a center in Jerusalem, where it follows up the initial camp experience with planned mutual discussions and continued contact between participants for a hoped-for ten years. Former U.S. presidents George Bush, Senior, and Bill Clinton serve on its advisory board.

"We deal in conflict resolution and coexistence," Aaron Miller told the UCLA audience. "Peace is not available at the moment. We have witnessed nonstop violence over the last three years."

Victims of the Conflict Are More Willing to Talk to Each Other than American College Students Who Have Closed Their Minds

Miller contrasted the ability of the veterans of the Seeds of Peace camp at Otisfield, Maine, to talk to each other in a reasoned way, despite sometimes deep personal and family injuries in the long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with what he saw as a growing intolerance and closing of minds on American campuses.

"I wonder why it is not possible to have a civilized and respectful dialogue on college campuses?" he asked. "It is not a question of physical survival for them. But wherever I go the debate is as polarized and as unproductive as I have ever seen it. It was bad in the 1970s but it is worse now. People have shut down and are not listening. But for the participants, who have really suffered, they are capable of reaching out to one another in a way that people here who are free of these constraints are not."

Miller held out hope that the person-to-person diplomacy of the Seeds of Peace effort could help provide the underpinnings for a successful resolution of the conflict by government-to-government negotiation. At the same time he was deeply disappointed at the failure of a quarter century of U.S. efforts to mediate the conflict:

"Everything that I worked for over the last 25 years is now dead or in some process of decay. I helped Secretary of State Baker plan the Madrid peace conference. I was with President Clinton at Camp David in July of 2000. Everything that we invested in is now broken." He added that he has "not lost faith in diplomacy, despite the sad state of American diplomacy at the moment."

Three Reasons Why There Is No Resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Miller pointed to three reasons that in his opinion explained the persistent failure to end the bloodshed:

"One, there is no leadership. The conflict seems immune to grass roots movements, there are no mobilizations of the public to pressure their governments. There is only one model: men in the government reach agreement in dark places and have to sell those agreements to their people. Israeli-Palestinian, Israel-Egypt, and Israel-Jordan fit that modal. And there is no leadership on this issue today." Instead of genuinely seeking a workable peace, he said, "Each leader is plotting the downfall of the others."

Miller gave as his second reason that "there is no sense of common ground or shared narrative or willingness to acknowledge the needs of the other. Negotiations work when they are based on a balance of interest, not on a balance of power. Like a good marriage. There is an asymmetry of power. The Palestinians wield the power of the weak. You can abdicate responsibility for anything. You can acquiesce in all kinds of things: incitement, terror. You take away from the party of the strong a reliable security partner. Israel is the party of the strong. They can create settlements, they can build checkpoints and bypass roads. They can act in defense of legitimate security interests but also in defense of nonlegitimate interests."

His third reason was the failure of other countries to intervene. "There is no third party even willing to create a bridge between two parties for whom despair has become the order of day. In a generational conflict without hope there is no solution."

What Seeds of Peace Does

Seeds of Peace, Miller said, "is training leaders, genuine leaders. They come at 14, 15, or 16 to spend time in the woods of Maine -- 2,500 leaders in a decade. These young people will emerge as leaders of their society. I believe, given my experience with them, that they are leaders because they are genuine and authentic."

Here he talked abut the unusual choice of his organization in selecting its participants from among centrist youth who do not come to it committed to the peace process but often quite the opposite, as fierce partisans of the views of their side. "Peace will not be created by the right or the left," he said. "It must be created from the center where most Israelis and Palestinians live. In a short three-and-a-half weeks they don't emerge as friends. Some at the beginning lie awake at night fearing for their lives from the enemy in the next bunk. At the end of three-and-ahalf weeks they part grieving that they will never see each other again. The story becomes legitimate because the story teller becomes legitimate."

"There is no freedom. Not for me as an Israeli or for Fadi as a Palestinian."-- Shira Kaplan

Here Aaron Miller turned the platform over to the two young people. Shira Kaplan spoke first:

"Do you feel free?" she asked, "To travel around, to go on buses? The general impression is that you can do whatever you want. The reality in my country is that there is no freedom. Not for me as an Israeli or for Fadi as a Palestinian. I am not free go on buses. There are checkpoints and metal detectors everywhere. It takes two hours to go to the center of Jerusalem. It is a very very scary experience to get on a bus in Jerusalem. I am suspicious of everybody. There is a blond girl sitting next to me, she may have died her hair. I had to travel 8,000 miles from Herzliya and Fadi 8,000 miles from Hebron for us to be able to talk to each other like equal human beings."

Kaplan described an experience waiting for a bus:

"I stand in a security line in the Jerusalem central bus station. There are five lines of security because of all the people. I would always want to pick the shortest line and the one that has no Arabs in it because that one will take longer. I get in the short line, but it turns out there is an old Arab man, so I know it is going to take a while. The security guy checks the old man with a metal detector and asks in Hebrew for his ID. The old man doesn't seem to understand, and holds up a mini phone book. The security man asks again, more rudely, and the old man again holds up the mini phone book. Eventually they pass the old man without seeing his ID. I say, 'Poor man, why did you have to do that to him?' The security man replies, 'Why poor? He's an Arab.' This is what Seeds of Peace is about. It's an incredible program, your chance to see the other side."

"When I was introduced to Seeds of Peace they told me I could go and tell Israelis our side, about the people in jail and the humiliations." -- Fadi Elsalameen

Fadi Elsalameen now took up the story, a slim young man with sad eyes. "If you look at the conflict," he began, "there are groups that are building generations and groups that are destroying generations, on both sides."

In Hebron, before he was sent to the camp in Maine, he said, "I saw Israelis only as settlers or soldiers. The only interaction I had with them was I threw rocks at them and they shot at me. When I was introduced to Seeds of Peace they told me I could go and tell Israelis our side, about the people in jail and the humiliations, the occupation. But this was face to face with real people. That doesn't happen on the ground. If you want to make peace it starts with people. You can sign as many agreements as you like and if you don't have people there is no peace."

Someone asked the pair if they lived in the United States now. No, they both replied, they had come from Israel and from the West Bank for this speaking tour. "I was just there in January," Fadi Elsalameen replied. "Going from Hebron to Jerusalem should take no more than half an hour. With all the checkpoints it takes at least three hours. You see all the old people being humiliated and you think peace is impossible. But if you go to the Seeds of Peace center in Jerusalem you see a completely different reality. Not families who are only of the left, but people from both sides who are completely involved in the conflict. You wish you could drag Palestinians and Israelis into this small building and make them talk to each other. At least Sharon and Arafat."

Someone asked Shira Kaplan if she was harassed by males in the army because of her association with the Seeds of Peace program. Yes, she said, sometimes. She is sometimes accused of being a sellout. One soldier gave her a very hard time during a sports practice. "Being in the military helps a lot in answering this kind of thing. I said to him that I was going directly to the Palestinians to tell our side of the story." That defused the tension.

Aaron Miller added that at the Seeds of Peace center in Jerusalem there are ongoing programs for veterans of the camp in Maine. "We have involved hundreds of Palestinians and Israelis in training and classes on negotiations and mediation. These are on the ground in the area. Maine is only a preliminary." Seeds of Peace is preparing to open regional offices in Amman, Jordan, and in Cairo. The only way it can retain this access, he said, is by remaining strictly nonpolitical. "We don't take positions on the war in Iraq, on settlements, or on suicide bombers, no matter how many people condemn us for not doing so." He concluded with the admonition, "In order to make peace with your enemy you must make war with yourself. The easy way is to take a side in the existing conflict. The hard road is to see the nuances."

Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies

Date Posted: 3/22/2004