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Israeli, Palestinian Teens Seek Common Ground on Chicago's North Shore


The Middle East has been the center of intense conflict for generations. So when some Israeli and Palestinian teens visited American kids this summer on a peace-seeking mission, many arrived full of anger about their situation back home. But once they got here, they were pushed to find a new way of understanding their own reality and that of their opponents. WBEZ's Lynette Kalsnes reports...
Forty teens stand in an awkward circle in the basement of the Glenview Community Church in this northern suburb. Many of these Israelis and Palestinians have never met someone from the other side of the conflict. But right now, they must stand side by side and learn this song. 

It's their first full day of the program called Hands of Peace. They know they are here to find common ground, and they know it won't be easy.

 

QUTOB: The Palestinians, when we meet Israelis, they're the Israelis who are soldiers, who carry weapons, who are on tanks and stuff. They're on checkpoints. They're mainly there to hold us back.

Jafar Qutob  is a thin soft-spoken 18-year-old from the West Bank. Near him is 15-year-old Dia Majadli, who's also Palestinian. When he talks to you, he looks at you with real intensity.

MAJADLI: Israeli troops come in the night usually almost every day to our neighborhood. They take a lot of guys. Sometimes they shoot at a civilian's house. Sometimes they just enter a house for nothing.

Dia remembers one curfew where he couldn't go to school for 45 days. Soldiers took over the family house.

MAJADLI: We kept for three days in the same room, 20 persons.

Also standing in the circle in the Glenview church is Osher Hen. He's Jewish, and lives near the Gaza border. More than 8,000 rockets have hit his city in the past nine years.

Osher went through the Hands of Peace program last year.  At first, he says he was full of rage, too.

HEN: You know, I hate the Palestinians, I hate Muslims, I hate everything about Arab people. And now, I changed. I see the face of the people, I don't see the names, the Palestinians, Muslims, I see people, I see human beings.

That???s the goal of this ambitious two-week program. The organizers believe if they can get the teens to see each other as people first – not adversaries – they can break through the hatre and move beyond politics.

It happens through typical summer camp activities, like picnics and skits. And the students live with host families.  They share meals and go sight-seeing together.

But right from the start they also spend hours each day digging into painful topics.

Max Antman, a Jewish-American teen from Evanston who's in the group, had to calm himself down when the teens talked about the Holocaust.

ANTMAN: I lost a lot a lot of relatives in the Holocaust, and so it's really a emotional topic for me, and then the Palestinians compared it, compared the Holocaust to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which really got to me because in the Holocaust it was just mass murder for no reason, whereas in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there's a reason for everything that happens. It's over land and over religion and who gets Jerusalem.

SILK: We want the kids to struggle with hard issues. We're not trying to create a situation where it's a love fest.

Facilitator Scott Silk says the teens are surprised to learn how many of them know people killed or injured in the conflict.

SILK: It's very hard for any of the kids to really argue with a personal story of suffering, so the more personal we can go, the more we get away from the politics, the more powerful the entire experience is.

There's no escaping these issues, even at night. Talia Shabat is Israeli.  Asma Masri is Palestinian.  They're both staying with a family in Winnetka. When Asma heard she'd have an Israeli roommate, she was upset.

MASRI: I don't like Israeli people.

She assumed that because their people are enemies, they'd be fighting in the house. Talia also had a skewed view of what her Palestinian roommate would be like.

SHABAT: I had this image of people from Palestine, that they are really poor and uneducated. And I was taught to respect every person for himself. But I thought many of them are terrorists and stuff like that.

The first thing they did was set up a ground rule -- no talking politics. And then they started doing normal teen stuff like shopping at department stores, even doing each other's hair. 

And they got along great….really great.

MASRI: We were so excited.
SHABAT: Yeah.We were really excited. I knew from the first meeting that if I had to choose someone from the Israelis and from the Palestinians, I would choose Asma.
MASRI: I would choose you, too. (Giggles.)

Asma and Talia go to visit a mosque, a synagogue and a Christian church with the group.

NAT of Friday prayers from Mosque Foundation North in Libertyville

The students find they have cultural similarities, too, when they cook for each other and the host families. Two Jewish Israeli girls make schnitzel. Right behind them, a young Palestinian man chops onions for a lentil dish and teases them about their cooking skills.

They joke about who created hummus.

YOUNG WOMEN: The hummus is Israeli, and they say no, It's Palestinian. YOUNG MAN: We all know it's Arabic.
WOMEN: No, it's Israeli.
MAN: Hummus has been there only for 60 years? (Girls laugh.)=cut for time
WOMEN: (Sing.) It's like our hummus is better, No, it's the best. No, it means the hummus is ours.
OMAR: You can't even say it.
WOMEN: Hummus. Hummus.

But a week into the program, other students are still struggling to get beyond decades of conflict. Dia Majadli, the kid who had soldiers take over his house, is now even more adamant the land belongs to the Palestinians.

MAJADLI: Being here, and listening to what they say, my opinions about the conflict is getting more strong.
KALSNES: How come?
MAJADLI: Because I saw them, they talk like oh, we got your country because of the Holocaust. What do the Palestinians have to do with the Holocaust and your stuff? It's kind of insane.

He says the provocative discussions just make him feel the hurt all over again.

Eating hamburgers and hotdogs around the patio table at Max Antman's house, this debate pops up again. Max, who's hosting a Palestinian, asks Israeli Mina Reingold this question.

ANTMAN: Did you come into the program Zionist and now you're anti-Zionist, or are you still Zionist?

Mina says she's still Zionist, but now she thinks there should be a place for the Palestinians, too. Joshua Greenberger, a Jewish teen from Evanston, stirs it up.

GREENBERGER: Right of return ruins a two-state solution. Right of return means that you think Israel should be handed back to the Palestinians.
ANTMAN: No, no, no, it doesn't.
GREENBERGER: Yes, because right of return refers to Israeli land.
ANTMAN: But it was Palestinian land first.

Then just as quickly they slip back into joking.

GREENBERGER: You're going to become a cereal killer and you're going to kill all the Lucky Charms.
(Laughter.)
REINGOLD: Lucky Charms?

The group says it's okay to talk about this stuff now.  They've all become confident in their friendship.

But having lasting impact on the conflict back home is far more complicated. Last year, Osher Hen returned to Israel all eager to be a good ambassador. Here's how he was greeted:

HEN: Like leave me alone, I don't want to hear about it. They don't want to hear about it because it's really, really hard to understand and to realize that Palestinians are human beings when you live in shelter, eight years.

Osher didn't give up. He joined a band.  He says his songs are about the conflict and peace.

Osher has also had to face the fact as a Jewish Israeli, he'll soon be serving his required military training. He knows the Palestinians struggle with the military as an aggressor, not a protector.

HEN: I got to do Army, and I can't run away. And I will. But I know I'll be a better soldier, I'll a human being before I'll be a soldier. That's a big gift for me from Hands of Peace.

Going home won't be entirely easy for Talia Shabbat and Asma Masri, either. The friends will only get to see each other every month or so at follow-up meetings for Hands of Peace in Jerusalem.

SHABAT: I'm trying to save myself from thinking about it because it's really hard and sad, but ...
MASRI: I wish that we can go to Israel and visit each other and she could come to Nablus, but it's so hard, ‘cuz checkpoints.

The last day comes faster than anyone thought, especially Dia Majadli. He's one of the teens who came here believing Israel had no business on Palestinian land. Now, he says he supports sharing the land in a two-party state with Israelis.

MAJADLI: After I got to know them, and became friends with them, I feel sorry I didn't know them from the first moment I came here. I lost a lot of my time.

When the bus comes to take the Israelis to the airport, the tears and hugs start instantly.

Another bus comes later for the Palestinians.

The irony of this situation escapes no one: These teens have spent two weeks hashing out the Middle East conflict and trying to figure out how to co-exist. Now, they must fly home into separate airports.

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