Youth Views

Israeli, Palestinian girls share stories, build friendships

... And for the first time in my life, I experienced peace.

Santa Fe, New Mexico - Attending the Creativity for Peace summer camp two years ago was one of the most meaningful and unforgettable experiences in my life.

Creativity for Peace is a year-round programme which brings together Arab and Israeli girls for three weeks in the United States to promote understanding and respect with the promise that they will return to Israel and the Palestinian Territories and continue to strengthen co-existence based on the values and communication skills learned at the camp.

This experience helped translate my thoughts into action. It was not merely a camp to help create connections between Jewish Israeli and Palestinian girls living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, but it also helped us create our own peaceful reality in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

New Mexico was one of the most serene and beautiful places I had ever visited. The Palestinians arrived a day after us and I was sure I would wake up the next morning with someone dressed in black from head to toe lying in the bed beside mine.

Looking back, I realise that any prejudices or narrow-mindedness I had come with were left there, in Santa Fe, at the end of my three weeks at camp.

I was one of 13 girls: six Jewish, three Arab Israelis, and four Palestinians. We were all between 15 and 18-years-old. As we began to connect with one another through discussions, creative art and music, I learned new things about myself, my people, my country and our neighbours on "the other side of the wall", as well as about hope, love, friendship, and listening. In short, I learned about peace.

And for the first time in my life, I experienced peace.

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One evening, I was sitting on a bench, sharing deep inner thoughts and feelings with my new Palestinian friend, Hiba.

She turned to me and said, "If we really want, and if we hold each other’s hands, we can pull this wall down." Her words gave me goose bumps.

Even though this Santa Fe camp began as an opportunity for dialogue and even though I came to the camp with hopes of making a difference, her words changed my entire outlook.

I will never forget the feeling of warmth and care that radiated from Hiba. I realised that there are people on the "other side" who just want peace like me. This made me believe that both nations can live together instead of being separated by a wall.

The camp did have us tackle difficult issues. Throughout our dialogue sessions, it was difficult to hear other people blaming me and my people for their misery. It was heartbreaking to hear stories about our tanks, soldiers and guns constantly affecting the lives of the girls on the other side of the "green line".

It was difficult to hear things like, "As far as we are concerned, soldiers are bad, and all of Israel is made up of soldiers."

But as I learned about peace, so did others.

We learned not to blame ourselves or each other for problems we did not create. We were not yet born when the conflict began, and so we are not accountable for our government’s actions. We are not the ones who send soldiers or suicide bombers to kill innocent civilians.

But we do have a responsibility and we have the power to disconnect from the past and lead lives in the present, to mould the present into whatever we want.

Coming back home to Israel was not easy since I had to part from my newly established friendships. I returned home, overwhelmed with thoughts, feelings and experiences that would not be forgotten. We still all meet every few months under the auspices of Creativity for Peace.

We discuss almost everything and reminisce and reconnect with each other. We have no other way to meet beside these gatherings.v

In creating these new friendships between Israeli and Palestinian youth, this camp has managed to enhance every aspect of my life. I have learned to listen to the "other", to express myself in the right way, and to open myself to the unknown.

As Gene Knudsen Hoffman, a Quaker peace activist, said, "An enemy is one whose story you have not heard." So, by learning these girls' stories, I was able to know them better and become true friends.

Peace should and will come from the people, not from the government. We need to be ready to accept each other. The matter should not be left in the hands of 120 Knesset members; we need the whole country to be creative.

Anyone who has the opportunity to be involved in dialogue – within any framework – especially with people from the other side of the wall, do it!

There is no greater gift than to accept a person for whom he or she is. This gives you the gift of reconciling with the "other" and with yourself.


* Noa Neumark is currently a 12th grade student at Mevoot-Eron School and lives in Zichron Yaakov, Israel. For more information on Creativity for Peace, visit www.creativityforpeace.com.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 November 2008, www.commongroundnews.org Copyright permission is granted for publication.