Saturday, 18 October 2008

Few results seen from Mideast teen peace camps

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank - Each year, hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers defy the violence and hatred that divides them by forging personal ties that they hope will lay the groundwork for future peace.

John Wallach, the founder of Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit group based in New York that has invited more than 4,000 young people from conflict areas to meet one another, said before his death in 2002 that such people-to-people programs have created "an enduring commitment to building a future of peaceful co-existence."

A virtual peace industry has flourished around these workshops, creating a raft of Palestinian and Israeli nongovernmental organizations. Between 1993 and 2000, Western governments and foundations spent between $20 million and $25 million on the dialogue groups, according to a 2002 report by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

But the programs have failed to produce a single prominent peace activist on either side, most observers agree. And now the first wide-scale survey of Palestinians involved in these peace programs suggests that the enterprise has been a waste of time and money. The unpublished report, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, was commissioned by an unidentified donor nation from Pal Vision, an independent Palestinian youth organization and research center in East Jerusalem that is involved in dialogue workshops.

Pal Vision is headed by Rami Naser Eddin, a 31-year-old activist who was jailed as a teenager for throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli army jeep. The group surveyed nearly 400 Palestinian participants and counselors.

The survey concludes that most Palestinian groups have used dialogue funds to finance other activities, and that Palestinian participants were unrepresentative of a wider society, tending to be children or friends of high-ranking Palestinian officials or economic elites. Only 7 percent of participants were refugee camp residents, even though they make up 16 percent of the Palestinian population.

"After I saw this research, we stopped. It was shocking for me," said Naser Eddin. "Most of these projects, there is no sustainability. They just want to meet people, which is very nice, very interesting, to get to know each other. But what is the next step? What is the outcome? It's all for publicity, for the media," he said.

The results also stated:

-- 91 percent said they were no longer in contact with any Israelis that they had met through the program;

-- 93 percent said there was no follow-up to camp activity that they had participated in;

-- Only 5 percent agreed that their program had helped "promote peace culture and dialogue between participants" and;

-- Only 11 percent came away believing that "there is something that unites us with the other party."

"The long-term positive impact, if any, fades with time, because these meetings end with the termination of the program and there is absence of communication and follow-up at various levels. It is noted that these activities expire with the end of the meeting and the closure of the project," the report says.

The survey's authors also noted that Palestinian "organizations themselves refused to give any information regarding the participants and the type of programs introduced and other important information needed for this study."

Indeed, joint activities with Israelis favored by the international community are deeply unpopular in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where talking to the enemy is generally regarded as betrayal. The workshops are typically conducted in the United States or Europe.

"Public opinion that prevails in Palestine regarding the financial corruption that exists within the NGOs, which are internationally funded, especially those organizations which encourage and lead such programs, prevented these NGOs from declaring about their joint activities with Israelis," says the report.

Naser Eddin says many Palestinian organizations working with Israelis denied having any contact.

"We were shocked. They denied it because they are afraid of the Palestinian local community," he said. "Most NGOs working with Israelis don't publish it in the media or in their annual report or anywhere."

Ahmad Safi, a survey researcher from the West Bank city of Ramallah who is involved in Breaking Borders, a dialogue group for adults from each side, said the impact on teens has been minimal.

"They go there (abroad), spend 10 to 14 days in a good environment, and they have fun, but they are much too far away from the reality," said Safi. "They find they can be friends as humans. They talk. They discover they can live with each other, but in Germany or the USA, not here. Then when they return back here, they found that it is useless."

Not all Palestinian participants, however, agreed.

Hiba Nusseibeh, 17, attended a Seeds of Peace summer camp in 2005 and last year returned as a counselor. She keeps in touch with several Israeli girls that she met through the program.

"Seeds of Peace has flipped my whole life over," said Nusseibeh, who comes from a prominent Palestinian family and attends an elite girls' school in East Jerusalem. "Before, I didn't know much about politics. I was living my own life and I wasn't involved in the conflict. Now I want to make changes. Seeds of Peace has made me more dynamic, more determined. First we must achieve our rights. Then we can work towards peace."

But several Israeli teenagers mirrored the disenchantment of their Palestinian counterparts.

Amichai Graniewitz, 16, was 11 when he attended a Kids for Peace summer camp organized through the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and Atlanta. A group of 12 Jews, Christians and Muslims met weekly for several months before heading off to camp in Atlanta.

"I don't think it really changed anything," Graniewitz said. "We met once after the camp, and that was it."

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