January 16, 2011
Yael Gidanian for The Chronicle
The distance between Bethlehem University, in the West Bank, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is only about four miles, but it has not been easy to traverse for a group of 20 students from the two institutions. In trying to meet to spend time in each other's company, they have had to navigate military checkpoints, a demanding bureaucracy, and a deep cultural divide.
Against a backdrop of increasing tension and threats of boycotts between Israelis and Palestinians, the students have started a rare effort to pursue dialogue across the political and religious chasm.
On a recent afternoon, dusk is gathering in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City as the students meet in the Austrian Hospice here. Outside, the fruit and vegetable merchants on the Via Dolorosa offer the last of the day's produce, their cries mingling with the muezzin's call from the nearby al-Aqsa Mosque and the hymns of Christian pilgrims retracing the last steps of Jesus.
It's an appropriate setting for a cultural exchange. Today the students are comparing the place of the olive tree and olive oil in their religious traditions.
At this, their fourth meeting, the participants greet each other like old friends, chatting easily in a mix of English, Arabic, and Hebrew. The young Israeli men favor slightly longer hair, but otherwise the two groups—to an outsider, at least—are indistinguishable. As they chat, they share coffee, cold drinks, and baklava from a local shop. The participants learn, with nods of recognition, that the olive tree, its wood, and its oil feature prominently in all three religious traditions, as well as in the history of the surrounding countryside.
The meetings consciously avoid politics, covering religious and cultural ideas instead. Those give each meeting a focus and allow the students to plan projects together. Today they decide to organize the joint distribution of olive oil from West Bank farmers.
The only division emerges as they take their first break: The smokers congregate outside, on the balcony, and the nonsmokers remain inside. Each group is about half Israeli, half Palestinian.
Following months of planning, the first meeting, early last year, was canceled after days of fighting and riots that had left the Bethlehem students facing strong objections from their friends to the idea of meeting Israelis.
Traveling to Jerusalem is no easy matter. Each West Bank student must submit an application to the Israeli military two weeks in advance, then travel to the regional military headquarters, several miles from Bethlehem, to receive a permit—if it is granted—and then pass through a grim military checkpoint of electric gates, barbed wire, and metal turnstiles.
Two meetings were canceled because the military had issued permits for the wrong date, and another for the wrong time. Nour Abu Katta, 22, a Muslim in the first year of a master's program in European studies at Al-Quds University, says it's worth the hassle. He was enrolled at Bethlehem University when the group started and still coordinates the Palestinian participants.
"I believe in negotiations. I believe that if we don't break this ice, if we don't meet and talk, we won't reach the point where we can end this conflict," says Mr. Abu Katta. "If guns and those ways had a point, they could have achieved something 20, 30 years ago. They have been struggling for 60 years, and they have achieved nothing except violence and more violence."
The Oslo peace process, started in 1993, spawned dozens of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups, but many fell victim to the violence of the second intifada, which erupted in September 2000. After several Israelis were killed in Palestinian-controlled areas, Israel banned its citizens from going there and denied most Palestinians entry to Israel, in an effort to halt suicide bombers. Now the construction of a security barrier between Israel and the West Bank has sealed the division between the two peoples.
Attitudes on both sides have hardened. Involvement with Israelis has been branded as "normalization" by many Palestinian groups—a searing insult in the local political lexicon—suggesting that such meetings are akin to collaborating with the Israelis. Among many Israelis, meetings with Palestinians are dismissed as a waste of time.
The students at the Austrian Hospice represent a tiny vanguard of young people on each side prepared to challenge those taboos. Only a handful of dialogue groups still operate regularly. This one meets under the auspices of the Interfaith Encounter Association, a nonprofit group based in Jerusalem. Of its more than 20 active interfaith-dialogue groups, only six bring together Israelis and Palestinians. Three of those are student groups.
"Some people say it's a good thing we are doing, that it's worthwhile looking for peace," says Mr. Abu Katta. "Other people say this conflict will not end with dialogue, that it is not beneficial at all. I am hopeful that if it doesn't end the conflict, it might make it easier to be ended."
Sally Zaghmout, a Christian who is a second-year student in business administration at Bethlehem, says none of her friends will come along with her to meet Israelis.
"They say there's no purpose doing all this," says Ms. Zaghmout, 19, whose grandfather fled Haifa during Israel's war of independence, in 1948, and whose parents waged a 10-year battle to return a decade ago. Her friends, she adds, "say we're trying to send the picture that everything is good while the real situation is not like that."
"I try to convince them," she says. "It's true we're small, and we're not really affecting the government, but we're growing slowly. At least we're trying to do something instead of not doing anything at all."
Netta Hazan, 24, a Jewish student of Middle East studies at Hebrew University, says her eyes were opened to the Palestinian narrative through her courses. And working as a waitress in a Jerusalem hotel, she met Palestinians for the first time as equals.
"It's very unusual for Israelis of my age to have Palestinian friends, I'm like one in a million," says Ms. Hazan, who has learned Arabic and is involved in several groups connecting Israelis and Palestinians. "Because of it, I don't have a lot of Israeli friends. When my Israeli friends saw I was becoming more and more in relations with Palestinians, they didn't accept me and my activities. I lost most of my friends from high school or the army."
"My family is very right-wing." she says. "I have five brothers and sisters, and to speak with them about the occupation or the Palestinians—they just don't care." Ms. Hazan travels regularly to Palestinian areas, but many Israelis are scared to go. "They think it's the Wild West," she says.
Yehuda Stolov, coordinator of the Interfaith Encounter Association, says only half the number of Israelis who normally register for events held inside Israel do so when they have to cross the security barrier, even with permits from the army.
But students, he says, are especially suited to these activities, for both intellectual and practical reasons. "Students are more active, they are more willing to do things, they are more willing to go out of their way," he says. "Their routine life is less routine, so it's easier for them to do new things."
"It's very important that we are students," Ms. Hazan agrees. "You can speak more openly with students because they have some basic education, their minds are more open, they are more open to new things. It's easier."
She also believes it is worthwhile: "I think that peace will come from us, from the people. Not from the politicians, not from anyone else. Only from us."