Posted on Wed, Apr. 10, 2002

 

 


 

   



Arab-Jewish peace project braces as barrage comes from both sides


Inquirer Staff Writer
 

JERUSALEM - After almost two weeks of the most brutal fighting in 19 months of conflict, Israelis and Palestinians working on a joint Arab-Jewish education project are struggling to support each other across a divide that has never seemed deeper.

"Some of the people we work with are facing difficult circumstances. We show them a lot of solidarity. We talk to them a lot. The situation is very hard," Zakaria al Qaq said yesterday of the Education for Peace program.

Qaq, 47, is Palestinian codirector of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, a think tank founded in 1988 and the sponsor of Education for Peace.

The six-year-old program's curriculum is used in scores of Israeli and Palestinian schools, where its goal is to turn 10th-grade classrooms into "vehicles for rapprochement." Now, with battles raging all around them, those who staff the program are drawing harsh criticism from family, friends and critics who accuse them of naivete, or worse.

"Most of the detractors on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side are responding out of emotion, out of fear and anger, which breeds hatred," said Gershon Baskin, 46, the center's Israeli codirector.

But with suicide bombers killing Jews by the score, and Israeli soldiers laying waste to Palestinian cities and refugee camps, the importance of contacts between the two peoples has never been higher, the participants say.

Yesterday, as Anat Reisman-Levy, 46, the program's Israeli administrator, drove back to Tel Aviv from a training session for teachers in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, she used her cell phone to call Nedal Jayousi, her Palestinian counterpart.

Jayousi, 42, was stranded in Ramallah, with seven Israeli tanks ringing his house.

"I spoke with him three or four times today," said Reisman-Levy. "One time he said, 'I am talking to you from the floor because there is a tank going by and it is shooting.'

"I said, 'I'm sorry.' I listened to him. And sometimes I cried."

But at the same time, Reisman-Levy said, she expressed her own pain to her friend.

"For me, these soldiers who threaten your life now are also helpless children," she said she told him. "These are children who just finished school and should be involved in their first love affairs and not in killing."

The conversation continued. "We talked about what happens to these soldiers when they come back to this society, and what sort of creatures they become."

Jayousi said yesterday that he felt the strain of his contacts with Israelis most severely not during the current siege but last month, on a retreat in Istanbul, Turkey, with more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli teachers recently trained in the Education for Peace curriculum.

While there, he received a phone call from his wife in Ramallah. His 17-year-old sister-in-law had died from complications of childbirth on a mountain road near the town of Tulkarm while trying to get to a hospital. Israeli soldiers had refused to let her pass a checkpoint on the most direct route.

Jayousi immediately called his parents in Tulkarm, but his father was seething with anger at the Israelis - and at his son for interacting with them - and wouldn't come to the phone.

Jayousi cut short his stay in Istanbul to attend the funeral, and he and his father have reconciled. But supporting peace in the current climate hasn't gotten any easier, he said yesterday.

Monday, when Israeli soldiers briefly lifted the curfew in Ramallah so trapped residents could replenish their food supplies, Jayousi ran into a militant opponent of Israel in the local grocery store.

Israeli tanks had littered Ramallah with crushed automobiles. Street lamps were upended. Machine gun-bullets left pockmarks everywhere.

"Oh, so you still believe in normalization with Israel? Look at what all your work has brought us," the militant said.

"It's not the result of my work," Jayousi retorted, summoning up some courage. "It's the result of your work, actually."

The center's codirector Baskin said his years of peace work had done nothing to compromise his devotion to Israel.

"My military service is that I am a lecturer in the college for the education of officers," he said yesterday. "I'm not neutral. I'm an Israeli and when I lecture there my position as an Israeli comes across very strongly: what's best for Israel.

"But I think that I get the response that I do because I have the facts at my fingertips. No one can tell me that I don't know what I am talking about. . . . No one can tell me that I don't know what's happening on the other side, because I talk to Palestinians every day, from the highest levels of the leadership down to people in refugee camps. Every day.

"And I've been doing it, in the framework of [the center], for 14 years."

 


Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2405 or foreign@phillynews.com.