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Still talking, despite it all
Haaretz, Sunday, October 14, 2001

 

Despite difficulties in arranging meetings between Palestinians and Israelis, and disillusionment with the peace process on both sides, efforts by non-government organizations (NGOs) to build understanding and cooperation are still going forward, even with some success.

By Ira Moskowitz

Despite difficulties in arranging meetings between Palestinians and Israelis, and disillusionment with the peace process on both sides, efforts by non-government organizations (NGOs) to build understanding and cooperation are still going forward, even with some success.


"The most amazing thing is that the peace education program has continued," says Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI).

 IPCRI's "Pathways into Reconciliation" curriculum - incorporating a focus on sociology, literature and history - is currently being taught in some 30 Israeli and 25 Palestinian schools. Although several schools have dropped out of the program during the past year, a number of new ones have taken their places. Since last fall, IPCRI has continued to conduct training sessions and to provide support for the teachers involved in the project, with joint meetings of Palestinian and Israeli teachers being held at Tantur, a Vatican compound on the Jerusalem-Bethlehem border, which is relatively accessible to both groups.

The student encounters so integral to "Pathways," however, have had to stop: "These can't take place now," Baskin bluntly says.

Originally from New York, Baskin founded IPCRI in 1989 during the first intifada.

"The first intifada was very different," he notes. "It brought Palestinians and Israelis together by creating interest and curiosity about each other." On the other hand, the second intifada "has disillusioned Israelis and Palestinians, making them skeptical about the chances for peace."

After years of work, Baskin says that "there is a great deal of frustration" over the way relations between the two sides have deteriorated during the past year.

"A year ago," he recalls, "we were involved in the final-status negotiations at the level of formulating the wording on some of the issues. [Now] we're back to dealing with the post-1948 trauma. Though the basic parameters haven't changed, we've been set back not only 10 years, but 50 years."

Part of the frustration lies in the realization that at present, the political leadership on both sides is not in a position to make concessions that were possible a year ago, Baskin adds.

IPCRI staff have found themselves in some frightening situations this year, he notes, adding that one of the Palestinian teachers involved in the peace education program, Isaac Saada, was killed by a helicopter-launched Israeli missile in Bethlehem on July 18.

Baskin has now confined his travel to the territories to visits to the Israeli liaison office in Kfar Etzion to pick up travel permits for Palestinian colleagues. He says he understands the fears of settlers who regularly drive this route, but notes that their travel is motivated by "ideology" while his is only out of "necessity."

IPCRI's peace education curriculum is presently geared at 10th graders and is being expanded to include a program for the 11th grade.

The organization is now reevaluating the program and plans to add more historical content, including a fo0cus on the peace process.

In Baskin's view, the collapse of the process is attributable to the fact that each side "lacked an understanding of the political culture of the other side."

He says that Israel, the Palestinians and the United States were almost equally to blame: "Mistakes were made on all sides. It's very sad, since everything was avoidable."

One area in which IPCRI has become more active during the past year, as official channels of communication between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have faltered, is in organizing "unofficial meetings of officials." Such meetings, held without media fanfare, have involved discussions on economic issues, water and agriculture.

Baskin reports that one such meeting is slated to be held later this month in Italy after receiving the "enthusiastic approval" of Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat.


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