Young peace activists from across the Middle East – who until now have only interacted virtually via a Facebook group – finally met each other face-to-face in Berlin this past weekend, vowing to bring normalcy to the region and stand up to all critics of peace.

Part of the Yala Young Leadership initiative, which was set up just over a year ago by Israelis and Palestinians, the conference brought together 18 of the most active of the 162,000 Facebook members in the group. Participants came from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Iraq and Kuwait.

“It was our first chance to bring people from across the region to meet each other in person,” Israeli Nimrod Ben- Zeev, who helped to found the group online, told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday.

He said that the goal was to take the movement forward from the virtual world to a physical reality in order to develop a serious agenda for creating peace. As well as holding practical discussions, those present signed a petition calling on world leaders to immediately address the continuing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

In addition to committing to finding peace together, those attending the meeting also vowed to fight back against critics who condemn any kind of interaction – physical or virtual – between Israelis and Arabs.

“We decided to address this issue head-on,” said Ben-Zeev, highlighting that while the pressure of the anti-normalization with Israel lobby is fierce in the Arab world, there are also Israelis who are very critical of such meetings.

“We face many obstacles to what we want to achieve here, but anti-normalization is definitely a huge one,” observed Tunisian-born activist Samia Hathroubi, who attended the two-day conference.

She described how some of those who are active in Yala have faced difficulties and been attacked for just talking to Israelis in the group.

“The campaign of boycotting means holding Israeli citizens responsible for what Netanyahu and the government is doing,” said Hathroubi, who became wellknown in her country during the recent revolution there.

“We believe that if we really want to put an end to the occupation then we must not stop talking to Israelis because then the Israeli government will be able to do whatever it wants,” she said.

Hathroubi, who said she plans to move to Tel Aviv in the near future to continue her work with Yala, emphasized that it is very important for Israelis and Arabs to speak out with one voice against violence, Israeli settlements or the occupation.

“If we do not talk to our enemies then we will not be able to bring about peace and make change,” she said, adding, “We are not pro- Israeli or pro-Palestinian we are pro-peace and change.”

Both Hathroubi, who is currently living in Paris, and Ben-Zeev, who was still in Berlin Tuesday, said that the power and impact of this first Yala meeting was extremely important.

“There was a high level of trust and willingness among the young people to work together to restore the region back to normalcy,” said Ben- Zeev, adding that the movement also wants to empower Middle East youths to work together to improve their communities and that it plans to open an online university next year.

Even though Yala, which was established in May 2011 by the Peres Center for Peace in Israel, and the Ramallahbased Yala Palestine, have held two virtual conferences so far on Facebook, Hathroubi pointed out that this was the first time young leaders from the region have come together in such a way.

“It is really important for us join together to break the current silence and let the leaders in our countries know that we want change and peace.”

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