Former prisoner tells tale of peace at Sulha

Sitting in the shade near the Trappist Monastery vineyards at Latrun on Tuesday, Khaled Abu Awwad reflected on his time in an Israeli prison, and how he came to preach the values of peace as opposed to those of war. "I think that pursuing peace takes more courage, more strength even, than fighting," Abu Awwad said. "To take all of those emotions, that anger and suspicion, and control it, to be able to sit down with your enemy and look him in the eye - that's much more challenging than fighting him. Fighting is your first reaction, it's natural." But sitting down with the enemy was the point on Tuesday, as the eighth annual Sulha peace project kicked off on the grounds near the monastery at Latrun. The three-day event, which combines music, food and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, aims to promote coexistence and peace between the two camps by forging personal connections between participants, and familiarizing the two sides with each other, one person at a time. While Sulha participants offer many different stories and personalities, Abu Awwad's story is exceptional in that he truly comes from the "other side." A resident of a village near Hebron and self-described "participant" in the second intifada who spent six years in an Israeli jail, Abu Awwad has seen his share of fighting and loss. "My brother Yusef was killed at a checkpoint in 2000," Abu Awwad said. "And another one of my brothers, Said, was killed in 2004." Abu Awwad explained that a third brother, Ali, who was in attendance at Latrun on Tuesday, had been shot and wounded during the intifada, along with his son, who was also wounded by gunfire in 2004. "We've been through it all," he said. "And it gets to a point where you've just had enough. I think that anyone who has lost someone they love understands the price of peace. Everyone wants peace, but the question is, how far are you willing to go, how much are you willing to pay to achieve it?" In that vein, Abu Awwad formed Al-Tariq - Arabic for "the way" - a group of over 400 bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families who work towards reconciliation. From his side however, Abu Awwad uses Al-Tariq to preach peace back on the "other side," in the hills of Hebron and the streets of Jenin, where his message is not always easy to get across. "But it goes the other way too," Abu Awwad said. "So many people are thirsty for what we're saying. So many people are ready for a change." And that was visible on Tuesday, as Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs mingled around food booths and dialogue tents, talking and laughing as their kids ran by. And while the harmonious scene seemed to show that peace was near, or at least nearby, others said that more work would need to be done to harness what was happening at Sulha, in order to create a real change of the realities on the ground. "The real key is changing people's lives," said Marc Gopin, a professor at George Mason University and an Orthodox rabbi who works towards conflict resolution in the Middle East. "Changing people's circumstances on the ground, because it feels very hollow to people who are suffering enormously to decide to vote against the Hamas guy that comes to their door and offers them $100." "I just heard a story," Gopin continued, "in which a guy was talking about how Hamas leaders are also corrupt but, wisely, they know how to give out money to the average people. That says to me, that no matter how much we have beautiful relationships here at Sulha - we have to take it to the next level - the level of changing people's lives." Gopin focused specifically on health care as one way of implementing such change, an area where Hamas has filled the void for average people, in providing them with money for health care. "It's the essence of your dignity," Gopin said. "Your dignity depends on the fact that you can pay your rent and your health care, and if you lose all of that, what do you have? Nothing. It's the most basic level. It's the difference between sanity and insanity."