Peace vs. reality

Peace organizations and political leadership must get together if there is to be any progress.

Palestinian and Israeli youth gather on a soccer field for a friendly match as part of a sports peace program. Two steps forward. IDF soldiers kill Palestinian civilians in the war in Gaza. Two steps back. Bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents meet each other to share their pain and promote peace and reconciliation. Two steps forward. Hamas launches dozens of rockets daily on the South, killing and terrorizing civilians. Two steps back.
However many steps forward the grassroots peace process takes, the harsh winds of reality, fanned by the political leadership on both sides, send peace spiraling backward.
A few two weeks ago, I traveled to a school in Ramle to witness a meeting between Jewish and Palestinian teenagers. The meeting was arranged by the Peres Center for Peace, an NGO where I volunteer that facilitates interaction between Palestinians and Jews. The two groups, the Jews from Ramle and the Palestinians from Ramallah, had been participating in an Internet peace forum overseen by the center. This was the first time these kids were meeting face-to-face.
The meeting started off congenially. The kids went around the room, introducing themselves and explaining the meanings of their names. Then the facilitators arranged chairs into two semicircles, one facing the other, and had the kids tell each other about their families, hobbies and hometowns. Smiles quickly turned to glares, however, when an open discussion spurred political debate.
One Palestinian, with intense anger in her eyes, stared at her Jewish counterparts and accused them of stealing her family's land in the "Nakba," a word meaning "catastrophe" that the Palestinians use for the 1948 War of Independence.
One boy asked snidely what the Jews thought about the 1,300 Palestinians who were killed in Gaza. Another boy, holding up his permission slip for emphasis, pointed to the irony of coming to Ramle to talk peace when he had to obtain permission and wait at the border for hours just to enter a land where his family once lived.
His peers greeted his statement with a smattering of cheers.
The Israelis, chagrined by the stark reality that had just been hurled in their faces, implored the Palestinians to redirect their attention away from the past. How can we change the future if we dwell on the past, they asked? Despite the noble intentions of the meeting, it soon reduced an otherwise fruitful interaction into a cacophony of name-calling and misguided anger.
A documentary called Encounter Point, produced by the peace NGO Just Vision, depicts this uphill battle that peace activists - both Palestinian and Israeli - face in promoting their ideology against the caustic backdrop of an endless conflict.
In the film, two bereaved fathers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, join the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, an organization that aims to unite the two warring peoples through the shared pain of losing a loved one.
The Israeli, whose daughter was killed in a terrorist attack, said during a Q&A forum that instead of vengeance he seeks reconciliation to prevent families from enduring a tragedy like his. The Palestinian, whose daughter died in a botched IDF operation, agreed with the Israeli father and said that he also spreads a pacifist ideology in Bethlehem, where he is the deputy mayor and principal of a school.
However, while he is espousing his pacifist views to Palestinians, Israeli soldiers are killing civilians in Gaza, Palestinians in east Jerusalem are being evicted from their homes and Jewish settlers are building new settlements and tormenting Palestinian residents in the West Bank.
Similarly, while the Israeli father promulgates the same ideology in schools, Hamas is firing rockets into Sderot, east Jerusalem Palestinians are driving bulldozers into Jewish civilians and Israeli Arabs are burning Israeli flags in the streets.
Moreover, the extremist ideology that fuels these violent incidents is no longer the manifestation of a disconnected minority, but rather the platforms of the current Israeli and Palestinian political leadership.
In the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians elected Hamas, the terrorist organization responsible for innumerable rocket attacks. In February, the Israeli public elected a right-wing government led by Binyamin Netanyahu, who on Jerusalem Day proclaimed that he would never cede any part of Jerusalem, including east Jerusalem, the planned future capital of a sovereign Palestinian state.
In addition, Netanyahu appointed as foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose party Israel Beiteinu recently announced that it would push legislation for a patriotism test that ostracizes and discriminates against the Arab minority.
I recognize that if the peace camps packed up their tents and went home, it would be tantamount to capitulation.
The Israeli public needs these optimists to prick its conscience and demonstrate a unified front for peace to Hamas and to the Netanyahu administration. However, unless the actions of the grassroots peace activists start to coalesce with the ideology and actions of the political leadership, the peace process will remain in a standstill, constantly moving one step back with each step forward.
The writer is an intern at the Peres Center for Peace and a participant in a yearlong volunteer program called OTZMA.