Sowing Seeds of Peace Where Peace Seems Impossible
Twenty-year-old Mahmoud Jabari is a Palestinian photographer and journalist from the West Bank city of Hebron. He believes that youth will provide a way forward for the long-standing, seemingly perpetually stagnant conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. His hopefulness is a small island in a sea of dubiousness, mistrust, and frustration.
On Friday, September 23, the streets of Ramallah were filled with thousands of onlookers fixated on television screens, where Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was broadcasted reading out a letter requesting formal recognition by the UN of Palestinian statehood, to an applauding crowd of ambassadors in New York City.
But almost immediately, skepticism was voiced in the media.
The Times reported that international powers such as the US, Russia, China, and the EU, who formed a quartet in 2002 to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, had already formulated a plan to resume direct peace talks between the parties, with the aim of delaying a vote on the Palestinian request. Many leaders are nervous that a veto to the request could bring about violence in the streets of the Palestinian Territories, and further isolate Israel from its Arab neighbors.
It didn’t help to foment optimism when the Israeli government announced a plan to construct 1,100 new homes in a contested area near Jerusalem outside the 1967 official borders of Israel. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s NY Times op-ed lamented that a two-state solution seems less and less likely as the conflict drags on and while Israel continues building settlements in the West Bank.
At the level of world leadership there seems to be stalemate. But at the grassroots level, a variety of organizations are working to tackle inequality, anger, and generations-old mistrust or prejudice between Palestinians and Israelis.
Seeds of Peace is an international summer camp in Maine that brings together youth and adult leaders from areas around the world marred by conflict to learn resolution skills and develop empathy for each other. Over the past eighteen years, participants have come from Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Cyprus, South Asia, and the Balkans. After the participants return home from the summer camp, they ideally maintain ties to Seeds of Peace through regional initiatives where they exercise their new knowledge of dialogue and mediation. The hope is that the participants, who are referred to as “Seeds,” sow peace among their communities at home.
Mahmoud Jabari attended the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine five years ago. It changed his life.
Jabari’s mother originally encouraged him to apply for Seeds of Peace. At the time, he had set up what he calls a “magazine” on a wall at school, where he posted news clips that reflected both the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives. His mother, who speaks Hebrew, helped him to translate the Israeli news. The school didn’t like it, Jabari explained to Dowser, but he struggled to defend his freedom of speech.
“I always wanted to hear the other side’s story,” he said. Watching Israeli news was the first step toward that, but it wasn’t enough. So he applied to Seeds of Peace to attend their camp.
“It was my first experience meeting Israeli peers. I had read many books to try to learn more about the history of the conflict. So I was filled with what I had read,” said Jabari of the experience.
At first Jabari found himself insisting on the Palestinian perspective’s correctness over the Israelis’ views at camp. “But over time – this is one of the benefits I got from Seeds of Peace — I discovered that these were not just soldiers, settlers, tank drivers,” he said. “These were people similar to me. We have common dreams. I was seeing people differently than I did in the media.”
At camp the participants were challenged to work together through physical and dialogue-based group exercises. But Jabari and a few Israeli campmates went further: they created their own nighttime “negotiation room,” where they would meet before bed to role play real-world situations from their home region.
“We would meet at night and talk, and try to perceive ourselves as leaders and discuss issues,” said Jabari. “We would make negotiations – you might laugh – as if we were leaders. So, what would you give me to release prisoners, we might ask each other.”
Over the course of camp, Jabari began to develop empathy for his Israeli counterparts. “I wanted to feel the stories. There was something important I was missing. I tried to listen, to feel. To imagine that I’m feeling the story the other side is telling me,” he explained.
Back in Hebron after attending camp, Jabari tried to share his experience with his neighbors, friends, and family. Unsurprisingly, it was not easy.
“My family is really supportive and that is very important to me. Among my peers and my community I was seen as an organizer. But I was criticized by my teachers who believed I was doing the wrong thing – that I was betraying our Palestinian national principals and rights,” he said.
“Some people see me badly because I speak up for the Israeli side in addition to our side. But this makes me more determined. We think we are always the right side and see the other side in an inhuman way. The teachers here are making students full of hate for the other side,” he said.
Jabari is looking for ways to use his newfound appreciation of “the other side’s perspective,” and he is keeping in touch with the Israeli friends he made at camp. But he wishes there were more opportunities, created by Seeds of Peace or otherwise, to continue the dialogues they began at camp.
And Jabari is realistic about the potential reach of Seeds of Peace, which he says is more useful for stimulating social and economic change at the grassroots level, rather than political reforms. It is in these kinds of “common efforts,” as he calls them, that Jabari thinks true change can come about – if Israelis and Palestinians can work together.
Jabari’s perspective on Abbas’ proposal to the UN is also strikingly realistic.
“As much as we deserve to have the same rights as every other nation in the world, at the same time, I don’t agree with it,” he said about the formal request. “We should have an agreement with an Israeli side instead of going to the UN,” he explained. Interestingly, this is what the Quartet is working toward: direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
“But it is a peaceful announcement and a step toward peace, and we should see it as an opportunity to advance discussion,” concluded Jabari.
Next up for Mahmoud Jabari: he will be moving to Vermont to study communications at Champlain College. Jabari advocates for youth involvement in social change and conflict resolution and for the activist possibilities of journalism, and has written about the idea of Palestinian statehood, at his website, Lens for Change.