Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Saturday, 11 December 2010

Small steps for peace still forged in Mid-East

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News

A school in the Middle East and a new book by a British children's writer share a common vision of peace based on a new generation of Arab and Jewish children growing up together as friends.

Jewish protester
There are weekly protests against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian homes

At a demonstration I went to last week against evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem there were more Jews chanting and holding up banners in support of the Palestinians than there were Arabs.

The banners were in Hebrew and in English. That is a change.

I remember going to an anti-occupation demonstration by a variety of peace activists in Tel Aviv a few years ago.

They had slogans entirely in Hebrew, which meant I had to clumsily ask a number of people what their posters meant.

There is much more contact now between Jews and Arabs who feel the same way about the occupation

I wondered why some of them were not in a more international language, like English.

"Ah," said one of the demonstrators, "I suppose you have a point."

Then I asked her, "Who do you think you are actually talking to at demos like these?"

After a long pause she said, "That's a very good question. I think we are just talking to ourselves."

That has changed too.

Playing together

There is much more contact now between Jews and Arabs who feel the same way about the occupation, and a lot of it is under the radar, so to speak - barely reported.

Children making kites
Arab and Jewish children building kites together in the classroom

"We are successful," said Raida, a Palestinian teacher. "And that's why the government don't like us".

Raida teaches English and History to a class of 11-year-olds. She looked round the room at the children gathered at small tables.

"Two Jews at that table, one Arab," she told me. "Three Arabs, two Jews over there. And in the corner, two Jews and two Arabs."

The school is in Wahdat al Salaam/Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace), a village where Arabs and Jews have lived together willingly as neighbours since it was established in 1970.

"But the children are spontaneously genuinely mixing, are they?" I asked.

"Yes, absolutely," Raida insisted. "They play together, they visit each other's homes, they go to the cinema together. They are friends."

The day I visited, the children were making kites in honour of their special guest, the British author of numerous books for young people, Michael Morpurgo.

He has just written a children's book about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Mutual respect

It is a heartening story of a Palestinian boy who lets kites fly free over the concrete wall round an Israeli settlement, with "salaam" written on them.

Michael Morpurgo with children flying kites in Wahdat al Salaam/Neve Shalom
In Morpurgo's book, children's hopes of peace can fly higher than any wall

When the wind changes, the kites come flying back with "shalom" written on them by the settlement children.

Michael Morpurgo believes peace can only come from young Jews and young Arabs living together, learning together and showing respect to each other.

"It's not going to start from the other end," he told me, "we've seen that." He means it will never come from the top.

But does the children's experience at Neve Shalom/Wahdat al Salaam endure?

Raida the teacher said yes, absolutely it does - it is rooted in them, after 11 years in an enlightened community like this.

She tells a revealing story about one of her Jewish students going on to secondary school and daring to challenge the teacher who was telling the class there was nobody living in what is now Israel when the state was created in 1948.

"If a Jewish child can stand up to an inaccurate teacher like that in a Jewish school," Raida smiled, "there is some hope."

Arab and Israeli 'brothers'

Rami and Mazen believe in hope as well.

 Rami Elhanan (L) and Mazen Faraj (R) in the occupied West Bank
Rami and Mazen are now close friends - they call each other brother

They also visit schools, in Israel and in the occupied territories.

Their message is that violence will never solve the conflict.

They are very persuasive.

Rami is a Jew, Mazen a Palestinian Arab and they know what violence is.

Mazen's 62-year-old father was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.

Rami's 14-year-old daughter was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber on a bus in Jerusalem.

Rami and Mazen are now close friends - they call each other brother.

They are members of the Parents Circle and Families Forum.

It is not a psychological support group. It is a campaigning organisation with a very precise objective which is written on their smart business cards: "Bereaved families supporting peace, reconciliation and tolerance".

Negotiation

"Initiatives like these are essential 'baby steps'," Hind Kabawat told me.

Hind is a Syrian lawyer who specialises in conflict resolution.

In her fabulous, spacious, stone Damascus house - with a fountain in the courtyard and elaborately painted high ceilings - she proudly pointed to "the most important books on my shelf: the Bible, the Koran and the Sayings of Mahatma Gandhi".

Does she believe Israel and the Palestinians are reconcilable?

Does she believe - especially now, with talk of attacks on nuclear sites - that Israel and Iran can negotiate?

"Of course," she said. "In Ireland, peace only came after the British negotiated with the IRA."

Then she added: "Look at Europe. Millions of people died there in the Second World War. Millions! Did your parents or mine ever believe there would be peace in Europe?" she asked.

"Well there is," she went on, "because they did believe in it. We have to have hope."

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Israel and Palestinian territories
09 Mar 11 |  Country profiles

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