July 19 was the first day of a six day camp joining 32 Israeli kids, aged 12 - 14, from the poor southern towns of Yeruham and Sderot, and 28 Palestinian kids living in poverty and despair in the occupied territories.
The camp, held at Kibbutz Galon, is organized by the Peres Center's Sports Department. And as much as I read about this kind of program, no article I could read, or video I could watch, could in any possible way match the almost incredulous sense of wonder and inspiration aroused by seeing these sixty kids playing in Galon's pool together, and enjoying a multi-lingual Darbuka session with a Palestinian madrich (leader).
It was also fascinating and deeply impressive to speak at length with Issam, who works on a number of projects with the Peres Center. Issam grew up in Gaza and moved to Ramallah after Hamas came to power and he felt his life was in danger for his many years of reconciliation work. No doubt some of you know him.
His story is amazing. He sat in an Israeli prison and had a life-changing experience with an Israeli officer that put him on the path of working towards conciliation and peace. If I have the time I will write the story down and pass it along.
Issam reminded me again and again that not only was this the first time most of the Palestinian children had met an Israeli who is neither a soldier nor a settler - but for the great majority of them, this was the first time in their lives outside of their town or certainly the territories; the first time they had eaten in a restaurant; the first time they experience what even the lowest social and economic classes in Israel take for granted.
I have no illusions that the experience of these 60 kids, and that of the additional several hundred who will be treated to similar camps this summer, will make any serious dent in overall public opinion or attitudes, and certainly will not make the leaders on both sides more peace loving and conciliatory. But then, that (the latter, at least) is not the goal of the Peres Peace Center.
But this type of program most certainly changes attitudes (this is based on professional evaluation following multiple years of experience), and, if nothing else, humanizes the conflict for those who are involved in it; and injects a few rays of hope into our battered and shattered hearts and minds.
It does mine. But not everyone is like me. Some folks oppose efforts like this. And they are predominantly found within the anti-Israel BDS. Groups like the Alternative Information Center and PACBI have made it quite clear that they view these endeavors as incompatible with "Palestinian solidarity". For them, it is struggle or surrender -- anything that smacks of co-existence is an illegitimate move towards "normalization". Remember what happened to that Palestinian youth orchestra?
Normalization has been the "red line" for Arab and Palestinian groups since Israel has been founded. Even in the nations nominally at peace with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, take pains to demonstrate that the relationship isn't "normal". There is a certain logic to it: working with Israel ratifies as normal and legitimate a state of affairs these groups want to see changed. But in pursuing an "anti-normalization" posture for 60 years, these brigades have reinscribed their own "normal": a normal where Israelis and Palestinians alike are convinced that the other hates them, dehumanizes them, wants to see their blood shed, and contemplates their mass murder. So naturally, the BDS movement throws itself behind this monumentally failed strategy hook, line, and sinker.
It is a decision that makes no sense if the goal is to create a Palestinian state. It is one that makes quite a bit of sense if the goal is to insure the Jewish state is never treated as an equal. The BDS movement is actively hostile to peacemaking endeavors, because peace is not and has never been their ultimate objective. They may view it as a happy bonus if it comes about, but it isn't their ticker tape. The goal is a world where Israel is gone, destroyed, wiped off the map. And if that means sabotaging programs designed to foster peace and goodwill between Israeli and Palestinian children, so be it.