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Camp sows seeds for future

By David Gabriel
Published: September 2008

Lying on the shores of Lake Pleasant in Oatisfield, Maine, lies a camp that at times can be anything but pleasant. Every summer around 300 teenagers from different conflict zones descend upon Seeds of Peace for the opportunity to better understand the other side while sharing their story.

The camp resembles any summer camp that can be found in the New England area, except for the fact that it hosts flags of over 20 nations which have participated in the program. A row of seven wooden huts sits nestled along “Dialogue Alley, where for two hours each day a dozen teenagers from each nation gather to discuss the conflict in semi-organized dialogue sessions.

John Wallach, the Foreign Affairs Editor of the Hearst Newspapers, co-founded the camp in the fall of 1993 at a dinner commemorating Shimon Peres’ strides for peace between the Arab states and Israel. There, Wallach proposed a summer camp that would consist of 48 campers from Egypt, Israel, the United States, and the Palestinian territories. The Israeli and Egyptian governments as well as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) agreed to the proposal. Over the years the program expanded to include campers from six conflict zones.

During my session at Seeds of Peace, six delegations and two conflict zones, Israel and Palestine, were present. The camp has no defined purpose or goal for its campers and it does not expect its campers to hammer out a peace plan in three. It takes the first two weeks for many of the campers to even realize that they cannot convince their so-called enemies to abandon what they believe.

Two friends and fellow bunkmates of mine each respectfully representing the two extremes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict experienced a profound change in how they thought and reasoned from their summer experience.

One of them is Suleiman, a 14 year old from a small village alongside a Palestinian refugee camp in Nablus, Palestine. Our first interaction included him cursing about Israel and the Jews in Arabic upon seeing the Jewish star that hangs from my neck and him proudly displaying a photograph of Yasser Arafat he had brought with him. Suleiman knew very little English and knew only the few Hebrew words he had learned from Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints.

The other, Asher, a 16 year old from Kiryat Motzkin, Israel a city of about 40,000 and with an almost entirely Jewish population. Asher was the most religious and arguably the most hawkish Israeli at the camp. Progress was slow for both of them. At night Asher spent every second discussing his views on the conflict with Egyptians, Jordanians, and Palestinians. Meanwhile, Suleiman took up English lessons from me, as well as Hebrew lessons from Israelis. At the end of camp Asher and Suleiman had become friends and were willing to accept a two state solution, with negotiated pre-1967 borders, and a divided Jerusalem.

I learned a lot from both sides. I learned the true sufferings of everyday citizens in the West Bank and Gaza, the truth about the separation barriers, and the everyday reminders of living under an occupation, such as curfews, patrols, prisons, and the growing settlements. Many Israelis, particularly those closest to rocket attacks said, “We don’t hate the Arabs, just the Palestinians. By the end of camp such a thought had been virtually forgotten.

Seeds of Peace hopes that one day a future leader of Israel and of the Palestinians will be a former Seed. If that were to occur I am fairly confident that peace could be achieved.

Perhaps what Seeds of Peace proves above all is that peaceful coexistence is possible. It took three weeks for some of these teenagers to accept those they once called their enemies. The fact that such a realization can be made by those on each side of a conflict over the course of three weeks gives me hope that peace is not just a far away dream of mine, it is a dream both sides have and desire to make a reality, through coexistence, acceptance and respect.

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