By Aditi Bhaduri - The Hindu

Two hundred Israelis and Palestinians engage each other in a refreshing climate of openness and honesty in the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya.


EVEN as human chains were forming in Gaza to protect people from Israeli fire, an unusual sight was to be seen in the lobby of the five star Porto Bello hotel in the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya. Some 200 Israelis and Palestinians arrived by a chartered flight for a four-day conference on peace education, in a bid to listen to each other's stories and to dialogue, discuss and ultimately find ways to end the senseless conflict that has been unleashed on all the inhabitants of that beautiful land for almost a century now.


The conference was the initiative of the Israel-Palestinian Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI), a non-governmental organisation set up in 1988, soon after the outbreak of the first Intifadah, to find ways to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to work out a two-State solution to the conflict.


Changed circumstances


Gershon Baskin, the Israeli Co-CEO of IPCRI explained that the conference had been planned more than a year ago, when relations between Israelis and Palestinians had begun to look optimistic. No one had thought then that a year later Israel would go to war with Lebanon and would be pounding Gaza, while Qassem rockets from Gaza would be landing on the bordering Israeli towns and villages. But when it happened there seemed to be all the more reason for the conference to take place.


"Peace education is a philosophy, a critical thinking based on knowledge found only through encountering others," said Baskin. "It gives us tools to understand differences, to understand that our lives are enriched when we learn to celebrate and not just tolerate diversity."


Sharing experiences


There were four days of intensive discussion, dialogue, compassionate listening and experience sharing. Almost everyone who was a someone in the Israeli peace camp or in Palestine was there. There were academicians, activists, religious activists, artists, psychologists, human rights practitioners, educationists, lawyers, philosophers, feminists, sports personalities and journalists. There was even a Reiki practitioner, who was using her knowledge of Reiki to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, because "sometimes the dialogue of touch was stronger than the dialogue of words".


It was difficult to choose which workshop to attend. There was Nurit Peled from the Forum of Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Parents for Peace who had lost her 16-year-old daughter to a suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem. Also a lecturer at the Hebrew University, she presented a study of the ways in which Jewish territorial and national identities were promoted in Israeli textbooks, premised on the denial of Palestinian identity.


There was Nazir Magally, a Palestinian journalist who presented the experience of a study trip that he along with a group of Israeli Arabs had initiated to Auschwitz in Poland to learn and better understand events to become familiar with Jewish pain and suffering. Mahmoud Abu Kamal and Charlie Zeidan  both Palestinian academicians  presented lesson plans drawn up by Palestinian academicians, peacemakers and facilitators for Palestinian children and youth because the latter were the future hope of Palestine. Yehuda Stolov from the Interfaith Encounter Association related how interfaith activities were facilitated and were promoting better understanding of different religious groups inhabiting the tiny geographical space that constituted Israel and Palestine.


Finding the words


But there were also accusations, angry words, hurt and tears. Semantics were especially important. "How do we find an alternative to the word Naqba (Arabic: catastrophe)?" asks a Palestinian girl incredulously as Jonathan Koleib, a facilitator from the University of California, Berkeley, made a presentation on how important it was that vocabulary should be compassionate and not loaded with accusation. NaqbaIsrael was founded n 1948  a word which conjures up images of agony and dispossession, a nightmare that is still being lived by millions of Palestinians. is the word Palestinians use for the day


What can we use for checkpoints? asks another. Are there more compassionate alternatives to checkpoints, occupation, ID card, searches, house demolition? On and on went the questions.


A beginning made


But they were all listened to, and the discussions continued even after sessions were officially over. In all there were some 150 workshops, presentations, film shows and lectures. After the sessions, there were lunches, shopping, sightseeing and dancing together  and a promise to continue the dialogue after returning home.


The conference also encouraged a great deal of self-introspection and self-criticism. Raphael Cohen-Almagor, the Director of the Centre for Democratic Studies from the University of Haifa, castigated Israeli democracy which had failed to clearly delineate the boundaries of religion and State and called for a more secular State.


Bassem Eid, General Director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, lamented the anarchy that the Palestinian territories had descended into and the dangerous proliferation of small arms there.


Sylvia Margiah, a Christian Palestinian citizen of Israel and member of Creativity for Peace, an Arab-Jewish initiative which organises annual summer "friendship" camps for Palestinian and Israeli teenage girls, outlined the problems faced by Palestinian Christians both in Jewish Israel and in Muslim Palestinian territories. Their number in the region was constantly dwindling.


Nizar Rabaya, a school teacher from Jenin, quietly confessed that he had come to the conference because the inability of the Palestinian leadership to provide any succour to many ordinary Palestinians had convinced him that the only hope now was to somehow reach out to the Israelis.


Frank and honest


The conference proceeded in a refreshing climate of openness and honesty, so different from the fear and hypocrisy that often marks conferences dedicated to peace and human rights in India. No one felt the need to sound politically correct.


Another refreshing fact was that unlike in India, religion was not wished away, nor its role swept under the carpet. There was a healthy acknowledgement that religion did play an important role in people's lives and instead of negating it, a lot of time and space was devoted to stress on the positive points of each religion, to find common grounds between different faiths, and engage in dialogue to dispel myths about the other's religion. Rabbi Asher Eder, Co-Chairman of Islam-Israel Fellowship, quoted from the Quran to show that the existence of many religions together was part of a divine design  something like a multi-party system to ensure religious and spiritual democracy on earth. He also quoted from the Torah to show that even the minutest form of discrimination against gentiles  non-Jews  was abhorrent in Judaism.


Abdolali Tavakoli, from the Neda Institute for Scientific and Political Research in Teheran  the only participant from Iran  confided that he was amazed at what he witnessed at one particular workshop. Two women, one Palestinian and the other Israeli, were looking deep into each other's eyes with tears rolling down their cheeks. He regretted that he could not invite activists from Israel to Iran.


Glaring asymmetry


However, the asymmetry in the situation of the two people cast its long shadow even in the warm Mediterranean resort. It had begun even before the conference had. Many of the Palestinians who attended could come only because Gershon spent hours pleading, calling and requesting the Israeli authorities to grant travel permits to Palestinians to attend the meet. Many more like Hekmat Bassiso from the Quaker Foundation of Ramallah could not attend because no amount of pleading and begging could make the Israelis grant them travel permits. Some, like Omar Faqih from the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs could attend only because he travelled via Jordan  permission was not granted to him to travel with the delegation via Ben Gurion Airport.


Those four days in Antalya did not solve any problem. It was not meant to, anyway. What the conference did do was provide a platform for a mutual cry of pain for the two anguished nations and a pledge to never give up.


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