JERUSALEM — In a region torn apart by massive conflict, peacemaking has to begin with ordinary citizens.
Three programs, Olive Oil Without Borders, the Parents Circle Family Forum and Peace Players International, are fostering compassion between Israelis and Palestinians–farmers, families and youth–living in Israel and the West Bank.
Olive Oil Without Borders
Olive Oil Without Borders, started by the Near East Foundation, promotes peace and cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian olive farmers. With the support of USAID, the program provided grant money and workshops for 2,600 farmers in the West Bank.
The economic benefits of collaboration are obvious. The olive oil industry comprises more than 10 percent of the GDP in Palestine and involves 100,000 families. Palestinians have an excess of olive oil, for which, in Israel, there is currently a high demand. Sharing growing practices and pooling resources, some farmers say, is just common sense.
For others, however, the collaboration is far more than a simple exchange of ideas. It is a chance to build lasting relationships with people who share their way of life. For many Palestinians, this is the first opportunity they’ve had to meet an Israeli who was not either a soldier or a settler.
There are challenges as well. Israeli farmers hear the stories of suffering that the Palestinians have experienced at the hands of settlers, and must grapple with difficult feelings. Yet this communication is important for building and sustaining trust. One Israeli farmer referred to the experience as “empowering”.
The Parents Circle Families Forum
Understanding another’s perspective is one of the key aims of The Parents Circle Families Forum, a group that unites Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members in the conflict. The group formed in 1995, and is comprised of 600 families, all of whom are dedicated to fostering compassion between Israelis and Palestinians.
Empathy, the members believe, can be a tool used to prevent other families from suffering the same pain that they do. “Our power is our pain,” said group spokesperson Bassam Aramin. It is this unbearable sorrow and grief, a common theme in each family’s narrative, that break down differences.
Reconciliation is a long and difficult process, and it requires a form of sacrifice. To understand another person’s perspective, each of the group members has to resist the temptation to identify themselves as the sole victims. They must be willing to view those they consider enemies as human beings.
These families refuse retaliation in response to their losses, choosing instead to participate in joint activities and host events that facilitate open conversation. Spokespeople Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin travel around the world, fostering compassion between Israelis and Palestinians by sharing their stories and encouraging people, especially students, to start a dialogue about the events taking place in the West Bank.
Peace Players International
Fostering compassion between Israelis and Palestinians is no game—or is it? Peace Players International brings Israeli and Palestinian children, teenagers, and youth together through a common passion for basketball.
Being part of a team teaches Israeli and Palestinian teens to work together and to rely on one another both on and off the court. As they go from being teammates to being friends, their prejudices are broken down. Israeli and Palestinian friends call and message one another constantly.
Girls in the program face a particular challenge. They are often forced to quit the team by family members who believe that playing sports is “a waste of time”. The girls who choose to continue playing, along with their families, are sometimes criticized by their neighbors. Yet they persevere, and some graduate and even become coaches. They can participate in leadership courses, conflict-resolution training, and foreign language classes that the program offers.
The closeness and empathy that these Israeli and Palestinian teens feel for one another extends to feeling grief for all those who suffer in the conflict, regardless of what side they are on. This gives them hope for the future of the region, and a reason to feel proud of themselves and what they are doing.
These programs are only a few of those sponsored by the USAID Conflict Management and Mitigation Program (CMM) with the goal of fostering compassion between Israelis and Palestinians. Other CMM initiatives in the region focus on cooperation in watershed areas, support for children with disabilities and creating palliative care programs for terminally ill children.
– Emilia Otte