Abdallah Al-Labadi, a 17-year-old Palestinian who wants to be a medical doctor, does not live far from the high school he attends in East Jerusalem, but going there is an ordeal.
“I have to cross a border-like checkpoint where I daily receive insults and harassments from Israeli soldiers,” said Al-Labadi, whose father has been imprisoned several times by the Israelis and whose uncle was killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1978.
“What is supposed to be a ten-minute ride to Jerusalem takes more than an hour because of the apartheid separatist wall and several military checkpoints and illegal settlements,” he said.
Al-Labadi’s experience is not uncommon for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but most Israeli youths know little about these challenges. Five Israeli teenagers, in particular, only heard about them while traveling in Japan with five Palestinian teenagers, including Al-Labadi.
The 10 teenagers, ages 14 to 19, participated in the Middle East Peace Project in Ayabe, Japan, in July 2010. The idea was to bring them to a neutral place where they could talk and get to know each other. Each participant has lost at least one family member in the 62-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only two participants, one from each group, had previously met the “other,” and none spoke the other’s language. Each was required to speak some English to participate.
What the Palestinians did not know
As much as the Israelis learned about daily life for a young Palestinian trying to get his education, there were also things the Palestinians, all from the West Bank, did not know about the Israelis. For example, the way Israelis live in fear of suicide bombings and mortar attacks.
In Japan, they heard the story of Eden Kedoshim. A 16-year-old from Be’er Sheva, Israel, Kedoshim lost her uncle in a mortar attack from Gaza two years ago. When the mortar hit, the father of three was in his garden just before the start of the 60th anniversary of Israeli independence.
“It is still hard for me to think about my Uncle Jimi,” Kedoshim said. “He had a happy smile and a voice loud with optimism. Now, he is gone and will not come back.”
The program was hosted by the City of Ayabe, (38,000 population), 50 kilometers west of Kyoto. The Parents Circle – Families Forum, an Israeli-Palestinian group of bereaved families on who support peace, reconciliation, and tolerance between the two groups, chose the participants, including an Israeli and a Palestinian adult facilitator, each of whom has also lost family.
“I hope it made a very strong influence on their lives, and was not just a nice trip,” said Anat Marnin-Shaham, a dance movement therapist and the Israeli facilitator, whose two brothers were killed in combat on the same day on different fronts in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Mohammed Al-Najjar, a retired math teacher and the Palestinian facilitator, whose brother was killed in fighting with Israeli soldiers near Hebron in 1985, echoed that sentiment. He considered it a positive sign that one of the Palestinian youths had asked him how they could get together with the Israelis in the future.
“That is hard to do because we have to get permission every time we want to leave the West Bank,” Al-Najjar said. “But I think it can be done through the Parents Circle.”
Now a seven-year tradition
The Middle East Peace Project in Ayabe was held July 21 through July 27, 2010, seven years after Ayabe hosted a similar group, which began a succession of such programs across Japan: Okayama in 2004; Tokushima in 2005; Koganei in 2008; and Kanazawa in 2009.
A program was planned for Kameoka in 2006 with Palestinians from Gaza, but due to the conflict, the teenagers were not able to travel, and the program was canceled. The people of Kameoka held a one-day event anyway, and the teenagers eventually met for one day in Tel Aviv, Israel, because of efforts by the Japanese organizers.
All the participating Japanese cities are World Federation Peace Cities. Including the 2010 group, 72 teenagers have now participated in the programs, which got a boost initially when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi hosted the first delegation in 2003 in Tokyo, generating much media coverage.
The 2003 project was the vision of Mayor Yasuo Shikata of Ayabe. He was never far from the 2010 program as led by his successor, Mayor Zenya Yamazaki, an Ayabe native who formerly worked for the World Bank. Shikata thought towns like Ayabe could play a small but significant role in helping to bring peace to the Middle East. He and others also believe that Japan, the only country attacked with nuclear weapons, should play a role in the Mideast conflict.
Ayabe has a tradition of involvement in the world peace movement. The 2010 program took place 60 years after Ayabe became the first city in Japan to declare itself a World Federation Peace City, dedicated to peaceful resolution of conflict. During Shikata’s mayoralty, Ayabe and Jerusalem made a joint declaration of friendship.
Ayabe is also the spiritual headquarters of the Oomoto Foundation, a Shinto sect whose mission includes fostering inter-religious dialogue. Oomoto provided organizational support and staff members for the 2010 project, as it did in 2003.
“The people of Ayabe understand it is the mission of Ayabe city to contribute to world peace,” Mayor Yamazaki said in an interview. “We know we are a small city and our contribution is limited. But even the ocean is made up of many small drops of water. We can be a small drop that joins the big river that flows into the ocean. That is our contribution.”
Echoing Shikata’s idea behind the first project, Yamazaki said: “Once they come to Japan and stay under one roof, they know that each of them is a victim of the war. And they start to respect each other and understand the importance of peace, and never do war again. That is what I would hope for these children.”
Pairing up at host families
On a hot and humid afternoon, the delegation was greeted warmly by a few hundred Ayabe citizens waving Israeli and Palestinian paper flags at a welcoming ceremony in front of City Hall. The teenagers had many first-time experiences with Japanese culture, including the food and slipper etiquette and other ways to behave. They received a bit of Japanese language training, and some of them impressed the hosts with their use of short daily phrases.
They participated in an indigo dyeing workshop at Oomoto’s Miroku Arts Village, hosted by the Fifth Spiritual Leader of Oomoto, Kurenai Deguchi. They also had other cultural experiences, including calligraphy and taiko drumming. The cultural highlight was dressing in Japanese summer kimono, called a yukata, and walking through the city during Ayabe’s summer festival, which ended with a fireworks display. Two members of the delegation joined Mayor Yamazaki in the ceremonial lighting of the first rocket.
All the cultural events were enjoyed, but the main activity was pairing one Palestinian with one Israeli for a two-night stay with a Japanese host family, which began after the City Hall ceremony. The Japanese speak no Hebrew or Arabic, and many do not speak much English. The idea is that each pair of teenagers, not able to communicate much with their host families, will talk to each other.
“When they went to the families for about 30 hours they had to speak to each other,” facilitator Al-Najjar said.
It seemed to work.
“This is the first time I ever saw a Palestinian kid,” Netanel Zonik Golan, a 15-year-old Israeli from Ramat Gan, said. “They like the same stuff -- the same music, the same football, the same everything. This was really life changing. I never knew there was someone to talk to. I used to say there was no way to have peace. They will not talk. Now I have hope. My life has actually changed.”
Golan’s uncle was killed in combat in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
“Even though I was born many years later and never knew Uncle Ben, his death continues to impact our family. My father was never the same. There was always something missing in the family. And because of this my father supports all peaceful efforts to solve the conflict so others do not have to go through what we have been through,” Golan said.
The parents of all the teenagers belong to the Parents Circle.
Al-Labadi was among those who had his first encounter with Israelis his age. “They are very nice people and I hope for peace with them,” he said. “They are not that different from us. They do the same things. Look at girls, and talk on the cell phone.”
“We both love to drum”
Al-Labadi’s Israeli roommate was Tal Oren, a 14-year-old from Herzelia, whose grandmother was killed 15 years ago in a suicide bombing on a bus in Tel Aviv. Oren, whose father is one of the leaders of the Parents Circle, was the only Israeli to have been with Palestinian youths in the past, including two summer camps in Israel.
“My father [Nir Oren]is the co-general manager of the Families Forum, and my family is very committed to this process,” Oren said “The Palestinians kids are so like us. They’re not different. We both love to drum.”
Oren was referring to taiko drumming with Ayabe high school students on the morning of the last day in Ayabe, and then performing later that day during a formal gathering for the citizens of Ayabe, attended by a few hundred.
Oren and Palestinian Lara Al-Nasser, from Nablus, were the only two who had met with youth from the other side before. And the two knew each other. Al-Nasser was on her second trip to Japan, the only person to ever attend two of the Japan programs.
At 19, Al-Nasser is a bit older than the others and in her first year as an economics major at Birzeit University 26 kilometers north of Jerusalem. She said she would like to work for a non-governmental organization someday. Well spoken in English and not camera shy, Al-Nasser was sought out often for interviews with the Japanese media.
At the formal gathering, each teenager gave brief remarks. Al-Nasser led off, saying: “Like any other Palestinian family we went through rough times with tragedies and fear. Living in Palestine is like living in a big prison with the separation wall around us and checkpoints between cities.”
Al-Nasser’s father, a medical doctor, was imprisoned several times by the Israelis. In 1986, her 70-year-old grandfather was arrested for several months. “Due to negligence and no medical care for a person of his age, he died,” she said.
“In 2005, my father became a member of the Parents Circle –Families Forum. I joined him at several meetings and met Israeli youngsters. I now believe that we should stop killing each other. We need to live in peace and harmony. The violence and hatred have no use. I want to live like any other kid, and enjoy my time and feel safe.”
They came to hear the stories
Nissim Ben Shitrit, the Israeli Ambassador to Japan, and Eyad M. Al-Hindi, the First Secretary of the Permanent General Mission of Palestine to Tokyo, attended the formal event and gave brief remarks. Mayor Yamazaki and former Mayor Shikata also addressed the audience before the teenagers and their facilitators told their stories.
Those were the stories the audience had come to hear.
Batoul Faraj, a 17-year-old Palestinian who lives in a refugee camp on the West Bank, told how her ancestral village was destroyed in the 1948 war between Israel and the Arab states after Israel declared its nationhood. Much later, her grandfather was killed in an action by Israeli soldiers, and her father died young after spending much of his life in prison.
“I want to meet people and tell them about my story, about the people of Palestine and their struggle,” Faraj said. “I want to show them that we are seeking peace more than any others in the world because we are the ones paying the price for this struggle.”
Muath (Issa) Faraj (not related to Batoul), a 16-year-old Palestinian from near Bethlehem, lost his grandfather in 2002, when he was shot by Israeli soldiers on his way home from work. “It was a shock when we heard about my grandfather. He was an old man and he was just going to his house.”
Yousef Shehab, a 16-year-old Palestinian from Nablus, lost two uncles, one killed in 2002, and one in 2003. “My childhood was not like others because our house was filled with fear and tragedy, with soldiers entering our home, shootings, the sound of tanks and helicopters. I joined the Parents Circle -- Family Forum through my grandmother, who is an active member. She helped my family to become members because she believes in peace and wants to stop this cycle of violence.”
Na'ama Levy, a 14-year-old Israeli from Aseret, lost a cousin who was killed four years ago in the second Lebanon war. “I was young then but I remember him well. I miss him very much.” Her grandparents named the family olive orchard after him. “We believe his spirit lives through the olive orchard. In this way, we remember him for the free spirit that he was and we try not to be too sad.”
Mor Levzelter Lavi, a 15-year-old Israeli, from Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, lost a cousin who was killed in a suicide bombing at a night club in Tel Aviv in 2004. The cousin and his wife were celebrating a friend’s birthday. He threw himself on his wife, saving her but losing his own along with three others in the group.
Lavi, who comes from a large family, said his brothers believe that trying to reconcile with Palestinians is a waste of time, that peace will never be possible. “My mother and I think they are wrong and that is why we are active in the Families Forum,” Lavi said. “My mother and I believe that with a little help and lots of good will we can work things out and have peace.”
What the Buddhist abbot wrote
When the teenagers had finished their stories, the president of the Ayabe City Council read a peace proclamation, and then everyone sang “Shalom, Salam from Ayabe,” a Middle Eastern sounding tune written by an Ayabe citizen for the first project in 2003.
Afterwards, the delegation departed for Kyoto where they would spend their last full day in Japan sightseeing, ending with a visit to Universal Studios Japan, a theme park in Osaka.
The highlight of the sightseeing was a meeting with Abbot Seihan Mori, the chief of the Kiyomizu Temple, an important Buddhist temple in Kyoto, perched on a hillside overlooking the city. Abbot Mori led everyone into a tea room where he created a huge calligraphy scroll while everyone watched.
The elegant brush work portrayed four kanji (Chinese) characters: “jin,” “shin,” “so,” and “kou.” The abbot chose these precisely for the Middle East Peace Project in Ayabe. In fact, they could be used as a motto for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
They mean: “With mercy in the heart, facing each other.”
Copyright 2010 Bill Roberts and the Middle East Peace Project in Ayabe
Arigato gozaimasu – “thank you very much” in Japanese