The tension in the room was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Everyone was staring at me in silence. Finally, I asked: "Does anyone want to speak?" It was as if I had opened up a dam, as Palestinians jumped up, pointed their fingers at the Israelis, screaming: "You are causing a Holocaust on our people!"
The Israelis in the room jumped up and screamed back, "Where were you last week when the bombs were falling on Sderot?"
By the end of the evening, the students were crying and hugging each other, deciding to hold a peace vigil the next day to call for an end of all violence. At least there was one place in the Middle East that night where Palestinians and Israelis were not shooting, not throwing Molotov cocktails or even rocks at each other. They were using their words.
With slight variations, this scene has repeated itself at the Arava Institute on and off almost every year since the Second Intifada in 2002 until today, due to the eruption of a war, military operation or security situation involving Israel and the Palestinians and the fact that since 1996 the Arava Institute has hosted Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and international students in a two-semester academic program teaching environmental students.
Students live together in a small campus on Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Arava desert; Jews and Arabs in the same rooms, sharing tea, coffee, computers and space.
What have we learned about teaching peace during times of war?
- Peace will not be made over the internet; we need to be in the same room with each other, face to face.
- Peace will not be made over a weekend in Turkey or in Brussels. It takes time to get to know each other, to break the ice and to see each other as human beings not stereotypes.
- Talking about peace will not bring peace. Palestinians and Israelis must gather around common interests and work together towards common goals which will improve everyone’s lives.
- Peace cannot be achieved unilaterally; it can only be achieved with mutual respect. And while we don’t have to agree about history we do have to recognize that each side sees itself as the victim. Once we acknowledge the pain and suffering of the other, we can start to build a consensus about a secure and just future.
- Security for Israelis will not come from walls and iron domes; security will come from building bridges based on mutually beneficial relationships. Independence for Palestinians will not be achieved by knives and bombs, independence will be achieved through building interdependent relationships based on trust.
I am not naïve enough to think that peace will be made by people-to-people NGOs like the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Peace will ultimately be made by courageous visionary leaders, not the small-minded cowardly politicians who currently occupy government offices in Jerusalem and Ramallah and who use fear and hate to hold on to their power.
The role of peace-building NGOs is to restore trust between Israelis and Palestinians and build mutually beneficial and interdependent relationships, so that when a brave leader does arise, she or he will be able to point to the work of the NGOs and say: "You see, there is a partner for peace!"
David Lehrer is the executive director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.