Fri, Jul 24, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Israelis, Palestinians heal at camp

BONDING: When the groups first arrived, they knew nothing about each other. Now they play football, share painful stories and teach each other swear words

AFP , RECHNITZ, Austria

Palestinian teenager Ihsan, left, from Ramallah laughs with Israeli teenager Shira, right, from Haifa during a Israeli-Palestinian peace camp in Rechnitz, Austria, on Tuesday.

PHOTO: AFP

Just kilometers from where the Iron Curtain once stood, youths from another divided region — Israelis and Palestinians — are coming together to seek a dialogue and learn about each other.

They are between 16 and 20 years old, boys and girls from two different worlds who at home have no opportunity to meet.

“This is the first time I meet people from the West Bank and Gaza and hear their side, their point of view,” said Yoni, 17, from the northern Israeli port city of Haifa.

And yet over the past week, they have eaten their meals together, played football and danced together.

Entitled “Dialogue 4 the future,” the two-week camp in Rechnitz, a small town near the Austro-­Hungarian border, was organized by Austrian evangelical groups and partly funded by the EU.

A first camp was held in 2007 and the idea was again to bring these communities together through discussions, games and outdoor activities.

Eight youths came from ­Ramallah in the West Bank, eight from Haifa, eight from Hungary and three from Austria.

“I was a bit afraid of hearing what they’d have to say, maybe they wouldn’t want to talk to us,” Yoni said of his initial concerns.

But “they’re really nice, and I have new friends now,” he said.

Under camp rules, everyone must eat the same food — no pork is served — and the rooms are mixed, said Klaus Pahr, one of the camp’s organizers.

He recalled picking the groups up at the airport.

“The looks the Palestinians threw the Israelis and vice-versa ... it was extraordinary. You could tell they lived completely separate lives,” he said.

But now, “there’s mutual understanding: They’re starting to teach each other swear words,” Julia, the Austrian group leader, added with a laugh.

Some of the Palestinians have had problems with English, the camp language, but improvised football matches in the courtyard and cultural evenings with lots of dancing have helped overcome language barriers.

“As the Palestinians said, it’s really important to know that they’re also people: They are the same, they like to have fun,” said Peter, 17, from Hungary.

The camp is one of many in Europe to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, and several hours were dedicated to discussing the political and historical background of the conflict and sharing stories.

A Palestinian told of Israeli soldiers searching his family’s home and arresting his uncle. An Israeli girl recalled hearing sirens “15 times a day” and having to rush into shelters during the 2006 Lebanon war.

Others spoke of neighbors being shot while taking their child to school, of suicide bombings and long waits at Israeli checkpoints.

For many, this was the first time they had heard the other side’s point of view.

“We are neighbors, but we don’t know much about each other, we’re strangers,” said Jalal, one of the Palestinian group leaders.

The Austrians and Hungarians, divided for decades by the Iron Curtain, serve as an example.

“They are past it ... They built a future and you see, it’s a nice future,” Jalal said.

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