When we hosted our Peace Café in Tel Aviv last month, our Jordanian partner Donna Qawasmi,excited about our event, was on her way to Israel for the first time. At the border she was interrogated for three hours. When she said she was on her way to the Peace Café, a soldier asked her: “You think you’re going to save the world?” That night, back in Amman, Donna wrote in her blog on mepeace.org. She wrote she felt “humiliated”. She received more than 50 responses.
“Donna could not meet us in Tel Aviv” I announced at our Peace Café, “so we will come to Amman”.
This is our first ‘international’ event and I am nervous. Maybe we are not yet ready. Maybe I am not ready to make a peace conference in an Arab capital.
I started mepeace.org last summer, and we are approaching one thousand peacemakers. In less than a year we have received more than a quarter million page visits. Our name is “mepeace” because it is short for Middle East peace. That’s is what we represent.
Our peacemakers are primarily in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. But we have Egyptians, Lebanese, Turks, Saudi Arabians, and Syrians. Our 200th peacemaker sits in Iraq. Yes, we also have Iranians in our community.
We are using the internet to advance peace in Middle East. Am I crazy? Apparently. Am I naïve, probably. But I think naiveté is a good thing. As you read this, Palestinians and Israelis are talking to each other on mepeace.org.
Friday, January 18th
Corner of Bograshov and King George is where we’re meeting at 6:30 am.
In the car will be Lemuel Melamed (24) – Ramat Gan, Neri Bar On (40) Tel Aviv, myself (32) Yafo, and Scott Cooper (27) – USA. Driving will be Roni (51) from Kfar Saba.
On this Friday morning the driving is quick. We are driving North to the Sheikh Hussein crossing. All the preparation work we’ve done already: Spoken with our Embassy in Jordan, their Embassy in Tel Aviv. At the ‘Jordan Desk’ at the Foreign Ministry, the nice lady told me not to worry. Just don’t speak Hebrew.
I am scared! Is this a responsible of me? What if someone recognizes us as Israeli? I believe in this trip. I want to demonstrate that we have a partner “YESH PARTNER”. But I have never been to Amman. Am I taking too big of a chance (SIKUN)? Am I not responsible for the wellbeing of our participants in Jordan?
The Israeli Embassy in Jordan called me yesterday and informed me that a crazy man shot six tourists then killed himself, the day before. This is the perfect excuse to cancel our trip at the last minute. Is this a sign not to go? Am I being irresponsible?
When I informed my fellow Israelis about the incident, I heard: “Eyal, you are more worried than any of us”. We are on our way to Jordan!
We quickly reach the Israeli border, skip the duty free, and bus to the Jordanian crossing. When we arrive, a man holds up a sign: “mepeace.org – Peace Conference in Amman”. This is the man we’re looking for. He takes our passports, disappears, and within 15 minutes we are whisked across the border. We are in Jordan, on our way to Amman, with pictures everywhere of King Abdullah and King Hussein his father.
An hour and a half of mountain climbing. The scenes are quite like those I know from Israel, and I’m thinking: This is land in the Bible, too. We wonder: ‘What are the Palestinians doing now’? They arrived the night before to avoid the ‘Pkakim’ on Friday. It took them 13 hours to arrive.
They are waiting for the entrance to the lobby, as we arrive at the hotel at noon. There are hellos, polite but with a distance. Coffee and tea are served by the staff at Amman West Hotel, but the air is chilly. sitting together, facing each other. We don’t know what to say. Donna Qawasmi introduces herself and welcomes us. And in turn we introduce ourselves and share what we want to achieve in Jordan. The ice is broken. We are comfortable with each other and the conversations begin.
We check into our rooms and the meet downstairs, where we each share our personal story.
Donna (27) from Amman is our host in Jordan. She tells us that before she met Israelis, she thought that Israeli mothers don’t cry when they lose a child. Donna is the mother of Suleiman, five years old, and is committed to creating a Middle East where her child will be safe.
Hiba, (24) from Hebron, tells us about the checkpoints and dirt roads she crossed to get her degree in business in Finance at Bir Zeit University, in Ramallah. She joined mepeace to meet Israelis who want peace. She knows violence won’t bring peace.
Mo’min (26) from Jenin is a teacher in High School. He talks about the cycle of violence and shares his experience of being shot. He announces: “When the Israeli government will give us a state there will not be any violence”.
Haitham (36) from Amman is almost two meters tall and imposing. But he is one of the most peaceful people one will meet. He is married and explains that we are suffering in this conflict because we don’t help ourselves. “We must have more participants”, he announces. His suggestion: “Let’s make our next meeting in Beit Jalla.”
Roni (51) from Kfar Saba tells us that he grew up hearing that Palestinians had 22 countries they could go to. The first Intifada changed the way he thought.
Bassam, (40) from the village Anata, spoke about the seven years he spent in Israeli prison. There he learned Hebrew and about the Holocaust, and there he decided violence did not work. So he co-founded “Combatants for Peace”, an organization of Israelis and Palestinians working for peace without weapons.
I, (32), Yafo,spoke last. My story: I was a Yeshiva Bachur who thoughts all of Israel was ‘ours’. Now I am a peace activist. When I was twenty years old I met a Palestinian for the first time. I was a student at the London School of Economics when a young woman stood told the class that the IDF killed her uncle, in his home in the West Bank. I decided I had to know more. More about Palestinians. More about the IDF.
Four years ago I arrived in Israel from New York. I participated in events for peace and made new friends. I discovered quickly that peacemakers in Israel didn’t know one another. We were all working in the same direction but there was no communication. So I set up a community for us on the internet.
And then came the deciding moment. At a young leadership conference for Palestinians and Israelis in France last summer, a young Palestinian approached me and said: “You are the first Israeli I have ever met”. And that’s when I realized I had missed what was possible. On mepeace.org, we would connect between Israelis and Palestinians, and anyone else who wants to see peace in the Middle East.
Sharing our personal stories, we were ready to an evening out on the town together.
Before we break, Momin (26) from Jenin asks if we can pray together. We are standing a circle holding hands. I bless “יברכנו אדני וישמרנו. יאר אדני פניו אלינו ויחוכנו. ישא אדני פניו אלינו וישם לנו שלום ”. Yeshiva was worthwhile. Momin’s prayer is for our peace and safety.
Evening. We get in 3 cars for restaurant. Il Bustan. Warm atmosphere, families, wedding party, atmosphere. The video camera is waiting for us at the restaurant. We decided to film our meetings to show peace is possible.
The restaurant is Lebanese. Lots of salads: Tabouli, Fatush, Babaganoush, Chanklish…
Momin, a devoted Muslim, abstains from alcohol, we abstain too. All this time, people are switching seats and our conversations continue.
My new friends tell jokes and stories. I was excited. When I’m excited I talk fast, in Hebrew. We were requested to speak in English. Didn’t help. I couldn’t help myself.
The meats arrived, kabab, shishlick, steak, pargiyot, shesh tawoulk…
I was through… Watermelon for kinuach (dessert)
To the driver – “Sabach al chir” I called out (boker or). Back at the hotel at midnight, the conversations continue.
Saturday, July 19
Breakfast. I didn’t sleep well and I am late. Eggs, tomatoes, cheeses, cereal, in short, an Israeli breakfast.
“Sebach al Chir” I announced at the table. I confused it. Again!
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
We begin our work today with a question: “How we build a community of peacemakers?” Three issues are outlined on a whiteboard:
Issue #1 – What are the goals of our community?
Issue #2 – Who will we plan activities and how will we raise resources
Issue #3 – How will we influence Palestinians and Israelis to join us
After discussing these issues in breakout groups, we discuss them together. We starting with the question: “how will we reach out to Palestinians”. This is important to us because I am Israeli and can easily reach Israelis. But to make a difference, we need Palestinians.
Hiba’s group shares 14 ideas for attracting Palestinians. Among them: Enabling more peace meetings such as this and making it easier for Palestinians to travel and participate. We must reach out to Arabs and palestinians and we will.
My group discussed our community goals.
Roni from Kfar Saba explains that we want to provide an effective platform for communication. We want to encourage activities and projects. We wish to represent as many sectors as possible and demonstrate peace is possible for us all. Donna of Jordan says we must encourage more Arabs and Palestinians to come, attend, and join our community. “Let Arabs know Israelis and Israelis know Arabs” she declares.
Bassam: “Create strategic view to achieve peace. Be tactical. Think long term. Have goals. He adds: This is not about politics. I want us to connect between people. We must serve as a resource for information. I want us to inspire individuals.
Neri presented an action plan and demonstrated/mapped out how we can become a platform for interaction, information and inspiration for peace. Neri suggests we put together a team of Israelis, Palestinians and Internationals to be our steering committee and make decisions to serve our growing community of peacemakers.
DISCUSSION ON LANGUAGE
Before lunch, we meet for a discussion on language. The mepeace.org website is all in English. This was a decision I made originally to encourage all to communicate in one language. Palestinians suggest more Arabic is a must. The Israelis want in Hebrew. I make the decision to translate static parts of the site into Hebrew and Arabic.
Lunch is a buffet by the pool. I’ll spare you the details. It’s all on video. The conversations continue. I take advantage of this time to conduct personal interviews with Palestinians and Israelis by the pool.
In the afternoon, Mo’min explains how he spend 13 hours from Jenin to Amman. We try to think what we can do to avoid this in the future.
Our driver arrives in the early evening. Our plan is Al Fuqaihs (אל פוקאיס), an area of wealth and spas. We eat a fancy dinner, typical Arabic food, Zahar, Labaneh, Shatah, Fatah, and French fries. There is no rush, we tell stories and share jokes. Arabic is translated to Hebrew and vice versa. Another wonderful evening in Amman ends at midnight, and in the lobby the conversations continue.
Our wake-up calls are at 6:30. It’s our last day and we have to produce results. We begin in the lounge overlooking the pool with a few moments of meditation.
TRANSLATING TALK INTO ACTION
Our meeting is then led by Hiba and Neri. Our mission (mesima) is translate talk into action. Each of receives pen and paper and asked to write all tasks to be completed for mepeace.org and for our community. All our tasks were written on a board:
• Condensing 12 hours of video into 12 minutes so we will have a promo video.
• Setting up a new calendar of peace events that everyone can contribute to
• Putting together a calendar of our peacemakers’ birthday
• Making our community more hospitable and inviting for Arab peacemakers
• Advertising mepeace commercially so more people know about us
• Welcoming new peacemakers who join mepeace.org.
• Developing a team of content moderators to keep an eye on the website discussions
We are taking on new commitments and responsibility.
After going around the room sharing our thank you’s, we went to the pool to take our photograph together. Appropriately, it was Mo’min who suggested that we capture us holding hands, a fitting picture of “Making Things Possible”, in Amman, Jordan. On mepeace.org, our conversations continue.
After returning from Amman, I still have the same fears and doubts. Am I wasting my time? Can I make a difference? Will my work make Israelis more secure? I don’t know. What I do know after three powerful days in Amman is that there is a lot of work left to do. And in this work I am not alone. I have partners. And we have work to do.