Mideast Woes Spill Over to Summer Camp


Months of fighting have led to the collapse of more than just the government-to-government peacemaking efforts of Israelis and Palestinians. As their conflict rages, grass-roots efforts to promote dialogue between the two peoples and build connections between their societies also have withered.

The latest program to be abandoned is Seeds of Peace, a popular summer camp and dialogue program that for eight years has brought teenage Israelis and Palestinians together at a camp in Maine both to learn about one another and to discuss the explosive issues that divide them.

This year, neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Israeli government is willing to send an official delegation to the program once enthusiastically embraced by former President Clinton, the late King Hussein of Jordan and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

First to cancel its involvement was the Palestinian Authority. Zeinab Wazir, director-general of educational activities in the Palestinian Ministry of Education, said it would be impossible to send a delegation "when our children are suffering at the hands of Israeli soldiers. They have killed many of our children. What can I say to the kids? They should go meet the Israeli people while their soldiers are killing our children?"

Seeds appealed the decision to Arafat but without success, said John Wallach, the journalist who founded the organization as Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo peace accords in 1993.

"We had a meeting with him, and he told us that he still supports Seeds of Peace, that he wears the Seeds of Peace pin on his lapel and that he will do everything he can to send us a delegation as soon as it is safe, but he just can't do it now," Wallach said by telephone from his New York office. Wallach said he still hoped that the Palestinian Authority might put together a delegation for the second of two camp sessions scheduled this summer.

Palestinian Local Government Minister Saeb Erekat, whose daughter is a Seeds graduate, said that he wished the Palestinian Authority was sending a delegation but that he understood the decision not to do so.

"Right now, the two societies mirror each other in their anger and frustration. But I would say that one of the things that should be revived immediately if the cease-fire holds are the people-to-people programs, if we are serious about peace," Erekat said.

Israel recently followed the Palestinian Authority in pulling out of Seeds. On Sunday, its Education Ministry sent a letter to the families of Israeli Arab and Jewish students who had been selected to attend the summer camp, informing them that the ministry had decided against an official delegation.

The letter, signed by Hadara Rosenblum, director of the Student Council and Youth Unit, cited three reasons for pulling out of the program. The first was "the security situation and security warnings connected to the sensitive composition and subject of the delegation." The second was the Palestinian decision against sending a delegation, and the third was "the great tension in Israeli society in general and among youth, in particular."

Those factors, Rosenblum said, "do not enable, regrettably, the creation of a real and meaningful dialogue between the Jewish and Arab representatives."

Wallach said that although he was disappointed by the decisions of the respective governments, the summer camp will go on, with students coming from Egypt and Jordan as well as the Balkans, India, Pakistan--and Israel.

Amram Mitzna, mayor of the coastal city of Haifa, agreed to send a delegation of 21 Israeli Arabs and Jews after Wallach appealed to him directly.

"We are all delighted that he stepped up to the plate," said Wallach, who dismissed the decision to cancel national delegations as "an example of governments behaving like children."

Mitzna said he is having no problem putting together a delegation.

"We have a long list of highly qualified candidates, both Jews and Arabs, who want to go," he said, adding that he thinks the Education Ministry made a mistake in canceling its delegation.

"For so many decades, we said there was nobody to talk to, but still we sent delegates to everything, hoping to find someone from the other side," Mitzna said. "So now we are saying no?"

Particularly at a time of such tension, Mitzna said, it is important for the two peoples to try to maintain some contacts.

"The day that I will be afraid that talking will accelerate tension will be a very bad day," he said.

Seeds' Middle East program already was in trouble before the cancellations. In October, one of its graduates, Assil Asleh, was shot dead by Israeli riot police during anti-government demonstrations in northern Israel. He was wearing his Seeds of Peace T-shirt when he was killed. Asleh's death sent shock waves through the program, and angry recriminations flew between some of the Israeli Jewish participants and some of the Israeli Arab and Palestinian participants in Internet chats and phone conversations.

A group meeting house that opened last year in East Jerusalem has been virtually empty since the Palestinian revolt erupted in late September. Palestinians, kept out of Israel by army roadblocks, either could not or would not come.

A U.S. diplomat in the region, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that many other once-thriving programs are dormant because participants cannot cross over the widening chasm between the two peoples. The United States agreed to invest about $10 million in people-to-people programs under the 1998 Wye River accord, the diplomat said, and is now having a difficult time finding organizations to fund.

"There are a large number of Israeli organizations and institutions still trying to do these activities, but most of them can't find Palestinian partners," he said.

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