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First Person: How This Palestinian Made Friends With Israelis

This special online 4-part video series, Conflict Zone, follows Aziz Abu Sarah, a cultural educator, a native of Jerusalem, and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer who works in international conflict resolution. This first segment shows Israelis and Palestinians trying to lead an ordinary life, but the complications of living in a conflict zone can be extraordinary.


The author grew up throwing stones at Israelis. Then he took a class with them.

By Aziz Abu Sarah

The tragedy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the people in it live so physically close to one another, yet are so separated. Both sides believe the scary stereotypes and have little actual interaction. Walls are built of concrete to separate us, leading to even higher walls of fear and ignorance.

As President Barack Obama arrives in Israel for another go at Mideast peace–his first trip to the Jewish state as President–what is most needed is for ordinary people to realize that we aren’t doomed to live this way and that we can coexist. My painful journey has led me to this conclusion.

I grew up in Bethany, a town 3 miles east of Jerusalem. There was little for children to do other than play soccer in the streets. I was seven years old when I first saw on television young men throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. I didn’t know the motivation or purpose for such acts, but they were exciting. (Related: Read about the tunnels of Gaza in National Geographic magazine.)

My first similar adventure was unsuccessful, as I stoned my Arab neighbors’ cars instead of Israeli cars. I quickly learned that stoning your neighbor’s car wasn’t a good idea–the spanking I received from my father made that clear.

The Israelis didn’t know who I was or where I lived, so I thought throwing stones at them was safe. A few weeks later some friends and I broke the window of an Israeli bus driving on a nearby road. An angry man came out of that bus shooting at us.


This segment features the Nabi Saleh protest from the Israeli military’s point-of-view.


 

I grew up experiencing clashes with the Israeli army and learning what to do to survive.  The book bag that I took to school contained not only books and pencils, but also onions. Sniffing an onion helps to keep you conscious when you’re hit with tear gas.

My life changed when my brother Tayseer, at age 18, was arrested at our home and then beaten when he refused to confess to the charge that he threw stones at soldiers. Tayseer was in prison for almost a year and died soon after his release, which our family doctor said was a result of the beating.

I was ten years old at the time, and watching my brother die left me bitter and full of rage. I felt it was my duty to avenge Taysee’s death.

Years of activism guided me in my mission. Writing and throwing stones became the norm of my life, and I convinced others to do the same to protest the Israelis’ occupation of the Palestinian territories and their treatment of Palestinians.


This segment features the Nabi Saleh protest from the Palestinians’ point of view.


But the truth is that I never felt satisfied by my actions. Hatred and anger cannot heal a broken heart. And yet I continued on that path until I finished high school, when I decided to take Hebrew language courses to prepare for college and work in Jerusalem.

Those classes introduced me to Jews and Israelis who weren’t in uniform. For 18 years, all my interactions with Israelis had been with soldiers and settlers. Although there was a Jewish high school 200 meters from my own, I never met any of those students.

At first I was angry about studying Hebrew alongside Jewish students and refused to utter a word in class.

After I’d had a few encounters with Jewish students and learned new Hebrew words, I had an internal struggle in my heart and mind. There was the old me who was angry and bitter, alongside the new me who was curious to learn about the “enemy.”

With every conversation and with every interaction, my hatred faded further. It wasn’t the deep conversations, but the small ones that took place while practicing Hebrew that revealed the humanity in me and my Jewish classmates and conquered the divisions between us.

Eventually, I found a new mission for my life: bridging the gap between enemies.  I started working with Israeli peace builders like Rami Elhanan, whose daughter was killed in a suicide bombing.

The Middle East peace process is at a stalemate, and people are losing hope in the dream of bringing an end to this conflict. Politicians are issuing one fiery statement after another explaining why we will not have peace. The international community is paralyzed. Many claim that extremists are on the rise and violence is unavoidable.

But the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace does not depend only on politicians signing an agreement. It also depends on citizens, who can make or break any such pact. The people should lead the politicians.

In my work as a conflict resolution specialist, I have found that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are indifferent and ineffective. Indifference is the greatest enemy to peace and justice.

The antidote to that apathy is interaction. What Israelis and Palestinians need more than anything right now is to find ways of being with each other. We need to put cracks in the walls that separate people. We need to take classes together.


This segment highlights the process of creating safe places for dialogue among people who are on opposing sides of a conflict.


I don’t know what the final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will look like–one state, two states, or a confederation. I do know that no agreement will survive if the people from both sides don’t start a true reconciliation project.

Our division should never be between Israelis and Palestinians but rather between those who work tirelessly for peace and those who do not.

This blog is part of our First Person series, where we invite writers to share personal stories.

Editor’s note: Aziz Abu Sarah is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Co-Executive Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Johanna
    switzerland
    March 30, 11:32 am

    your work is amazing!

  2. Karenzi
    Rwanda
    January 22, 8:31 am

    I believe Aziz is more civilized and what he is doing is such a fantastic job both to Israelis and Palestinians, I understand the hatred that has been educated to the young people for so long can’t easily be uprooted one day but at least there is something being done by people making peace to the Middle East. What always surprises me, is that almost all Arabs dream of erasing Israel out of world map. May God be with these two tribes to live together!

  3. Zhang
    November 20, 2013, 4:03 pm

    God bless Jewish people and free Palestine.

  4. :)
    Hong Kong
    October 15, 2013, 5:16 am

    can you not post my previous comment that says “love it”? i didn’t realized I already left a comment on here before. thx.

  5. :)
    Hong Kong
    October 15, 2013, 5:08 am

    love it

  6. Mark Chan
    Chicago
    September 25, 2013, 6:14 pm

    Wonderful documentary. Thanks for taking viewers to see both sides. I pray that there will be more Palestinians AND Israelis engaging in your type of work of peacemaking.

  7. millicent
    Chicago
    August 23, 2013, 7:19 am

    Excellent documentary. What you are doing at the end is great, bringing the next generation together to “do things together”. There is an organization in Jerusalem called Musalaha that’s doing the same thing. They would have summer camp or events like “desert encounter”, where they take people from both sides, have them share camel or jeep, work together to negotiate the hardships of the desert sun or a stubborn camel. The challenges of survival and cooperation provide an excellent occasion for relationships and open communication.

  8. Leona
    South Africa
    August 20, 2013, 3:32 pm

    I live in a country where there is 11 official languages, where different races and religions had to pull together to make up a democratic South Africa. Look we still battle, our crime rate is high we don’t walk around and all of a sudden love each other BUT we are trying – it takes time – I hope for the children’s sake on both Palestine and Israel side that the walls will broken down and that peace will find all of you.

  9. john
    India
    July 13, 2013, 2:12 pm

    Well the documentary was good and i appreciate the common grounds that you have tried to bring for each other.. but its not deep enough.. have you ever read quran… then you will be able to understand arab and Israeli and palestinian conflict..better.. arab and palestinans want complete annihilation of Isreal.. Its true it is palestinan land its also true it is jewish land .. but what muslim want is genocide of jews as been instructed by pedophile, war-monger and jew and non muslim hater.. unitl they dont stop teaching kids to hate jews and bomb isreailies using thier own people as human shield until all kurans are not burned or all hate teachings are not removed this is not going to end. HEAR THIS next world war is muslim VS Non muslims stop stupid documentary without realizing the depth of it.. but if you can help as much as people you can, that would be a miracle. Shalom

  10. Louis
    USA
    May 28, 2013, 11:47 pm

    At the end of the day we are all brother’s and sister’s ..and we all deserve the freedom of religion …and I loved the documentation …

  11. mendy Goldstein
    United States
    May 28, 2013, 10:16 pm

    you r grate i love what you doing plz make more videos and keep it up

  12. Rabbi Lee Diamond
    Kfar Saba Israel
    May 4, 2013, 12:27 pm

    Like many before me, I too have a dream.
    1,000,000 Israelis and
    1,000,000 Palestians
    Who want a life of freedom
    Who want their children to live in peace
    Must march toward eachother
    Toward a common border,
    toward what is called the green line
    And meet face to face
    Without their polititions
    And break into small groups
    And together in one day
    To create and arrive at the compromise
    For The End of the Conflict
    The world press must be there
    And the political leadership will be informed
    That this is the Will of The People
    This is a realistic dream as long as we
    Avoid our respective leadership
    Who have everything to gain by prolonging the
    Conflict !!! The people of Israel and the Palestinian people
    Have everything to gain by ending the conflict
    And achieving a real honest and realistic Peace

  13. Skeptikai
    Tokyo, Japan
    May 2, 2013, 12:22 pm

    Very interesting!
    As I was watching part 4, I was thinking of the idea of getting kids together for a joint soccer game, and you did exactly that! I believe that programs like that are a major key to peace, simply because of how you put it… the only way the two sides see each other is as enemies.

    I remember reading a study that found racism in America went remarkably down for university students who had roommates of a different race. That makes sense – the more you know about someone who’s different, the more you realize that you’re more similar than expected. I hope the education systems of Israel and Palestine can work together one day so that at a young age, both sides can realize that the other side is not all evil, despite what may be said by the authorities.

  14. Faizan
    India
    April 29, 2013, 6:26 am

    My Dear brother Aziz,

    Thank you for the nice video. The work you are doing is tremendous.
    The Idea of COMMON GROUND is very-very good, and very essential. And definitely, game is one of the best tool to integrate people.
    In India we are using the same method since last year with the name “Finding Common Ground” to reduce the conflict between India, Kashmir and Pakistan. We have established different clubs to make a space to interact.

    I am imagining the world, which is single nation.

  15. Stacey
    Canada
    April 25, 2013, 2:02 am

    It would be nice if more Palestinians thought like you Aziz Abu Sarah. Unfortunately people like Faisal use religion to separate each other. The day people realize we are all just humans that is the day there will be peace.

  16. Rebecca
    USA
    April 24, 2013, 1:07 pm

    May God bless you.

  17. Ralph Loewenthal
    Modiin Israel
    April 21, 2013, 3:08 pm

    Hi these videos are a start, but we need lots more like thinking people, Israelis, and Palestinians. If there could only be a statesman from both sides like Nelson Mandela, then peace, and prosperity would be achieved.

    There are a few important facts left out. Like the reasons why the Israelis built the wall, why it is necessary to have checkpoints, why there is such hate of Jews by the Muslims, that has been inculcated into them for generations.

    The wall and checkpoints are there to prevent the terrorists, and suicide bombers from killing busloads of school children, people buying pizzas, etc. etc. These measures have cut down the number of successful bombings by over 90%, which just proves the necessity of them.

    Of course it is not the ordinary Palestinian who is to blame for these atrocities, but Hamas, Hezbollah, and such like groups who attract the young boys, and train them to do terrorist acts. Even the author grew up throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers not even knowing why.

    The sort of responses to peace offers from Israel, that the Arabs have made right from the start have been totally anti peace. Even where land was given away in Gaza, the response has been over 12000 rockets fired into civilian towns, homes, and schools, not military installations. That sort of response only invites reaction of the worst kind.

    Of course every Israeli longs for a lasting peace, when their children do not need to be conscripted into the army when they leave school. When we do not need walls or checkpoints to protect ourselves. I am sure the Palestinians for the most part also want the same. I can imagine that this area would be a thriving economy, with all reaping the benefits.

  18. Bagus Cayo Mastriza
    Indonesia
    April 20, 2013, 1:26 am

    I’m not Israeli nor Palestinian, but I believe history will be repeated. Someday Palestinian will return, and place themselves as Israeli in WW2. Each side has cause to kill, but you can’t force others to believe your religious cause to oppress them. It’s not hard to analyze the conflicts if we have humanity point of view instead of “Religious Doctrine” to create new oppression.

  19. Alex
    Scotland
    April 13, 2013, 1:30 pm

    A lot of respect to you Aziz for your selfless devotion to this cause!

  20. Shakila
    Singapore
    April 12, 2013, 11:26 am

    Good job!

  21. Libbie Counselman
    New Jersey, USA
    April 10, 2013, 11:49 pm

    “When the power of LOVE overcomes the love of power, we will have PEACE.” –Jimi Hendrix

    Thanks, Aziz!

  22. Rina W.
    Jerusalem
    April 9, 2013, 4:01 pm

    Aziz, thank you so much for this. My family moved to Israel when I was 14, and like so many who make Aliyah, I was exposed to only one side of the conflict. I was so afraid and angry. I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to meet Palestinian teens and see a bigger picture. I’m now more educated on the issue, but being impartial is still difficult. I’ve come to understand that we are all just people with similar dreams and values. This is not a conflict stemming from religion. This is a conflict fueled by fear and lack of empathy. I’m so grateful for your work. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to present an objective view after losing your brother. You give me hope.

  23. Isaac
    Haifa, ISRAEL
    April 1, 2013, 8:43 am

    “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us”

    “When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons”

    I’m so sorry for the palestinians, but if we think about it for a while, there are no palestians peace activists or we never hear about them, in the other hand there are thousands of israeli peace activitist. think about it for a while and come to the conclution: Peace isn’t a strategy for the arabs, it may serve as a short tactic but the general strategy is the distruction on Israel.

    You dont have arabs (or muslims) living in peace with their neighbour countries anywhere in the world. Why on earth do you think the palestinians are different?

    Isaac

  24. Yehuda
    Canada
    March 30, 2013, 11:52 pm

    Very Well Done. Thank you for the perspective.

  25. Thomas Eccles
    Phoenix, AZ
    March 30, 2013, 12:33 pm

    Great video series showing both sides of each culture and their differences. I loved your ways of resolution, but you could go one step further and practice Gandhi principles of civil disobedience. It helped 300 million Indian people overcome the British empire full of weapons and military power. In addition, We should take a page out of history and practice Martion Luther King Jr. principles to stop segregation and allow these people to work side by side. The more schools that are accepting of both cultures where students from both sides can coexist will start to knock down the walls of hatred. Lastly, we all need to recognize the land where we are born is precious, but it’s only land; human life should always have a value we have to respect each person’s right to live and be successful! Aziz …keep the mission going forward a land united is far better than land divided!

  26. jane norman
    Washington, DC
    March 29, 2013, 5:00 pm

    It appears that all of your videos are not captioned or subtitled. I hope I am mistaken.
    J

  27. Dave
    Lakewood Ca.
    March 21, 2013, 4:06 pm

    Aziz your way is the best not from the top but from the bottom. Each person one by one making the bridge to reach out to each other and breaking down the walls that separates us. Its a decision to end the cycle, and get to know your backyard neighbor. If you remember your history, you’ll remember before 1948 both Palestinian and Jews lived right next to each other with no walls. There were a lot of Jews living in Palestine prior to 1948. It can be done.

  28. shammir
    indonesia ( jakarta )
    March 21, 2013, 3:34 am

    keep peace in this world ………………!

  29. Pablo Garza
    MEXICO CITY
    March 21, 2013, 2:36 am

    Great work Aziz Abu Sarah, never stop doing this, you are making a big difference. And also you are helping the world to really understand what is really going on in Palestine. Best vibes.

  30. carole doris zirlin
    Israel
    March 21, 2013, 1:18 am

    Aziz, you have the right idea, the only solution is through education…. we ordinary people need to learn, to change our world view.. both Israeli and Palestinians…
    you have taken a giant step in the right direction.. Kol Ha Kavod to you…

  31. Rachael G
    Boston, MA
    March 21, 2013, 12:18 am

    What kind of dialogue can we have with Hamas? They’ve stated they are not looking for peace. Two sides must be willing before being able.

  32. Gripefruit
    China
    March 20, 2013, 9:00 pm

    Pavement politics I can trust. Thank you Aziz Abu Sarah, and keep up the good work.

  33. Alex Pavón
    Ecuador-Quito
    March 20, 2013, 6:38 pm

    I´m very happy that there are people like Aziz. Here, we know about the problem but for my opinion in Israel the politicians don´t want to make peace with Palestine…anyway I hope the idea of “sharing” classrooms continue in both sides
    PEACE FOR THE WORLD!

  34. jeremy geller
    Longbeach, California
    March 20, 2013, 4:22 pm

    as a jewish kid i grew up hearing about the suicide bombings and the rock throwing, i hated the enemy but when my class to a trip to a mosque and met muslims teenagers, they were so like us the only way to tell us apart was our way of dress

  35. Heiko Alfke
    Dortmund, Germany
    March 20, 2013, 3:23 pm

    This is indeed a work trying to fix the problem from its roots. I have been in israel/palestine years ago, on “both sides” of the conflict. All the people I met where friendly and rational human beeings, most of them very nice too. There must be a way to life together for them. The first and most important step is to talk to each other.

    Shalom

  36. Sarah
    Jerusalem
    March 20, 2013, 2:42 pm

    I’m an Israeli. I grew up hearing that Palestinians wanted to kill us, that Arabs were only interested in slaughtering Jews,that Arabs couldn’t be trusted. I lived on my side of the line, and the Palestinians lived on theirs. Then I took a class…and had Palestinian classmates…and we talked…and suddenly they were my neighbors instead of “people who wanted to kill” me.We shared family pictures, talked about holidays, shared recipes…..if only the entire region could go to school together!

  37. Carsten Angerhofer
    United States
    March 20, 2013, 2:14 pm

    Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

  38. keylawk
    Tustin
    March 20, 2013, 10:44 am

    Aziz Abu Sarah is a breath of fresh air. He has seen past the “agendas” of the tyrants who have woven a “narrative” of lies to suit themselves. We are all the same people, just trying to live and raise families. We are all Arabs. We are all Jews. We are all Berliners.

  39. Larry Snider
    Morrisville, pennsylvania
    March 20, 2013, 7:16 am

    I have seen many videos depicting both sides of the conflict and even a few bringing people and governments together with hearts and minds open. Conflict Zone is a milestone because it travels beyond a single point of view and offers one very vital piece of the solution; contact between people as people not as enemies. It is particularly important for this series to be shown in venues that are non-traditional to Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Europeans and others to begin a dialogue promoting reconciliation without which I fear no real lasting progress is possible. Thank you Aziz and National Geographic.

  40. Faisal
    Canada
    March 19, 2013, 10:40 pm

    Promised Land V.S Grand Grand Grand G…. father’s land.

    One day we will return our land