June 6, 2014

I arrived in Israel. My Palestinian friend picked me up from the airport and drove through Israel, through checkpoint, to get to Beit Jala in Area C to visit. The night was crisp and the West Bank was exactly as I remembered from two years ago. I was finally back.

Since then, I have been living in Jerusalem in a beautiful neighborhood, commuting often to Ramallah, Bethlehem, and other West Bank cities and towns.

I’m here working with Seeds of Peace—a 3-week camp bringing together youth from conflict regions—to explore the impact of cross border conflict resolution dialogues on the Palestinian youth’s perception of normalization, occupation, and the prospect of peace.

The belief that cross-border dialogues empower youth to create a future of peace has been widely attacked by the Palestinian community, who feel that it forces them to succumb to occupation.

Palestinian educators and past seeds at a Palestinian Solidarity camp for 10-12 years olds from all over the West Bank.

Palestinian educators and past seeds at a Palestinian Solidarity camp for 10-12 years olds from all over the West Bank.

My community partner, Seeds of Peace will benefit hugely from research findings in the form of presentable videos to demonstrate to the public the merits of the program against public dissidence. By investigating this question, I’m offering a fresh perspective combined with the opinions of Seeds educators, youth (seed) and staff.

Twenty days into returning to Palestine, I still am not emotionally ready to take on the astronomical task of capturing the feeling of powerlessness that’s been trapping me. My emotions are only intensified by every new person I meet and every new story I hear.

There’s no other people who could make me pause, think, and stand in awe with everything they say.

No other stories that could have such unbearable weights that no words can do them justice.

There’s no other place I’d rather be.

One constant feeling that I am able to put into words is an extreme sense of gratitude for being fortunate enough to access one of the most incredible organizations I’ve seen. Seeds of Peace is an extraordinarily close-knit congregation of the brightest, most self-aware youth from conflict regions and America, as well as the most devoted educators, activists and peace advocates in the Israel and Palestine region.

Being parachuted into an organization this enormous, I am able to have the most freedom and flexibility as a filmmaker. I can access the life stories, candid opinions, and most importantly, trust and friendship, of everyone who participated or currently works for Seeds of Peace. Every young seed I have met shares the determination and maturity of Hashem. Everyone in the conversations and interviews I conducted—or sat in—upholds their own opinions and truths while humbly welcoming mine.

The more stories I hear, from left-wing Israelis and Palestinian non-violent resistance movement leaders and people of all possible political inclinations and socioeconomic backgrounds, the more strongly I feel that this is a land of two realities.

The 16-year-old camp counselor I night-patrolled the hotel floor with lost his brother last year to martyr acts. Ali Abu Awwad, a Palestinian activist I’ll be featuring in my documentary project, chose the road of non-violence resistance only after his brother was violently killed by the Israeli police force.

Every conflict, clash, or even supposedly objective piece of history, becomes two different events in the account of two people.

Is peace possible? I don’t know whether the past twenty days have made me more or less positive.

In terms of my research, I arrived in Jerusalem with barely any idea of the objectives behind all programming efforts, the challenges it faces, and the criticism it receives from the local communities. Neither did I know anyone in the giant network of peace advocates ranging from high school students to eighty-year-old retired teachers.

Two days after I arrived, I conducted my first unofficial pre-interview conversations with a seeds graduate and heard the argument about normalization for the first time. In the Palestinian Occupied Territories, peace is interpreted as equivalent to giving up, making compromises, and normalization.

Being immersed in the American zeal for peace, humanitarian and NGO work, I have considered SOP to be an frontrunner of international peace dialoguing and determined it as the most prominent and influential conflict resolution dialogue organization for youth in the Middle East. I was completely unaware of the perspective of the Palestinians living under occupation, whose identity and sense of belonging is so completely against the very existence of Israel and against the violence and unrest committed during the occupation that they don’t even consider the prospect of peace necessary.

For them, it is very natural to think that talking, playing sports and music, and hugging goodbyes with Israelis is to confirm and legitimize their occupation and to ignore the status quo. In fact, this is such a prevalent view among the families of most of my Palestinian friends who are not involved in the camp that I defended SOP at least five times in the first week.

The grasping of this sentiment is key feedback for my research because I realized that to assess the impact of the programs on Palestinian youth’s perception of conflicts is an unspecific and humongous task. But every Palestinian seed has heard of normalization and is surrounded by friends and communities who believe that SOP work is invalid and a betrayal of their own identity.

Thus, is a much more specific and feasible goal is to assess the impact of the dialogues on the seeds’ perception of the occupation, and whether it’s normalization to remain in contact with youth from the other side.

On another hand, I was very ambitious and wanted to interview three distinct groups of people who are involved with Seeds of Peace: educators, seeds graduates, and new seeds attending camp this year. However, after a week I had gotten a clear sense that the categories I presumed would exist in fact are impossible to divide because of the family-style operation model SOP adopts. The structure of programs encourages participants to stay involved in various ways once they become a seed.

  • They could become Peer Support (PS) to return to camp for two years after being a camper, taking more of a backseat role in emotionally supporting the new seeds.
  • They move on from there to become counselors, the heart and soul of the camp operations, and even facilitators of dialogues, Delegation Leaders (DLs) of country delegations, and educators.

Throughout the advancement of roles, a seed would have gone through so much transformation while wearing different hats in and out of camp that it would be hard to track the impact of the dialogues at camp with so many variables floating around.

Thus, I decided to focus a lot more on personal stories to get a sense of the familial, personal, and societal influence on the seed’s view before and after the camp.

It also didn’t take long before I realized that the attention paid to the Seeds of Peace Camp in Maine is extremely disproportional to that paid to educator programs and other regional endeavors.

The Solidarity Camp is endowed by USAID and has reached its 7th year of operation.

The Solidarity Camp is endowed by USAID and has reached its 7th year of operation.

The Maine Camp was established at the Oslo Accord signing ceremony and pushed through by President Clinton, PLO Chairman Arafat and Israeli PM Rabin. Even two decades since the founding of the program, the donors and board of trustees of SOP are still generously providing monetary and political support for the international camp hoping that it will channel voices and actions for peace to the next generation. But to the largely American elite well-off upper-middle-class businessmen, investment bankers, CEOs, etc., the success of the programs is measured by the smiles of seeds, teary hugs between Israeli and Palestinian teenagers and any demonstration of friendship despite the conflict, the occupation, and the dim political future.

But these images are exactly what offend the local Palestinians. The real measurement of success that Palestinians would recognize is the political advancement towards independence, human rights, and dignity, which is a lot more steps further than mere dialogues and exposure to different narratives and viewpoints.

From interacting with the director of Educator Programs, as well as the SOP coordinators with USAID office, I was brought in to be part of the team to experiment new tools for applying for grants and USAID funding. I was trusted with a crucial task of creating a video documenting and showcasing a Palestinian solidarity camp for 12-year-olds all over the occupied West Bank.

The camp is the only SOP event that brings together educators, seeds graduates, and pre-teen children from all parts of the West Bank and sometimes world, to explore educational tools like art and writing. The USAID funding is supporting this year’s program for the last time and the program will be put in halt next year without future grants.

My task was to showcase the success of the community outreach aspect of the program and give a broader cultural and political context of the lives and stories of Palestinian seeds outside of the happiness and love and unity of the camp in Maine.

These interactions with the challenges and adversities of SOP programs really brought things into perspective and helped narrow down the focus of my research question.

I’m currently in the most expensive hotel in Jordan overlooking the Dead Sea for the signature annual Educator Program workshop I’ve been preparing for. It’s like a dream-come-true being surrounded by this group of the most courageous, intellectual, humble and challenging educators from all over West Bank, Israel, Pakistan, India, Jordan, Egypt, and the states in an unbelievable resort overlooking the Dead Sea. The depth of life experiences and viewpoints in this congregation of dream chasers is leaving me absolutely speechless and grateful.

Leo Lou

 

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