BEIT JALA, West Bank (Oct. 13)
Can Israelis and Palestinians really work together in peace and understanding?
A unique joint project, which is helping five wounded Bosnian children get back on their feet, furnishes proof that people on both sides can put aside their differences for the good of others.
The project was initially conceived by the Jewish community of Sarajevo, which first brought the plight of the young Muslim children to the attention of international aid workers.
Now the project has begun to heal wounds between Israelis and Palestinians as well.
The participants have worked together in the past — sending shipments of food and medicine to Bosnia in cooperation with the World Conference on Religion and Peace.
But the latest venture marks the first time that Israelis and Palestinians have provided joint humanitarian aid on their own soil.
The project, which has been a year in the making, is helping to rehabilitate five youths –ages 10 to 17 — all of whom sustained serious injuries during the war that has rocked their nation.
Four of the youth are amputees; one girl is partially paralyzed after sustaining a back injury.
Unable to receive the care they needed in the war-devastated Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, the children and their mothers were evacuated by French U.N. peacekeeping forces.
The fathers were forced to stay behind, since no men of army age are permitted to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina.
FROM WAR-WEARY TO A FINE RECOVERY
Upon their arrival in Israel earlier this year, the group settled into a guest house at Neveh Shalom, a mixed community of Israeli Arabs and Jews located west of Jerusalem.
The children were transported each day at the Sheba Hospital at the Tel Hashomer government medical center in Ramat Gan, where they received extensive medical treatment and, ultimately, prostheses to replace arms or legs.
The second stage of their recovery is now taking place at the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation, a state-of-the art rehabilitation center located in Beit Jala, a predominantly Christian Arab town in the West Bank, not far from Jerusalem.
Too disabled and war-weary to indulge in games and laughter just weeks ago, the children are clearly making a fine recovery.
Fitted with prostheses, they are now well enough to tour the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The program’s first priority is to heal the children’s physical wounds through physiotherapy.
But the Israeli and Palestinian professionals are also concerned with the youths’ emotional well-being.
Edmund Shehadeh, director of the rehabilitation center, said the children “are suffering many problems as a result of their years in a war zone.
“At first, they were extremely fearful, distrustful, and wouldn’t cooperate,” he said.
“They suffer from sleeping problems and become frightened at loud noises. They also hide and store food, probably because they went hungry in Sarajevo,” he said.
All of the children are receiving psychological counseling, Shehadeh added.
Yoel Weinberg, Israel coordinator of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, noted that “although the kids seem very happy to be out of Sarajevo, they are anxious to return home to their fathers and siblings.
“In a way, it’s very difficult,” he said. “They and their mothers are so relieved to be out of the fighting, and they feel guilty for leaving others behind.
“After being in peaceful surroundings, it won’t be easy for them to return home,” Weinberg said.
Both Weinberg and Shehadeh stress that part of the healing process has been through example.
“One of our goals,” Shehadeh said, “is to show the children that people who were once enemies can live in peace.
“These are Bosnian children, I am Greek Orthodox. Yoel is a religious Jew.
“People from two different religions are working to help people of another religion,” said Shehadeh. “We need to teach by example, not just through preaching.”
As for relations between Israelis and Palestinians, Shehadeh said, “I am a great believer in the peace process.
“But I want to see a peace that promotes equal rights,” he said.
“I hope that this project is showing Palestinians that in any one given community or population, there are good people and bad people,” Shehadeh added.
By cooperating, he said, “our two peoples can get to know and understand each other.
“By helping other people of war, the Palestinians are learning that there are other people in the world who are suffering,” he said.
“There is a lesson here,” he added. “There are other people even more miserable than we are.”