WASHINGTON, Aug. 16 (JTA) Few meetings of Israelis and Palestinians at the State Department these days can be defined as boisterous.
Even more rarely do they involve singing and embracing.
But when Secretary of State Colin Powell entered his office’s auditorium Tuesday, he entered a world where peace in the Middle East still seems possible.
A group of teen-agers, fresh from Maine’s Seeds of Peace camp program, sang of finding peace between peoples teetering on the brink of war, a message that still lives in their hearts even though it has faded from the world stage.
From their attitudes, it seemed that the youths were oblivious to what was going on in their homelands as they spoke of the friendships they had cultivated Israelis with Jordanians and other Arabs, Serbs with Albanians, Indians with Pakistanis. In fact, they were keenly aware of what awaited them at home and were simply enjoying their last hours on American soil.
Since its inception in 1993, Seeds of Peace has been seen as a molder of future doves. While it has branched out to other international conflicts, the heart and soul of the program is Israeli and Palestinian youth meeting for four weeks at a rustic camp in Maine coexisting, debating and befriending each other.
The campers or “seeds,” as they often are called go back to their own land with friends on the other side of the conflict and a clear understanding of the complexity of international peace.
While the campers once mirrored their political leaders’ aspirations for peace, the program now focuses on keeping hope alive in the next generation, as their leaders appear to be inching toward war.
A year ago, as negotiators quibbled at Camp David, it seemed to Seeds of Peace campers that Israeli- Palestinian peace was near.
If the budding diplomats in Maine could come up with solutions for sharing Jerusalem and for the Palestinian right of return, certainly their seasoned counterparts at Camp David could do the same, the campers thought.
“The coexistence groups had signed agreements on Jerusalem,” said Ma’ayan Poleg, 15, an Israeli from Kfar Saba. “We actually thought that we had the solution, all that was left was to tell our leaders.”
But with the death of the Oslo peace process came a new challenge convincing this year’s “seeds” that peace is still possible.
That dilemma became more difficult in June, when the Palestinian Authority refused to send a delegation to the camp. As a result, instead of dealing directly with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this summer’s session focused largely on tensions between Arabs and Jews within Israel and on Israel’s regional concerns with its Arab neighbors.
“It shifts the focus off the two parties in the heated conflict, but it lets the other dynamics in the Middle East come to light,” said Mandy Terc, a development associate for the program.
Fadi Daood, a 17-year-old Israeli Arab, said the Palestinians’ absence made it harder for the Jewish “seeds” to connect with the other side.
“We had no people as reporters of what happened in Palestine,” Daood said. “If we had a Palestinian delegation, we would have gotten so much more information.”
To make a tough summer more difficult, the Seeds of Peace program was still mourning one of their connections to the Palestinian community. During Israeli Arab riots in solidarity with the nascent Palestinian intifada last October, 17-year-old Asel Asleh was shot in the neck and killed, the first “seed” to fall victim to the region’s turmoil.
Asleh was described as an extrovert who maintained strong relationships with his Jewish peers. In fact, his death made international headlines when Moran Eisenbaum, a 17-year-old Jewish “seed” from Israel, visited his bereaving family.
Even in Maine, the campers could not escape what was happening in the outside world.
It was just another day at camp when a story began floating around the breakfast table on Aug. 9.
One camper’s mother called to tell her of a bombing in Jerusalem, with five people killed and more than 20 injured. One “seed” told another, and a friend came running to Poleg to tell her the news.
“I took it really hard,” Poleg said of her reaction. “I know half of the world in Jerusalem.”
The Israelis, both Arabs and Jews, met separately, apart from the rest of the group. The Israeli Arabs began dividing up, comforting their Jewish friends.
Arab Israelis hugged their Jewish friends as both groups mourned.
“It was amazing,” Poleg said. “You could see the concern, you could see that they cared about you.”
Daood said the bombing brought the group together. Each Jew was surrounded by two Israeli Arabs as they cried.
“We shared each other’s feelings,” he said. “We rebuilt a bridge that may have been damaged by the bomb.”
Both Daood and Poleg said the reality of the Jerusalem bombing the death toll ultimately reached 15 blasted the separation between Maine and the Middle East.
“Seeds of Peace is like a bubble,” Poleg said. “Something like this takes you back to Israel, to the way you live your life.”
In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, students wanted to go home, having lost hope that peace was possible. But within hours of the news, the camp was back into its color war games.
“It was a collective decision that where they live is never safe and can never be carefree,” Terc said. “They had only four or five more days being carefree and enjoying the benefits of peace. They didn’t want to waste their time being sad.”
Less than a week later, the sea of green shirts filling the Washington auditorium seemed to have moved past the violent incident. In one of their last group events, “seeds” yelled inside jokes to their peers and clamored for group photos with the secretary of state.
Fadi Elsalameen, a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Hebron who joined Seeds of Peace this summer because he holds American citizenship, told Powell he felt “selfish” for going through the program and seeing an alternative to violence that some of his friends back home can’t glimpse.
“I have a choice,” Elsalameen said. He said his community thinks of him “as a person who will make it better.”
Powell told the campers he needs their help to spread the message of peace.
“I will never give up the struggle, I will never give up the quest to find a solution for this troubled region,” Powell said. “I know the future that you want, the future that you need, the future that you must have.”
However, the secretary offered few details about future Bush administration involvement in the quest for Mideast peace.
“What is happening in the Middle East today makes it even more important that you have dedicated yourself to this program and even more important that you take this message of peace and reconciliation back to your homes,” Powell said.
The “seeds” already were planning on that.
Poleg has returned home from the program once before only to encounter disrespect from her friends.
“They see Arabs as enemies, which is natural, and they can’t understand how they can be my friend,” she said.
She says that she can handle the fact that people look at her “a bit weird,” because she has been to the other side.
“I come back knowing what can be,” Poleg said. “I’ve lived the future.”