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A ‘cold’ Peace: Team Heads to End of the Earth to Build Ties

March 29, 2004
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Just before news networks flashed footage of furious Palestinians vowing to avenge Israel’s killing of the leader of Hamas, there was a more heartwarming story on the Middle East.

A few Israelis and Palestinians were honored this month by Search for Common Ground, a non-profit organization dedicated to conflict resolution, for diplomacy through sport.

Their sport was an extreme one: On New Year’s Day, the group embarked on a 35-day expedition to Antarctica that culminated in the scaling and naming of an unexplored mountain.

Back from the pole, the expeditionary group, known as "Breaking the Ice," realized they would return to the all-too- familiar tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The endless strife makes members of the group want to "stand up and scream very loud that we would very much like to see a different world," said Heskel Nathaniel, who launched the project.

An Israeli living in Germany, Nathaniel said he felt well positioned and motivated to organize the project from a "neutral country."

Being away from Israel during the intifada, he said, he "felt paralyzed not being able to do anything" and saw the Antarctica trip as a way to make a contribution.

Nathaniel teamed up with an Israeli climber friend, Doron Erel, to assemble the mission. Through their connections, including Israeli journalists working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they found four Israelis and four Palestinians willing to sail from the southern tip of Chile through the ominous Drake Passage to Antarctica.

They also organized an eight-person support crew, consisting primarily of Israelis and Europeans. They included a physician, mountain guides, cameramen to produce a documentary and an aide to keep them in contact with a coordinating office in Germany via satellite phone.

The hikers included an Ethiopian Israeli who had lost most of her family trekking across Sudan en route to Israel, a Palestinian from Jerusalem who had been jailed for attacking Israeli troops with Molotov cocktails and a lawyer who served in an elite commando unit in the Israeli army.

Despite their differences, members of the team knew how to "treat each other as human beings," said Olfat Haider, an Israeli Arab from Haifa, during an interview with JTA in New York.

"Maybe the solution is vodka," Nathaniel joked of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, describing an alcohol-fueled highlight of the expedition.

Some 10 days into the trip, the group anchored alongside a Ukrainian research station in Antarctica when the local welcome wagon — two researchers, the station chief and cook — dropped by with vodka.

When the only one of the four not named Vladimir began imitating John Travolta’s dance moves in "Pulp Fiction," a raucous party ensued, complete with dancing, stripping and kissing.

"It was like a cooling down of all the emotions" for the group, who were raw from the trip’s physical and psychological strain, Nathaniel said.

Indeed, the expedition had plenty of rough spots.

Crossing the Drake Passage, which Nathaniel calls the "largest ships’ graveyard in the world," meant enduring waves nearly 50 feet high and winds up to 80 miles per hour.

Almost everyone was seasick during those days, and two of the participants suffered bruises as the boat seesawed.

There also were political battles — like when Nasser Quass, the Palestinian who had been in an Israeli jail, said Jews have no claim to the Temple Mount.

"We were completely insulted," Nathaniel said.

Avihu Shoshani, the Israeli lawyer who often butted heads with Quass, was furious. Haider began to cry.

The parties separated, avoiding each other until the next evening, when they had to continue navigating, Nathaniel said.

Another incident was naming the mountain, which they ultimately called the "Mountain of Israeli-Palestinian Friendship."

A few of the Palestinians wanted to call it Jerusalem, but the Israelis wanted to eschew political statements. Other names like Mount Hope and Mount Peace already had been used, the group learned.

The team banded together — sometimes literally, with ropes — to complete the mission.

Erel, the expedition’s leader and the first and only Israeli to climb Mount Everest, remarked on the bizarre nature of climbing a mountain at "the end of the world," tied to a Palestinian whose brother was killed in Lebanon and another who was jailed in Israel.

But Erel had faith in his partners.

"I didn’t think for one moment they were going to cut the rope," he said.

Nathaniel viewed some of the political tensions as a reflection of the pressures placed on the Palestinians. The program had the endorsement of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, but Quass said he received a death threat from the Al-Aksa Brigade, the terrorist wing of Arafat’s Fatah movement.

The mission did gain the blessings of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the Dalai Lama, Israeli Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, Jordan’s King Abdullah and other dignitaries.

The $200,000 trip was financed by several businesses and non-profit groups, including outdoor outfitters The North Face and New-Zealand-based MacPac, as well as the Germany money-management firm Arsago and the Peres Center for Peace.

With the trek now behind them, Nathaniel and Erel are working to make "Breaking The Ice" into an annual program — though not to Antarctica. The next trip, slated for March 2005, will be a camel trek across the Sahara Desert for Jews and Arabs from several countries.

Launching the program with such a bold expedition was no accident: The group wanted a headline grabber to brand their concept, Nathaniel explains. Indeed, the story captured the attention of dozens of international news networks, including Arab TV stations.

Now, the group hopes to inspire children with the example of bold adventurers who will symbolize a "new kind of hero," Nathaniel said. He explained that the group plans ultimately to create programs to instill friendship among children from countries of conflict.

In the meantime, the participants say they’re staying connected, in the same way they feel their cultures are destined to do.

At one point on the trip, when the group came to a particularly scenic spot, the Israelis joked that it would be a nice area for the Palestinians to build their state.

The Palestinians’ response: only if Israel would set up shop next door.

"In some respects, there is a dependency," Nathaniel said.

In any case, both parties seem to realize they’re in the same boat.

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