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In Palestinian Village, Hope for Peace and Cooperation Still Flowers

June 6, 2005
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Members of the Issa family of Bethlehem are veterans of bridge-building projects for peace education with Israelis, but this is a particularly frustrating moment for them. The founders and directors of the private Hope Flowers School in the village of Al Khadr, located between Bethlehem and Efrat on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the Issas currently are involved in several student-exchange and Internet-based programs with Israeli, German and French schools.

They also are waiting to see if the Israeli army will demolish their cafeteria and six Palestinian homes in the valley next to the school. The buildings are too close to a projected section of Israel’s West Bank security fence, and also to outlying homes in Efrat, a Jewish settlement that sits on a hill across the rocky valley.

The security fence reportedly will run through the valley. According to Ibrahim Issa, 28, the school’s managing director, the wall will pass within 120 yards of the cafeteria, and the legal minimum is about 170 yards.

“We would like the Defense Ministry to change the path of the wall before they begin construction,” he said. “Of course, we would rather not see any wall at all, but we can’t even get involved in that discussion. Our Israeli lawyer says we have to wait.”

There’s also the fact that the cafeteria was built without a permit.

“We had a permit from the Palestinian authorities, but our request to the Israeli authorities was denied when we first built the cafeteria several years ago,” Ibrahim Issa explained.

Israel’s Defense Ministry refused to comment.

Issa’s sister, Ghada, the school’s program director, has been busy with several programs, including Peace Trees Bethlehem 2005. That program, slated for July, includes tree planting with Israeli youths and workshops on compassionate listening, gender equality, democracy, coexistence and environmental awareness. The workshops are being organized with Israeli educators.

Another project is Internet-based, organized by Peace Now in Paris. The project links together groups of three schools, one from Israel, one from the Palestinian territories and one from France, with each group working on a different theme. Hope Flowers is working with a high school in Paris and a school in Haifa on a “peace vocabulary list.”

Ghada Issa also helped organize a get-together between Israeli and Palestinian youth in May at Neve Shalom, an experimental Jewish-Arab village in Israel. It was organized by the Parents Circle, a group whose participants, on both sides, have lost family members in the conflict.

Ghada’s father, Hussein Ibrahim Issa, a well-known figure among peace activists, founded the Hope Flowers School about 25 years ago. Students from six to 15 years old were taught Hebrew by Israeli Jewish volunteers working alongside Palestinian teachers, who in exchange taught the volunteers Arabic.

Hussein Issa “knew the best way to understand the Israelis and to find some kind of peace arrangement was to work with them in school,” Ghada Issa says. “He was a psychologist by training and he knew that fear comes from not knowing the people on the other side, so he was determined that the students in the school would get to know the Israelis.”

The Palestinian Authority threatened to close down the Hope Flowers School if Issa didn’t get rid of the Jewish teachers, but he refused. Radicals from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine threw a bomb at his home, but he stood fast: The school remained open and the Jewish teachers stayed, and the international media visited to do feature stories.

The Israeli teachers left when the second intifada began in late 2000. Then Hussein Issa died of heart complications.

Ghada Issa’s office is in the school’s main, four-story building, which includes dormitories that host rare visiting peace groups, mostly from Europe.

It looks out over the ancient rocky valley with its olive trees, Palestinian homes and a tiny Israeli military base on the opposite hill, plus the outlying houses of Efrat.

“My father had a slogan,” Ghada Issa said. “He always said, it’s better to suffer for peace than to suffer for war. It was true then and it’s true now. His dream was to create a generation of Israelis and Palestinians who believe in peace.

“All contact with the Israelis stopped with the intifada, including with our lawyer. Now we’re back on the right track,” she said. “We’re not in the business of finding a political solution to this conflict, but we can change the way young people think, through education.”

Enrollment at the school has jumped to almost 200. English and French classes are mandatory, but there are no Hebrew classes and no Israeli teachers.

A community-outreach program works with about 80 16-and 17-year-olds, participants in the Peace Now program with French and Israeli schools.

The youngest students have never spoken with Israelis.

“I would like to meet Israeli children and play with them,” said Menal, age seven.

“We only see the soldiers,” said Lamia, also seven. “We’re afraid of them, but we’re not afraid of Israeli children.”

“I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” said Amani, age nine. “I want to work with Israeli doctors.”

“Don’t be surprised that the children here want the same things as Israeli children,” Ghada Issa noted. “Having a good learning environment means building bridges with Israelis at an early age. Do most Palestinian children have this? No, they don’t. But here they do.”

Ghada Issa is optimistic about the work at the school.

“I’m thinking on a long-term basis,” she said. “And even though our situation is difficult here, I don’t want to focus on the politics and some of the things going on between Palestinians and Israelis. If I do that, I might go crazy.”

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