Eran Nissan was nervous. He was going to meet his partner in a weeklong program called “Solutions, Not Sides.” He knew there would be tension.
“This was the first time I was meeting a Palestinian from the West Bank without a gun,” said Nissan, an Israeli Jew who served in the Israel Defense Forces.
The Palestinians he had met on the West Bank, he said, “would throw rocks at me and shoot at me.”
But at the end of the day, Nissan got a beer with his partner, Obada. They bonded over a love of Shakespeare — and the tension was gone.
This is one story told at “The Dove: Stories of Hope Amidst Conflict,” where two Israelis and two Palestinians, in Washington for internships with New Story Leadership, shared their stories.
Nissan’s story was echoed by a feeling from Mohammed Achmed, a Palestinian from the West Bank — but from the opposite side of the conflict.
Achmed said every morning, IDF soldiers patrol his streets. When he first participated in a program with Israelis, he thought, “Oh my God, this is the first time I’m meeting with Israelis. No uniforms, no guns.”
Americans for Peace Now sponsored the Moth-inspired storytelling event, which took place on July 22 at Busboys and Poets in Washington.
Ori Nir, director for communications and public engagement at APN, said one of the main goals of the program is to humanize people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We often find that people think about the conflict in such hard terms politically and come into it with a lot of preconceptions that mask the fact that we’re talking about people on both sides,” Nir said.
He said Americans for Peace Now and New Story Leadership want to provide hope to people who hear these stories. Barry Leopold, who hosted Israeli Dana Amir and Palestinian Mohammed Arafat at his house this year, said watching the interns open up to each other brings him hope.
“My wife and I learn more around the breakfast table every day than we’ve probably ever known,” Leopold said.
On stage, Amir told about getting to know Arafat, a Palestinian from Gaza. Her father, she said, was angry about her decision to do the New Story Leadership internship, and told her to be suspicious of living with a Palestinian. She said learning about the struggles Arafat experienced to leave Gaza was eye-opening.
“I felt really bad because I couldn’t understand how my government perpetuates the situation as it is,” she said. “But I also felt really bad because my father, my friends … cannot connect the Gaza Strip with the names and faces of people.”
Arafat said leaving the Gaza Strip was almost impossible. It took him three years to get to Chile, where he lives now. He said in the Gaza Strip, meeting Israelis is considered “normalization,” or beginning to consider or give merit to the actions Israelis.
“I only met Israelis on checkpoints. I only met Israelis on the borders pointing their guns at us while we were harvesting our olive trees,” Arafat said, adding that his father was paralyzed after a bomb strike a few years ago, and died three months later.
When Arafat first met Israeli Gilad Sevitt, through New Story Leadership, he was shocked at how Sevitt greeted him in Arabic. And when Sevitt touched his shoulder, and apologized for his government’s actions against Gazans, Arafat thought, “How can an Israeli citizen say that about his government?”
The stories highlighted the tension and then eventual comradery between the Israeli and Palestinian interns.
Audience member Alexandra Steinberg said she wanted to hear stories from people in the Middle East. Hearing another Palestinian intern, Hiba Yazbek, talk about sirens going off at Tel Aviv University, struck her.
“Just realizing that I don’t deal with that kind of peril and fear in my day-to-day life just puts things in perspective as well,” Steinberg said.
How does it feel for Leopold, who has gotten to know Arafat and Amir over the last two months, to hear them share their stories?
“Like a proud papa, of course.”