Nisreen Zaqout has a ritual.
“I wake up every morning,” said the 21-year-old native of the Gaza Strip who has been in Washington since last month, “and check my phone and see if my parents are alive or not.”
Her sense of constant dread is shared by four other Palestinians and five Israelis, all in their 20s, who are participating in an intensive summer program, sponsored by New Story Leadership, a non-profit. Together and in pairs – one Israeli, one Palestinian – they participate in workshops, cultural immersion, team training and internships. Through it all, they try to see beyond their own understanding of the conflict.
Even willing Palestinians and Israelis find they have a lot to learn about each other. But when the two sides are fighting back home, “it changes the dynamic.” More than one member of the group said as much on Sunday, when they took the stage at the building shared by Bethesda Jewish Congregation and Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church. In turn, each of the 10 told the interfaith audience of 100 about they have come to see the conflict through each other’s eyes.
Zaqout, a student at Illinois College, said her parents – a secular father and religious mother – had “conflicted emotions” about her participating with Israelis in the Washington program. After the fighting between Israel and Hamas began, she said they told her, “‘We’re not sure you’re doing the right thing.’”
She is not always sure herself. It is hard, “knowing that some of my Israeli teammates think differently than I do about what’s happening. And it’s so hard for me being here knowing that any minute something could happen with my family.”
At meals in the homes of host families and in group meetings, through hours and hours of talking, they are learning empathy. They have discovered that certain words they thought they knew, mean something completely different to the other side. The Palestinian members were surprised to learn that, to Israelis, Zionism is something to be proud about.
Zaquout and her Asi Garbarz, a 27-year-old from Kibbutz Pelech, are making discoveries like this every day as they work together in the office of U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).
“I sit with Nisreen every day,” he said. “Talking. Arguing. The best part is the part where you listen. You let your defenses down. It’s her story and her reality. It’s ok.
“Many people from her side are calling her a traitor because she’s going through normalization,” he added, using a Palestinian term for legitimizing the pro-Israel position by speaking with Israel. “They’re calling me a traitor because I’m talking to the enemy. I’m validating Hamas because I’m meeting with someone from Gaza.”
When they return home, the participants will begin a “Project for Change.” Zaqout wants to start what she called “Reading for Peace,” in which Palestinian kids read about Israeli culture. That includes all facets of Israeli culture, like, “Who’s the Kim Kardashian of Israel?” she said.
For her project, 22-year-old Karma AbuAyyash said she wants to stem the brain drain in Palestinian society. Her plan is to pair Palestinian women, often uneducated but fine seamstresses, with business-savvy younger Palestinians to set up clothing businesses.
AbuAyyash, is from Ramallah, the first person from that West Bank city that Zaqout had ever met. AbuAyyah said that participating in the program was a departure for her, and met with derision from her friends and family.
“I’m an extreme activist when it comes to Palestine. It was a big risk,” she said. “People said, ‘Hell no, you are not going.’”
After the fighting broke out, “the dynamic shifted,” she said. “Every day they were telling me, ‘Do you see what’s happening in Gaza? Why are you there?’”
In darker moments, Zaqout does not foresee an end to the conflict, and she doubts the ability of programs such as New Story to make a difference. “Nothing seems to change,” she said. “The leaders don’t change and the two states don’t change. I don’t think it’s a religious conflict anymore. It’s people who take power and want more.”
Her fellow intern, Garbarz, counsels patience. “I learned that this process to reconciliation is a bit longer than we imagined.”