Palestinian, Israeli women seek peace

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Ria of Northern Ireland ad Moriya of Israel sing a verse of "I'm Gonna Be (500 miles)" by the Proclaimers during the Building Bridges for Peace seminar at Colorado Mountain College last week.

— Aya and Ofer are enemies, according to politicians, Israeli soldiers, Palestinian suicide bombers and public perception.

In reality, Aya, a 16-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank, and Ofer, a 16-year-old Israeli from Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, are courageous teenagers.

Instead of simply accepting generations of hatred and anger, they flew from the Middle East to the United States with a different agenda - to speak and to listen.

"That is one of my goals," Ofer said, "to hear the 'other side.'"

Ofer, a quiet young woman with blonde curly hair, smiled as she held up her index fingers to make quotation marks around "other side."

"We are doing a lot of talking, but I like talking," Ofer said.

Earlier this month, more than two dozen women from the United States and the Middle East were in Steamboat Springs to participate in Building Bridges for Peace, the flagship program of Seeking Common Ground.

The two-week stay in Colorado represented the first time most of the Middle Eastern women had visited the United States.

It also was the first time many of the young Palestinian and Israeli participants sat down and interacted with a peer from the "other side."

"We are having fun and getting to know new people we wouldn't have gotten to know before," Aya said.

Understanding through

interaction is why Melodye Feldman founded Seeking Common Ground, a Denver-based organization.

For 13 years, American women and Middle Eastern women have come to the Rocky Mountains for two weeks of intense work centered on promoting and empowering women.

The idea of Palestinians and Israelis sitting down to communicate is taboo in many parts of the region.

To ensure the safety of participants in the U.S., and when they return home, their last names aren't used or shared during the sessions.

"We bring together people who look at the other as an enemy," Feldman said. "Here, what we are trying to teach them is to tolerate being in the same room together. Every day, we push them a little bit more."

This year was the first time Feldman brought BBfP to Steamboat. The young women stayed at dorms on the Colorado Mountain College campus.

"We chose Steamboat Springs because it's beautiful," Feldman said. "They can be away from the violence. The sessions we have are very intense, and it's somewhat secluded from the rest of the world."

The reality of life in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Israel is never far from anyone's mind, no matter how serene the surroundings.

In Steamboat, the young women engaged in conversations about their fears, their feelings and their lives.

"I don't feel the conflict in my community," Ofer said. "It's not easier, but (Palestinians) have more stories that happen. I was afraid people would not want to hear my side.

"In the news, Palestinians talk about how it hurts them, but even though they don't have an army, they have suicide bombers. My mom sometimes doesn't want me to ride the bus."

For Aya, a brunette with penetrating brown eyes, what should be a 10-minute commute between the West Bank and Jerusalem can be a nuisance at its best and deadly at its worst.

"I say how I do suffer and what my life is like," Aya said. "It's different for me to cross checkpoints. Now, it takes me an hour to get (to Jerusalem). Some days, a whole day. Some days, I can't go. We face these things, but Israelis don't face these things. On a daily basis, we are killed."

Feldman has included American women in the BBfP sessions to encourage them to share stories and to introduce them to world views and true conflict.

"Women are quicker to show emotion than a fist," Feldman said.

After the two-week session in Steamboat, the women will complete a yearlong program, building on the foundation established in Colorado.

Eliana Aritzour, 21, has been involved with Seeking Common Ground since 2001. Now, the Israeli from Jerusalem is a counselor with BBfP. Quiet and soft-spoken, Aritzour was raised by parents who believed in peace.

"I didn't have a lot of fear or anger," she said. "I had a lot of interest. I was coming to know how Palestinians live. Not everyone I meet is supportive."

Her pull to the program has fueled her desire to continue working for change in Israel.

"I had a good experience here," Aritzour said. "I want others to have a similar experience. I believe in talking to both sides. People in Israel don't always get that chance."

When Rawan Zaitoun, 23, began her Seeking Common Ground journey in 2000, she did not share the same emotions as Aritzour.

"I came with so much anger," Zaitoun said. "It comes from the reality of it being a war zone."

Six weeks after completing her two-week sessions in Colorado, Zaitoun was home when the second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, began.

"The year I came back was the hardest," she said. "People weren't very supportive."

Six years later, Zaitoun believes nationality is not how people should be defined. She is a Palestinian allowed to live in Israel with an identification card. She is considered an Arab Jerusalemite.

Zaitoun, an articulate speaker with leadership qualities, is co-director of Seeking Common Ground in Jerusalem. She re-

cruited the Middle Eastern women who traveled to Steamboat this summer.

While here, the women were attuned to the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, a Shi'a Islamist organization and political party in Lebanon.

"Now, it's a war zone again," Zaitoun said. "Now, it's right outside your doorstep."

The BBfP program has displaced Zaitoun's anger. The hostility she used to have toward Israelis has gradually shifted to anger for intolerance. Perhaps more women will follow in Zaitoun's footsteps.

"That's the hope," Zaitoun said. "That one of these women, when she gets to a position of power, that she could remember what she heard, and the empathy she has seen and given to the other side."

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