Making Peace One Person at a Time

In Israel and the West Bank, there are dozens of organizations promoting Israeli and Palestinian cooperation on a wide range of issues. Members say they're laying the groundwork for a future Israeli and Palestinian peace deal.

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STEVEN INSKEEP, host:

And let's go next to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where there hasn't been a lot of progress in the peace process, but there are signs of reconciliation elsewhere. NPR's Linda Gradstein found them.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: About 100 Israeli and Palestinian teenagers braved a cold, rainy Jerusalem evening to meet at a guesthouse that straddles the dividing line between Jewish West Jerusalem and largely Arab East Jerusalem.

Members of a group called Seeds of Peace, they've come to hear a lecture by Jafar Farah, the head of an Israeli-Arab advocacy center.

Mr. JAFAR FARAH (Israeli Arab Advocate): We always say that we are - that it's the real roots of our tragedy. The other side of this tragedy wasn't only the Zionist(ph) movement. Was also about our regimes.

GRADSTEIN: After the talk, the teenagers stand around chatting. Some of the Palestinian participants say they had trouble getting Israeli permission to enter Jerusalem from their homes in the West Bank. All of these teenagers spent a summer together at the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine, and they're happy to be together again.

Sixteen-year-old Palestinian Murad Abu Dhab(ph) said Seeds of Peace, a U.S.-sponsored group, gave him an opportunity to meet Israelis for the first time.

Mr. MURAD ABU DHAB (Palestinian, Seeds of Peace Camp): Yeah, the most important thing is gathering all together, sharing our ideas together and, of course, meeting the other side, talking, knowing what they think about us and showing how we feel about them, how they feel about us. And then being friends all together.

GRADSTEIN: Even more unlikely friendships are formed in a group called Combatants for Peace. It's made up of Israeli soldiers who served in the West Bank and former Palestinian prisoners who spent time in Israeli jails. The group's stated goal is an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Combatants for Peace was founded four years ago with just a few dozen activists. Today, there are more than 500 members. Twenty-eight-year-old Itamar Shapira is the group's Israeli coordinator.

Mr. Itamar Shapira (Israeli Coordinator, Combatants for Peace): You know, it's 100 years of war. It will end sometime. I hope that it won't be after a big war. It can happen without it. This is what we're trying to do.

GRADSTEIN: Palestinian member Busam Aramein(ph) came to the group through a personal tragedy. His ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was killed just over a year ago during a clash at her school between stone throwers and Israeli police. It's still not clear which side was responsible.

Earlier this month, Busam inaugurated a playground at the school built by Combatants for Peace to honor his daughter's memory.

Mr. BUSAM ARAMEIN (Palestinian member, Combatants for Peace): One hand killed Abir, my daughter, and the hand of defense built this garden(ph). It's a reality. We are together. We are working together.

GRADSTEIN: Aramein says many Palestinians see Israelis only as soldiers. Watching them build a playground for Palestinian children will help change attitudes, he says.

Changing perceptions is also the theme of a new group called Trusty Moon. Founded by Israeli American Ileana Rosenman after her son was seriously wounded in a suicide bombing, it aims to bring Israeli and Palestinian women together. It organized a series of sessions on diet and weight loss that was the focus of a recent documentary called "A Slim Peace."

Suad Zaid(ph) a 35-year-old woman from Bethlehem, says she had never socialized with Israelis before.

Ms. SUAD ZAID (Resident, Bethlehem): (Through translator) As a group of women, we were very comfortable with one another. We danced, we ate together, we played sports together, and we exchanged recipes. We learned new things together, and we felt very normal.

GRADSTEIN: And, she says, she lost seven pounds.

Rosenman says although the activities are not political, daily reality can't be ignored.

Ms. ILEANA ROSENMAN (Founder, Trusty Moon): That one has a child who was injured by a suicide bomber. This one's husband is unable to visit her, because he doesn't have an Israeli permit. There are always the political realities. But we look at them and discuss them from the human point of view.

GRADSTEIN: The total membership of all these groups is only a few thousand people. Some analysts say that while well-intentioned the groups can have little effect on the ground.

But Hyna Senora(ph) the co-director of a joint Israeli-Palestinian think-tank says coexistence groups can lay the groundwork for a peace agreement.

Mr. HYNA SENORA: It's not enough for officials to make peace. A civil society's role is more important, because if this peace has to last, this peace has to grow, civil society has to participate and be the main active.

GRADSTEIN: Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: Some of the reporting experience that you hear on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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