Abdallah Kullab’s papers declared he was entering Israel for “humanitarian” reasons. In late February it was the only way anyone could cross at the notorious Erez crossing on the northern border between Gaza and Israel. His papers said he would return to Gaza the same day.
He passed the electric security fence. The picture on either side of the border was the same: farmers tending their fields. But at night, Israel sent jets and helicopters into Gaza, while Palestinians sent rockets and mortars into Israel.
He arrived at his intended destination, the small Israeli Bedouin Arab village of Segev Shalom, three hours after leaving his home in Chan Yoones (pronounced “Han-NYUN-ez”). The trip should have taken 45 minutes.
He walked into the office of the mayor of Segev Shalom, Amer Abu Maamer. Amer is a fellow Muslim and Arab, but with an important difference: he is an Israeli Arab. Israeli Arabs are citizens of Israel, vote in elections and even – in some cases – serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Amer greeted Abdallah coldly but correctly. In the room with Amer were leaders from Segev Shalom and Sha’ar HaNegev, a nearby Jewish municipality, and Ya’acov Schneider, an Israeli Jew and director of the Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute (JITLI), and Dr. Sara Ozacky-Lazar, the co-chair of the Jewish-ArabCenterfor Peace at the Givat Haviva Institute. Schneider and Ozacky-Lazar were Abdallah’s sponsors and invited him here to discuss working together on an innovative teen exchange trip. But the others in the room eyed Abdallah with suspicion, even anger.
For hours they peppered Abdallah with questions: Who are you? What is your agenda? Who’s behind you? How would you choose the teenagers you’d send to Israel?
Out of this interrogation was born an incredible friendship, and an amazing story.
This July, for the first time since before the Intifada, JITLI – San Diego’s homegrown international teen exchange – will not only welcome Jewish-American teens, Jewish Israeli teens and Israeli Bedouin teens on its three-week international summer trip, it will also welcome Palestinian teens from war-torn Gaza.
But to get to this point, JITLI had to overcome enormous military, cultural and political barriers. The security barriers were as real as armed outposts, electrified fences and unsympathetic soldiers. And the JITLI staff had to battle Israeli bureaucracy for weeks to get the organization classified as “humanitarian” so Abdallah could cross the border. But the biggest cultural and political opposition to the project was not from whom you’d expect.
The Israeli government neither noticed nor cared that JITLI was interested in such an exchange; after all, international non-governmental organizations purportedly promoting peace are a shekel a dozen in Israel. Meanwhile, the leaders of Sha’ar HaNegev, the Jewish town from where the Israeli Jewish teens originate, were mostly members of the “peace camp,” despite being let down by the failure of Oslo. And while much Palestinian-Israeli dialogue had stopped since the Intifada, there were still a surprising number of Palestinians who were supportive of efforts to engage Israelis.
The greatest barriers, rather, were between the Palestinians of Gaza and the Israeli Bedouin Arabs of Segev Shalom, the village from which the Bedouin teens originate. Some Israeli Bedouin Arabs had served – and died – in the IDF in Gaza. Moreover, Amer was facing an electoral challenge from Islamic militants; cavorting with Palestinians would serve only to alienate his pro-Israeli voter base.
Many Palestinians, for their part, viewed the Bedouins as traitors for their loyalty to the state of Israel. “The Palestinians said if the Israeli Arabs come, we won’t come,” recalls Schneider, who served as the shaliach (Israeli emissary) for the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County from 1997 to 2003.
The night before his scheduled meeting with Abdallah, Amer called Schneider to cancel. Schneider pleaded with Amer to reconsider, reminding him that it would be an unconscionable violation of traditional Bedouin hospitality. He relented, but declared participation by the Palestinian teenagers was “impossible this year.”
“The Bedouin, the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians all live a half hour from each other,” says Schneider. “Why shouldn’t they talk and get to know each other?”
In 2000, the first year of the JITLI program, Palestinian teens did take part in the exchange. But since the Intifada, Schneider had been unable to find a Palestinian figure he could trust. But an old friend with San Diegoties – Ozacky-Lazar, a former visiting professor at SDSU – recommended Abdallah in January of this year.
After talking with Abdallah, Schneider realized he was the perfect “natural partner”: he was a proponent of non-violence, the founder of the only battered women’s shelter in Gazaand a former doctoral student in public health at HadassahHospitalin Jerusalem. After hearing about JITLI’s goals and history, Abdallah agreed to take part.
“We live in a closed, violent culture,” says Abdallah. “All the interest of the teens in Gazais to make bombs and violence. We have to teach them there is hope in life. The politicians, they make arguments. That’s their job. We have to make peace. That is our responsibility.”
Four days after Abdallah’s inital meeting, after another lengthy journey from Gaza, Abdallah returned to Segev Shalom with Wafaa Abuteir, a Palestinian journalist. She underwent the same questioning: Who are you? What are your motives?
But after that meeting, the heads of the community centers from Segev Shalom and Sha’ar HaNegev were convinced: they could trust these Palestinians.
Other meetings followed, all in Israelbecause Israeli civilians are completely forbidden from entering Gaza. In April, all the leaders of the program – including its founders and primary benefactors, Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs of San Diego- met for a weeklong seminar.
But on April 17, their alliance was almost shattered.
Abdallah, Wafaa, Schneider and the Jacobs were at a barbeque in Sha’ar HaNegev, when Wafaa’s cell phone rang. A relative was demanding she return to Gaza immediately: What was she doing talking to Israelis? Didn’t she realize how dangerous this was for her and her small children?
Soon after, everyone else’s cell phones rang. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the new leader of Hamas, had been assassinated. They turned on the TV. The Israeli coverage of the assassination was especially gruesome. “Every drop of blood was on the screen,” recalls Schneider. With this kind of violence, how was peace possible? What would happen to the program, they wondered.
But Wafaa refused to return to Gaza. “What are you making a fuss for?” she asked. “This is our everyday life. What we are doing here is not normal. We need to change it so that what we are doing at JITLI will become the norm.”
Since then, Schneider says, things have gone nearly as perfectly as could be expected. Abdallah went out of his way to choose teenagers from different regions of the densely populated Gazastrip, and both they and their families had to go through stringent security checks by Israeli intelligence. Everyone passed muster.
Meanwhile, JITLI established intensive English courses in Segev Shalom and Gazafor the participating teens, so they could communicate with the Jewish-American teens they would meet come July.
In early June, everything looked ready to go. The final step to secure visas for the Palestinian teens was having their parents come to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. But the IDF wouldn’t let them cross the border. And the U.S. Embassy said it could not issue visas to minors without their parent’s permission. But once again, after a combination of pleading and working connections, the IDF relented and let the Palestinian parents into Israel.
So now, five months after making first contact, a group of 10 Palestinian teens, 10 Israeli Arab Bedouin teens and 10 Israeli Jewish teens are ready to come to the United Statesfor the first leg of the fifth annual JITLI trip.
A remarkable effort to get 40 kids together to hang out at Sea World.