Last week, we had a war here. People on our side of the border and people on the other side of the border, had to revert to the all-too-familar-ritual for all of us, of being afraid; of trying to keep ourselves and our families safe.
On my side, we had to sleep in saferooms (most on their side don’t have such a thing). Schools were closed. Work was closed. Nerves were on edge. On my side, ears were tuned to pick up the start of any sound that could bode ill: the beeping of the phone app, the calm female voice streaming over the community loudspeaker announcing the dreaded words: “Tseva Adom” (Code Red). Those who have children, and could, piled their kids into a car and drove to someplace where rocket sirens weren’t blaring. Some didn’t even take the time to pack. They just left.
On their side, those options don’t exist. Not even an option of going someplace safe, away from the rockets being fired at us, from within their own civilian populations, nor from the retaliatory bombs that my IDF were dropping.
Through it all, some of us kept in touch with those we care for on the other side of the border, sending Whatsapp messages of: “Are you ok?” “Are you and your family safe?”
The war went on throughout Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday early morning. We were told it was over, told that there was a ceasefire (by Arab news sources — no official word had come from the Israeli side) but you never really know when it’s all over until you see a few days go by without rocket fire or loud blasts. In fact, it’s never really going to be over until our leaders actually sit down and talk to each other.
In lieu of that happening, and at my friends’ request on Friday, I set out to organize a ZOOM video conference with people on both sides of this conflict. Israelis living on our side of the border were invited, through the Life on the Border Facebook group, to participate in a discussion with Palestinians from Gaza, Jericho and Ramallah (in the West Bank). I was in charge of getting Israelis on board; my friend M was responsible for getting Palestinians. I asked potential participants to fill out a Googleform, requesting basic information (name, where they live, age, job) and a photo, so that people would know who they were going to be speaking to, and the Palestinians added their bios.
In case you have never participated in a ZOOM video conference call, this is what it looks like. (Note: This is NOT from our ZOOM, rather another I have done in the past, since it would have put the Palestinians at risk to publish their pictures, but this is an illustration of what the call looked like.)
All of the participants can be seen, and can see each other, on camera. I am a true believer in the idea that if you can look a person in the eye, and speak with them, it is much harder to perceive them as being evil. When you can look each other in the eye, see a little slice of their surroundings, their personal space, shared in real time, it is harder to consider them as being your enemy. Even more so, when we engage in bringing each other messages of one’s desire for coexistence and cooperation (I am not using the word “collaboration” lest anyone take that the wrong way). In spite of the war. In spite of the hardships. In spite of the fact that we have all been living in this challenging situation for so many years.
There were 18 of us altogether, ranging in ages 22 – 77. Each of the participants was asked to prepare two things: first, to think about three words that could describe how they felt at that moment, being a mere few days after rockets were exploding all around, preparing to communicate with people on the other side of the conflict. Secondly, they were asked to compose a message that they would like to give to the people on the other side (either to a specific person, according to the bios we shared, or to the group as a whole).
The three words we gathered were sent to me in a link to an app called Mentimeter. Mentimeter gathers words and creates a word cloud: a graphic representation of the words according to frequency. The more often a specific word was mentioned, the larger it looks in the word cloud. This is the result of our word cloud. The word used the most: hopeful.
After making the word cloud together, I muted all participants, and one at a time, alternating between Israelis and Palestinians, gave each a chance at the microphone to send their message to the other side. Most of us spoke in English. Since not all of the Gazans speak English, a couple of them used interpreters to express their thoughts. From some of the messages, it is clear which side of the conflict they are from. From others, I know you would be surprised.
If only we would be committed ourselves, we could live in peace. We don’t need to wait for our leaders to bring peace. We can do it, ourselves.
“We must have rights such as the right to work, travel, the right to life and our right to everything. We must see the energies within the Gaza Strip. We are a people who want to live in peace, not terrorists.”
I came to live in Israel to join the IDF. I want peace; I don’t want any of us to live in fear. I am here to show you that all soldiers are NOT bad. We just want to live in peace.
“I wish all of us would teach our children to see the other side. To see the person standing in front of us and feel some compassion. We are all people and we all want to live in a peaceful neighbourhood.“
It is brave and I admire everyone’s interest and ambition to open up communication and conversation with each other. This is the first step to a better future for us and our children….I hope we all speak again.
“I hope that on both sides of the border we continue working for a sustainable peace for all. It is our joint responsibility to bring the peace we all need and deserve. A big thank you to all of the participants.”
I wish our leaders would find a way to talk to each other. I wish everyone would teach their children compassion for the other side, to learn to love the people behind the headlines.
“I want my grandchildren to have a better future than mine. I’ve been to Gaza, and it’s always been clear to me that if only we could work together, we would all benefit.”
I can’t believe we are all talking together, after last week. This is a first step. We need to change direction – to live together, to talk, to be compassionate towards each other.
“Throughout all three days of violence last week, I thought about the children: ours and yours. My son was so scared. Each time he heard the bombs, he was traumatized, scared of things from the sky. This is no way for any of us to live. We have nowhere to run.”
My dream is that one day we can sit together as friends. We live just down the road from each other.
“We need to make our voices heard; our voices saying that we want to live in peace with one another.”
I never thought I would actually be talking with (Israelis). We have to be like a family: we share the same aid, the same issues – we are ONE family and we need to change this situation, to create a better future.
“I want you to know that I was concerned about your children – about the fact that they couldn’t go into shelters when the bombs were falling. I hope the children on our side understand, and appreciate that I hope that our children can be in touch so as to hear the life experiences of each side of the border.”
You can be our second hand in this process to achieve a better life for all of us.
“I believe in my heart that we can achieve peace and freedom. It starts from inside each of us. I want us all to live in peace. Just because our history has been black, doesn’t mean that our futures have to be black, as well. I believe in hope and dignity, and that we need to change ourselves before we can change our future – without using war as a tool.”
I am super excited to be here. In the past, I was alone. Now we have Israels and Palestinians listening to each other; talking to each other.
“I have never spoken to a Palestinian – and I am so excited to have this meeting. I am happy to see faces of people like us. We see your faces. We see how much you are like us. I hope we will meet someday, in person, in my living room.”
I pray for equality between Palestinians and Israelis. Because I was born in Gaza, I uphold Gazan ideals. If I had been born in Israel, I would have upheld Israeli ideals. It is all a matter of geography.
A ZOOM room is open for 40 minutes. I was sure it would be enough. It wasn’t. I had to open a new virtual room, and we ended up continuing for about another 20 minutes.
Following the ZOOM, I asked for impressions and insights. Here were responses that were shared with me:
The most striking and rewarding thing about this meeting for me was that my 12 year-old daughter was there to witness it. She was quite bewildered at first. Afterwards, I asked her how she felt. She said she felt a bit weird but proud too. Proud of her mom. I hope that, soon, she will be able to have her own encounters like this one.
“It was very touching for me to hear what our neighbors had to say. There was a lot of care and concern for one another in the virtual ‘room’. I met a few new Gazan neighbors yesterday. I also met new Israeli neighbors who want an end to the wars. It was a moving experience.”
I was open-minded, no clear expectations except trust in Adele as facilitator. I felt energized during and afterwards. I was touched by the expression of genuine emotion and caring by the Gazans.
“In truth, I didn’t know what to expect. However, though there were some technical glitches, it actually went reasonably smoothly.”
I was hopeful it would be a ‘social’ conversation, not a political one. and it was. Of course, there were some hard parts, like when one of the women from Gaza told about her frightened son. but all in all, it was like I expected.
“It was interesting to hear the voices from the other side of the border and also hear other voices from here. To know that there is someone to talk to.”
So that’s my story about something that took place, between people here on the border with people in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, four days after being surrounded by explosions. Eighteen people were brave enough to sit down and talk, something our governments have not yet found the courage to do, to look the “other side” in the eye, and say: “I care about you”. People who are caught up in this conflict dared to use the adjective “hopeful” in the Mentimeter, and in their messages. People who have been asking me when we’ll be able to do it again. If that doesn’t say something powerful about what people here want, I don’t know what does.