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Young Israelis and Palestinians try to bridge differences in D.C. as gulf grows at home

Violence in Gaza makes conversations more difficult

Ten students from Palestine and Israel are in Washington, D.C. this summer to participate in a program where they share their story, but also hear stories from the other side. As violence escalates back home, they learn to navigate their tentative relationships with one another. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Karma AbuAyyash had never really known an Israeli before. The 22-year-old Palestinian had encountered them at checkpoints, on the streets of Ramallah, her home town, at protests, and once when soldiers searched her home and took her pet turtle, Korka, as a good luck charm. Encountered but not known. ¶ Then, at a bar in Washington on a Friday night in early June, that changed. ¶ That’s when AbuAyyash told Yehonatan Toker, 28, a former officer in the Israeli army, about the time she participated in a mass protest outside the West Bank’s Ofer Prison supporting prisoners on a hunger strike. The 2012 demonstration grew violent, and Israeli forces fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. ¶ Nervous but aided by beer, AbuAyyash recalled the street names and landmarks aloud. Then it dawned on Toker: He had been stationed there, too — on the other side. ¶ The Palestinian and the Israeli felt a barrier collapse. ¶ “I was so surprised,” AbuAyyash said. “We came a long way from throwing rocks and shooting bullets. We’re here, sitting in the U.S., talking about it. It was pretty inspiring.” ¶ AbuAyyash had flown to the United States for the summer to take part in New Story Leadership, a nonprofit program that pairs off 10 college students — five from Israel and five from the Palestinian territories — to live with host families and work as interns in the District, an ocean away from home. The program seeks to have the young Israelis and Palestinians exchange narratives and find a different story for the future, to form bonds that might survive when they return home.

It’s hard enough to speak to someone from the other side of what the Palestinians in the program call the “Apartheid Wall” and their Israeli counterparts refer to as the “Security Fence.” But this summer, especially, the first tentative ties of friendship, forged over the things 20-somethings enjoy together, have shivered and sometimes threatened to come apart as news of mounting violence has arrived from home.

By July 10, the fourth day of Israel’s military operation against Hamas in Gaza, AbuAyyash’s revelation with Toker felt far away. As news arrived in jolts of texts from home, she and some of the other students took turns grappling with the elephant in the room while sharing their personal stories at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

AbuAyyash’s internship partner, Noa Shusterman, 26, had applied an extra layer of coverup, in case her face flushed on stage. The Kfar Saba native, who had served three years with the Israel Defense Forces, started by recalling the admonitions of her mother when she and her siblings fought.

“In life, you shouldn’t be right, you should be smart,” Shusterman recalled her mother saying.

The New Story Leadership NGO tries to promote friendship and understanding by placing students from the Middle East with host families. Israeli Noa Shusterman and Palestinian Karma AbuAyyash share strong views on women's issues. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)

She then shared a memory from middle school. She had returned from recess, and her teacher had locked the door and put on a movie. Later, she learned that a gunman had killed a student nearby and injured many more. “I wish I could say that event changed my life,” she said. “It seems like it should have, but it didn’t.” That was common, she said.

She extended her mother’s words to apply to the ongoing violence.

“We’ve gotten so used to the rhythm that we can’t resist the action-reaction, hatred, demonism, enticement, vengeance, terror, demolition, all in the name of justice and fairness,” Shusterman said. “We will not allow self-righteousness to continue feeding the same cycle of bloodshed.”

When her turn came, AbuAyyash said she was too preoccupied with the deaths at home to voice the optimism she’d felt just a week before.

“As I write this speech my cellphone beeps and beeps, friends and family updating me: three dead, seven dead, 20 dead, 50 Palestinians dead. . . . I look for the strength to be patient, but patience is not at the tip of my tongue as bombs drop on Gaza,” she said.

AbuAyyash’s words didn’t sit well with her Israeli peers, who later said her speech was accusatory and failed to acknowledge Israeli peace efforts.

About a week later, Shusterman and AbuAyyash fought at the office. Their boss at the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press suggested that they include their speeches from Hopkins in a booklet they were creating to give female perspectives on the effort for peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The New Story Leadership NGO tries to promote friendship and understanding by placing students from the Middle East with host families. Having brunch with American host family Richard and Joyce Schwartz, not pictured, are Israeli Noa Shusterman and Lior Yafe, and Palestinian Karma AbuAyyash. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)

Although they had been bantering just moments earlier, Shusterman refused to add AbuAyyash’s story to the pamphlet.

AbuAyyash responded with confusion.

“But it would be my name over my speech,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

“Yes, but it’s our names on the whole product, and you know how I feel about the message of your speech,” Shusterman replied. The two women decided that neither of their speeches would appear.

“It’s easy to speak about peace and be friendly when things are dandy, or at least fine,” Shusterman said later.

She recalled celebrating her birthday in the first week of the program when the students were all strangers to one another. The group went out together, and after she had drunk too much, Nisreen Zaqout, a 21-year-old Gazan, walked Shusterman home and peeled her off a slide when she strayed to a playground on the way.

Now, Zaqout said, she worries about her family in Gaza. Sometimes it takes more than a day to get word from them.

“At the beginning, I told my friends in the program that I really want to go home. . . . Being away from Gaza is much harder during these times because you just, you don’t know,” Zaqout said.

Listening to Zaqout helped Shusterman put a human face on the political situation.

“We see Palestine as an entity, and that’s the problem,” Shusterman said. “Now when I see any news on Gaza, I think of Nisreen’s family.”

But it’s also worked in reverse.

“I’m thinking about my little brother and all the times we played on the beach where those four Palestinian children were killed” two week ago, Zaqout said. “And here I am talking to people who see that as self-defense. I see all the people at home who die and know that at 8 a.m. I’ve got to see people who think that, and I just don’t want to.”

But she does it anyway.

Founding NSL board member Joyce Schwartz, 64, said there have always been conflicts among the students, but the reality at home has not been this bad since the program began in 2009.

Based on sister programs focused on South Africa and Northern Ireland, NSL offers emerging young leaders the chance to spread what they learn through public events in the United States, like the one at Johns Hopkins, and to create the foundations for peace projects they are encouraged to implement when they return. The program has supporters in Congress and the State Department; an alumnus from the program was quoted by Secretary of State John F. Kerry in a speech in May.

“I think they have worse days and tempers flare and people say things that make other people angry,” said Schwartz, who is also New Story Leadership’s treasurer and hosts students in her home each summer. “But I think the thing to always remember is that they’re all trying really hard and they’re all doing something really difficult. They’re 20-something’s under a huge amount of stress.”

Students from both sides said they have faced judgment and scorn from friends and family at home. In the Palestinian territories, a popular movement known as the anti-normalization campaign strongly discourages conversation, suggesting that true relationships between Israelis and Palestinians are not possible because of the power imbalance between the two parties.

AbuAyyash said she agreed with the movement’s principles when she was at home but decided to apply to NSL anyway. When she was accepted, she approached her father.

“We talked about it and thought, if you are in neutral land and you have the same rights and the same obligations, you can talk about politics,” AbuAyyash said.

For her part, Shusterman said she has been called “unpatriotic” after posting statuses to Facebook calling for self-reflection and a cease-fire.

Seven weeks may not be enough time for AbuAyyash and Shusterman to understand each other. But both said encountering “the other,” and the introspection that’s followed, has helped them expand their perspectives.

“I think that we forget that it’s supposed to be a new story. I’m not here as my grandfather or my father or my history. I’m here as myself,” Shusterman said. “I learned sometimes to make someone else more comfortable, I have to make myself less comfortable.”

AbuAyyash said she doesn’t know what will happen when she returns to the West Bank. But she values the opportunity to share her opinions with a wider audience.

“A year ago, I would have been ashamed to be here,” she said. “But I have a motto, and it’s that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I’m definitely not in my comfort zone.”


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