OTISFIELD – It doesn’t seem so long ago that stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians gave way to the so-called “roadmap for peace.” That didn’t stop the attacks, assassinations and suicide bombers.

As Seeds of Peace camp convened this summer, those tensions flared and then exploded into full-scale warfare in Lebanon.

The death and destruction dealt a blow to counselors at the camp dedicated to bringing together teenagers from warring countries and cultures. The developments are discouraging, they say, but they retain their sense of optimism.

“What are you going to do? Nothing?” asked Tomas Perry, an Israeli counselor who came to Seeds of Peace as a camper in 1996. “There’s always hope.”

Founded in 1993, Seeds of Peace camp is dedicated to bringing together Israeli and Arab teenagers in hopes of moving them beyond deep-rooted hatreds. Removed from the region of conflict, the teens are startled to find themselves sharing meals, bunkhouses and the same sports teams as their “enemy.”

The 67-acre camp nestled in the woods on Pleasant Lake has expanded its reach over the years, grouping teenagers from other trouble spots such as Afghanistan, the Balkans, Cyprus, Iraq, India and Pakistan.

Protected by state troopers, the camp provides a safe place for the teenagers, many of whom have had friends and family killed or jailed.

But the conflicts happening thousands of miles away are never far from campers’ minds. This summer, camp has been especially tense.

Pakistani and Indian teens were attending the opening three-week session when terrorists bombed trains in Bombay, also known Mumbai, killing more than 200 people. Then Israel responded to border raids by Hezbollah by launching its offensive into Lebanon.

Discussions were heated. Many campers wanted to catch the first plane home.

The session that started nearly two weeks ago was veering in the same direction as campers became increasingly distracted and anguished by the daily news reports posted in the morning and afternoon in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

By Wednesday morning, camp director Tim Wilson decided he had had enough of the shouting and finger pointing as Hezbollah rockets hit Israel in record numbers and Israeli soldiers pushed deeper and deeper into Lebanon.

Addressing them before breakfast, Wilson let the campers have it: Enough of the self-pity and anger, he said. The problems are exacerbated by outsiders using the conflict for their own gain. Peel that away, he said, and you get to the heart of the conflict.

“You can yell and scream and holler,” Wilson said, “but what are you going to do to change this?”

Wilson, who’s leaving the camp after this season, reflected on the reality check as he patrolled the camp in his golf cart.

“I get tired of people being victims,” said Wilson, a floppy denim hat perched on his head. “My father said you can wallow in it and figure somebody owes you something, or you can get off your behind and do something.”

As Wilson drove, the camp was abuzz with activity. Teenagers were working on a ropes course that teaches trust. Others were dancing in a circle to the beat of African drums. Some were paddling on the lake in red kayaks.

During a game Americans call “steal the bacon,” a Palestinian girl grabbed the “bacon,” a tennis ball, but slipped and fell down as she was tagged by an Israeli. The Israeli girl stopped to make sure the other girl was OK.

On the lake, Israeli and Palestinian teenagers learned to cheer each other as they attempted to water ski under the supervision of counselor Burgess LePage.

Respect, trust and communication are critical elements, Wilson noted. If all three are present, strange and extraordinary things can happen. Lasting friendships are built. Campers will go back home with a new understanding of the “enemy.”

Everything at camp is geared toward those three legs. Even when the campers don’t realize it, they’re gently being moved in the direction.

Next week, the camp will be divided into two teams – blue and green – for three days of “color games.” Along the way, students will learn teamwork. They’ll also learn how easy it is to accept labels foisted upon them.

For campers, it’s a roller coaster ride in which they go from playing games to joining in intensive, closed-door discussions. When they depart, they’ll be expected to try to share what they’ve learned in their communities.

“When you go back home, you have to influence the people around you. That’s pretty much your duty,” said Israeli camper Ido Zahavi, who’s 16.

But it isn’t easy. Rasha Abbas, 17, who’s from Ramallah, said many of those outside her immediate family are distrusting of Seeds of Peace. Some say the campers have been brainwashed. “I always feel that I have to defend myself,” Abbas said.

Counselor Zagloub Said, a Palestinian who grew up on the West Bank, has heard it all before.

“People say we create an unrealistic bubble. Sometimes, I say you have to take people out of the mess to show them what life could be,” he said.

Whether that translates to peace in these campers’ lifetime, no one knows. Said doesn’t sugar coat the difficulty the campers face when they return home.

“I will never lie to the kids and tell them, ‘Eventually everything will be fine,”‘ he said. “I want the people to be optimistic about their future, but I want to them to be realistic.”

The late John Wallach, founder of the camp, envisioned the day when Seeds of Peace campers would become political leaders and bring about a lasting peace. But he never believed it would be easy. “Making peace is much harder than making war,” he once said.

Said, for his part, retains a sense of guarded optimism. As long as the campers keep coming, then he knows that hope is alive.

“The truth is, one way or another we managed to get 300 kids here this summer,” he said. That’s no small feat, he said.

As for Wilson, he continues to believe that people can make peace if the distractions are removed from the equation.

“I believe that people left to themselves can come up with a reasonable solution. The problem is that unreasonable people are in power,” Wilson said. “Political leaders want power. The people want peace.”



On the Net: http://www.seedsofpeace.org


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