Associated Press Writer

OTISFIELD, Maine (AP) — For the 17th year in a row, Israeli and Palestinian teenagers have come together at a summer camp in the western Maine woods to make new friendships, understand each other’s dreams and fears, and possibly lay a groundwork for peace in the Middle East.

After January’s bloody fighting in Gaza, the emergence in March of a hardline government in Israel and continuing disunity among Palestinian factions, hopes for peace in the region may seem difficult to sustain.

But as Seeds of Peace welcomed Israelis, Palestinians and teenagers from six other countries to its annual free summer camp last week, the spirit of optimism that has taken root at the 67-acre site along Pleasant Lake seems as strong as ever.

“The idea is to get to common ground,” said Monica, an Egyptian teenager. “Even if you don’t agree, what you have to accept about the other opinion is that it exists.” She, like many other campers, prefer to be identified only by first name.


Amit, an Israeli, said the camp allows youngsters from countries in conflict to overcome their differences and accept each other for what they are.

“This is something that happens only in Seeds of Peace, where you have an Israeli, a Palestinian, a Pakistani, an Indian and an Afghan all sleeping in the same bunk, laughing at the same joke. This is so unique,” he said.

Seeds of Peace was founded in 1993 by journalist John Wallach, a longtime foreign correspondent for the Hearst newspapers and coauthor of two books about the Middle East. Wallach, who died in 2002, sought to provide youngsters from countries in conflict with leadership skills and training that can promote reconciliation and co-existence.

Nearly 4,000 youngsters ranging in age from 14 to 16 have gone through the program. They spend three weeks swimming and canoeing, playing basketball and soccer, and talking about weighty issues like war and peace with bunkmates from countries they have been taught to regard as the enemy.

The nonprofit program, funded largely by donors with some government grant money, is based in New York and has offices in Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories. Since 2001, also has been bringing kids from South Asia. The 147 campers at the first of this summer’s two sessions are from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine and the United States.

The session opened Wednesday with the traditional flag-raising ceremony outside the gate to the lakeside camp. One by one, representatives of the eight delegations addressed campers and visitors, then led in the singing of their respective national anthems as their flags were hoisted up the poles.


Camp director Leslie Lewin believes the campers are developing relationships that can break down barriers of mistrust and hatred, enhancing the prospect for peace.

“I have the privilege of working with people who are motivated, smart and inspirational. If you’re with them, you have no choice but to be hopeful,” she said.

All camp sessions focus on the Middle East, although youngsters from other areas of conflict including South Asia and the Balkans also have attended. This summer’s second session, from July 20 to Aug. 11, also includes a few Maine teenagers from various immigrant and ethnic groups. Lewin was aware of recent troubles between police and Portland’s Sudanese community, and said Seeds of Peace may address those tensions.

The heart of the program is its 90-minute dialogue sessions in which campers gather in a room to share their experiences, emotions and prejudices. The intense sessions, led by professional facilitators, are aimed at developing compassion and mutual respect. But it’s not unusual to see angry exchanges, tears and screams, with participants storming out of the room before they cool down with a pat on the back or an embrace.

“After the dialogue sessions have ended, everyone’s really OK. We get together, we hug, we kiss,” said Marian, a Palestinian from Ramallah who attended camp in 2007 and returned this year to help the newcomers.

While the three-week Gaza campaign that took more than 1,400 lives may be fresh on the minds of the Israeli and Palestinian teenagers at the camp, Lewin recalled that the 2006 camp was held while war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah was under way.


Campers eagerly followed the news from home with bunkmates who were on opposing sides. “It was a fascinating opportunity to watch it unfold while they were together in each other’s presence,” Lewin said.

She suggested that memories of the more recent fighting between Israel and Hamas may make campers more passionate about a program like Seeds of Peace that aims to bring together people from areas of conflict and get them to see “the enemy” in human terms.

Samson Altman Shevitz, an Israeli from Jerusalem who serves as a facilitator, said the Gaza fighting could expose some raw nerves during this summer’s sessions.

“We had a workshop a couple of months after the war. It was quite heated and emotional on both sides,” Shevitz said. “We’ve been warned that this could be a more difficult session.”

The recurring problem of recent years in getting prospective campers out of Gaza is likely to be no easier this summer considering restrictions at the borders. The program has selected seven teenagers from Gaza to attend the sessions. But organizers of the program are unsure whether they will be able to obtain visas and make their way to the West Bank, Cairo or Jordan in time for the next session. All the Palestinians at the first session were from the West Bank.

Lewin’s predecessor as camp director, Tim Wilson, took part in a three-day seminar in April in the Israeli coastal city of Natanya, meeting with alumni of the program. He said the upcoming camp will be challenging because of strong feelings on both sides after the Gaza campaign.


“And not just (for) the kids from Gaza. Also, the areas closest to Gaza that were getting rockets coming down on them,” he said.

Wilson, now a senior adviser to Seeds of Peace, said he’s hopeful that younger Israelis and Palestinians can be more flexible in their thinking and reject the mindset of their elders who would continue the same cycle of violence.

He notes that the teenagers who attended camp during the early years of the program are now in their late 20s, many of them working within their governments. “They have their issues, but they do understand that the people they met are good people. So that’s a beginning,” he said.

“To say that peace can’t happen, I don’t go that route,” Wilson said. “I can’t control the adults. I can work with young people in hopes that when it’s their turn, they’re a little more understanding of each other, and maybe that will be the difference.”

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