Tearing down walls: What a group of Israeli and Palestinian youth teaches us about fighting extremism

While dialogue between those from opposing sides of war is not always peaceful or easy, it teaches participants how to think critically, an essential aspect of peacebuilding.

By: /
February 10, 2016
Palestinians walk near an opening in Israel's controversial barrier in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of A-tur. Jan. 3, 2014.REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Imagine growing up believing that a particular group of people cannot be trusted, has inflicted suffering on your people and is a constant threat to you and your loved ones. Now, imagine sharing accommodations, three daily meals and participating on a sports team with individuals from that group of people.

This is what occurs at Seeds of Peace, a peace building summer camp for teenagers from opposite sides of a conflict, where I served as a dialogue facilitator in 2012. 

The first Seeds of Peace summer camp took place in 1993, a few weeks before the signing of the Oslo I Accord. It presented a ground-breaking attempt to bring Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together to experience peaceful co-existence and engage in dialogue with one another. Since then, the summer camp program has continued each year, and Seeds of Peace has developed into an international NGO with different regional offices and graduate programs.

The overall purpose of Seeds of Peace is to empower a new generation of leaders who will be compassionate, empathetic, able to view circumstances from multiple perspectives and catalysts for peacebuilding. The leadership development model starts with the summer camp, and continues with regional programs once the campers return home. There is an extensive community of camp graduates, many of whom now run their own peacebuilding projects. One example is The Jerusalem Youth Chorus. It brings teenagers from East and West Jerusalem together to sing and engage in dialogue with one another. Project Amal ou Salam (Project Hope and Peace) is a second example. It functions in Syrian refugee camps and works to empower Syria’s children to rebuild their country and foster peace. 

Seeds of Peace’s leadership model is grounded in dialogue, which in this context should be understood as a small-group cross-conflict facilitated session in which individuals discuss their conflicting narratives and identities. Campers and graduates experience dialogue from their first days in camp, and continue to engage in its practice in the regional follow-up activities.

The dialogue sessions take place each day for 110 minutes. Campers from opposite sides of the conflict come together in small groups of 12-14 and with the help of two facilitators, one from each side of the conflict, begin to engage in dialogue with one another.

The dialogue sessions themselves are not peaceful or easy at the beginning. They are often more marked by shouting than by listening. As the sessions proceed, the campers tire of repeating the same arguments over and over again. To move the dialogue sessions forward the facilitators introduce the communication tool of storytelling. The campers are asked to share personal stories of their experience in the conflict. These stories are often deeply personal. Through the vulnerability of sharing one’s own story, the campers open themselves up to others and, in doing so, gain credibility. They discuss neither facts nor dates, but simply share the truth of their experience. This has a powerful impact on the group. They begin to listen to one another and realize that there is another side of the story. 

"The dialogue sessions teach campers to deal with ambiguity, to challenge their own beliefs, to embrace the complexity of the conflict and the role they play within it."

It is important that storytelling be introduced in the latter part of the dialogue process. The group must be ready to listen and empathize. Poor timing puts the individual at risk and opens the potential for one’s suffering to go unacknowledged by a group unprepared to listen. The right timing enables the storyteller to share more frankly and with less bias. Well-timed storytelling lacks the air of coercive persuasion and manipulation that marks the early small group sessions.

The dialogue sessions teach campers the skills necessary to initiate and endure difficult conversations. They teach them to deal with ambiguity, to challenge their own beliefs, to embrace the complexity of the conflict and the role they play within it. These skills prepare the program graduates for long-term involvement in the difficult work of peacebuilding after they return home from camp.

One of the more difficult tasks facing the graduates is that of communicating about this transformative experience with those close to them who were not part of it. For instance, family and friends might react with hostility towards the visible change of attitude in the returning camper. The challenges continue as the graduates grow older. For instance, as Israeli graduates go the army and Arab graduates go to highly politicised university campuses, each one’s involvement with peacebuilding appears to decline. It requires great courage, commitment and resilience to remain involved.

Hashem J. Abu Sham'a is an active Palestinian graduate who has led projects in his refugee camp. He was invited to speak at the organization’s annual gala dinner and his speech provides a clear example of the level of commitment involved. Just before flying to the U.S for the gala dinner, Hashem closely escaped death: his cousin pushed him away from a tear gas grenade that was coming towards his face.

It’s these moments of violence that make me question my rule and path as a Palestinian Seed. That make me even question my vision for the future. For me, being a Seed is about asking these difficult questions and embracing the struggle that comes with them. Because embracing this struggle is the first step towards creating change. […] Seeds of Peace inspires me to travel into the unknown, for the sake of a conflict whose future is unknown, but one I know can, and will, be better. 

Hashem’s ability to think critically and to place episodes of violence into a wider perspective is a skill he learned during his dialogue sessions. Literature on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) that focuses on integrative complexity demonstrates how the ability to think critically and from different perspectives can bring about the reduction of extremist views. CVE as a field can therefore learn valid lessons from Seeds of Peace’s dialogue sessions. The summer camp model provides an example of how an informal educational setting can be used to build peace for the future.

Also in the series


Q&A: The 'dangerous misunderstanding' of violence in the name of religion

In conversation with researcher Jon Waind, UN Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt clears up misconceptions about the links between religion and violence and why fostering understanding is even more complex than we imagined.

Countering violent extremism

How education, not surveillance, is most effective in countering violent extremism

Violent extremism is typically fought with expensive and reactive policing. Meanwhile, educational means are proactive, though they get less attention and, when religion is involved, can be tricky.  

Stalin march

Where is religion’s place in the extremism debate?

Positioning religious extremism as a variant of a larger species of modern ideological extremism offers a more balanced and non-partisan frame for constructive engagement.