We took gigantic risks to be here

JERUSALEM — Despite the persistence of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a group of Israelis and Palestinians held talks in Jerusalem last weekend in search of common ground.

Though denied travel permits by Israeli authorities, some 20 Palestinians from Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron and Bethlehem joined 35 Israelis in Jerusalem by evading curfews and checkpoints and traveling at times on foot through muddy back lanes. Due to clampdowns in Palestinian areas, an additional group from Jenin and Kalkilya that participated in the first event in October and signed on again couldn't get through.

"We took gigantic risks to be here because we have messages for Israelis and for our own people," said Majid Belay, 25, representing the Nablus Youth Federation.

"We want Israelis to know that there are lots of Palestinians who support peace and who you never see in the media. We also want to know Jewish people so we can go back and tell Palestinians who they are and what their religion says."

It was the second time since the start of the current uprising that a Palestinian organization and an Israeli interfaith organization successfully coorganized such an event in Israel. Participation in interfaith events has dropped off over the past two years and has been limited primarily to Israeli citizens and visiting foreigners.

Israel's Interfaith Encounter Association, headed by Orthodox Jew Yehuda Stolov, partnered with NYF after winning seed money for interfaith dialogue from the European Union. NYF joined with the blessing of Nablus Mayor Ghassan al-Shakaa.

The series of weekend retreats at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute focuses on faith-based rather than political dialogue. Jewish, Muslim and Christian clerics led discussions and small conversation groups reflected on the concepts of "the other" and what it means to be a righteous person.

Hiyam, a 25-year-old religious Muslim from Hebron in traditional dress, was one of several Palestinians who had never previously met a Jew.

"I found there are lots of similarities between Islam and Judaism on subjects of love and compassion," she said.

"Conversations and watching Jews celebrate their Sabbath with singing and dancing was interesting, but two Palestinians had just been killed in Nablus and I was in a bad mood. What did we have to celebrate?" said Loai Mozayan of Ramallah.

"But a Jewish woman came and hugged me and we talked for a long time. And I realized that just how every finger on your hand is different, so are all the Jews different. And in the end I danced because I realized I had shared something special. [Jews and Arabs] had come to see each other as human beings."

At the final session, some of the Israeli and Palestinian men and women, embraced each other and broke down in tears.

"I can't wait for the next retreat, and I will try to bring more people with me," said Mozayan. "Other Palestinians will mock me and curse me, but I don't care. Maybe we can even convince soldiers to come so we can understand how they feel."