By Ayesha Carmouche.
Think Cyprus – sandy beaches, British pensioners tanning their sun-impoverished skins, clubbers dancing the night away in Ayia Napa! Not necessarily the place you’d imagine Palestinians and Israelis coming together to talk about conflict, trauma and identity, right?
Well think again. With its own volatile history of Turks and Greeks laying claims to its land, Cyprus offered a perfect location to young leaders seeking strategies on how to overcome one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
For two weeks, Encompass Trust took 16 strong-minded and inspirational Palestinians and Israelis to a mountainous village, Tochni, home to little more than 424 Cypriots. Weeks of organising visas, flights, workshops and making sure everything was kosher (to coin a phrase) had paid off, and Encompass' second Journey of Understanding programme for 2018 was about to kick off.
The programme was packed with sessions designed to challenge participants’ basic perceptions of justice, history, truth and morality. The intense discussions were matched by equally challenging Crystal Maze-like puzzles called the Escape Rooms, and a hike in the mountains. It was an amazing experience which was only possible because of the efforts of recruiters/facilitators, Karen Abuzant and Yair Seri, and facilitator Snezana Baclija Knoch.
But what exactly is the purpose of this programme? The Journey of Understanding is a radical attempt to bring so called enemies together, to get them to listen to one another, to hear another perspective which goes beyond their community, their schooling, their local news digest, and their government’s rhetoric on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Participants share painful memories and empathise with another’s suffering, even at the risk of being considered a traitor by their own people.
The frustrating lack of progress in peace talks and the sustained levels of aggression between the two sides has meant that Israeli-Palestinian relations are particularly low. Because of this, many of the participants did not tell their family, friends and even workmates that they were attending the programme. To do so would be viewed as colluding with the enemy, when in fact they have taken a brave step in meeting the other side.
Two powerful moments stick out for me. In one session called ‘Trauma’, one of the Palestinian participants, well-known for being the joker/Casanova of the group was asked to talk about a difficult time in his life.
Leaving aside his jokes, the young guy spoke with a surprising gentleness and sincerity as he recollected memories of his aunt’s death; shot by an Israeli soldier as she was making her way home. He also told the group that during birth, both his and his siblings’ hands were damaged, and because of restrictions on travel outside of Palestine, his father could not get the right treatment to mend them.
These stories led to a moment of collective empathy on both sides. What was so sad was that someone so well liked in the group had endured a hardship which no one would have wished upon him.
Another touching moment involved an Israeli whose father had been stabbed by a Palestinian. In a session near the end of the programme and following a number of workshops with Palestinians the facilitator, Karen, asked the Israeli what he would now say to the attacker.
He offered an unexpected response: he said he would tell the attacker he understood. Many Israelis say peace is not possible due to Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens. This participant offered a glimmer of hope by showing that violence perpetuated against his side could be understood from another perspective.
Equipped with a new sense of purpose, 16 Israelis and Palestinians will go back to their community and continue the work of Encompass. Their fresh perspectives will contribute to local action calling for co-existence and equality. Many will be involved in awareness-raising projects, while others will use their positions of power to broaden the narrative of the other side. Good luck to those entering the next point in their journey.