In a climate of violence, involving deaths of teenagers on both sides, skepticism about meetings between Israelis and Palestinians seems justified. However, even with such tension, these meetings are happening.
Left to right: Participant Fesal Kateep, founders Chaim Cohen, Eliyahu McLean, and Rob Schrama. Image: Rosa Lia
Each June since 2007 a group of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals have held an event called “The Jerusalem Hug”. One of its founders, Ibrahim Abu El Hawa, describes it as: "a sacred circle around the edge of the Old City."
In the past there have been talks, workshops and music circles. Yair Bartal, one of the people involved in coordinating the event, said: “Jerusalem is one of the few places where you have co-existence. Usually people talk about peace meaning political separation. But we have so much reason to connect.”
Leading founder Dvora Pearlman said: “The idea [of the hug] was that with politics, when you talk, you just find differences. It was to give people the experience of being together. Life, when lived…people enjoy being together.”
Chaim Cohen, another founder, said: “The focus has been on the narrative separation – on drawing borders rather than creating connection.” Chaim sees events like this as part of a larger picture involving political action, but believes that the solution has to involve a grass roots approach: “You can’t legislate peace. It has to come from the heart. It has to come from trust.”
Palestinians from the West Bank could not get permits
This year’s walk began from Jaffa Gate in a line of people holding hands as the sun set. It was a small, mostly Jewish group. The situation with the 3 missing teenage settlers prevented entry into Jerusalem for more than 100 Palestinian participants from the West Bank who’d previously been given permits.
At the end of the walk, people stood against the wall putting their hands against it. The sounds of people chanting “shalom” and “salam” overlaid each other.
Left: Founder Eliyahu McLean. The wall between The New Gate and Damascus Gate. Image: Rosa Lia
Beautifying the occupation?
Not that it was all peace and love. Hamudi from East Jerusalem, said: “These events are always the same thing. Even the songs and the people are the same. When I first started going to normalization meetings I thought that people really wanted peace and were really nice, but when we started talking politics they were like any other right wingers and some of them turned out to be racist.
“A sign that these people don't care about Palestinians is that even when Palestinians didn't get permits they still had the hug…no respect at all… These people can't change anything and won't change anything.
“One of the other normalization meetings was in the West Bank in Area C and Palestinians had to get a permit while Israelis didn’t. One of the participants came with an army t-shirt.
“The reason behind these meetings is to beautify the occupation and show that Palestinians are living here happily, when it’s totally the opposite.”
There had been a debate about whether or not to hold the event, if none of the permits were given. Rightly or wrongly, the organizers decided that given the tension, it was especially important to go ahead with the event.
Continuing, despite criticism from both sides
While Palestinians deal with questions of normalization, Jewish participants can also face criticism from their community. Yishai, who took part in the event, said:
“My Rabbi saw me during the procession when we were all holding hands. He seemed surprised and then sort of ignored me after. But my family thinks it's great and encourages peaceful events between people. Some of my Israeli friends are skeptical of things like this, especially because the situation seems to be getting worse every day. But, we have to keep our hearts peaceful and be pursuers of peace no matter what.”
Participants on their way from Jaffa Gate Image: Rosa Lia
The future for East and West
When Dvora was asked about her hopes for coexistence given the current situation, she said: “When I look at evolution it’s better not to look too close because you miss the big picture which is that East and West are…not becoming one…but learning to work together. And I say East and West, not Arabs and Israelis, because that’s what it is. We happen to be at the meeting point.
“I have no doubt that this conflict is going to end because people want to live a normal life. And now that we have the Internet and social media people can see what’s happening. We didn’t have that before. The only question is how long? After how much suffering? How many deaths?”