If our leaders can't do it
December 27, 2008, will be remembered by Palestinians as the beginning of the massacre in the Gaza Strip. To many Israelis it was the day the Israel Defense Forces began its response to Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza. Despite these differences, I believe everyone can agree it was a day that pushed us back several steps on the road to peace. Now is the time to think about how we can regain the ground that was lost.
Although many of us are frustrated with this 60-year conflict, we must set aside time for healing before starting the peace process again. This time, greater efforts must be made toward creating a solution that will bring lasting peace. The process cannot simply be forced into motion: People must be willing for it to continue.
The healing process will not be quick. There will be long-term psychological repercussions among the Gazan population, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and "survivor's guilt." Children will require special care to ensure that they have an emotionally stable future. As it is they who will provide the next generation of Palestinian leaders, it is imperative that we not forget them.
It's time to employ the measures needed for reconciliation. First and foremost must be the rebuilding of Gaza's infrastructure and economy. This should be an international effort, but wouldn't it enhance the process of reconciliation if Israelis were at the forefront? Israeli public support for the rebuilding would allow Palestinians to distinguish between their perceptions of Israel's military and government (and the actions they take) and those of its sympathetic citizens.
When healing, engagement and reconciliation have taken place, the next step is to reach an accord. If governments cannot reach an agreement during negotiations, then it's up to the public to press the issue or to take matters into their own hands.
Various organizations, at both the grassroots and international levels, have worked for years to push their leaders toward peace - but none with more diligence or intensity than youth peace groups. These proactive youth have met on a personal basis, by living together, playing sports and games together, learning empowerment techniques, holding mock UN sessions and participating in serious dialogue. They have learned how to listen compassionately, speak frankly and respect one another's rights to exist without fear. They have put their differences aside and made peace with those whom they once considered their enemy.
Youth peace groups are a prime source of ideas for how to move toward full political reconciliation; they should be empowered.
The inspired young alumnae of programs like Seeds of Peace could bring their vast experience and innovation to the table. The female participants in similar programs like Creativity for Peace could be the nurturers of healing and understanding. The members of organizations like Combatants for Peace could bring the strength and stamina needed to get through the tough times ahead. Those who have participated in cross-cultural or religious-tolerance programs like the Sulha Peace Project could show us the importance of solidarity.
Even now, during this time of transition, these dedicated young peace seekers are making a difference. I recently learned that Shetha, one of my sisters in Creativity for Peace, who lives in Gaza, was critically wounded, and her sisters and cousins killed, in a missile attack on their house during Operation Cast Lead. Eyal Ronder, managing director of Seeds of Peace in Tel Aviv, helped me get an emergency travel permit so I could visit her in an Israeli hospital. During that visit, I believe I managed to cheer her up as well as ease the sorrow and sense of outrage I felt at the time.
After hearing Shetha's tragic story, many of the people in my peace-friends network also decided to visit her - even those who didn't know her - and they held a candlelight vigil at the hospital, dedicated to her and her slain family members.
The ongoing conflict and the recent tragedy in Gaza have robbed children of their hope for a better future. Even worse, they have stolen the humanity of young and old alike, on both sides. Although youthful innocence can never be regained, hope and humanity can be restored to both peoples. Hope and humanity must be won back because, after all, worse things can always follow even the worst that we have seen. There is no time to lose.
Khadrah Jean Jaser AbuZant, 19, was the Palestinian winner of the Simcha Bahiri Youth Essay Contest. She lives in Tul Karm, in the West Bank, and is a third-year psychology student at An-Najah National University. She is active in Seeds of Peace.