Loran, 16, was the first to arrive. When she saw 15-year-old Hanan walking up the path, she couldn’t contain her excitement and ran to greet her with a big hug.
They looked like best friends who had been separated for months by some insurmountable barrier. That was very much the case, except the girls live only a few kilometres apart.
Loran Stern is a Jewish Israeli; Hanan Abu Abed is an Arab Israeli. In the Wadi Ara area of central Israel, Jewish and Arab communities lie close together, but the people remain far apart. There is fear on both sides, and the Green Line and security barrier that separate Israel from the occupied West Bank are just a few kilometres to the east, a constant reminder of the Jewish conquest over the Arabs of this area.
The girls had gotten to know each other last summer as part of a project called Heart to Heart (H2H) organized by Hashomer Hatzair, a Jewish pioneer group that supports equal rights for Arabs and Jews in Israel. Last summer, 20 Israeli teens – 10 Arab and 10 Jewish – journeyed to Canada to spend two weeks swimming, canoeing and getting to know each other at a Hashomer camp southwest of Ottawa.
Strangers in their native Israel, in Canada the two groups bunked in the same cabins and had to find ways to get along. By all accounts they had a wonderful time and vowed to look each up when they got home.
The experience of these kids, all of them Israeli citizens, is a lens onto the gap that separates Israelis and Palestinians as peace talks between those two sides falter.
To be invited on the trip, the teens had to write a letter indicating why they support co-existence and why they felt suited to the program. A common theme expressed in the letters was to try to end the feeling of two solitudes in Israel.
Yet now, back in Wadi Ara, they have reverted to their old ways. Not one of the Jewish-Israeli or Arab-Israeli campers had met with a camper from the other ethnic group, apart from a few who keep up from a distance on social media, until brought together with their parents recently to discuss the program with The Globe and Mail.
Hanan’s father, Adnan Abu Abed, remembers having Jewish Israelis as neighbours when he was growing up in Wadi Ara, where his village of Meisar is right next to Kibbutz Metzer, a community established in 1953 by Hashomer immigrants from Argentina.
“Since my childhood, I learned to see the two people [Arab and Jew] as one,” Abu Abed, 55, said. “We had the market where the Jews would shop and they had the factory where many of us worked.
“We swam in the kibbutz pool, played football together,” he added. “We went to each other’s weddings and made condolence visits to each others’ homes.”
That changed when Hanan was a toddler. “Unfortunately, because of the political situation, a fence has been built between us and things are not the same,” said Abu Abed, a retired nurse.
The “political situation” to which Abu Abed delicately refers involved a 2002 terror attack on Kibbutz Metzer, during which an Arab gunman shot dead five people, including a mother and her two small children.
It was the middle of the second intifada, or uprising, and the attacker had come from the Tulkarm Palestinian refugee camp across the Green Line. Although he was not an Arab Israeli, the event shattered the area’s idyllic lifestyle.
Abu Abed allowed his daughter to go on the program to Canada in the hope she’d learn how things used to be between Arab and Jewish Israelis and might be again. But he said he is not surprised that his daughter doesn’t see more of the Jewish-Israeli campers. “These things take time,” he said, “and lots of practice.”
Hanan’s parents said they didn’t want her to go to Canada at first. They relented, and then worried the entire time she was gone about her safety and how she would be treated by the Jewish kids.