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Ottawa camp tries to mend the divide between Arab and Jewish Israeli teens

Campers, Jewish Israeli Loran Stern and Israeli Arab Hanan Abu Abed, reunite at Kibbutz Givat Haviva in central Israel on March 29, 2014.

Heidi Levine/The Globe and Mail

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.

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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.

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"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.

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Learning that several of the Arab parents had such concerns, Michal Stern, Loran's mother, met with some of those Arab mothers. She said she wanted to assure them that Canada was safe, that the camp was well run and that the Jewish kids – Israeli and Canadian – would treat their Arab guests well. This adult support system is an unintended benefit of the H2H program.

The young people give lots of reasons why they don't get together with the others since their return home. Some cite the long hours doing school work or the fact that Jewish and Arab holidays come at different times.

Loran, however, cut through it all. "No excuses," she said. "Our cultures are still very far apart."

Members of the Arab-Israeli community – 1.7 million people representing about 21 per cent of the population – have increasingly asserted their Arab identity and reject the notion that Israel should be identified as a "Jewish state." They have come under attack from Jewish political leaders who insist they show their loyalty through the use of Israel's flag and anthem, and by avoiding displays of solidarity with nearby Palestinians.

Last summer, several of the Arab-Israeli campers turned their back on the Israeli flag when it was raised in a camp ceremony, and declined to sing the Israeli anthem that followed. Few of their fellow campers noticed.

"You have to understand," said Zakaria Mahameed, the Arab-Israeli teacher who accompanied the group to Canada. "Yes, these kids are Israeli, but they strongly identify with the Palestinians [of the West Bank], and the anthem is all about the Jews returning to the home. It's not their anthem."

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman objects to such contradictory behaviour by Israelis and has strongly suggested that Wadi Ara's Arab communities be carved out and the territory handed over to a future Palestinian state. This is something none of these parents wants – they appreciate the opportunities in the relative stability of Israel and its democracy.

Ibrahim Yehia, an Arab-Israeli scientist whose son, Bashar, was in the program, gets angry at the Lieberman suggestion. "There are two cultures, and they're in conflict," he says. "It's important to confront that conflict, resolve it and make all our lives better."

Yehia, who lives in the area's most affluent Arab-Israeli neighbourhood, wanted Bashar to go on the trip to Canada in order to relate to members of the Jewish-Israeli community. "There's no reason to be afraid of the Jews," said Yehia.

For bashful Bashar, 15, it was a big learning experience. "I was happy when I was told I could go to Canada, but not so happy to learn I had to bunk with Jews," he said. "In the end, I was excited to find they actually respected us."

Umm al-Fahm, a nearby town of roughly 50,000, is considered the most radical of all Arab-Israeli communities. It's the one town most Israelis want to stay well clear of. Two of the 10 Arab campers hailed from there.

Deema Mahajne, 16, was one of them. She said there's no point inviting one of the Jewish girls to visit – no one would come. So she stays in touch via Facebook, especially with Lilach, the Jewish-Israeli girl with whom she roomed when the group visited Toronto for two days after the camp.

Deema is a bundle of energy as she bounces around her family's modest home, jumping onto a couch and sitting cross-legged. She is itching to see the world beyond her conservative hillside community.

Her mother, Hadeel, a medical secretary, admits she was reluctant to let her daughter go on the trip. She worried most about what might develop between the Arab and Jewish kids – not tensions, but transgressions from their family's conservative values.

"There is a border between us," she explained, "a border of thinking. Our praying and their praying are different. There are not a lot of things we have in common," she said.

That is why she was glad to hear the respect the Jewish kids showed for the Muslims fasting during Ramadan last summer. "Jews do respect religion," she said, a realization that was another of the benefits of the experience.

The problem, says Sabeel Jasmawe, a 19-year-old Arab Israeli who was in the initial H2H program three years ago, is that "even these nice Jewish kids will grow up, go into the army and learn to hate Arabs."

Sabeel said she kept in touch with some of the Jewish kids from her year, even meeting with some of them at different people's homes. But the Jews her age now are in the army and the meetings have petered out.

Looking around the H2H room full of kids and their parents, you can see the excitement and pleasure over this effort at co-existence. So how do they get the kids to see more of each other and nurture this harmony?

All the parents agreed the kids needed more time together, but because of the cultural disconnect they needed organized events to bring them together. Some suggested the experience be repeated with the same kids for more than one year, or that more events be organized back in Israel.

"What we really need," said Ram Pade, 15, "is to go to school with each other." In Israel, with few exceptions, the primary and secondary schools are organized strictly on religious lines.

Yehia, a graduate of Israel's elite Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, agrees. The next generation "needs that kind of time together to face the conflicting cultural differences and work together on the solution."

Two solitudes is "not the answer," he said.

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