The Peace Conference You May Not Have Heard Of

Most of them came without knowledge. They came from at least seven different countries: Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Kurdistan, Algeria, the Palestinian Territories, and Israel. They were clueless about us, Israelis, and most of them hadn’t met any of us previously. They grew up on the Arab-Palestinian narrative, being told about Israel in a hostile manner, without any sympathy. Their education and their background were a mystery for us. They were a mystery for us. For the whole bus drive, we were thinking about the first words that would come out from our mouths when we finally meet them face to face.

It was a conference planned with Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Academy. Not many people knew about it before, and not many had participated. I personally saw it as a small advertisement on Facebook while I was looking for a job, and, with some trepidation, registered.

The bus picked us Thursday morning at Orlozorov station, Tel Aviv. We headed through the beautiful Vadi Arra area (where many Arab-Israelis live), and from there directly to King Hussein’s border crossing. The landscape was gorgeous, covering the latest green-wet fields that the soft Israeli winter can create. I’ve traveled in over 20 countries during my 20’s; however, this was the first time in my life I’d crossed the Israeli border by bus. From there, we headed south once again through the Jordanian side of the Jordan Valley.

The drive through the Jordanian side was eye-opening. It exposed a beautiful country, so similar to Israel in one way, yet so different in another. As the streets of the Jordanian periphery unfolded, we could tell the infrastructure was poor, and dirt and unfinished construction sites were everywhere. Green little mountains were covering the little markets; modest peddlers were cleaning their goods. Everyone waved at us: kids, adults, old people. They seemed happy, despite the visible poverty.

The landscape was so similar to the one on the Israeli side, and yet the atmosphere was different. It felt as if we were not exactly at home, but at the same time we weren’t really abroad. The air was the same half-desert air; and the little mountains that stretched above the valley were bright green. One thing that was different was the king’s cult of personality: photos of the King’s family were everywhere, encouraging humility, promoting family values and encouraging people to respect the military. Having second thoughts now, I think it might not be so different here in Israel nowadays, regarding our King’s cult of personality.

When we arrived at the hotel next to the Dead Sea, I was assigned with a roommate from Tunisia. A young guy with a lovely smile and genuine attitude for life. The jumping into the pool was almost immediate. For me, the chemistry with the Tunisian group was instant. They were modern, advanced, liberal, smart, and friendly. By the same token, they had also kept their tradition vividly and proudly. The cultural exchange that we had made me question whether our food in Israel is indeed the best in the world as we’re told from an early age; the colorful dresses that they wore; the patriotism, which isn’t a rude word in the Middle East; the upbeat pop-Mizrahi music, which sounded so familiar to the music that drove me nuts every morning during my military service.

Each and every one of them had an interesting life story they brought to the table. Some of them work in hi-tech companies. In Tunisia, yes. Some of them learn and travel through Europe, just like we do.

Through the conference, we’ve have several different speakers from the journalism field and peace activists. To be honest, most of them were not interesting for me, but that didn’t matter. The very fact that we had the opportunity to meet representatives of the young generation from all around the middle east – was extraordinary, and splendid. Nevertheless, Tunisians were not the only people I had the honor to get to know. It was also our long-time conflict – management partners from the hills of Judea and Samaria who participated.

Ahmed (a pseudonym) is young man who lives in Ramallah, the Palestinian Tel Aviv more or less, which is located only 45km away from it. Ahmed was a cool-geeky guy: he’s intellectual, he read books and he loves computers and science. He’s one of these guys you’d probably find wandering around in the Technion laboratory or immersed in some philosophy book at the Hebrew University campus.

One of the most important, tragic yet influential event that occurred between the Israelis and the Palestinians was the Second Intifada, that took place during the years 2000-2005. The brutal terrorism campaign, and the collapse of the peace talks, had dropped the ground under the feet of the left, the right, and the rest of the peace dreamers in this land. This time period was a defining moment for everyone, and for me personally. That’s why I always ask about it, when the conversation turns political.

An Israeli Border Policeman and a Palestinian scream at each other face to face in the Old City of Jerusalem October 13, 2000. One of the most famous photos from the Second Intifada.

Personally, I have a vivid memory of the sooty buses, the suicide bombers, the shooting attacks and the hateful atmosphere which dominated here. I also remember that back then I was a teenager, I didn’t care much about all this. Instead, introverted and shy, I was too busy playing video games and reading fiction books, constantly being reminded that it’s much more fun than school.

For Ahmed, who was also a teenager at that time, the experience wasn’t much different. During operation Defensive Shield (2002), every time the IDF stormed inside his city, they use to announce from heavy loudspeakers that civilians should remain at homes. For adults it was a scary sign; For Ahmed however, it meant no school today, but instead – much more books and video games. Ironically, the IDF announcements came to him as heaven’s gift.

Apparently, me and Ahmed both used to play the same stupid video games from the other side of the fence. Two people from opposite sides of the conflict, killing other people on the screen, while our friends and families were killing each other in the real world. The war was the just background noise for us, a distraction from the real things that filled our days back then. For me, the noise was the suicide bombers and the sooty buses; for Ahmed, is was just the IDF tanks rolling down the city streets. But none of that mattered back then. Both of us, as teenagers, didn’t have the ability to comprehend the full meaning of the events, nor the tragic consequences that followed.

When you grow up in a certain reality, you’re so easily convinced that this is the norm; this is the reality of existence. You can’t see the abnormal if your situation is abnormal for years. We got used to hear about stabbing incidents; you got used to standing at these checkpoints. We got used to being bombed with rockets occasionally; you got used to living without a functioning state. We got used to sending our children into your houses at night; you got used to paying taxes to convicted murderers. It has to be said out loud for both sides in this story: Our situation is not normal. Doesn’t matter right now whose fault it is.

This background noise is invisible, yet it’s lethal; it grows bigger and bigger, distorting our moral values and chewing our sanity on its way. The system we developed may repress the pain, hinder the symptoms or delay the explosion, but it’s not gonna make it go away. It’s here for us to deal with. It will not disappear.

The current status quo is killing us both, slowly. It’s not fair, it’s not sustainable, and it cannot last forever. It’s time to wake up and make a change.


Sharon Zaks

Sharon is a lover of travel and adventure, and after doing a tour of the world, finally finished a degree in Business and International Relations from Hebrew University, and is working on his master’s in International Diplomacy and Conflict at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzilya. Through his travels, he realized the importance of defending Israel, and became passionate about dedicating his life to doing so.