Road to peace is paved with small miracles

October 14, 2005

The unlikely friendship between a Gaza Arab and an Israeli Jew in a London university gives Bill Parry hope

It was the shopping trolley that brought them together.

Separated back home by decades of conflict and hatred - and latterly by the implacable concrete of the security wall - Eran Zucker, an Israeli Jew, and Waleed, a Palestinian Muslim, could never have expected to become friends.

But they had both arrived in London hoping to gain an insight into the "other side". And when the two City University undergraduates were dispatched to the supermarket last September, they found they had a similar sense of humour almost immediately.

Eran recalls with an irrepressible smile: "Waleed and I went grocery shopping and we shared a trolley. We were putting our stuff inside it but we needed to separate what was mine and his. So I put a loaf of bread down the middle to divide it. Waleed said: 'You Israelis - you always have to build walls, don't you?'"

Eran just laughed. It was the start of a remarkable friendship.

Waleed and Eran are anomalies. Their desire to bridge the political and psychological chasm that separates their warring communities sets them apart. Waleed cannot use his real name in this article for fear that it might lead to repercussions in Gaza.

Yet the two young men answered local newspaper advertisements offering scholarships to live and study with 14 other Palestinians and Israelis in London. It was the first year of an initiative run by the Olive Tree Educational Trust, an organisation co-founded by Steve Miller, City University's deputy vice-chancellor, to develop dialogue and mutual respect between future professionals in the region.

Waleed signed up for a BSc in computer systems engineering, Eran for a BSc in business studies. But both appreciated the more significant opportunity on offer. Back home, their friendship - sharing dorms, meals and jokes, playing football, socialising and relaxing together - could unfold only in a theatre of the absurd. In London, though, it is different.

Miller says that the students begin to show a surprising degree of empathy as they get to know each other. "I've heard an Israeli student taking a stance that is more pro-Palestinian than some of his Palestinian mates and vice versa," he says. "A role reversal of this kind is the ultimate measure of the two groups coming together and starting to take a realistic view of the nature of the conflict."

In August 2004, I visited Israel and Palestine to see how a number of small yet determined organisations dedicated to "peaceful coexistence" manage to survive in such an inhospitable environment. I learned of the Olive Tree Project and also of the friendship between these two students, neither of whom acts like he is doing anything particularly brave or extraordinary.

They just get on with it because that is what they came here to do - to live and learn, and to learn to live together.

I meet them separately at the end of their first-year courses. Eran, 24, has a slender build, short hair and glasses, which lend him an academic air. He carries himself with polite aplomb and enjoys sharing a joke.

Waleed is taller and darker, with a neatly groomed moustache and goatee and an enviably chilled manner. Sporting a tight-fitting woollen hat, he resembles soul singer Craig David. Whereas an animated Eran talks quickly and gesticulates, Waleed is quieter and takes time before articulating his thoughts, which he does with a largely uniform expression, broken now and again by a laugh.

When I first encounter Eran, he has an awful cold but is cheerful and accommodating on a drizzly spring afternoon. Sipping Earl Grey tea in a local pub, he tells me that, as his friendship with Waleed evolved, their handling of sensitive political matters has too. "Things back home affect our discussions here, of course. The good thing is that, as friends, we're able to speak more openly. Connecting on a personal level allows you to discuss more delicate matters, which we wouldn't have done in the early days. And when something awful happens back home to the Palestinians or the Israelis, the friendship gives the events a personal context and we respond differently."

The following week I meet Waleed in a largely abandoned student kitchen. He says: "I deal with people as they are. Eran seemed friendly and funny. Did he mention the shopping experience?" He lights a Marlboro Light and continues: "That situation strengthened the friendship. You want to be open, to be yourself. At the beginning it was difficult - we all would revert to our own groups whenever there was a conflict or argument between us. But now that's changed, and it's an important change."

Leaving home for university can be unsettling at the best of times. How much more so when you move overseas, immerse yourself in a different culture and climate, and live among people who are locked in an armed struggle against you back in the Middle East. During their first year at City, there were momentous events such as Yassir Arafat's death, elections in Palestine and the announcement of the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza. Such events are the inescapable backdrop to Waleed and Eran's friendship.

As part of the Olive Tree Project, students will return home for final-year projects creating cultural, commercial and technical cross-community initiatives. But despite such good intentions, their impact will be dictated largely by the political situation - which is rarely auspicious.

Waleed and Eran, though, show a healthy degree of insouciance and are probably the wiser for it.

When they first arrived, the differences between the Palestinian and Israeli students were not always harmoniously or diplomatically broached.

But they worked hard with the project's organisers to find other ways to establish trust. Eran tells me that once you can argue comfortably on the football pitch about an offside call, "it makes it easier to argue openly when we turn to politics". Yet it is one thing to forge links kicking a ball around a London field, another to sustain those links in the Middle East.

Exams over, both Eran and Waleed are excited about returning home for the summer. And not long after the London bombings, I make plans to meet them out there. I receive similar text messages of concern and assurance from both: "Very sorry to hear about the attacks, hope you are safe. You should be safer here :-) Look forward to seeing you soon."

For a fortnight, I stay in Jerusalem during Israel's emotive withdrawal from Gaza. Thousands of supporters of the settlers gather to protest, pray for a miracle and clash with soldiers. Several Israeli Arabs are murdered by Israeli terrorists. Friends tell me the Palestinian people of Gaza would still be imprisoned in their own land. The Olive Tree Project suddenly seems minuscule, quixotic and in need of a miracle itself. I reflect that a friendship across the communities, while not a hostage to this maelstrom, could never exist unaffected by it.

I meet Waleed first this time. Gaza was out of the question amid the chaos of the Israeli withdrawal so I travel to Cairo, where he is staying. Over a hookah at dusk - watermelon flavour for me, cherry for him - we talk amid the incomparable noise, poverty and pollution that characterise the city.

Dressed in a New York Yankees top and jeans, he tells me that it was wonderful to be immersed in all the things he had missed most in London, "the warmth of family and the good food". He had spent his summer indulging in these, as well as taking his girlfriend to see the sights of Egypt.

But it is not a totally relaxed meeting. When I ask him if he had been unable to discuss his year abroad in Palestine, there is an element of resignation and discomfort in his nod.

"This isn't easy to accept for many in my community," he says. "This approach is not the common thinking in Gaza. Interaction with Israelis is a concern and Ionly talk about it with my closest friends and immediate family who I know are open-minded.

"At the same time, if you hide things and people are suspicious, that's bad too. It's very confusing."

This ironic catch-22 situation angers Waleed. Exhaling faintly cherry-scented smoke, he continues: "It frustrates me, because I'm hoping, like everyone else, for a positive change, even if it's a small step."

Yet he understands why this mentality exists in Palestine. A people who for decades have been under occupation by a force whose policies have cost them dearly in lives, quality of life and freedom are extremely economical with trust because they cannot afford to be otherwise.

A few days later I am back in Israel, driving north past Armageddon and Nazareth. The landscape is verdant and hilly on the road to Safed (pronounced "Tzvat"), Eran's home town, overlooking forested slopes and the tranquil Sea of Galilee.

Unlike Waleed, Eran has long been involved in community projects bringing together local Arab and Jewish youth, even though Safed is a conservative town, home of the Kabbalist movement and many orthodox Jews. His father, Avigdor, full of paternal pride, boasts that Eran intentionally told people he knew were right-wing about his participation in the Olive Tree Project to incite debate. Talk about an engagement plan.

Driving me through the fertile valleys between Safed and the Golan Heights, Eran says that he is now more critical of the media. He notes a change in himself: "When I speak about the conflict, I speak as an Israeli, but I also now factor in the Palestinians and their situation. Most Israelis think of the conflict from Israel's perspective only."

It is late September when I meet Eran and Waleed together for the first time. So far, it has been like reading a play about two characters without seeing it performed. Yet this separateness has a deep resonance: I, a stranger and foreigner, was free to visit them on their own turf. They could not and might not for many years.

We meet outside the City University building. It is drizzling again and poor Eran is nursing another cold. We retire to a nearby bistro pub and find a table. Eran jokes with Waleed: "Maybe we should sit beside each other for this interview, like we're married." In the end, they sit opposite each other.

We struggle with the menu's fashionably obscure ingredients and settle on no-nonsense steak sandwiches. And as we chat, it happens - the friendship comes off the page and materialises. They laugh, joke and tease each other (especially as we discuss Waleed's likeness to Craig David).

But sensitive issues are raised and handled delicately between the two.

Waleed says that trust remains elusive on both sides of the political divide. He cites Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's seemingly magnanimous and painful withdrawal from Gaza. "Once the settlements were removed, he announced that he was building new ones in the West Bank. Why should we trust him?" Waleed asks. Eran says little but acknowledges the dilemma. I think back to Israel, Gaza and Cairo, to the conflict and to how the Olive Tree Project seemed dwarfed into insignificance.

City's Miller, however, believes small initiatives such as this are of great importance in the greater scheme of things. He argues that theoretical peace can be translated into reality only if there is a "social and commercial infrastructure underpinning the political process that will allow communities to work together. That's where projects of this kind are absolutely critical".

I think he's right. As Eran and Waleed express their enthusiasm for the year ahead - which includes shopping, socialising, eating, studying together - that is what's important. The seeds of change that have been planted are more genuine than any cultivated by a handshake between leaders.

I sit with Waleed and Eran. Serious discussion is always punctuated with laughter and joking. At one point, I assume that they have debated about what Israel and Palestine must negotiate to create any lasting peace, such as Jerusalem, settlements, right-of-return, water, and ask if they see eye-to-eye on the issue.

"Actually," says Eran, "we've never discussed this." He laughs as he turns on me, rallying Waleed in his support: "You! You're just trying to divide us! You're not interested in peace, but in making us enemies!"

Their laughter tells me that would not be easy.

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