09/02/2009 09:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Israeli, Palestinian Teens Talk Peace in Chicago

Although Israelis and
Palestinians have been meeting and communicating at a grassroots level
to better understand one another and work toward a more peaceful
future, the initiatives that bring them together do not receive the
recognition that they deserve. Until a comprehensive solution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found, these grassroots initiatives
remain vitally important.

One of these initiatives is Hands of Peace, which began in spring 2002
when Gretchen Grad and Deanna Jacobson, a Christian and Jew living in
Northbrook, Illinois, began talking about how glad they were that their
children were growing up with peers of different faiths. The two
neighbors had a vision to spread intercultural understanding beyond
their own neighborhood and foster it in youth from the Middle East.

With the help of Nuha Dabbouseh, a member of the local Islamic Cultural
Center (ICC), Gretchen and Deanna secured sponsorship from Glenview
Community Church, B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE), a Reform Jewish
congregation, and the ICC, as well as the support of individual donors
and local businesses.

Hands of Peace was born with the belief that bringing Israeli and
Palestinian teens together in a safe, supportive and neutral setting
could begin a dialogue that would promote understanding—and therefore a
more peaceful future. While they realize that cultural appreciation
alone is not enough to mend the animosities that have fueled
generations of conflict, they recognize that putting a face on the
“other” is part of the necessary groundwork for peaceful coexistence.

This summer, from 17 July to 3 August, 21 local families volunteered to
host five Arab citizens of Israel, eight Palestinians and eight Jewish
Israelis. The students and staff visited the Illinois-based Islamic
Foundation in Libertyville, Glenview Community Church and the Jewish
Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston to observe religious
services and take advantage of educational opportunities.

Dialogue sessions are the heart of the Hands of Peace Summer Program
and encourage participants to discuss contentious issues and develop
critical thinking and communication skills. Each group is led by two
facilitators who work to create a safe environment in which
participants can express their thoughts and feelings. Beginning with
introductions and trust-building exercises, the groups establish ground
rules and move on to discuss more contentious issues, gaining deeper
understanding of the conflict.

As 18-year-old participant Jafar Qutob of Nablus explains, “I want to
represent my people as they are: humans who are eager to have a better
life than the one they are living today, a peaceful life without war,
killing or any kind of violence. I will try to communicate and
socialise with all different people regardless of their religion or
nationality, and especially with Israelis, who I believe are humans
like me."

During the intensive two-week program, American teens who serve as
hosts join their Middle Eastern counterparts for daily dialogue
sessions, team-building exercises and cultural activities. “It's also a
great learning experience for the Americans who become much more aware
of the conflict and its impact on their teen peers from the region.
We've had program alumni go on to study Arabic or international
relations, and to generally take a serious interest in world affairs,"
says Julie Kanak, Hands of Peace's executive director.

Board chair Debby Fosdick describes some of the longer-term results for
Middle Eastern participants: “Many of these young people had no contact
with the other side prior to Hands of Peace, and when they return home
they make the effort to come together to continue the dialogue they
started here. We've also had some parents in the region come together
with their children in informal settings. Many of our participants have
made presentations at their schools, not only about Hands of Peace
specifically, but about the merits of non-violent conflict resolution.”

While there is still a great deal of work in ensuring a peaceful
coexistence in the Middle East, groups like Hands of Peace are
essential in creating one part of that foundation.

Originally published by Common Ground News Service.