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Young Italians Connect with Israeli and Palestinian Youth
Hod Ben Zvi, Secretary General, UPF-Israel
Israel
January 14, 2008

Twenty young Italians ages 16 to 24 spent a week in Israel and Palestinian Territories learning to know the young people there and getting involved in community service activities. Mr. Giorgio Gasperoni, Secretary General of UPF-San Marino, led the group of high school and university students and recent graduates from ten cities in Italy.

"Israel is very close to the hearts of Italians and to our history," said his daughter Daniela, a university student who organizes service projects for young people. "This trip brought me much closer to the historical places where Jesus grew up but also to the people who are living there today."

From December 27, 2007 to January 3, 2008, the young people did community volunteer work, met with local Jewish and Arab youth, and toured the country. They were welcomed by both Palestinians and Israelis, and many friendships developed.

In consultation with senior Ambassadors for Peace, young Israelis and Palestinians organized an informative program that would give their Italian visitors as much time as possible to engage with local people of various communities. Meetings were held with all the major faith groups, giving the Italians opportunities to understand the diverse society in Holy Land.

The participants were welcomed to Jerusalem by Hod Ben Zvi, Secretary General of UPF-Israel, and Dr. Muli Peleg, a professor of political science from Tel Aviv University and co-chair OneVoice, an organization of young Israelis and Palestinians working for peace. Dr. Peleg gave an introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and explained his organization's work to resolve conflict. A few "icebreaker" games with local youth led to laughter and helped the young people feel comfortable with each other.

Prof. Eliezer Glaubach, former Jerusalem City Councilman, led a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem that included the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall, a place of prayer for over two thousand years. Visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, offered the Italians insight into a painful part of Jewish history. The Italians also met city officials and religious leaders in various communities.

The itinerary included visits to holy sites and refugee camps in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. They rode a boat on the Sea of Galilee and saw historic sites in Tiberias and Nazareth. Tours of Jaffa and Tel Aviv gave the young people experiences of modern metropolitan Israel, in contrast to the traditional religious atmosphere of Jerusalem.

What made the week unforgettable were the many opportunities to do projects with local people, play with children, and discuss common concerns with other youth. Each encounter had a unique flavor.

At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, they met leaders of the Student Union and volunteer groups. In discussion groups they shared freely with one another, with the Italians asking about Israeli student life and the Israelis asking the Italians what they thought about the separation wall. They also met with two women serving in the Israeli army. The Italians asked them many questions about their lives as soldiers and their concerns for Israel, and the soldiers asked the Italians about their concerns for their own country.

The Italians helped a Jewish scout group, Mashatzim, clear an area of trash in a forest where Jewish settlers used to live. Together, they joked while they picked up items such as old picture frames and inflatable swimming pools.

At a community center for Ethiopian Jews in the southern city of Beer Sheva, one group painted an electrical box in a poor neighborhood, decorating it with lots of color and the word "Peace." The local people were disappointed that the young people could not decorate the entire neighborhood. The second group planted trees in the yard of the community center and cleaned the area. Afterwards, they played with children at a kindergarten.

An Italian high school student, Chiara De Notaris, said, "I will never forget the eyes of the children, the smiles of the boys and girls so extraordinarily similar to us, who share the same dreams, fears, and hopes for peace."

In the central Israeli town of Petach Tikva, the Italians met with 25 youths in a leadership program for community volunteering. The Italians listened with interest to their explanations about their volunteer programs, and the Israeli youth were inspired to hear about the Global Peace Festival.

They met both Christian and Muslim Arabs living in Israel. The Italians met with Christian Arab youth in Nazareth, who shared their visions for life and what they want to accomplish. The Italians asked a lot of questions about their political points of view. In the end both groups felt so close that none of them wanted to part. Arab-Israeli Muslim students from Haifa University described their frustrations with the conflict and the walls dividing Israeli and Palestinian territories. After an Arab-style meal and a performance by Arab dancers, the Italians joined in the traditional dancing.

There were opportunities to meet Palestinians. At the only community center in the Old City of Jerusalem, they played with Arab children who were hesitant to respond at first but in the end did not want to part from their new Italian friends. At the Shoafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, the Italians visited a girls' high school and asked many questions about the Muslim culture and dress code. Some of the girls accompanied the Italians on their visit to NGOs in Ramallah, in the West Bank, so they could continue their conversations. The Secretary General of UPF-Palestine, Mr. Kamal Thabet, described the breakfast feeding projects in kindergartens and youth activities in Gaza.

"What struck me most was to see young people 18 and 19 years old having to serve in the army and carry weapons," Daniela said. She was also touched by the Arabs who told her they were always judged or feared because of their Arab heritage. Chiara said, "The stories of teenagers like us were unforgettable and gave us insiders' views of the conflict." One person told her that peace was a matter of trust. Another person expressed hope that peace would come step by step. Still others seemed skeptical about the prospects for resolving conflict because decisions rest "in the hands of the people in power."

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