«Trump has moved the United States Embassy in Jerusalem, what do you think about this?» Gal, Israeli, 19 years old, puts a hand over his head. A gesture that doesn’t need explanations. Bissan, Palestinian peer, shakes her head, sorrowful. Having just come back from an intense week in italy with meetings in schools and with citizens of various cities in the North of Italy, from Milan to Bergamo, from Vercelli to Venice, Bissan Tibi and Gal Zak are two very confident youth. They both come from pioneering village Neve Shalom - Wahat al Salam (“Peace oasis” in Jewish and Arabic), located halfway between the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: it is right here that the parents of Bissan and Gal have been living, since the beginning of the seventies, according to an idea of the founder, the Dominican monk Bruno Hussar, together with about 50 families equally distributed between Jewish and Palestinian, all with Israeli citizenship. And it’s here that they have been living all of their life, in a model of dialogue, respect and coexistence unique in its genre and in a State always at war like Israel, whose 70th anniversary from the birth was celebrated last 15 May. This date, however, coincides with a sorrowful date for the Palestinian, the Nakba or “catastrophe”, that is the forced abandonment of their own lands to give room to the newcomers. A still open wound that is having a further peak, as in mid-May the Israeli army killed at least 55 people at the border with the Gaza Strip.
Vita International has met Gal and Bissan in Milan, accompanied by the volunteers of the Italian association Amici di Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam (which translates as Friends of Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam, born to spread the the message of coexistence of Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam), for an open dialogue on the meaning of being a living proposal- them, the oldest children of the founders of the village- of a possible peace in those territories so tragically disputed.
«Coexistence is possible, just look at our experience», Bissan anticipates the question.
«What we have now today and that politics is lacking is the will to coexist. It’s a first, necessary step that however is not made: people don’t see themselves as equal and therefore they don’t want to find a common solution». Their lives are always immersed in the conflict - «living in Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam means always having in mind that other people exist and that they need to be as much as you do», and always being aware of the way things are once you go out of the village. The story of the village has just come out in Italian, it is told in the book Il folle sogno di Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam (The crazy dream of Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam) by Brunetto Salvarani. «Inside the village there is the continuous research for dialogue, also through sharing many moments together and through direct workshops of resolution of interpersonal conflicts. Outside, on the other hand, fear and rage prevail», highlights Gal. «Pieces of paper are not necessary to make peace, rather years of work on a common path, first at social level and then at political level. Instead the other, that is blamed as enemy, especially in Israel is not consider as an individual to get to know».
The outpost of this invisible wall (that anticipates the real one, made of cement, up to 13 meters high and that goes into the Territories for 570 kilometres) is the school. While in the village there are schools from kindergarten to primary school and teaching is bilingual, (even if, since some years, as private school it has become part of the ministry of education in Israel due to the high cost of maintenance) with 90% of the children coming from outside the village (in order to access to schools, as well as to go live there, there is a long waiting list so that the idea is to expand the village up to 120 families) higher education must be completed outside Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam. Gal and Bissan have just finished the 6 years of secondary school in an Israeli public school: «These years have been terrible, especially the first. As Palestinian I was continually bombarded by comments and, during the most complicated periods such as the kidnapping of the soldier Gilad Shalit or the Operation Cast Lead on Gaza, I was insulted. Who on the other hand was simply curious, was asking me questions like “Were you born in Gaza?” “Why do you speak Hebrew? “Why aren’t you wearing the hijab?», says Bissan. Gal continues: « What was normal for us, that is coexistence, was strange for them. I found a lot of ignorance, in the sense that all that young people know about Palestinian comes from the news on television, they have never communicated seriously with an Arab in their whole life. Even in mixed cities, where there are both Arabs and Israeli, people of the two different groups don’t talk to each other».
After the first years the situation has improved, «at the end of the school cycle 90% of the 150 students of the school established a good relationship with us, the remaining 10% stayed quite hostile. Things were better for me as I am Jewish and therefore I am not a minority part of the society, whereas for Bissan and the other two Palestinian youth of the village who attend the school it has been harder». What is sure is that «these difficult years have made us stronger» , says Bissan, the eldest with three brothers and whose mother is a journalist contributing to the Cnn (Gal is third of four brothers, his mother is a nutritionist and his father is a hitech engineer) «even if sometimes it’s hard for us due to how the Israeli educational plan is set up: there are a very few hints to Palestinians, in a whole school text there is only one photo, the photo of a woman with a veil. As for the Arab language, we only learn how to say hello, to tell one’s name and to order hummus at the restaurant». The smile of the two friends is a bitter smile, but they are aware that their commitment can bring fruits, «because things can really change. An example? Before, in our school, a Palestinian could not participate in the commemoration of the Holocaust unless he didn’t stand up to sing the Israeli hymn together with all the others. Now, thanks to our “small” battle, participation is free».
It’s a long, but necessary process. In Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam both adults and young people are firmly persuaded of this and all is conceived for confrontation, starting from the School for peace, a place wanted by the founder where to go to smooth conflicts. Also ecumenism has a fundamental role: on a hill there is the Dumia Sakinah, the Dome of Silence, spiritual centre open to all and in which there is no religious sign. Then, thanks to the Gariwo association, there’s in the village a “Garden of rescuers”, a place where trees that honour the righteous who have saved others of all faiths and identity are planted. «You can’t say that there is no way out, that peace is not possible. We have to know each other, to speak between each other», says Gal. «You don’t have to be afraid of believing in equality between Israeli and Palestinian. It is a complicated process, very complicated, but it is totally feasible», concludes Bissan.
What about the personal future of Bissan and Gal? «I have been exempted from compulsory military service and I will do now two years of voluntary civic service, then I will decide what to study at university», answers Gal, whose point of cultural reference is philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. «I am not sure, on the other hand, whether to study law here in Israel or cinema elsewhere, because I would like to live sometime in another nation», Bissan points out. Both of them already know where they would like to be in the long term: «When we make a family we want to live in Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam».