Ramat Gan - At 9.30 am on a blazing summer morning, a convoy of buses pulls up at Ramat Gan Safari Park near Tel Aviv, the largest such park in the Middle East. Out of the buses pour 115 excited children between the ages of 8 and 12, all Palestinians from villages, towns and refugee camps across the West Bank.
Most of the children have never left their hometown before, let alone crossed into 'enemy' Israeli territory. Many, too, have never seen animals as various as the park's hippos, pride of lions and family of giraffes. Only one zoo remains in the entire occupied territories, in Qalqilya, and access to it is severely restricted for Palestinians from elsewhere, so most of the children have only ever encountered farm animals and domestic pets. For them, it is a big, somewhat daunting adventure; for the organizers, it is a triumph of determination over bureaucracy and prejudice.
For four days this mixture of Muslim and Christian children from Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, Tulkarem and Jericho, are participating in the "Children Create Peace" summer camp, alongside 115 Jewish Israeli children. The Israeli kids, of the same age, come mostly from violent backgrounds and situations of severe poverty.
A collaboration between the US-based Kabbalah Center and the Palestinian Abu Assukar Center for Peace and Dialogue, the camp was conceived as part of the Kabbalah Center's wider "Spirituality for Kids" program, begun in the ghettos of Los Angeles to help underprivileged children rise above their physical and practical circumstances.
The program, says joint-organizer Osnat Youdkevitch (TelAviv@kabbalah.com), is based on simple principles that can help profoundly change children's lives.
"Our message," she explains, "is that of dignity for all human beings. It's harder for adults to fully understand, since so much has already been built up around us, but kids have the chance to grow up thinking in a healthier way. If you play, eat and sweat for four days with a group of other kids who are supposed to be the 'enemy', it will stay in your heart forever."
Indeed, after just one hour playing together beneath the trees in a shady clearing in a quiet corner of the safari park, it is already impossible to pick out which of the children is Israeli and which is Palestinian.
Palestinian and Israeli group leaders head activities, including songs, dancing, games and crafts, in which participants work side-by-side, laughing and joking in a mixture of Arabic, Hebrew, English and elaborate sign-language. No one from the outside could guess that the kids cooperating with each other so effectively saw themselves, until this morning, as enemies.
"But what's maybe even more amazing than this," says co-organizer Suleiman Khateeb, secretary of the Abu Assukar Center, "is that it was able to happen at all. It's been a difficult process to coordinate such a big group of Palestinians coming to Israel from all over the place, when it takes such a long time even for a single Palestinian to get permission. We only finally got the permits at 11 pm last night."
While all the children will be traveling each day from their homes to the safari park, those from Jenin - a particularly difficult area to access - will sleep overnight in a hotel in Ramallah.
"They were so excited last night," confides Osnat, "that they couldn't sleep at all. So Suleiman stayed up with them the whole night, to make sure they were ok." Suleiman stifles a yawn: it has been an exhausting process for both organizers but the results are plainly visible in the groups of happy, interacting children.
This is not the Kabbalah Center's first venture involving children in Israel: last year they ran a camp for Jewish Israeli and Muslim Israeli children, the success of which spurred them on to attempt to put together this camp. The organization also aims to create centers for children throughout the occupied territories, the first of which opens officially in Ramallah this week.
"As one of our founders, Karen Berg, said, when a person is cut and bleeding, you check the blood type, not the skin type," says Osnat.
The Spirituality for Kids program, she says, can help change the lives of these many emotionally exhausted children, offering hope and a better future for them, both personally and nationally.
"The biggest thing for the children here," she continues, "is that they have peace, quiet and space to get to know each other. This park is a place without suffering, without killing. It's the best place in the world for them to get to know each other."
The director of the safari park, too, believes that there could not be a better venue for such a camp.
"The idea initially came from the Kabbalah Center," he says, "but I agreed right away. Personally, I believe that normalization of life can only come from the people, because life is stronger than any political decision. If people believe they can live together, it will happen, regardless of the political situation."
The animals of the safari park, he continues, have a lot to teach people of this region.
"Put a puppy and a kitten, or a baby wolf and a baby sheep, together," he says, "And they'll grow up as friends, not knowing they're supposed to be enemies. Besides, animals only fight over food, but after a few minutes of fighting, things are resolved and life goes on. They know the rules and they stick to them, which is why so many species can live side by side. If humans in this region took a little more notice of that, they'd know how easy it could be to do something about this situation."
Outside, the children begin to make their way to the zoo area of the safari park, for a close feeding encounter with the resident giraffes. The atmosphere is one of happiness, hope and joy. While the aims are more far-reaching, the kids today are just doing what kids do best: simply enjoying life, the moment and each other's company.
* Amelia Thomas writes for the Middle East Times.
Source: Middle East Times, August 2, 2005.
Visit the Middle East Times Online at: www.metimes.com
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