Seeds of Peace Brought Them Together. The War Might Be Too Much

seeds of peace

In the rural town of Otisfield, Maine, sits the Seeds of Peace Camp, a rustic sanctuary for cross-conflict relations. Seeds of Peace was founded 40 years ago by the foreign correspondent John Wallach, with a vision of bringing “the next generation of Arabs and Israelis together before they had been poisoned by the climate of their region.” That first year — the year of the Oslo Accords — Wallach hosted 15 high school-aged kids each from Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. This summer, 198 children from conflict regions, including Israel, Palestine, India, and Pakistan arrived in Otisfield for the same purpose, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them. 

A central feature of camp was a portion of the day we called “dialogue”: two hours spent talking, listening, and, with any luck, reaching a point of understanding with a small group of campers from different backgrounds. Those sessions taught me just how pointless arguing is. One side will say: I’m right. The other will say: No, I’m right. And, in most cases, they both are right. Multiple truths can exist, and we have to acknowledge that if we want to find a way to move forward. 

Last summer, after weeks of dialogue — and canoeing on Pleasant Lake, and performing camp chants during dinner, and playing Gaga, a game that involved hitting a ball at another player’s shins — my fellow campers and I boarded buses bound for our outside lives. We worried that leaving camp would weaken the bonds we had developed, so we traded contact information, determined to keep in touch despite great distances that would soon stretch between us. By the time the buses pulled out of the parking lot on August 15, many of us were already chronicling our journeys home on a shared WhatsApp group.

“Send pictures!” 

“I’ll open a Google album.” 

“I have 43 photos from the Boston airport.”

“I miss you.” 

“I miss you the most.” 

“Hour 57. We are almost home.” 

“Can’t believe you’re still traveling. I’ve been home for a day.”

Those first few weeks home from camp, we shared photos of our pets and families on the WhatsApp group, marveled at the fact that we had the same TV remote, and FaceTimed at 3 a.m. when some of us were too jetlagged to sleep.

Then came October 7. I awoke in the middle of the night to a stream of WhatsApp notifications on my phone. I flicked through the group chat half-asleep, not quite grasping what had just occurred. “Hey. Hope everyone’s okay. I would really appreciate some type of sign from the Palestinians to know no one’s dead or hurt. Love y’all. Stay safe,” one Israeli camper wrote. “Yes, and from the Israelis too,” wrote a different camper. “Stay safe,” one after another chimed in. Soon, the news of Hamas’ attack on Israeli citizens and Israel’s retaliatory strikes against Hamas was everywhere. 

As the gravity of the situation began to sink in, the tenor of our group chat changed. Explosive fights broke out among friends who had shared tents and cabins just weeks before. The fighting eventually got so heated that the moderator temporarily shut our thread down. It was not just the campers who were struggling, either: In late October, the camp’s executive director stepped down and several other members of Seeds of Peace leadership resigned. 

“These events have deeply impacted the Seeds of Peace community — this is a really painful, difficult time,” Seeds of Peace’s communications director, Eric Kapenga, told Rolling Stone by email. “We know the only viable path forward is one that is forged together, so we will continue to bring people together, across lines of conflict. And we will continue to support our alumni, who are leading in sectors critical to peacebuilding, to work towards systemic change.”

The moderator eventually re-opened our thread. Regrets were expressed, and apologies made. Scrolling through our chat history today, the most bitter exchanges are missing, replaced by a notification: “This message has been deleted.” 

The group chat wasn’t the right forum for these conversations, so I asked four Seeds of Peace campers — two Israelis and two Palestinians, each of whom has been impacted by the ongoing conflict — to join me one Sunday afternoon for a dialogue session, like the ones we had this summer. Omri is an Israeli teenager living in Central Israel; Yafa is a teenage Palestinian living in Jerusalem; Lila a Palestinian teenager, originally from the West Bank now studying in Israel, and Tzvi, a teenage Israeli. 

For their protection, Rolling Stone is identifying all four individuals by pseudonyms. This is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

What has this time been like for you? How safe do you feel right now?

Omri: I’ve felt safe in my region because I live in Tel Aviv, which is a really safe area in Israel. But [another Israeli camper who attended Seed of Peace], his grandma’s house was burned down. The cars in his neighborhood were bombed. Some places in Israel haven’t been touched by the situation. And some other areas have been destroyed.

Lila: I’m in a school in [a city in Israel]. I was warned by the staff that I cannot say I’m Palestinian. I’ve been cursed at just for being in the dining hall we share. I really feel unsafe, actually. It’s a lot of pressure because in my community, I’m kind of shamed [for studying here]: ‘Why would you go study with Israelis and be with them when they hurt us?’ It’s really tough. I think a lot of Palestinians in the West Bank feel really guilty because we cannot do anything to help people in Gaza. A lot of people have been dying — children, women — more than [30,000] people have died. We can’t do anything. We’re helpless. 

Tzvi: I feel generally safe because I live in a pretty safe region, but my grandparents became sort of refugees because they had to flee their homes. I have a family friend whose family lives near Gaza, and their entire family was either killed or taken hostage. Fortunately, most of them returned because of the [November hostage] deal, but it wasn’t easy [before that].

Yafa: I’ve been experiencing lots of hate and violence on my way to school and back. My school is in the Old City [of Jerusalem]. There are so many police [check points] set up there. They stop us, search us all the time. They once hit both of my friends; they had bruises all over their bodies, just for having any pictures of the news on their phones. They were beaten by four police officers in front of us and we couldn’t do or say anything, because then they would take us and search our phones. We’re trying to figure out another way to school because it’s so scary to go back: You remember seeing your friends being beat up here. 

I’m so sorry to hear that — for all of you. I truly hope things get better for everyone. Do you have a story that you would share from October 7?

Omri: I woke up around 6:30 a.m. because the bombings had started. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh, this again.’ I got back to sleep. When I woke up I saw a lot of videos of the Toyota trucks entering the kibbutzes near Gaza. I was terrified of the idea that something like this had happened. And I felt terrible for everyone who was going to get involved — including the Palestinian population that is suffering because of the situation.

Lila: I was back in the West Bank. And I woke up to a lot of messages of people asking me, ‘Are you okay?’ Because they thought I was [at school in Israel]. I was shocked because we never thought something like that would happen. And it was really scary. A lot of attacks happened on the West Bank [after October 7], I know a couple of people who got shot for just walking in the streets, by IDF soldiers, and they died. I know a lot of people who went to prison for just being there. It was very scary to even go out of my house. I stayed in my house for, like, a month. I didn’t see any of my friends. And it was really depressing because a lot of people from my school left because of the conflict.

Tzvi: I have a family friend who was in a kibbutz in the south. I don’t know the specific details, but I know that his mother and brother were killed, and that all the rest of his family was taken captive.

Did our experience this summer at Seeds of Peace prepare you, in any way, for what is happening now?

Tzvi: It is something that I will cherish, but I don’t think it prepared us specifically for this conflict very well. But I can’t blame them because everything that happened has been so extreme, way out of anything that I expected to happen. Everything that has happened since certainly soured what camp was a bit, but I still appreciate that experience a lot.

Yafa: Camp was really fun. I really enjoyed it. But I do agree that it didn’t really prepare us for this. I don’t think anyone can prepare you for something like this. But I think camp helped me try to understand the other side more and try to listen to what people are experiencing.

Omri: In my perspective, I think camp hasn’t prepared us at all for this situation.

Lila: I know camp did not prepare us for a conflict like this — the whole war — it couldn’t, even if we spent two years in camp. It’s really tough to lose some of your loved ones and see people dying around you. It hurts, and it’s really hard. But for me, personally, before I think of saying something insensitive or that would belittle someone’s life I just remember, “Oh, I had Israeli friends too.” I think about them. No, I don’t want people like them to die. There are a lot of nice people, and people who had nothing to do with the conflict. People that are not politicians. People that deserve to live.

In your view, what actions or policies have contributed to the escalation of this conflict?

Lila: I see violence as a circle. And as long as there is violence, like there will always be violence — from both sides. I know people in Gaza suffered a lot, they’re in an open-air prison. They’ve lived through traumatizing experiences all their life. That’s one of the main reasons that the attack happened — because they have been oppressed most of their lives and it just creates hatred and violence.

Tzvi: I can say that I think in order to have a better future, and a chance of peace in the region, then the thing that needs to be done is that Hamas, who initiated the attacks, lose control of Gaza. If the Palestinian Authority takes over there, we could have some kind of negotiations with a united front.

Omri: I think that every time something happens in Israel, it creates hatred towards the Palestinians and then the Palestinians [retaliate]. Like Lila said, this thing is a circle that’s hurting everyone. If we want any kind of peace, or negotiations towards peace, we need to end Hamas. It’s not as easy as it sounds because I think that Hamas is an idea — an idea of liberation. I don’t think we can [end Hamas] in a short amount of time.

Lila: I don’t necessarily think just ending Hamas would be the ideal situation because say we end Hamas, and then people in the West Bank, and people in Gaza, and people in Jerusalem, and even Arab Israelis — they would still be suffering from the violence they experience at the hands of the IDF. As Yafa said, they’ve been assaulted by police officers and it’s nothing new. I had a gun pointed at my head by IDF soldiers for, like, literally doing nothing — just because they want to travel to another city in the West Bank. It’s not just about ending Hamas, it’s also like treating Israelis and Palestinians as equals — that would be a big part of a resolution for the conflict.

Tzvi: In order to have negotiations for peace, which is the ultimate goal, then we need to see Hamas as an organization that doesn’t uphold these values of equality and freedom and quality of life. Because I think they’ve proven [that they don’t stand for that]. 

Lila: Let’s be real: Not the Israeli government, not Hamas, nobody cares about the lives of the other side. Nobody cares — even people in Hamas and people in Gaza, they don’t even care about their own lives anymore. I saw a video of little children saying, ‘I’m going to be dead anyway.’ Like, ‘They’re gonna kill me anyway.’

Yafa: I don’t think that getting rid of Hamas is gonna actually solve the problem because another group is going to form wanting liberty, wanting their rights. Hamas is not something that you can get rid of — it’s a mindset. That’s why I don’t agree with the bombing of [Gaza] because how are you going to know if you killed the Hamas members? You can look at a person and not know what’s going on in their mind. I think we should try to listen to the people — not to the government — because the people are the ones that are actually suffering. 

Do you think one side is more responsible than the other or are there shared responsibilities?

Lila: Both sides killed innocent civilians. I’m not gonna deny the fact that innocent Israelis, including children, died as a consequence of their government’s actions. But this thing started, initially, from the Israeli government treating Palestinians really badly. The whole conflict started because of their treatment.

Omri: I also think that since the beginning — and in recent times — Israel has always treated Palestinians differently than Israeli people, in every kind of way. Most of the conflict has started since Palestinian people have been treated differently.

Tzvi: It’s true that Palestinians have been disadvantaged and, in some cases, are still oppressed. It is something that needs to change, to stop. But I think this war, however horrible it will be — and you can definitely disagree with parts of what the Israeli government is doing and its policy, obviously, that’s totally legitimate. But I think it’s also very true that this war was started by Hamas. The attack on October 7 is what set off this entire thing.

Lila: Yeah, but the conflict didn’t start on October 7. It started 75 years ago, with the establishment of Israel, when the Nakba started. Half a million people were displaced. Personally, my grandpa was a refugee. My mom had to live in a refugee camp. She couldn’t even continue high school because she lived in a refugee camp. They had no rights, barely any food, barely any money. And during the Intifada, they were banned from going out of their house because they would get shot. It didn’t start on October 7. Yes. Hamas started the attack on October 7, but the thing didn’t start on October 7.

What did the Seeds of Peace experience teach you about the other side of this conflict?

Lila: It made me realize that it’s not just Palestinians that are affected by the whole conflict, and occupation. Israelis, once they turn 18, they need to go to the army and a lot of people don’t want to do that. There are consequences for them too.

Omri: Everyone has a story to tell; everyone has his side. When I thought of Palestinians before Seeds, I thought of them in general. But after camp, I could relate. 

Tzvi: When you don’t know anyone from a specific background, you tend to generalize. It’s not necessarily bad, but it is less nuanced. When you have a face to put on something that helps to understand it.

Yafa: It helped me understand that a government doesn’t represent all of the people living in that country. Like Lila, I met some people that didn’t want to join the army. And some people that think that their government isn’t perfect — both on the Palestinian and Israeli side. 

What do you wish people from the other side understood about your culture, history, and experiences?

Yafa: I hope or wish that Israel can recognize that there were people living here, and they are Palestinian, they have their own traditions, they have their own community. And I hope that we will be treated equally because the inequality of treatment is what led to this happening. I’m not in support of it, but Hamas wasn’t formed for no reason. I just think that if we were treated equally from the beginning, none of this would have happened in the first place.

Tzvi: I’ve heard a lot of people saying that Israeli culture is colonial, or that Jews don’t have any ties to the region. I think that is very false. Israeli culture is very rich — I don’t think you can label it as colonial. But it is certainly something different that developed here, with art and traditions. That’s what I wish people would stop saying.

Lila: I agree with you. I would not deny that Jews have been living in this land too. Before Israel was established, Palestinians and Jews used to live together, and it was totally fine, actually. I know someone whose parents were saved by their Jewish neighbors during the Nakba — that’s why she’s alive. It’s your right to ask for your culture not to be denied. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have their history here. But one of the main points of the problem is that both sides deny that they have rights to be in this area.

What actions, if any, are you taking or willing to take in order to contribute to peaceful resolution?

Lila: I would speak to people in my community, raise awareness about the conflict, [say that] Israelis are also humans, and they deserve to live. I would also explain that to them: We cannot just kick people out of their homes, like what happened to us. 

Tzvi: I think that, as individuals, the only thing we can do is try to educate and maybe inspire other people in our community to be more compassionate to the other side. I’m Israeli, it’s important that I talk to other people and try to make them empathize with people from the other side. And Palestinians should do the same. I try to empathize with the other side because empathy is one of the most important things that could lead to the conflict ending, and it has to come from everyone.

Yafa: I’m not sure what I could do to help. But we need to stop glorifying death because we’re seeing it all over the internet: People being happy to see innocents killed — Israelis or Palestinians — it’s very disgusting and very sad and we need to start there.

What don’t outsiders understand about this conflict?

Tzvi: They don’t understand living it. People can take sides in different countries, but they can’t actually understand the experience and what it means to be here.

Yafa: Yeah, I agree: you need to live it to feel it and understand what it is. As much as you can, be compassionate. It’s a very hard situation. Even if you’re not suffering directly from the war, even if your house isn’t being bombed out, you are still experiencing racism in the streets, and that’s dangerous. It’s also very mentally draining; the news is very tiring every single day. 

What kind of future do you see for an organization like Seeds of Peace?

Tzvi: I don’t know what will happen to them in the future. But bringing people from areas of conflict together and having them talk civilly and respectfully to each other is something valuable, and that should be continued.

Lila: I totally agree. Organizations like Seeds of Peace should always be there. It plays a huge part in how we see each other, how we interact, and it changes our perspectives. But I don’t know if the same amount of people are still interested in investing in it. I know a lot of people must have lost hope about the whole situation, and don’t want to continue but I hope that won’t be the case.

Yafa: Yeah, I agree. I don’t think that after the events that happened many people living here are willing to join. What I’m seeing around me, if there was, at one time, hope for people to understand each other, now it might be harder. I hope it gets better. 

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