WASHINGTON — When Waleed Issa walked into the Americans for Peace Now (APN) Washington, DC office on the first day of his summer internship in June, the 25-year-old Palestinian from the Dheisheh refugee camp south of Bethlehem was startled by what he saw.
“I never saw so much blue and white in my life,” he says. “Everywhere you look, there’s a Star of David and the colors of the Israeli flag. As a Palestinian, I thought to myself, ‘This is not good news. How am I going to work here for the next six weeks?’”
After stepping outside to catch his breath, Waleed decided to return to the office.
“When I came back, I met APN spokesperson Ori Nir and he took me out to lunch. Immediately, I was impressed by his level of knowledge about the conflict and the way he made me feel extremely welcome.”
Nearly a month later, Waleed describes his internship with APN as “beyond interesting.”
I never saw so much blue and white in my life
“I never had the chance to get to know Israelis and the American Jewish community from the inside,” he says. “By sharing an office with them, I’ve been struck by how they’re trying to do good things for the new generation in Israel and Palestine by working toward a two-state solution.”
One of the biggest changes to Waleed’s daily routine, he says, is his “addiction” to websites like the Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and Ha’aretz.
Another change is the addition of someone he calls “a new lifelong friend,” Or Amir, a 25-year-old Israeli intern with The American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP), a pro-Palestinian American organization that advocates for a two-state solution.
Or and Waleed are among 10 young people – five Israelis and five Palestinians – brought to Washington this summer by a group called New Story Leadership which, according to its website, “introduces a radically different approach to peace-building, one that does not pretend to solve the historical controversies or mediate between antagonists.”
Instead, the group offers what it calls a “narrative-based program” that wants participants to focus on creating new stories based on mutual interest and cooperation, rather than “stories that endlessly recycle old grievances, inflate differences and inflame passions.”
Or says she doesn’t pretend that she’ll be able to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but believes person-to-person programs like this are the only way to eventually reach a solution.
“Smarter, wiser, and more accomplished people than Waleed and I have tried to settle the conflict and failed,” she says. “Politicians cannot do what Waleed and I have done – establish a close friendship that humanizes the other side.”
Or is a second-year student from Rishon Letzion studying political science and communications at Tel Aviv University. Before that, she spent four and a half years as an officer in the Israel Defense Force’s Medical Corps. Waleed says it would have been nearly impossible for their friendship to have taken hold back in their native lands.
“Before I came to the program, if you told me an Israeli officer would be working closely with me, I would’ve been like, ‘Holy moly! How am I going to deal with her?”
“As a Palestinian, I only saw Israelis on top of tanks holding their guns over Bethlehem. I wondered, ‘What if she served in Bethlehem? What if she was the one who made me sit at home for 40 days under curfew? What if she shot one of my friends?’”
“But when I started talking to Or and getting to know her, she started telling me about her life and what army life is like. At that point, I started seeing a different angle about the Israeli army. I saw that she was a medic and helped a lot of people. She probably helped treat some Palestinians.” [She did].
Smarter, wiser, and more accomplished people than Waleed and I have tried to settle the conflict and failed
For Or, working with Palestinians at ATFP was less jarring, she says, because of her Sephardic heritage.
“My family is from Morocco, so the art, food, and culture feels very familiar to me,” she says.
On a typical day, Waleed and Or do what most Washington, DC interns do – compile media clips, attend briefings, and help keep the offices running. But the two have a more ambitious goal than most summer interns. They are working on a joint social media project, perhaps a Facebook group page at first, where Israeli and Palestinian youth can meet to exchange views “in a safe place without finger-pointing and name-calling.”
If you told me an Israeli officer would be working closely with me, I would’ve been like, ‘Holy moly! How am I going to deal with her?
Having just earned a BA in Economics from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, Waleed plans to return to Bethlehem and grow his project with Or into something bigger and, eventually, more profitable. His dream is to launch a website or app where joint Israeli-Palestinian innovations can be ‘crowd-funded.’
Although they’ve grown close over the past month and pledge to stay in close touch, neither Or nor Waleed want to be citizens of the same country. They are firm believers in a two-state solution.
“I’m a Palestinian,” says Waleed. “I want to live among my people in an environment that honors my history and traditions. And Or’s grandfather in Morocco had a dream that his children would live in a Jewish homeland. There is no reason these two dreams should be incompatible.”