JERICHO — Sawsan Sharif gazed at the elaborate mosaic floor of Jericho’s sixth century synagogue Shalom Al Yisrael and thought of coexistence.
“It’s my first visit to a place like this,” she said, remarking on the heart-shaped blue and red decorations on the ground. “The message I take from here is that peace and love should prevail between people. They should love each other once again. How? I don’t know.”
Sharif, a 42-year-old resident of Hebron, came with her sister on a two-day field trip dubbed Tiyul-Rihla, Hebrew and Arabic (respectively) for “excursion.” Started by Israelis and Palestinians who believe the best way for the two peoples to know each other is through their feet, Sawsan’s group comprised 20 Jews and 20 Palestinians.
Tiyul-Rihla’s outings alternate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and, according to the initiative’s mission statement, “are kept as balanced and as non-political as possible, in order to appeal to the widest spectrum of participants.” This trip, the eighth since its inception nearly three years ago, took participants to Muslim, Christian and Jewish historic sites in the West Bank cities of Jericho and Bethlehem.
Yovav Kalifon, a 32-year-old physics student from Jerusalem, said he came up with the idea for Tiyul-Rihla during a dialogue seminar with Palestinians in Beit Jala in June 2011, following a long history of pro-peace activism.
“I challenged myself to come up with a project that will address the basic issues that other dialogue programs are missing,” Kalifon told The Times of Israel. “To explore the most basic elements of Israeli and Palestinian identity.”
Kalifon identified a flaw in existing dialogue programs: participants tend to be “usual suspects,” peace activists in both societies who need little convincing on the need for dialogue.
“It’s usually pretty one-sided. Jews organizing things for themselves; organizers who seem to have both the explanation for the conflict and the solution to it.”
By visiting and debating the history of both societies, Kalifon hoped to invoke more candid dialogue on the most painful elements of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“Other programs show you the settlements, the roadblocks. They tell Israelis what happens on the surface but don’t really explain the conflict, neither its reasons nor its solution.”
Kalifon partnered with two young female students from Hebron, secured financial support from the Idaho-based Center for Emerging Futures, and in September 2011 launched the first trip to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Initially, participants on both sides were either friends or relatives of the organizers. The emphasis of the trip was historical, moving chronologically from the British Mandate to 1948, including a visit to Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem.
“There was a big wow effect,” Kalifon said. “At times, we understood that the most basic elements of Jewish history — which I thought everyone in the world knew — were unheard of in Palestinian society. Palestinians were terrified to come to Israel. They feared for their lives, imagining terrible things could happen. It was so surprising for Israelis to hear that Palestinians feared them.”
The impression Israel left on the Palestinian participants during the first trip caused them to want to reciprocate with a similar expose of the Palestinian territories, which materialized that December. Thus, the dynamic of alternating trips to Israel and “Palestine” was born.
Tiyul-Rihla’s great advantage, many of the participants agree, lies in its informality. With no facilitation to speak of, Palestinians and Israelis spend time on the trail learning about each other’s ritual practices, discussing politics over dinner or debating the advantages and disadvantages of arranged marriage.
Organizing such unusual trips is not without its challenges, however. Finding Israeli Jews from the political or religious right has not been easy, Kalifon said; and all Palestinian participants require special permits to enter Israel, which usually arrive a day before the trip begins.
“There are some Palestinians who cancel at the last minute, and I’ll say ‘great, there go two months of work,'” Kalifon noted wryly.
At first, Sawsan of Hebron objected to the very idea of Tiyul-Rihla, because, she said, “I never came in contact with civilian Israelis. We [in Hebron] see two types [of Israelis]: either soldiers or settlers. For both those groups I have little love.”
But Sharifa Sharif, a 47-year-old tourism official, had gone on the trip four times before and kept coming back “to collect a new repository of people.” She told her younger sister Sawsan that the trip would be well worth her while.
“I wanted to know these human beings who occupied our land. Who are they? What do they think about?” Sharifa told The Times of Israel. “I believe that if you’ve managed to understand the other, you will be able to accept him and eventually reach a solution with him.”
Sharifa said that when telling people in Hebron she was going on a trip with Israelis, they were “surprised” but no one opposed the idea. On the trip, she was pleasantly surprised to meet many Jews who spoke Arabic.
“This is proof that you’re interested in understanding us, just as we are you … If one day I meet you in Tel Aviv or in Nazareth, it would be impossible for you to ignore me.”
Outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Inbar Amir, 31, found it strange listening to the Christian tour guide’s first-person account of an IDF bombardment of Beit Jala. Amir vividly remembered the sniper shooting and mortar shells fired from Beit Jala across the valley at her native Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo during the same period.
Amir never participated in dialogue with Palestinians before, because she feared it would paint her in ideological colors she did not identify with.
“I had an aversion to this type of thing because it’s associated with a very political agenda. If you meet with Palestinians, it’s clear what your political views are, that you’re a leftist. You’re probably a radical. I didn’t want to make a political statement.”
But Amir’s curiosity to both “enter places I’ve never been to” and “meet Palestinians in their own territory” led her to sign up for the trip after seeing it advertised on Facebook. As the tour wound down on Friday, she felt she had been part of “an encounter, not a demonstration.”
“I think something very interesting happened in the dynamic [with the Palestinians],” Amir said. “I’m a guest here, and without them I’d feel very unsafe. So, in effect, they’re causing me to feel safe. That’s a very refreshing equation compared to normal encounters with Palestinians.”
Framing the program as a hike in nature rather than a heavy-handed meeting around a table has allowed Amir not only to come, but also to express herself more freely.
“I am able to listen while having no burning need to make myself heard,” the theater director and informal Jewish educator said. “I’m not made to feel very guilty or very justified. It feels right to me.”
Not all participants on the trip fit neatly into the categories of Israeli or Palestinian, though.
Atheer Ismael, 26, a native of the Arab Israeli town of Jaljulia now living in Jerusalem, said she came to Tiyul-Rihla feeling “like the other side of everyone and of no one.”
“Since I’m in the middle, I know a lot about both sides, but there are many things I don’t know. I’ve met many people from the West Bank before, but none of the friendships ever lasted.”
Touring the historic sites, she said, “emphasizes the commonalities between the peoples” at a time when Israelis and Palestinians regard their existence in the land as mutually exclusive.
“This bothers me a lot. I want there to be room for everybody,” Ismael said.
At one point during the trip, Amir of Jerusalem asked Sharifa Sharif of Hebron whether she felt uncomfortable being seen by Palestinians together with Israelis.
“Not at all,” Sharif answered. “It’s about respecting your neighbor. It’s about mutual respect.”