US-based summer dialogue program for Israeli and Palestinian youth announces closure

After 21 years, Hands of Peace says its shutting down due to funding shortages; alumnus Naama Levy is being held hostage in Gaza

Participants in a Hands of Peace summer program posing for a group photograph. (CC BY-SA 4.0, Hands of Peace, Wikipedia)
Participants in a Hands of Peace summer program posing for a group photograph. (CC BY-SA 4.0, Hands of Peace, Wikipedia)

Hands of Peace, a US-based nonprofit that has organized dialogue programs for Israeli, Palestinian and American youth for the past 21 summers, announced Tuesday that it will close down in the coming months.

The closure is a result of a lack of “funding, volunteerism and leadership,” a statement on the organization’s website said.

Until the closure takes effect on March 31, 2024, the organization said it will support its 840 alumni as “they face devastating violence in the Middle East, along with rising antisemitism and Islamophobia around the world.”

“While I wish Hands of Peace could continue with this important work in this way, my faith reminds me I am a resurrection person,” founder Gretchen Grad said. “I believe that while a body may expire, that spark…that soul merely changes form.”

Founded in 2002 by three women in the Chicago area — a Christian, Muslim and Jew — Hands of Peace brought together dozens of teens from Israel and the West Bank for three weeks of dialogue, at two separate camps in the Chicago and San Diego areas.

The organization’s closure comes amid the most devastating period of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since its founding. One alumnus of the organization, Naama Levy, was kidnapped and taken into Gaza during the October 7 Hamas atrocities, and remains a hostage. Before announcing the closure, the last statement shared on the organization’s website called for Levy’s release.

Naama Levy was taken hostage by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023 from the Nachal Oz army base (Courtesy)

“Following the guidance of Naama’s family and people who are in communications with hostage negotiators, Hands of Peace did not draw public attention to Naama’s kidnapping for several weeks,” the statement said. “We have instead been advocating through backchannels for the release of Naama and all of the hostages by sharing Naama’s story with hostage negotiators, policymakers and others whose decisions could affect her and all of the hostages.”

“No one has a solid answer as to what can help Naama most,” the statement added.

War erupted between Israel and Hamas after the Hamas-led October 7 massacres, in which some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing some 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 360 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists.

During a week-long truce, 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity in Gaza: 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and one Filipino. In exchange, Israel released 240 Palestinian security prisoners, all women and minors.

Earlier, four hostages were released, one was rescued by the IDF, and 2 bodies were recovered. It is believed that 138 hostages remain in Gaza.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says Israel’s military campaign, in response to the terror group’s murderous attacks, has killed more than 16,000 people, most of them women and children. Those figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both Hamas terrorists and civilians, and people killed as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. According to military estimates, some 5,000 Hamas members have been killed in the Gaza Strip, in addition to more than 1,000 terrorists killed in Israel during the October 7 onslaught.

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