Camp aims to build understanding between Palestinian and Israeli girls

Participants in the Creativity for Peace camp in Glorieta gather for lunch. Clyde Mueller/New Mexican file photo

Against an international backdrop of mistrust and violence, a small group of young women in a camp in Northern New Mexico is working to break down barriers of prejudice and promote peace and friendship between Israeli and Palestinian girls through dialogue and art projects.

More than 200 girls ages 15 to 17 have participated in the Creativity for Peace camp in Glorieta since it started 2003. Half of the campers are Israelis and half are Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Applicants to the three-week-long camp must turn in a written application, go through several interviews and speak English.

Each morning, the girls participate in a dialogue session where they share personal stories and discuss specific topics. After lunch, they attend an art therapy class that promotes healing through self-expression and collaboration. Campers also take field trips to go shopping, to the movies and to other locations in Santa Fe. Girls are able to continue in the organization year-round through programs that take place in Israel and Gaza and the West Bank. They also may become leaders and work at the camp as counselors, organize projects and serve as spokeswomen for the organization.

It is not easy work. Shirit Milikovski, 21, is a Jewish Israeli and one of four young leaders in Santa Fe this summer. She served in the navy for two years and now studies pharmaceuticals. “The conflict is intense in Sderot [Israel] where I live, and I felt a lot of hatred for the other side,” she said. “Whenever the rockets are coming, there is an alarm warning us to go to safety, and we have only 15 seconds to get to shelter. In the last two days before I came here, there were about 70 alarms. I felt sometimes hopeless, and we must come up with a solution, so I became a member of Creativity for Peace. It is my opportunity to talk about my experience and hear what other girls are going through.”

The girls experienced frustration when first listening to campers’ stories from the opposing side. However, with time, they realize that both sides suffer, and they begin to recognize similarities between them. Many of the leaders have made lasting friendships with girls from the other side.

But ethnic divisions run deep. Aya Khalily, 21, a Palestinian living in Israel, said, “The biggest obstacle [to a peaceful solution] would be the extreme people from both sides who have stuck us in this conflict. People are raised to hate the other side.”

Khalily studies occupational therapy in a class of 62 girls where she is one of two Palestinians. “When I share a post over Facebook, they attack me and say things against my opinion. They have stopped talking to me, and when I say ‘good morning’ or something, they just act like I’m not there.”

The young leaders have been more focused on promoting peace through communication than thinking of a solution to the conflict. However, they generally agree that the formation of two separate peaceful countries would be the most viable solution. “I fear we’ll lose the land because we only have the West Bank and Gaza Strip now. If they take it, where would we go?” said Deema Yusuf, 18, a Palestinian from the West Bank now living in Eugene, Ore., where she is studying international relations and peace studies.

Negotiations between Israel and Palestinians are ultimately at a stalemate with tensions only becoming more inflamed. The Washington Post reported that Israelis living within close range of rockets are more likely to vote for right-wing leaders who oppose compromising with the Palestinians. Likewise, Palestinians with more exposure to Israeli violence are less likely to support negotiations. Based on these findings, the recent increase in violence does not bode well for the possibility of any peaceful solution.

“Some people say that Israel wants peace, but if you go deep and study [the conflict], you will understand that they don’t. Peace isn’t good for them. I read a blog about [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu where he said, ‘As long as I am president, there will be an occupation over Palestine.’ The people of power don’t want peace, and they never even thought about it,” Yusuf said. She added that as a Palestinian, she does not support the Islamic military group Hamas but understands that it wants to protect its country and save its land.

Milikovski sees it in a different light: “Hamas are terrorists and what they’re doing is wrong. It’s wrong to kill other people and fire rockets at them. I think they do not care about their people because they are the ones who have the power, and they just need to change their behavior.”

But some differences can be put aside as the young leaders work together to spread the word about Creativity for Peace. As young leaders, the girls work to organize events around the world. Yusuf and her Israeli roommate create events in Oregon frequently and will travel along the West Coast speaking in university classes and in churches. Milikovski and three other leaders will go on a speaking tour around Texas for two weeks in order to talk about the organization and raise funds for both the camp and young-leader programs.

Santa Feans who want to learn more about Creativity for Peace can attend Salaam~Shalom at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, July 31, at the Farmers Market Pavilion. The event will include Middle Eastern music, dancing and food. To learn more about the organization, volunteer or make a donation, visit www.creativityforpeace.com.

Marielle Dent will be a sophomore at The University of New Mexico. Contact her at marielle.j.dent@gmail.com.

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