Members of the Israeli and Palestinian delegations pose with their Italian hosts in Verona.High school biotechnology teacher Gilat Simon worried at first about chaperoning a group of 50 Israeli and Palestinian teenagers on a trip to Verona, Italy. But when the teacher from Israeli central city of Ra’anana first met her Palestinian counterparts, her concerns were allayed.
“I travelled to Italy really wanting dialogue and to have a honest, productive encounter with the Palestinians, so I put my fears aside. From the first moment, I saw that the Palestinians were doing the same regarding we Israelis, and it turned out to be wonderful.”
Gilat was part of a delegation of 25 students and 2 teachers from the Aviv High School in Ra’anana who were invited to Verona from April 7-14 together with an equal number of students and teachers from the Terra Sancta school in Bethlehem. The group was invited by the mayor of Verona, Mr. Paulo Zanotto, whose city signed a sister city treaty with both Ra’anana and with Bethlehem in 1998.
The Israeli and Palestinian high school students were invited to join their Italian counterparts, students at the Liceo Scientifico “G. Fracastoro” school in Verona. The school prepared a full program of meetings, cultural and sporting events and touring with a view to building a base of friendship, cooperation and good neighborliness between youth of the three cities. The students from the Middle East were also hosted in the homes of Verona students.
Sharona Binyamin, acting principal of Aviv High School and the second Israeli chaperone, described the atmosphere as “very warm” and said that the goal of “building personal relationships” between the Israeli, Palestinian and Israeli students was achieved.
In addition to touring the historic city together, the Israeli and Palestinian students spent three mornings in the Italian school, scattered throughout the various classrooms.
“We tried to focus on what we all had in common. The kids talked about their families, music, sports teams and television shows they liked,” said Binyamin.
Without dwelling on political differences, the situation in the region was discussed in an indirect manner, she said. “We spoke on the situation from our personal perspectives, about our hopes, fears and dreams. We avoided getting into political arguments.”
Simon noted that “What was really wonderful was that not only the students, but the teachers were able to find what they had in common, and not what divides them. Everyone quickly assumed their natural roles of ‘students’ and ‘teachers’ and it mattered little who came from where. All of the teachers were continually counting the students to make sure no one strayed from the group. When the kids had a problem, they turned to the nearest teacher, regardless of their nationality.”
“I was happy to meet people from the other side of the conflict and to find that they are just like me; family people, warm people, and that like me, they are in pain from the political and security situation – including economic pain.”
She said that she “truly hopes that next year, we in Ra’anana could be able to host the groups from Italy and Bethlehem at our school.”
The mayor of Ra’anana, Ze’ev Bielski first raised the possibility of this three-way interaction between students, when he hosted the mayor of Verona, Paulo Zanotto in Ra’anana in August 2002.
“I attach great importance to promoting dialogue and mutual understanding between peoples of the region in general and between youth in particular – especially during these difficult times. The rich program of meetings and social interaction allows all the students to meet, share common experiences and discuss issues of common interest, including the situation in the Middle East,” said Bielski.
That the experiment was a success was evident from the messages posted on the Aviv High School Internet Bulletin Board during the course of the visit. The students wrote in groups of three representing the Israeli Palestinian and Italian perspectives.
Their writing reflected their enthusiasm for the experience – and the fact that they are teenagers. A trio named Gudy, Mostofa, and Adi (Italian, Palestinian and Israeli respectively) wrote:
“We had the best time ever.
it was a small step on the way to peace…
Gudy: the Israeli and the Palestinians are wonderful people and very nice.
We feel very close to them.
Mostafa: it was nice to meet Israeli people and the Italian people. Italian people are very beautiful and very cute and also the Israeli people. The girls from Israel are very beautiful.
Adi: I learned a lot from that experience. it was a great week for all of us and we thank the Italian people for hosting us and to the Palestinians for taking a part of it. We hope peace will come soon.”
Three other students, Hadar, Abbdalla, and Elisa wrote:
“This week has been a once in a lifetime opportunity, we had the best time of our lives, and we will never forget this week and each other.
We met a lot of new friends and we visited the most fun and beautiful places. We learned a lot abut each other, and we hope that this will not be the first and the last time!!! We had the time of our lives.”