“Breaking The Ice” originator Heskel Nathaniel explains the idea behind the expedition to the Dalai Lama.A group of Israelis and Palestinians aim to prove that the two communities can work together – by staging a joint expedition to Antarctica.

The project – called “Breaking The Ice” – will take the eight-member team from Patagonia in southern Chile to the top of an unnamed peak where the delegation will plant Israeli and Palestinian flags and name the mountain – with video footage of the event beamed around the world.

The project is the brainchild of Heskel Nathaniel, a 40-year-old Israeli real estate developer who has lived in Berlin for the last 10 years. Though he resides abroad, Israel is still in his heart.

“I grew up in Haifa, served three years in the Air Force and worked for many years in the Israeli security services in Europe. I’ve spent many years chasing terrorists, so to speak. When I went to study in England, I had to change my perception of Arabs – and they did change. Once you’re outside of the region, outside the pressure cooker, you get a different view of things – and I befriended many Palestinians on a personal level and on a business level,” Nathaniel told ISRAEL21c.

Whenever he would come back to Israel, he saw the situation between Israelis and Palestinians deteriorating, said Nathaniel, and he thought about a way he could make a contribution, and combine his passion for nature and the wilderness on expeditions.

“One crazy night in January, I was with my friend Doron Erel, a professional mountain climber, with whom I’ve gone on many trips. And we came up with a way of combining these elements: an expedition to a far-flung place with Israelis and Palestinians. It would be a demonstration of courage and ingenuity and cooperation between Israelis and Arabs.

“We started speaking to people and the more we talked it, the more doors opened,” said Nathaniel. “Israel is a small country and people told other people, and suddenly we had a groundswell of support and interest. We approached the Peres Center for Peace in March and they helped us by introducing us to important contacts and making the connection with Palestinians. So many people and companies have been so generous in contributing equipment for the expedition and electronic equipment for broadcasting.”

The delegation, including Nathaniel and Erel, consists of eight people – four Israelis and four Palestinians, six men and two women.

“The most important criteria for us was, first, to have a strong desire to go through with it. You have to go through a lot of psychological pressure, it’s a very extreme, dangerous journey, not something for softies. Not so much the physical elements, but the psychological aspect. Secondly, we wanted people that had points of view and friction. There was no point in bringing together eight people that all thought alike – I call them peace pigeons. The idea was to bring together people that could easily be enemies outside. But because they have this shared goal and a challenge to face together, they have to support each other in order to succeed, despite any political, religious or philosophical barriers,” said Nathaniel.

Nathaniel is pleased with the group he has assembled. Nasser Qass is a Palestinian soccer team manager who spent three years in an Israeli prison for being a member of Fatah, outlawed at the time as a terror organization. One of the female participants is an Israeli Arab from Haifa – Olfat Haider – who is a physical education teacher. The other woman is an Ethiopian immigrant named Yarden Fanta – who at the age of 14 walked for a year across the deserts of Sudan and lost much of her family in an attempt to come to Israel. She arrived not knowing how to read or write, and today at 31, is working on her Ph.D. at Tel Aviv University.

Rounding out the team are Ziad Darwish, a Palestinian journalist whose brother was killed during an Israeli Air Force raid in Beirut in 1982, Shoshani Avihu, an Israeli lawyer who served in an elite IDF unit, and Dr. Mohammed Awni Qasem who works at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.

The group has gathered together twice so far. The first time was in July when the expedition was officially announced in Berlin under the patronage of the Presdient of the German Parliament Wolfgang Thierse at the German Parliament. In addition to Thierse, ‘Breaking the Ice’ enjoys the political support and patronage of the Secretary-General of the United Nation, Mr. Kofi Annan, former Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, President of the Justice & Peace Council, Vatican – Archbishop Renato R. Martinothe, former President of the USSR, Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev and the Peres Center for Peace.

One story Nathaniel relates about the initial encounter demonstrates the tenuous tightrope the delegation is walking even before they head for the wilderness.

“We spent two days together, and a lot of it was feeling each other out and there was a tentative, fragile feeling. We agreed on how we were going to present ourselves to the media, how we would respond to questions to show solidarity and arrive at some consensus. We all showed up with white shirts with a logo on them, and looked very professional. A minute before the President was due to walk in and convene the event, the Palestinians took out Palestinian flags and hung them over their shoulders.
I didn’t know how to respond, they had never mentioned this the previous two days. On the one hand, I didn’t want to make a big deal about it, on the other hand it was very unfair to be making a political statement in this kind of gathering,” said Nathaniel.

“Shoshani [Avihu] a lawyer who has made clear his right-wing views, said to them, ‘if you don’t put those away, I’m getting up and walking out.’ It was a very dramatic moment, but in the end they removed the flags and we went on with the press conference. To me it demonstrated that if you have a common goal, there’s willingness to compromise. I think they realized the even was too official and historic, so they decided to compromise,” he concluded.

The second gathering – in mid September – was more congenial, as the delegation went on an afternoon boat trip from the Tel Aviv marina – to get people acquainted with the sea portion of the trip. According to Nathaniel, bonds began to form among the participants and enthusiasm started building for their first week of training at the beginning of November in the French Alps, with their base in the resort of Chamonix, where they’ll be a guest of the mayor.

Although expedition leader Erel is a professional mountain climber, and Nathaniel is an outdoor adventurer the rest of the team has no experience of sub-zero conditions.

“Aside from Doron and myself, none of the group has ever done something like this. It could be that after that week, some may decide to drop out, but it will have to be their decision. I won’t go to anyone and tell them they’re not good enough,” said Nathaniel.

The eight will set sail from Chile on New Year’s Day, and pass through the Drake Passage before making landfall in Antarctica. The passage is a thousand-kilometer stretch of sea considered among the most dangerous and unpredictable on earth. The boat will carry all the gear and provisions required for a 35-day journey, along with satellite communication and video production equipment.

In addition to hoping that the media takes an interest and broadcasts their historic journey, Nathaniel is also planning to reach directly back to the people at home.

“We’ve established a network of 250 schools in Israel and in the PA that are going to be hooked up to us via the computer and we’re going to be able to communicate with them on a daily basis during the expedition. They can follow up, write to us and ask questions,” he said.

Critics may scoff at the idea that eight people climbing a mountain can do anything to further peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but Nathaniel explains why he thinks otherwise.

“I think the main goal of ‘Breaking the Ice’ is to shed a different light on people of this region. The media is thirsty for action, for the terrible news you see in the papers. You see very little of the opposite, and this will show the world that other, positive things are taking place here.

“And how can these eight people influence others? It’s a trip that’s difficult and dangerous – to climb a mountain that has never been climbed before. We’ll be reliant on each other, helping each other, and we’ll be transmitting these moments worldwide. Yes, it’s only eight people who are going, but we’ll be using the same attributes that we need here to achieve peace – Good will, courage, willing to cooperate, and willingness to understand each other. How can you trust somebody with your life if you can’t start by saying hello to them?”