In the morning, I left very early leaving no chance to arrive late, and was very happy to see the departure area of the borders at the Palestinian side almost empty. I bought my tickets, got my passport stamped by the Palestinian policeman who liked my name and started to sing Fairuz’s song for me, and rode the bus to the Israeli side of the border after 15 minutes.
At the Israeli side of the border, I quickly stood in the lane that was less crowded and hurried to ride the bus that would drive me to the Jordanian side of the border. Moving quickly from one bus to another is the only advantage you get when travelling alone. The Jordanian side, which is the third step in the departure process for the Palestinians, was very busy and having their system stuck made things worst. I was so excited to arrive at the hotel where the conference would be held and was too impatient to wait. I pulled a book by Paulo Coelho from my bag and started to read so time would quickly pass. Two hours later, I was done and met the rest of the Palestinian group and then rode a taxi to the hotel. “Oooooooh,” one of the guys at the busy lobby of the hotel shouted as soon as we checked in and started walking toward us. “It’s Mohmad Abu Baker the Sudani,” one of my group said and #YaLatime started.
20 minutes later, the Israeli group arrived, and for the first time after 4 months of online interaction, we met in person to learn and get closer to each other. As everyone was busy welcoming the other, I noticed one of the Israeli girls wearing a bracelet with the Palestinian flag. For one minute or two, I felt disconnected and was only wondering why she was wearing it, what message is she trying to tell, does she dare to wear it anywhere else away from this conference venue? At lunch, we got the chance to talk more but what she mentioned made me even more surprised. She’s not only an Israeli girl but she’s an Israeli soldier as well and she took part in the last war against Gaza.
During the conference, we participated in many activities and discussed different issues and by the third day, our relationship was much stronger so I decided to clear it all and ask how an Israeli soldier can wear a Palestinian flag as my first question. Her answer was sweet but also very diplomatic, so I kept on digging more, trying to understand.
Having seen the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints and borders heavily equipped with weapons, the way they behave toward us as a Palestinians, and the wars they held against Gaza and the Gazans are all enough reasons for me and for other Palestinians to just not accept them. I already have plenty of Israeli friends and I am always in touch with them and we share many activities whenever we get the chance to, but being a friend with a soldier is something I have never even thought of. I thought all those people are violent and hate Palestinians.
“Palestinians are a nation, they’re human beings and they deserve a country of their own. One can be a soldier and disagree with things that the military does. Occupation is illegal besides the fact that it’s immoral,” she said. And when asked about her reaction if a Palestinian came to her and asked for shelter from terrorism, she assertively replied, “I will protect him. Palestinians and Israelis share the same interest when it comes to the terrorist organizations; both nations want to live peacefully.”
Angy came from the states to join the army when she was 17. At that age, she didn’t know a lot about Palestinians and all she knew was that Israel is right and wanted to take responsibility towards her country by joining the army. Today, after she started to meet and talk to Palestinians, she says that they deserve to have a country of their own; they deserve to be protected from terrorism and live in peace, just as I didn’t know the other side of a soldier before meeting and talking to her. As we were talking, she pulled her phone out and showed me a text message that was sent to her from a friend who also serves in army that said, “remind them that we want peace,” which means Angy is not alone in her views and stance toward the Palestinians. As the conference came to an end, I invited Angy to come and visit me in Bethlehem and two weeks later, she did come and enjoyed being in this beautiful city.
YaLa conference was really eye opening for me and strengthened my hope in peace and coexistence especially after hearing the story of Mira Awad, an Arab-Israeli actress and peace activist, as well as Michael, an Israeli who refused to join the army because she has an Arab-Israeli boyfriend.
I participated in many peacebuilding programs in the past but nothing can be compared to what YaLa does. With YaLa we’re able build long term relationships which is the main point after all. YaLa is the seed of hope and peace that we all need to continue planting in the MENA region.