Twenty-three young Israelis and Palestinians traveled together to northern and central Italy from September 1-10, 2008, seeking to develop new leadership capabilities. At first, people had a tendency to stay within their own groups during this International Leadership Tour. As Marina, one of the Israeli participants, said, “Living and traveling for ten days together can be difficult sometimes, because of the complicated group dynamics that are naturally created.”
Gradually, however, the Israelis and Palestinians began to mingle as they engaged in conversations and discussions, shared meals, went shopping, and enjoyed outings. When political issues were raised in more formal gatherings, the discussion heated up, especially since quite a few political science graduates were among the delegates. As a result, everyone soon realized that some of the more fruitful interactions were the informal ones.
Such experiences are attempts to create a new paradigm of understanding and peace, giving young leaders an opportunity to take part in shaping a better future for their families, communities, and nations.
In January 2008, two UPF secretaries general, Giorgio Gasperoni from the Republic of San Marino and Hod Ben Zvi from Israel, organized a fact-finding tour and cross-cultural dialogues in Israel and Palestine for 20 Italian youth leaders. This trip to Italy by Israelis and Palestinians was a reciprocal visit. Two senior participants, Dr. Azmi Abu-Soud and Dr. Shuki Ben Ami, served as guides and mentors to the Palestinian and the Israeli youths.
The first stop was beautiful Bergamo. Host Carlo Zonato did a great job providing the delegation with accommodations, transportation, and exciting sightseeing opportunities, with help from the municipal office for peace affairs headed by Dr. Maggioni. Several meetings took place at the town hall with local NGOs dedicated to promoting peace in the Middle East. Several of the large labor unions expressed their sincere desire for long-term involvement in the peacemaking process. This created an opportunity for the youth to convey their respective viewpoints.
One of the highlights of the visit was a football game between the Israeli-Palestinian team and a local semi-professional Italian team. The local town people cheered the teams, and although the guests were beaten 12 to 4, they all celebrated together joyfully in a pizza restaurant after the match. Eyal commented: “As the goalie, I only allowed eight goals to get past me. Amazingly, we lost by eight. We did, however, play as a team of sportsmen and demonstrated to the crowd that Israelis and Palestinians can play together.”
In San Marino, an incident occurred during an evening presentation by two representatives, an Israeli and a Palestinian. Certain disputable political issues were brought up that create an uproar among the delegation and severely damaged the delicate balance that had been maintained throughout their trip until then, making it impossible to continue with the regular schedule. The next day, time was given to all the delegates to recuperate and come back to their senses. Gradually things started to warm up again after a beautiful tour around San Marino hosted by the local scouts.
In Rimini, a key local Ambassador for Peace, Anna Marie, hosted the delegation. She performed beautiful songs accompanied by her brother, a gifted guitarist. A local Italian blues group brought the spirit of Memphis alive—a truly exceptional experience.
Palestinian participants prepared a delicious Middle Eastern meal for everyone that evening at the Gasperoni family’s home. Marina shared that this “revealed a special atmosphere of friendship and cooperation. Something meaningful happened in the kitchen, and there we were all in a melting pot.” Giorgio’s children took care of the entire delegation: driving, guiding, and translating for them. They were joined by a group of six young volunteers from Service For Peace-Europe, who brought their youthful energy. Before the time to leave, everyone joined hands in the cleanup tasks, restoring the place from a Middle Eastern restaurant back to the Gasperoni home.
Back to Pesaro, bicycles provided a ride around town, where they were greeted by the mayor and their host, Mrs. Pecchia. A glorious day at the beach full of fun and relaxation helped participants face their next challenge: the accommodations for the night at a scout center outside of town, which seemed like an army barracks to some of the young people. This created a commotion among those who felt a bit too challenged. Despite the initial shock and after some encouragement from their fellow-travelers, they felt it was best to stay, work things out together, and make the best of it.
The next day included a visit to a care center for mentally handicapped people, one of the prides of Pesaro due to its unique approach based on full integration into society. Students from a branch of the University of Urbino met with delegates for a roundtable discussion.
On the last day, they traveled from Pesaro to Rome through the countryside of Italy from region to region, spending the final evening walking around Rome, seeing the major sites.
The next morning, employees of Israel’s national airline, El-Al (known for its strict security policies), were inspired by the peace tour and allowed the Israelis and Palestinians to go together through the same standard check in procedures.
Overall, this entire ten-day experience challenged the delegates on all levels. Beyond their differences and strong political views they began to feel like brothers and sisters with similar dreams and hopes. One of the participants commented: “There are universal connections among people, even if they don’t have a common language or culture. Even a historical conflict cannot separate us when there is true sympathy among us as human beings. Obviously, our growing friendships challenged the members of the delegation; however, we felt that such an outcome was exactly the purpose of joining this project.”
Note: UPF’s Middle East Peace Initiative emphasizes the development of youth leaders in the quest for peace. International Youth Leadership projects of the Youth Federation for World Peace brought together delegations from Realizing the Dream headed by Martin Luther King III, Faith Link in Europe, and Mashatzim in Israel. Participants travel around Israel and Palestine and participate in discussions and service projects, gaining a first-hand experience of the challenges of life in these areas and effective ways to build understanding, respect, and reconciliation.
Italy is close to the Middle East in geography and people’s hearts. While some Italians are more drawn to either the Palestinian or the Israeli side, most Italians have balanced feelings towards both peoples. Palestinians and Israelis generally have a warm regard for the Italians. The Republic of San Marino is a small country but has always cared about freedom and peace. Its people are happy to offer a neutral meeting place for Palestinians and Israelis.