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A light in the dark: Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam and the challenge of peace

Samah Salaime: "It’s not possible to live a whole life in conflict, people need to know that an alternative is possible"

“When you see something bad happening to your neighbor but you are told to just watch, you must watch because you can’t go anywhere else, you can’t escape from those images, it’s terrible. It’s all there. And if I turned off all my devices to not watch, I would still hear the airplanes above me. We are forced to watch and to behave like we didn’t see anything. It’s unhuman.”

Samah Salaime uses the expression “try to survive” to describe how her everyday life became since 7 October 2023. She is head of communication and a citizen of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam, the international community composed by Palestinian and Jewish families, all with Israeli citizenship, who live in peace, through a constant exercise of dialogue, understanding and mutual respect.

While she talks, Israeli airforce planes fly over the area toward the Gaza Strip. She interrupts herself: “Do you hear them? We’ll hear the hit soon”.

They basically pass every five minutes. When the villagers hear them, they wait for the roar of the shelling. It always comes.

This is the new everyday life of the people living inside the perimeter of what has been for years the symbol of the possible coexistence between Israeli jews and Palestinian arabs in Israel, just half an hour away from the Gaza border. An everyday life which today has bombs in the background and dust in the eyes, filled with fear but also strong resistance to the divisions that are tearing apart not only their land, but the entire world.

“We all basically stay home, for security reason children are taken to school by their parents, and this is a little bit complicated for families, in fact now the 70% of students show up. We try to do a lot of activities to let people elaborate emotions, feelings and to promote wellbeing,” Salaime says. “About the community, we carry on the dialogue groups, we did 4 so far. I must say that it’s really difficult for everyone to think, share, rely on each other. And day by day it’s getting more complicated because war goes on, jews citizens are still traumatized by what happened on the 7th of October and Palestinians are suffering because of what’s happening in Gaza, where some of us have friends or relatives.”

Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam in the middle of the storm

Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam. A name half in hebrew and half in arabic, meaning "Oasis of Peace" in both languages. Founded in 1972 by dominican Father Bruno Hussar, it represents a concrete laboratory of peace and coexistence where dozens of families, half Palestinian and half Israeli, experience and practice dialogue, respect, and plurality every day. Since 2015, thanks to Gariwo, it hosts a Garden of the Righteous that collects the stories of those people who made a different choice, putting human beings first. Today this challenge, and so the role of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam, is clearer than ever.

“It’s very hard to share the grief”, Samah Salaime says. “The good news is that people keeps on showing up. We keep on being there for each other, living together, communicate, doing things together, making declaration and sharing thoughts against the war.”

Maintaining and balancing the dialogue requires a great effort, especially for those who have been in the village for shorter time.

"People who have been here for a long time have a strong mutual trust and feel safer in sharing. I have been here for 23 years and I trust my neighbors and mates. They are like an immunity for me," Salaime explains. "It is much more difficult for new families or those who have recently joined the community. They feel less comfortable, prefer to be closed in themselves and expect a lot from others. But they are also the ones who need to be embraced and protected from the outside world the most. This is why we set up different levels of dialogue, for example we had this idea to create a group only dedicated to new people who have a similar story. Not to mention that it is the first war for many of them. Moments like these are a big challenge for all of us to stand in our beliefs and values despite what is happening outside."

And the youngest, the children, are the ones who give an important model.

"I think they are managing the situation better than we are. Adults overthink and overanalyze everything, while children born and raised here are used to dealing with very strong feelings, they are not afraid of being overwhelmed. In fact, one of the ideas that came out of the last dialogue was that the younger ones should facilitate the meetings instead of the founders. Because they are more stable in their connections."

The difficulties of Palestinians living in Israel

While everyone is focused on Gaza, some palestinians living and working in Israel's territory have become targets of reprisal and distrust. Samah herself says that if she wore the veil she would probably be seen as a "suspicious" arab. A proof of the irrational polarization taking place everywhere.

“It feels like hunting season for Palestinians” she says. “My son studies in Haifa. Right now he and other students are at home because it is dangerous for them to stay outside after hundreds of Israeli extremists in Netanya attacked arab students under their dormitories. We increased security in the village with volunteer guards during evenings and nights. No one is armed, but we feel safer having someone to call if we hear or see something. I personally feel safe, but I hear a lot of stories from palestinians who have started to be afraid of their colleagues. They feel they are always under observation, waiting for them to say or do something wrong, being tested with questions like "are you with Hamas?" So if we must be silent everywhere, at least here in the village we can dialogue."

A confiscated narrative

According to Salaime, Israeli society is living a giant trauma, but it’s making the mistake to completely confiscate the narrative of what is happening.

"They have always had a military approach, based on power and weapons. And today I think that the general feeling is that the army and the whole system has betrayed the citizens. I think one of the biggest mistakes that Israeli society (which is not Jewish society) is doing, is confiscating the narrative. In the attack of 7 October, also non-Israeli people were killed and kidnapped. There were 20 Arab citizens, people from Thailand, students from Nepal, members of Bedouin communities and asylum seekers. But nobody is talking about this. It was violence, an act of terror, a crime against humanity for which now the civilians of Gaza, the children, are paying the price, and not the people of Hamas who are safe underground. So if you ask for my solidarity as a Palestinian, it is necessary to start looking at the whole picture, without confiscating the narrative. I need a space in that room too, with empathy and solidarity as a human being, as a woman, as a feminist, as a mother."

Making space for everyone

Salaime is making a great exercise on the space of her heart. To create more of it, welcoming all of those who suffer, and putting next of her people’s pain also the grief of people waiting desperately for their kidnapped child or parent to be released, alive.

“I was in Gaza two months ago. I met people who just want to live, to be free, to get out. I met very educated people who earn 6-7 dollars every day, and this is not fair. A whole generation of young people who have no idea what democracy is, what normal life is, what does it mean to have a safe home, to not being evacuated once a year, to not feel always in danger… Everything is connected to the occupation: food, fuel, electricity… everything! Israel says to have left Gaza many years ago, but this war made very clear that they never really left it, they just locked it with all the people inside and started using remote control, deciding whether to provide water, food, energy. The most complicated part, the biggest challenge si to put all these elements on the table. Because everybody is in pain and trauma doesn’t let us dialogue. My exercise now is to drain my heart and make it bigger to create space for everyone. I suffer a lot, I am really afraid for what’s happening in Gaza but I need to create room for empathy, solidarity, humanity for what happened to Israeli victims and also foreigners, Bedouins, all the victims of that Saturday”.

One of the things for which Salaime suffers most, is not being able to do anything to help people in need.

“The activists for peace are paralyzed. We can’t even send humanitarian help to Gaza, basic and necessaries things like medicines to heal wounds. It’s unhuman. At least my jews colleagues can help, they can bring food, have access to hotels where people are hosted, artists can organize workshops with children, hug them, and there is also a group for helping animals left behind in kibbutz. But I can’t do anything for my people. I am not allowed.”

A lighthouse in the dark of war

And so which is the role of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam?

“I think we are a glimpse of hope for many people. I spend a lot of time with journalists from all over the world, including Italy, because I realize that they need us. Even in these dark days, when people see what is going on here, they understand that we are not giving up and we fight for peace, not for war…”

An island which is real, concrete and necessary, today more than ever, to offer the certainty that it is possible to live in peace, because it has already been done. To testify this, are the stories celebrated in the Garden of the Righteous, in the village thanks to Gariwo since 2015.

There are many people who deserve to be remembered. And these stories of humanity, of those who did the right thing, those who stood up for their values should be told. That’s one of our rules in Gariwo Garden. People need some hope, and it’s really hard to give them some nowadays. But this village is not just a some kind of initiative, it’s not an experiment. It is here, it exists. Parents take their children to school, activists come back here, families attend assemblies, we have to value what we have. A few days ago a peace activist told me that we are like a lighthouse in the night. This is what Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam is. It gives a light in this world. And we know how to do it. We just have to take it out, show it to others."

And when asked what she sees in future, replies: "I think we will get bigger. Every project we make should be twice as big in order to have an impact and change things around us. After so many years in conflict people must understand that they need to try something else, something different. They can't do the same thing over and over again, dealing only with violence, somebody has to change this path."

7 November 2023

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