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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Elad Vazana

Elad Vazana was born in the southern development town of Ofakim. Elad is an artist, an educator, an experienced mediator and facilitator; he develops curricula for facilitation, initiates and facilitates social change. He has been involved in dialogue for many years. His extensive experience facilitating Israeli-Palestinian dialogue meetings for youth led him to be one of the managers of the Sulha Peace Project, where Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians meet and build mutual trust. Elad is currently working independently to promote peace-related activity and empower institutions and individuals working for social change.

  • Please tell me a little bit about your background.

    I was born in Ofakim in 1972. My parents made from Morocco in 1955. They were Ofakim's pioneers - it started off as just a couple of shacks. My childhood was ordinary and I was a happy kid. After I left [Ofakim] and saw other places, I realized growing up in Ofakim wasn't easy. I experienced a lot of violence at school, in our neighborhood and at home. Ever since I can remember, the message was that Arabs shouldn't be trusted - that the Arabs want to throw us in the sea and can't be trusted. It was part of the atmosphere - in children's jokes, from our teachers, from the news on television and the adults' comments. When the Moroccan Jews came to Israel, the [Jews] that were already in Israel viewed them as Arabs. My grandmother speaks Arabic, makes Arab food and I was raised in a culture that is Arab and not very different from the Arab villages I visit. Once I visited a school for underprivileged youth, which resembles my hometown, and I anticipated they would resist [the idea of an Arab-Jewish dialogue meeting]. The class I met consisted entirely of [Jewish] kids whose parents were from Morocco. I said, "Guys, we're organizing a meeting for Arabs and Jews, who wants to come?" Two kids who were sitting off to the side, their arms crossed over their chests, said, "Arabs? Where? We'll kill them." I said to one of them, "I want you to come to the meeting." He said, "No way! If I see [Arabs] I'll kill them." I said, "If you aren't afraid of meeting your best friends there, come." They both did, and it was amazing. Within a day or two, these [Jewish-Israeli] guys connected with three guys from Ramallah, and they didn't leave each other alone. That just goes to show that fear results in a kind of imaginary hatred, because of the desire to feel a part of something. Where I come from, hating the Arabs stems from the desire to belong [in Israel], and the fear of being different. But in fact, we're brothers, we're very much alike. When I was fourteen, one of my teachers recommended I transfer to the boarding school in Sde Boker, and that really broadened my horizons. I met people from all over the country. It's a high school that focuses on environmental studies, and it's a special place, it was like a gift. High school gave me a lot of hope, and I took that sense of hope with me to the army. Many of my friends stayed in Ofakim. It's hard to graduate with a high school diploma there. I was drafted and served in the armored corps, where I became a tank commander. I was an excellent soldier and a good commander. During my military service I spent a lot of time in the Territories. I think that the places I now visit I also saw during my military service - Gaza, Rafah, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Hebron and the villages surrounding these cities, and checkpoints. I hated serving in the Territories, marching in two lines through the streets, armed. I hated the looks that said, "You aren't welcome, go away," as well as the fear of being shot at or being hit by concrete thrown from a roof. I had this bad feeling all the time. Once I guarded a kind of checkpoint. My friend, who I knew I could always trust, went up to a Palestinian and slapped him - hard. I was shocked. I couldn't understand how someone who could be so concerned about me could suddenly do such a thing to another person. There wasn't even a reason. That woke me up. I realized what [the situation] was doing to us, I could see it at the time, and see myself and how tense I was. There was a lot of tension there, and that was one of the most difficult periods I've ever experienced.

  • Did these experiences from your military service affect the path you chose?

    They had a significant effect on the path I chose. I've witnessed war and the Occupation, and their effects on people. I think it makes no difference who actually plays the role of the Palestinians at checkpoints or that of the soldiers, ultimately you would have a similar situation. If you frighten [the soldiers], if they fear any passerby may kill them, that anyone may harm them, when people are frightened and told they are being threatened, they will react. The degree of tension and fear a person at a place like a checkpoint experiences could make anyone react. It brings out the extremist in anyone. It could bring out violence in one person, or it could bring out the tension in another person, or it could just bring out a lot of fear. If people were to play the role of an occupied people, they are bound to hate the people who make life difficult and humiliate them. I've seen how hard it is, from experience, and I see so many victims experiencing these situations, be it the [Israeli] soldiers or the Palestinians. I'm not comparing the daily lives of Palestinians and Israelis. There is a large difference in terms of power. I mean that a child born in Palestine who needs to cross a checkpoint on his way to school, or [an Israeli] who has to serve in the IDF and deal with this kind of situation is a victim, in both cases, and I want to change this. I really believe change is possible. There is a great deal of manipulation of the Jews' victimhood vis-à-vis Palestinian victimhood. In these circumstances that we were born into, we've been made accustomed to hating the other and believe justice is on our side.

  • What made you want to get involved and become active?

    One specific event made me wake up. [During my military service] I served near Jenin, and as the commander I got an order to take a group of soldiers and set up an ambush near one of the villages in order to arrest some wanted men. We walked all night to prevent being seen. We arrived in the morning and waited. I got an order over the radio to move a few yards. When I did, I saw a ten year-old boy sitting on a rock, reading. I walked up to him and he froze. I radioed my commander and said, "There's a kid here. What should I do?" He said, "Tie him up until we're done." I took out a plastic restraint, and I think I tied his hands and his feet. I started back towards the soldiers, but then I turned around and saw that kid, bound and miserable, and I knew it was my doing. I felt naked, exposed, I felt terrible. I went back and let him go. He glanced at me for a split second and then he ran to the village, and we heard whistles, that's how word goes out that the army is present. It was obvious [the people in the village] knew we were there and the operation failed, we didn't catch anyone. I was lucky and nobody said a word about letting the boy go, so I avoided prison. That woke me up. Suddenly I could see that child's eyes, his humanity. He no longer seemed to be the scary enemy. Until then I didn't perceive Arabs as human beings, only as threatening enemies. But suddenly I was the one wronging that child, and I felt I was able to choose, and let him go. When I was twenty-four or twenty-five I took a course on multimedia and embarked on a hi-tech career. I started a company, and it was very successful. In 2001, when I was still working in the hi-tech industry I dreamed I was an eight year-old boy in Portugal, in the village that is home. In the dream, I felt at home. During that same period I learned about a book written by Professor Yoram Bilu from the Hebrew University about my great-great grandfather Ya'aqov, who was a renowned healer in Morocco. My great-great grandfather traveled in the Atlas Mountains working miracles and healing the sick. He was a rabbi, and he was closely affiliated to the Muslims, and they would pray together. He was close to the world of demons, and he learned his powers from the demons; in the book he is called a mediator between the worlds. I met Yoram Bilu, who told me about these places, and I felt a strong urge to visit Morocco, witness my roots and also to visit Portugal, not far away, and see about my dream. I decided to leave everything I had, the company, my home, my friends. I packed a bag and left. My flight was set for September 11th 2001, and the flight was delayed for a few days. I flew to Spain and from there I tried to cross to Morocco, but I wasn't permitted to. No one knew how to deal with Israelis traveling in Arab countries, and I wasn't allowed into Morocco. I went to Grenada, in Andalucía, in the south of Spain. Right from the start, I felt embraced by the city. I stayed there for a year, studying Spanish, Flamenco and stone sculpting, and I started a restaurant, a souperie, and built websites for local businesses. I learned that for seven hundred years, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived peaceful and harmonious lives in Grenada. There was mutual inspiration in every field - literature, poetry, medicine and science. Tangibly, this place that still accepts everyone. Over time I composed my vision: return to Israel and if all this was possible in Grenada, why shouldn't it work in Israel? I thought I'd bring peace, that nobody had thought of it before. I had an idea for a start-up for peace, bringing Jews, Christians and Muslims together. I had never thought that would be possible, yet suddenly it became clear. I returned to Israel motivated. I searched for a place in Jaffa and in the Galilee that would accommodate Jewish-Arab encounters. I reached out to teachers and principals, Jews and Arabs, and told them I wanted Jewish and Arab kids and youth to meet. There was a lot of interest, and I started organizing meetings. That's how I found the Sulha family - I met them and told them about my work and my vision, and they told me they were doing similar work and suggested I join them. I had to overcome my ego and not always be able to do things my way. I was reminded of an Iranian guy I met in Spain, who once said, "Don't try to do everything by yourself. Remember that your goal is what you seek to create rather than your ego." At the Sulha Peace Project I was responsible for everything concerning children, the children's area and meetings for children. We began to work with older children too, and I led the Sulhita, meetings for youth. The meetings were very successful, and they are still held, we've been doing this for several years.

  • How was the idea of the Sulha Peace Project born, and what do you do?

    The Sulha Peace Project's vision is to bring together people of different nations, cultures and just people in this painful place, to experience a close-up, real and very simple kind of encounter. The encounters are usually held in the middle of nature, and are based on experiencing each other's humanity - through personal stories, song, walks, preparing food together. These are the basics we experience, and they remind us of the earth and the wind. There is a strong desire to heal and an understanding of the pain here, and we are trying to heal this place. This initially happens through the encounter in listening to stories, and that creates a great deal of healing power. Once you recognize your pain, you are able to perceive my pain, and recognize it. Sulha is actually a reconciliation rite among Bedouin tribes for tribes that have been fighting for years, killing each other and avenging each other's blood in a bloody cycle. Sulha is intended to end this cycle. The tribes turn to a third party of [a third] tribe's elders; they host both sides and create a safe space for meeting. Each side tells its story, and a ceremony is performed involving the sides eating together and drinking coffee. This connects them on a very fundamental and human level, and then they must forgive each other. According to tradition, payment is made to the party which was hurt in order to recognize the pain and the damages, and the sides beg each other's forgiveness. There are other peoples who use this method. The Sulha Peace Project founders, Gabriel Meyer and Elias Jabbour, borrowed the term sulha, as well as the concept of creating a space where it is possible to meet and try to achieve forgiveness, or at least understanding and recognition. There are different steps on the road to reconciliation. It's a long road, and we have to take one step at a time, especially given the extent of anger and mistrust. On the road to reconciliation you need a lot of patience. Both sides need to work on the lack of trust and transform it into mutual trust. Every time we achieve significant trust, we can progress to the next stage. Instead of educating ourselves to hate the other and schooling ourselves in defensiveness and victimhood, we should encourage pluralism, understanding, coming together, be it through meetings, changing curricula in history, literature or communications. We should respond to Israelis' need for security and Palestinians' need for a normal way of life.

  • Please tell me a little bit about the participants from both sides. Who participates in your meetings, and is there follow up?

    Our participants are people from diverse communities, from different religious backgrounds. I met people from the left and from the right, settlers and people affiliated with Hamas, believers and doubters, children and adults, women and men. They all want to tell their stories and listen to other stories. Over twelve thousand people have participated in intimate meetings in people's houses or mega-meetings - with thousands of people. There are also follow up meetings, and many people return as facilitators or as part of the team, or come just because relationships formed. I have friends in Ramallah, Jenin, Jaffa, Jericho and Gaza, as well as Arab countries that are considered our enemies. There's a warm caring atmosphere.

  • Where do you hold the meetings?

    Most of the meetings are held in Israel for convenience's sake, but we've had many meetings - mostly in homes - in Beit Ummar, Hebron, Ramallah, occasionally in Beit Jala, at Talitha Kumi, at the Dead Sea in Area C, anywhere we can meet.

  • What do you expect participants to do after the meetings?

    I hope every participant leaves feeling the other is a little less scary, a little less of an enemy. Participants witness a kind of magic, a constitutive event, and it's important they tell their friends about it. Talking about it affects larger circles. Keeping in touch creates hope. Often, after a meeting there is a sense of emptiness, especially when you go back to your harsh reality. If you keep in touch, even on the phone, it shows that not only did you attend the meeting, but you created a bond, and that you aren't alone. Another aspect is to work to affect the circumstances and your environment - sign a petition, re-open a kindergarten, organize a meeting or activity that creates change and awareness, or even a performance or a demonstration, anything that could truly affect your life.

  • In terms of dialogue, what would be the most important achievement?

    First of all, I want to attain mutual recognition of our humanity, that we are all human beings. I want people to come, meet, look each other in the eyes and tell themselves, this isn't the monster I've constructed, the image I thought I knew, but rather a person like me, who laughs, eats, cries, hurts and dreams. The current difficult situation here is the outcome of a lot of fear, demonization and mistrust. It's a very long process, which could take generations, but I believe that we must begin now, the earlier the better. It's hard work, building trust takes years of work, and then one shelling or one war and all the bridges just collapse. We often feel the crises of faith and the fear at Sulha. I think that persistence is the key - it's difficult, and sometimes you feel like going off and doing something else, something easier, and you persevere because you are committed to building something much larger. We are in need of a critical mass - more and more encounters in order to build enough trust, so that the leaders will want to sign treaties and have the people's support, [obstacles and challenges, political peace processes, conceptions of peace, vision] because they will say, "Enough. We've had enough. We want to end [the conflict] and we are certain you want to put an end to it. Together we will be able to." And then, any treaty will work. A one-state or two-state solution - it won't matter anymore, because there will be a desire to agree.

  • In terms of dialogue, what would be the most important achievement?

    First of all, I want to attain mutual recognition of our humanity, that we are all human beings. I want people to come, meet, look each other in the eyes and tell themselves, this isn't the monster I've constructed, the image I thought I knew, but rather a person like me, who laughs, eats, cries, hurts and dreams. The current difficult situation here is the outcome of a lot of fear, demonization and mistrust. It's a very long process, which could take generations, but I believe that we must begin now, the earlier the better. It's hard work, building trust takes years of work, and then one shelling or one war and all the bridges just collapse. We often feel the crises of faith and the fear at Sulha. I think that persistence is the key - it's difficult, and sometimes you feel like going off and doing something else, something easier, and you persevere because you are committed to building something much larger. We are in need of a critical mass - more and more encounters in order to build enough trust, so that the leaders will want to sign treaties and have the people's support, [obstacles and challenges, political peace processes, conceptions of peace, vision] because they will say, "Enough. We've had enough. We want to end [the conflict] and we are certain you want to put an end to it. Together we will be able to." And then, any treaty will work. A one-state or two-state solution - it won't matter anymore, because there will be a desire to agree.

  • In your work at the Sulha Peace Project, what do you consider to be a small achievement?

    Recently I visited a village in the West Bank in preparation of a Sulhita encounter for youths that is held every few months. There were about ten people and we sat in a listening circle. I remembered I'd been in that same village when I was a soldier, and I shared the experience of encountering the local when we came to make a few arrests. There was a woman next to me, and she had a very hard time listening to what I was saying. She didn't talk to me, but I felt it was difficult for her to hear my story. I met her again a few weeks later and she told me that ever since I told the story she was feeling confused and frustrated. She said, "Soldiers killed my brother and arrested my parents, and made my life miserable. It was easy to hate them, but now I see your face in every soldier I see and think, maybe he'll be like Elad, whom I appreciate and love." That attests to the complexity here. At a meeting in Jordan for social activists from all over the Middle East, I talked about my military service and about serving in Lebanon. One of the women there told me it was hard to grasp that the soldiers she now meets could be charming and good in twenty years, like [me]. I wanted to tell her I was the same person then as I am now. I wasn't the monster she saw, I was the soldier who thought this is what should be done.

  • What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered and how did you overcome them? Do people around you object to or support the path you've chosen?

    A large challenge is the people leading the encounters, the way they cope personally and the attempts to bridge the gaps and succeed in creating something together, despite the stress and the tension around us, and the effect of external events like wars, which affect inter-personal relationships. It constantly makes us all assess ourselves and ask, where did I do wrong? There are also accusations, and suddenly I feel I'm a Jew discriminating against the Arabs, and he [the Arab] feels he's victim. Then I in turn feel victimized because I feel guilty. I feel a strong bond to these people, and maybe because they are so important to me personally - part of my soul - it's so challenging. An additional challenge is letting go. Often I find it hard to let go of the way I think things should work. I know what an encounter should be like, how to produce it, who to bring, but I try to ask myself, is it really right for my Palestinian partners? If they let me lead, does that mean it's still right for us all? Am I willing to give up my way of doing things and be filled with attentiveness and comradeship? The Palestinians who attend the encounters and have to pass through checkpoints suffer humiliation and have to contend with hardships, such as feeding their children. It's frustrating, and sometimes there is the sense the encounter is just an illusion. Often the communities of those [Palestinian] activists say, "Why are you going to meet with Jews? What aspect of our lives has changed? Everything is just the same, if not worse, so why do you go?" Life isn't easy for the [Palestinian] activists. I feel that quite often people feel lost, because most of their lives are invested there, in their communities, and that what they have to deal with. I think it's one of our greatest challenges - not only how to reach out to people and melt the mistrust there, but also how to protect the people we work with. If there isn't an awakening, the entire peace movement stands to lose many people. The core needs strengthening, especially given the large-scale exhaustion that has developed throughout the years, and particularly the war in Gaza. I feel Israelis and Palestinians' support, and this support is realized through cooperation. I often see that at Sulha. In the meetings where we encounter difficulty or reach crisis points and deal with them, these are the most powerful meetings, compared with other meetings that incorporate less of this, perhaps because we didn't want to deal.

  • How does your family feel about the path you've chosen?

    I feel there is some skepticism, but they support and respect me, because I do things differently than the rest of my family, which does completely different things. My father could never understand what I was doing with my life. Having a regular paycheck and a pension fund were important to him. He worked at the Nuclear Research Center, and died of cancer not long ago. It was through him that I learned a very powerful lesson regarding the Sulha. I stayed by his side during his last months, a year ago. There was a Sulha gathering planned and I was one of the main organizers. I had to give up being [at the Sulha gathering's preparation], and I moved to Be'er Sheva for three months. I stayed right by my father's side, he died in my arms. I was with him until he passed away. I told you that I experienced a lot of violence from him. He never caressed me, I always felt physically remote. All those months I was with him I was seeking forgiveness, and I wanted him to say, forgive me my son for the way I treated you. I still feel the pain and the scars from him, and I waited for the circumstances to allow us to talk, open it all up and embrace. That never happened. It created a lot of suspense. I told myself my father is about to pass away, and we won't have made sulha, forgiveness. How will I be able to bear that for the rest of my life? At a certain point we were told the end was imminent; [my father] held my hand and stroked my palm. I was so moved that suddenly I no longer wanted him to ask me to forgive him. I no longer needed this forgiveness because I realized I really wanted him to love me and recognize me as his son. This event made me think; often one side wants the other to apologize, and each side thinks that apologizing will be interpreted as a weakness. If I recognize your pain, you'll use it against me because I'll have admitted being wrong. Suddenly it all came together, in terms of my relationship with my father, as well as in the context of the Sulha and the Palestinians. I concluded that we aren't necessarily seeking forgiveness, which never comes and is a source of frustration, but rather what we want is basic and simple recognition of each other's existence.

  • What lessons have you learned from your work?

    I've learned that one of the most basic and important elements that needs to be part of a gathering is mutual recognition. When I recognize you as a human being and accept everything you bring with you [to a gathering], be it pain or frustration, when that is achieved, we are ready to embark on any journey. When I undertake a personal process and learn to accept others for being who they are, I am in fact doing the same thing I'm trying to achieve through my work in terms of the conflict. I've learned that listening has amazing healing properties, that listening is one of the greatest ways to heal. But it doesn't work if you only pretend to listen. Over the years you learn to pretend to listen but there can't be healing if it's artificial, only when you genuinely listen. I've learned the importance of perseverance, how powerful it can be, and its effect on others. When I give in, it might affect others, and I'm aware of my responsibility to persevere, even when everyone thinks this approach isn't going to succeed.

  • In your opinion, what is the connection between your work and a future peace?

    A peace treaty should come when the time is right, when enough people feel secure and trust the other side to sign a treaty. We are working to build that trust, be it with the thousands of people who have met, or the hundreds of youths who've experienced an intimate and life-altering encounter. I see the effects. It grants a sense of security, and encourages us that what we're doing is the right thing, that it works, and that is has an effect. The circles grow, and so does the strength. There is always a feeling of not doing enough, but the amazing work many other people - not just us - are doing in the field create hope that is preserved. The various organizations begin to understand that things won't always work if they go at it alone and start cooperating on many issues, gaining influence. Perseverance and the openness to come together and work in new ways affect the kind of peace that could come. It's like planting a tree, it's really a long-term investment.

  • Are Israelis' and Palestinians' fears similar?

    I think that Palestinians deal with fear less than the Israelis, initially because they require a solution to their daily problems. Jews, or Jewish Israelis, deal more with the question of fear because we came from the Holocaust - we're a persecuted nation - and because we're trying to justify what we're doing [to the Palestinians]. I think that if I were Palestinian, I would talk more about my daily problems, the justice that needs doing and about the injustices of my reality, and demand that my pain and the Occupation's result be recognized. Our daily and immediate needs are different. Israelis need security because they feel fear, and the Palestinians need justice because they feel the injustice and discrimination. Mistrust, fear and demonization feed this cycle.

  • What inspires you?

    I'm encouraged and inspired by emails and phone calls from young people, who say they want to meet, and I see how important it is to them. [I'm encouraged by] the fact that in Europe, as well as all over the world, people fought for hundreds of years, killing millions, and then suddenly the European Union was established. I'm encouraged by the fact Apartheid is no more. Despite the destructive forces, the world has inner power resources that generate growth and renewal. You can see it through forests burning down and growing back. I believe in the good in human beings, and I believe there is happiness and love in us; we must remember that. They are hidden and are waiting for a channel through which they can be manifested.

  • Do you receive criticism that your approach is naïve or cut off from reality?

    I've heard things that have made me doubt and ask questions. I understand where the doubts originate, and these doubts trigger doubts I already have. Sometimes I ask myself, should I be focusing on things that will change the things that are unjust here and focus less on creating a space for meetings? Something inside me tells me that for the long-term this is the right thing to do. I'm in touch with various wise people, elders, who support the path we've chosen, and that's encouraging.

  • What is your vision?

    I feel we're on the path towards creating a critical mass of people, which will affect the entire population. There are two keys here - recognizing that the other is like me, and realizing that I am responsible for creating change. Once I start working and stop sitting around complaining, that's when significant change will occur. I believe we're approaching that kind of mass. It doesn't have to be a majority, but a certain percentage of the people that will realize this, then it will affect everyone. There is also a counterforce to this critical mass. Destructive forces are very strong, you can build a bridge in months, but it takes only seconds to destroy it. Imagine both forces - the creation of a critical mass for change and awareness versus fear of change and an attempt to destroy it. Who will win in this competition between change and self-destruction? Will we be able to change, or will we destroy ourselves? I think the critical point is if everyone reading this - or even people who aren't - realize they are responsible for change. I want everyone to stand up and say they are going to do even the tiniest thing.

  • Where do you see signs of hope?

    I see signs of hope in children. Children are capable of accepting others and living in a world that grown-ups would have a hard time accepting. Currently children are raised here in an atmosphere of hatred of the other and mistrust and it's our responsibility to try and influence matters as much as possible in order for them to grow.