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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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Eric Yellin

Eric Yellin lives in Sderot. Together with other citizens of the Sderot area and the Gaza Strip, Eric helped found Other Voice, which promotes hope and nonviolence. Eric is also the Israeli coordinator of the Center for Emerging Futures, where Israelis and Palestinian create partnerships in various fields. Eric writes a blog with a Palestinian friend in Gaza, addressing and reflecting the conflict's effects on the lives of civilians in Sderot and Gaza without the media's intervention. In their joint blog, Eric is Hope Man.

  • Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in Other Voice.

    Our intensive activities at Other Voice began four or five years ago. Before that, I participated in various activities that different organizations organized - demonstrations, meetings, olive harvests and other things. Living in the heart of this ongoing conflict in Sderot made getting involved very personal for me. For many years I've had mixed feelings because of living in a conflict region, and so close to Gaza. I felt that I couldn't go on living here without getting involved. We moved to Sderot in 1988. At the time I was uneasy that Gaza was both very close and also so cut off. After the second intifada broke out, I was involved in establishing a website called MidEast Web. I wanted to be active on the website partly because there were Palestinians on the committee that established the website. Through my work on the website I met Palestinians and through them I gauged the possibility of contacting people in Gaza. The whole time people around me said, "You shouldn't do this now", "This isn't a good time", "This isn't the right time, things are so tense", "Let's wait for a treaty". These are the responses I've been hearing for years from West Bank Palestinians who I was in touch with and from Israelis who were involved in this work. Everybody was saying that we shouldn't deal with Gaza, not now.

  • What was your interest in Gaza?

    I'm not sure exactly. It was clear to me that I was seeking human contact with people living on the other side of the border [with Gaza]. While they were physically only kilometers away, the distance between us was almost infinite. I tried to deal with the rift that began in 2000, when only a few Palestinians received permits to leave the Gaza Strip. Of course I watched the news and followed reports from Gaza. At the beginning of 2001, Qassam rockets started landing here. I was directly affected by the violence and I became an immediate victim of the conflict. Five years ago an opportunity presented itself. I got involved in meetings through Global Square Village, and there I got to know [Palestinian] people. Many attempts and failures later, we managed to arrange permits to meet in Jerusalem with two [Palestinian] activists from organizations in Gaza. I've been in contact with these people ever since. The meeting was very special and exciting. One of the guys no longer lives in Gaza. He left a little bit before Hamas took over [the Gaza Strip] at the beginning of 2007 and was later joined by his family. I helped a little in obtaining the permits, and there was a small struggle but we finally got the permits to enable him to be reunited with his family and he is currently in Sweden. The other man is still in Gaza. After that first meeting I mentioned, we had several more meetings in 2006. April 2007 was the last time I met with them. We had a dream: a summer camp for youths from Gaza and Sderot. In Sderot there is a group for youth involving climbing, cycling or other sports. We though this could create a positive environment for meeting, less talk and more [joint] experiences and physical activity. We contacted everyone we could, here in Sderot too. But in June 2007 Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip and the borders were closed completely. During the meetings contacts were built and I kept in touch with a guy that is still in Gaza. He is trying to leave - he's supposed to finish his studies in Europe but hasn't received the permits to leave and finish his studies.

  • Is this student the man you began the blog with during the war in Gaza?

    Yes. As I said, we met for the last time in April 2007. Of course, I was still in touch with him as well as with others in Gaza after. I requested permits for us to meet, all my requests were declined. At the end of 2007, the man from Gaza and I thought we should share our experiences from living in the heart of this conflict zone. On one hand, he is living under siege in an impossible situation. He's a student unable to leave the Gaza Strip. He isn't able to find work, he's subjected to terrible suffering and to the IDF's attacks. On the other hand, I live in Sderot and the circumstances are difficult - you could say traumatic. My children - who aren't very young mind you - sleep in the same room with me because they are scared. I'm terrified there could be an alarm. This is the useless reality innocent civilians suffer from just because they live on two sides of one border. I think there's a personal element involved - a need to express things in writing. It's a good way to unburden myself of what I'm experiencing, and yet it's meaningful because I'm sharing it with our friends, my family, people who know him from school abroad. We're trying to show a version of reality that is unmitigated by journalists or people changing the story for their own ends. The blog is a little naïve. Quite a lot of pain goes in it, but there is hope too. What can make people perceive the complexity [here] despite the tendency to see things as black or white? Our blog attempts to present or remind ourselves that people are suffering tremendous difficulties on the Palestinian side, and that there are civilians living on the Israeli side, most of whom don't want this conflict to persist, searching for hope in a terrible reality. At a certain point I felt I wanted to be more involved than just writing for the blog. As a resident of Sderot, I'm familiar with the resistance and the kind of voice people here usually express. We're suffering and there is tremendous anger at our government and Hamas and whoever is shooting at us, and that just becomes all the people of Gaza. I hoped to find people who would want to view the complexities and I started interesting others in the possibility of dialogue with civilians from Gaza.

  • What did you hope would happen when you met Palestinians from Gaza?

    I wanted people to think differently than what you hear on the street or in the media, or from what people are willing to see. My intention is to not only perceive the fear of Qassam rockets but to see what's going on, on the other side too. It's hard for me to say why they're shooting rockets at us, and I don't want to justify that in any way. However, I think that we should understand why this type of extremism is created and why people come to encourage violence. I organized a group and we've been meeting for a year and a half. It's called Other Voice. During our meetings we contact people from Gaza. We try to meet different people every time and think how we can create an alternative to this reality. Usually we brainstorm ideas for meetings and activities. Because of the [border] closure, we haven't been able to carry out any of the joint activities. Other Voice has various goals. First, reminding ourselves that we are all human beings and that it is people who live on the other side of the border. We remind ourselves that the violence isn't coming from civilians, that it's the result of this severe, protracted and very long conflict, which is yet to be resolved. Civilians on both sides get hurt during a conflict. Another goal is to create a process of maintaining contacts, besides those episodes where we meet once and talk. Usually we return to our regular habit of ignoring each other and to our daily lives because it's easier to forget these things. Every time we discover just how similar we are, and how similar our worlds are, even though you can't measure and it's very difficult to compare. Our worlds are very similar on both sides: fear of bombings, uncertainty of our futures, problems making a living, wanting to leave, children's fears at night and paying for psychological counseling. In those senses we are very similar to the civilians we talk to from Gaza. I think this is true for every person who ever came to a meeting, even people who came once and didn't return. There is a strong sense of a shared fate in this difficult reality. I talked about comparison and similarities. We constantly remind each other and insist that we mustn't deal with who is suffering more, who is to blame, who started it. We should address each other as human beings; all the other paths just lead to a dead end. You could justify what the leaders do, or you could choose not to. There are always reasons, but the outcome is what counts. We are suffering the consequences and they are cruel and unbearable.

  • How do you respond to people who claim that this is no time to meet, especially during the war in Gaza?

    The war was a very difficult time and I was criticized. I gave a few interviews and found myself being attacked to a certain extent. First of all, I try not to argue, certainly not in front of an audience. I try to find people who are willing to come aside and talk, not in front of cameras or radio microphones. I find that after a few minutes of conversation, even the harshest, loudest people will admit that 80-90% of the people in Gaza don't seek to wipe us out and that these people want to live in peace. They also say that the civilians in Gaza are behaving as they are because they aren't willing to put up with things any longer.I think that people tend to get carried away by the people who live in Sderot, and they live in a really impossible situation. For a very long period there was no solution addressing the rockets. The people of Sderot didn't care how the shooting of rockets would be resolved, only that it be resolved. If that meant invading Gaza, fine. If it meant peace, fine. They'd had it with the rockets. Regarding those people who say this isn't the time [for working with Palestinians in Gaza], there is no such thing. It's never the right time, and yet it is always the right time. This conflict has been going on for 61 years1 and things happened only when someone was brave enough to say, "I don't care about war, I don't care about them becoming our enemies, I'm taking this brave step." I believe we should be talking to everybody. I'm no politician and I don't intend to counsel my leaders. I think that if I can talk to civilians from Gaza - some have lost family and some have relatives involved in operations against Israel - and if I'm able to see their human side, there's no reason not to talk to each other. I think that saying "there is nobody to talk to" is cowardly.

    • 1Mr. Yellin is referring to the War of 1967, which is often viewed as being a main cause of the present conflict.

  • Is it your goal to set an example for the politicians?

    There is no doubt that part of the goal is that Other Voice's work will involve public issues. We are trying to prove that an alternative exists, that there are people to talk to on the other side, and setting an example of how to do things differently. I think we are successful, although there isn't the mutuality we would like to have. We work together and are in touch with people from Gaza. We are creating an alternative and I believe that is meaningful. By the way, it was during the war that we kept in touch with people in Gaza. It's ridiculous, but many people from our group maintained relationships that were much more intense, despite the difficulties. I talked to people in Gaza at least five or six times a day. I saved a collection of text messages I received to my mobile phone.

  • What was the nature of the conversations people were having during the war in Gaza?

    The conversations were mostly making sure that everybody was okay on the other side, and on our side. I received text messages from people in Gaza when they heard that rockets landed here. They asked whether everything was okay, whether we were all right, and we contacted them too. We communicated, people from both sides of the conflict yet on one side: victims. We are people who - to a certain degree - can't affect the war and end it, but still we experienced it every day. Most of our conversations were about very personal matters, such as our concerns, our fears, our realities. We stayed in touch after the war too. It was very easy to continue because in the most difficult of times we stayed in touch, we had a high level of trust established. This process requires building trust. Most people I know are wrapped in layers of fear, suspicion, mistrust, so the first step is peeling those layers away, then rebuilding something different.

  • When you and your children were afraid, why did your relationships with people in Gaza help?

    I don't think I could live here and justify my life here if I didn't make an effort to see and encounter what was on the other side of the border. You could say there is a certain degree of satisfaction when something really happens. For a long time I didn't know whether it was even possible. We have all sorts of campaigns and events and they've been very successful so there is a sense of satisfaction that we can inspire people to think differently and prove there is another way. However, things are still bad. It's important to remember that things have been quiet for three months, two weeks ago a rocket landed on a house. That was a reminder - it's very easy to forget there is actually a war here. We have an unresolved conflict on our hands. It's quiet now but in two minutes the situation could go back to what it was before. People live in these circumstances and these people must not be forgotten.

  • Do you feel you've paid a price in your society because you decided to become involved?

    No. I think you pay a much higher price when you don't get involved. People in Sderot know people in Gaza. It's ridiculous. There were commercial ties before the first intifada. People went from side to side, [Israelis] went to the beach in Gaza, people from Gaza came to Sderot, to the market, and worked here like they did all over Israel. One of Other Voice's first meetings was very moving because people from Sderot's older generation attended. One of them talked nostalgically about how he misses that period. He talked about friends from Gaza who came to celebrate his sons' bar mitzvahs and his grandson's circumcision, and told us about events he used to go to Gaza to celebrate. I'm trying to say that people are aware of the fact that human beings live close by, and yet 20 years have gone by and the younger generation grew up here without knowing that.

  • How do you interest people in attending the meetings?

    That's one of the problems. It's very hard for people to keep on coming to these meetings. At first there would be a wide range of people but in the end we became a group of people who were more active in general. While many of these people haven't been active for years, they got involved. How do we reach people? We advertised a little, but people mostly come with friends. It isn't so easy because actually during quiet stretches, people want to be less involved. They're comfortable and things are quiet and they don't want to deal with other people's suffering. People feel that they are recuperating and that is true for us all. When things are calm we try to patch our lives back together. All the people [on the Palestinian side] who we are in touch with are wonderful people, but their lives don't enable them to do things and become active, certainly not in public. Our attempts did not really work, except for one event. But they are very courageous people, and despite the personal risks they take, they insist on staying in touch with us.

  • Why do people on the Palestinian side who you maintain contact with take a risk?

    People are at varying degrees of risk. People who are better known in public fear a little less, apparently their status prevents them from being harmed. Some, the younger people, students, are very hesitant. Some of our meetings are initiated on the Internet or through people who know each other. It takes time to build the trust necessary for a phone call or an open exchange of views. None of the people we've been in touch with have been hurt or threatened because of their contact with us, and I think people aren't opposed to personal ties. Trying to build organizational ties becomes more formal and that's where opposition begins. We held a very successful event lately, about a month after the war. We called it "from a fence of hatred to a fence between neighbors". We had dialogue, some dealing with internal dialogue in Israeli society, and we also had a phone conversation with people in Gaza. People came from all over the country. The peak of the activities was building an alternative fence. We wrote "peace" on it in Hebrew, English and Arabic, "It won't stop until we talk" and other slogans that deal with dialogue. Children drew flowers and birds. We wanted to hang the fence on both sides of the border, half on ours and half on theirs. We understood that wouldn't be possible, that the IDF wouldn't let us near the fence. We hung our fence by the main road here in Sderot; it hung there for two weeks, and people driving on the road by Sderot saw it. A week later, a delegation of European rabbis and imams came to visit Sderot. They met with religious representatives and children in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, who gave them pictures they drew. They were supposed to go to Gaza for a tour and then visit a school and give the kids there the pictures from the kids of Kfar Aza. I suggested I give them half of the fence to take to Gaza. They liked the idea a lot and two days later a delegation member called to say they had a permit to enter Gaza the next day. My son and I took down half of the fence and packed it in a box. At six am the next morning we took the box to Erez crossing point. The delegation entered Gaza with our package and brought it to schoolchildren in Gaza. We have a video and photos of the schoolchildren in Gaza holding their part of the fence and dancing around with it. For us it was an amazing experience, seeing those pictures from Gaza. It's the same fence and it has Hebrew writing on it and it's amazing that they weren't afraid. They sang and danced with their half of the fence in front of the camera. That gives me hope. That was a very moving experience. We couldn't have done it if we'd tried using only a direct approach. We couldn't have taken the package ourselves to Erez crossing and handed it over to a representative of the school, or of another organization. It was made possible because it was mediated by an organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims; perhaps that's why neither Hamas nor Israel stopped it. I was in Italy and met with organizations, some of which are active in Gaza. They raised the possibility of working and being assisted by mediating organizations. While the borders are closed, Israelis can't enter and Palestinians can't leave [Gaza], there are other ways we should try. I think we should work more with international mediation.

  • During the war in Gaza, did the Israelis agree on opposing the attacks on Gaza? Did your Palestinian counterparts object to Qassam rockets being launched at Israel? Did you feel the need to be explicit about these matters?

    It came up in many conversations we had in the past, not necessarily during the war. During the war, because it was the peak of this madness, we were more focused on personal relationships. I publicly condemned the attacks [on Gaza]. I felt that the Palestinians required this. During our conversations with people from Gaza, they said we have to reach out to our public, talk to our politicians and convince them. On our side, people asked why the Palestinians aren't active, why they don't publicly condemn the [Palestinian] shooting. They said, you don't hear the Palestinians objecting to the attacks on Israel. This came up a lot, and it still does. We stress that what people say shouldn't be accusatory. I think people are justified in demanding these things, but it's important that these demands don't become the main issue at stake. Nearly all the Palestinians I've talked to have denounced the rocket fire quite plainly. They think it isn't right, not only from a moral perspective, but also because it harms them severely. It's important to keep saying these things all along, so that we don't get the feeling that they support continuing this. They also suffer from the rocket fire and innocent people are dying. We said this during the war, and before too.

  • How did Israelis who attended the meetings regard the ongoing attacks [on Israel] and the bombings in Gaza?

    During the war something was weakened in Other Voice. During war you don't condemn your government. I think Israelis are inherently connected to war and victory. There is a very strong need to be faithful to your country. Even if you object to the policy, you find yourself going to the army, wanting to serve in an elite unit and wanting your son to serve in an elite unit. The culture here puts the state first, so when the war started, we [Other Voice] were attacked. [The attack] was justified, we were being fired at, and you can't denounce what the IDF is doing when our soldiers are risking their lives in Gaza. Our group was split into people who felt this was not the right time to object to policy, and people who felt it was. Some people said the IDF should be allowed to operate; hopefully that would resolve the rocket-fire problem and then we would be able to create things from scratch. But I do think all our members didn't change their basic view that we should maintain contact with people in Gaza. I think that it is widely believed that you don't criticize your country when it goes to war, when its existence is at stake. I didn't feel I had a moral deliberation but clearly if I publicly renounced [the attacks on Gaza] I would be attacked, and so it was. People in our group said I shouldn't have said what I did. Close friends also said that. It isn't easy, but I don't regret saying what I said. I did the right thing. In Other Voice we agreed that we don't have to share the same opinions, that we are individuals who can speak their minds. People from Other Voice said different things, in public too, during the war and after it.

  • I want to go back to your blog partner. What is his situation?

    Some people don't feel very safe, and he's one of them. He's been unsuccessful in trying to leave Gaza for the past two years in order to finish his studies in Europe. At first, he didn't receive a permit from Israel and gave up the possibility of leaving through Erez crossing. Afterwards he tried and is still trying to exit through Egypt. This is a long process of coordinating with the Egyptians and for a long period they would not allow him to leave without a visa. Things are progressing but it's impossible to know how they'll go. The day he's set to leave he could be denied. He isn't working and can't find a job and that's very hard to deal with. If he does manage to leave, he hopes that one day he'll be able to return to Gaza after getting his degree and lead change there.

  • Who is the blog's readership and what responses do you receive?

    There are hundreds of responses, mostly from people from abroad, but also from Israel and Arab countries. Of course, when there is violence there are more readers, and when there isn't, there are fewer. There is a wide range of readers, people who support dialogue and people who don't. I can't tell you who the readers are, I can only address the people who respond, and most of them support what we're doing. Occasionally there are people who oppose our ways and they go so far as to write abusive comments, like the only resolution is to wipe out all the Arabs or all the Jews.

  • Do people in Sderot read the blog?

    The blog is in English because that's the language we can both communicate in. unfortunately I don't speak Arabic well enough and he doesn't speak Hebrew at all. There are people in Sderot who read the blog, not many though. It's hard to say I've gotten responses to the blog from people from Sderot. For me, the blog was an incentive to found Other Voice, so you could say Other Voice evolved from the blog. The responses have strengthened me. When I first started the blog I felt I was alone. Now I feel there is a much wider community of supporters. I think it's natural to worry about taking the first step, especially in this environment, where you don't take anything for granted.

  • Can a blog, a virtual community, affect the reality outside?

    It encouraged me to get involved in additional activities so it may have an effect. For me it's important to feel I'm not coping alone. I intend on helping Peace Man in funding his studies by publishing his request on the blog and help him find donors.

  • Who is Peace Man and who is Hope Man?

    I'm Hope Man. He chose first so I decided to be Hope Man. Hope is a strong word, it's very meaningful. Hope is one of my motivations. I'm operating in a place where there is very little hope - both in Israel and in Sderot. Sderot isn't in very good condition, to put it mildly, even without the rockets and the conflict. My family lives abroad and I feel that if I didn't have hope I wouldn't have a reason to live here. The reality here of oppression is hard for me to contend with. If this goes on for long, I'm not sure I'll be able to continue choosing to live here. I'm here because I hope things will change. Unfortunately, over the past four years I've been hearing how things can't change, and that I should reconcile with how things are. On the other hand, relationships with people in Gaza give me hope. Relationships with people in Sderot and the area also give me hope.

  • Do you think peoples' fears are similar on both sides - in Gaza and in Sderot?

    During the war, their [the Palestinians'] fear of death at any given moment was much stronger than ours, despite all what we've gone through. There were times when 50-60 rockets would land here every day, while during the war there were about 10-20 every day. I think [our] fear of rocket fire wasn't as immediate as the [Palestinians'] fear of being bombed by airplanes. Of course we haven't ever experienced what's going on in Gaza. We've never experienced closure or food shortage, travel restrictions - certainly not for so long or as intensely as they do. For them, it's a catastrophe and if you look at the bigger picture, there's a difference. But for someone whose son was wounded or killed, there is no difference. I think that we need to work cooperatively, especially in Sderot, even when it's tough. We should remember that we aren't alone, and that organizations and individuals are working in various ways and that creating partnerships is important, including involving neutral international organizations. There is mutual fear among the Israelis and the Palestinians. Even if a peace treaty is suddenly signed, there will still be a lot of work ahead. The two-state solution is wonderful but if the two peoples fight each other for another hundred years, what's the use? We need to see how to build an infrastructure and I think we're a part of that infrastructure. Our role is to prepare people and peel away the layers.

  • Does Other Voice do other kinds of work?

    There was an initiative to erase racist graffiti such as "Death to Arabs", "Death to Jews", "Kahane was right" and we heard from other organizations who wanted to join. I think a few hundred people country-wide participated in the initiative, from the north to Be'er Sheva. People went and erased graffiti. Here in Sderot we walked around with paint and brushes and erased graffiti. It was a very positive initiative and it was very encouraging. There was a parallel event in Rahat, the people of Rahat erased graffiti in their neighboring settlements. We ended the event with a ceremony in Rahat. The mayor of Rahat spoke, as well as a representative from Kafa, which means enough in Arabic (now we're in touch), our representative, the vice-mayor of Be'er Sheva and a police representative, who spoke well about tolerance. This is our first event cooperating with the authorities to organize. While the event didn't include people from Gaza - because it was impossible - it was very much influenced by what happened in Gaza. During the war, our soldiers painted racist graffiti on walls and houses in Gaza.1 That urged us to organize the graffiti-erasing event. Besides our ties to people in Gaza, we think it's very important to reach people in Israel. From my experience in other initiatives I took part in, there is a tendency to reach out to a limited portion of the Israeli public. Our work reaches out to the entire Israeli public, in order to change peoples' views and humanize what we consider "the other".

    • 1We could not find evidence to support or refute this claim.