- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

OTISFIELD, Maine (AP) — The Seeds of Peace camp that brings together teenagers from warring countries and cultures is accustomed to disruptions stemming from events thousands of miles away.

This summer, however, camp has been especially tense.

Pakistani and Indian teenagers were attending the opening session when terrorists bombed trains in Bombay, killing more than 200 people. Then Israel responded to border raids by Hezbollah by launching its offensive into Lebanon.

Discussions were heated. Many campers said they wanted to leave camp and catch the first plane home.

Although the bloodshed is discouraging, counselors say it underscores the importance of the camp.

“What are you going to do? Nothing?” asked Tomer Perry, an Israeli counselor who came to Seeds of Peace in 1996. “There’s always hope.”

Created in 1993, Seeds of Peace camp is dedicated to bringing together Israeli and Arab teenagers in hopes of moving them beyond deep-rooted hatreds. Removed from the region of conflict, the teens are startled to find themselves sharing meals, bunkhouses and the same sports teams as their “enemy.”

The 67-acre camp nestled in the woods on Pleasant Lake has expanded its reach during the years, grouping teenagers from other trouble spots such as Afghanistan, the Balkans, Cyprus, Iraq, India and Pakistan.

Last week, camp director Tim Wilson didn’t like what he was seeing as campers became increasingly anguished by daily news reports about Hezbollah rockets hitting Israel in record numbers and Israeli soldiers pushing deeper into Lebanon.

By Wednesday, Mr. Wilson decided he had seen enough of the shouting and finger-pointing. He told the campers that he was fed up with their self-pity and anger.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been exacerbated by outsiders using it for their own gain, he said. Peel those layers away, and you get to the heart of the conflict.

“You can yell and scream and holler, but what are you going to do to change this?” he said afterward.

“I get tired of people being victims,” said Mr. Wilson, a floppy denim hat perched on his head to block the blazing sun. “My father said you can wallow in it and figure somebody owes you something, or you can get off your behind and do something.”

As Mr. Wilson drove, the camp around him was abuzz with activity. Teenagers worked on a ropes course that teaches trust. Others danced in a circle. Some paddled on the lake in red kayaks.

During a game called “steal the bacon,” a Palestinian girl grabbed the “bacon,” a tennis ball, but slipped and fell down as she was tagged by an Israeli girl. The Israeli girl stopped to make sure the Palestinian was not hurt.

Respect, trust and communication are critical elements, Mr. Wilson noted. If all three are present, “strange and extraordinary things can happen.” Lasting friendships are built. Campers will go back home with a new understanding of the “enemy.”

Overall, the three-week camp is a roller-coaster ride in which participants go from playing games to joining in intensive, closed-door discussions. When they depart, they’ll be expected to share what they’ve learned in their communities.

“When you go back home, you have to influence the people around you. That’s pretty much your duty,” said Israeli camper Ido Zahavi, 16.

But it isn’t easy. Rasha Abbas, 17, of the West Back city of Ramallah, said many of those outside her immediate family don’t trust Seeds of Peace. Some say the campers have been brainwashed.

“I always feel that I have to defend myself,” she said.

Counselor Zagloub Said, a Palestinian who grew up on the West Bank, has heard it all before.

“People say we create an unrealistic bubble. Sometimes, I say you have to take people out of the mess to show them what life could be,” he said.

Mr. Said doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulty the campers face when they return home.

‘I will never lie to the kids and tell them, ‘Eventually everything will be fine,’” he said. “I want the people to be optimistic about their future, but I want to them to be realistic.”

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