Roped together, eight young Jews and Arabs have just climbed Europe’s highest mountain in a bid to further peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.
The group, which reached the summit on Wednesday, was brought together by the Lausanne-based organisation Coexistences, which works to encourage and support dialogue and mutual understanding between the two communities.
“I think this region of the world doesn’t need political militantism,” Massimo Sandri, president of Coexistences, told swissinfo.ch.
“In fact I think that kind of militantism contributes to the conflict. We have to go beyond stereotypes and the polarisation of the conflict between one side and the other.”
The exercise, named Breaking the Ice, involved two women and six men aged 23 to 31. All were experienced athletes and Israeli citizens, with four drawn from each community.
But in the Middle East situation, a shared passport does not mean a shared sense of identity.
Most members of the Arab minority do not feel part of the Jewish state, Lobna Agbaria, a 23 year old student of law and economics, and one of the Palestinian participants, told swissinfo.ch.
“The Palestinian Arab Christian and Muslim community is separated in the cities that we live in, in the schools, in the education we get, the friends – the whole environment is separated,” she said. “Even when you study, most of your friends are from your own community.”
Before she got involved in the Mont Blanc project, she believed there was no point in holding a dialogue with Israelis until there was an end to the occupation of Palestinian land and Jewish settlements.
“I used to think this sort of programme romanticised the reality, and the reality is not good,” she confessed.
“But you ask yourself: What do I do? I live in this reality, this is the situation, so what can I do to help improve the situation?”
The Palestinian experience is not taught in Israeli schools, and given that the two communities barely mix, most Israelis do not know much about the Arabs, she explained.
While admitting that the dynamics within the group of climbers is not typical of Israeli society as a whole, she said that it had been important to be able to hold discussions with the Jewish participants as friends.
“The group is very special. Political points of view have been changed, especially on the Israeli side, because they were exposed for the first time to Palestinians, whom they have a lot in common with,” she explained.
Tomer Ketter, a 29-year-old Jewish postgraduate student of marine geophysics, agreed that although he had always known many Arabs, he had never had close friendships with any of them or really known what they thought.
It was different with the climbing group.
“This project actually changed my political opinion… Now that I have real friends who are Arabs, I think it opens an entire other world to me of new people I can hang out with and make new friends,” he told swissinfo.ch.
He was still wondering how he will be able to use his experience of being with the group to influence others.
“Many Israelis and many Palestinians think as I do, but many are afraid to say it, or feel uncomfortable about saying it in public,” he said.
“It’s much easier to be loud, and the press likes to listen to the smaller extreme groups. That’s really the biggest problem: that the press doesn’t give enough attention to the voices from the middle.”
The group is now considering ways of extending their own experience to other Israelis, Ketter said. In particular, they are making plans for trekking with mixed groups of teenagers.
Coexistences ran its first project four years ago, bringing over a mixed group of teenagers from Jerusalem, but the ascent of Mont Blanc was its most ambitious yet. As Sandri explained, mountaineering is a symbolic activity, requiring solidarity among the team members who are roped together.
Agbaria agreed. “When you take eight strangers and make them into a group that needs to function together to reach a very big target, Mont Blanc, you can’t do that without trust. When you have a rope between you and somebody else, you have to trust them.”
And that trust, built up over the months of training for the climb, is the basis of everything that followed.
“I think the most important thing I learned is that you can really open your mind and you really can speak truly with people whom you trust… When we talk, even about politics, it is a dialogue on a new level.”
Coexistences is a Swiss organisation and Mont Blanc is in France: the mountain was chosen for its strong symbolic – and marketing – impact.
This symbolic value, which promotes the idea that peace in the Middle East is indeed possible, will be illustrated in a film covering the project from start to finish.
But Coexistences is keen to promote understanding and cooperation not only between Jews and Arabs, but also between the mountain valleys of Switzerland, Italy and France. Future projects include bringing over Jews and Palestinians to trek together through these areas.
Julia Slater, swissinfo.ch (with input from Susan Vogel-Misicka)
Breaking the Ice project
The ascent of Mont Blanc was led by Swiss mountaineer Jean Troillet, with Israeli and Palestinian mountaineers Doron Erel and Olfat Haider.
The climb was preceded by months of meetings and discussions as well as rigorous sports training.
The group spent a week together in Switzerland before setting off for the summit by the Trois Monts route.
They reached the 4,807 metre peak at midday on August 4.
The climb was supported by the French towns of Chamonix and Courmayeur, and the Israeli town of Haifa.
Haifa University also helped to organise the visit.
Group members have pledged to continue the work of coexistence after their return, in particular by visiting Jewish and Arab schools in Israel to talk about their experience.
The association was established in 2006 and has hosted several mixed Israeli-Palestinian groups of teenagers and adults in Switzerland.
The idea is to facilitate communication between the two sides, by sharing an experience of living in a neutral, nonviolent environment.
The projects are arranged in conjunction with the Jerusalem YMCA, and the participants are drawn from a range of backgrounds.
Participants are subjected to a rigorous selection process; the preliminary criterion is that they must be open-minded and will be able to bring something to the group as well as learn from it.
On their return the groups continue to meet to develop further the experience they have gained.
In 2008 Swiss host families accommodated two mixed groups consisting of a total of 40 teenagers, for 10 days.
A few months later 16 Israeli and Palestinian women came to Switzerland. They were all mothers of the teenagers hosted in 2006, keen on participating in and prolonging the dialogue started by their children.
In 2009, the Association made it possible for 30 former wounded fighters from both sides to engage in an intense exchange regarding each other's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In 2009 the Association hosted another group of 16 Israeli-Palestinian teenage girls.
Coexistences has more than 100 active members. Most of them live in Lausanne, some in Geneva, and some in Israel.