Cooling Tensions

Pairing the world’s most volatile relationships with the world’s most unforgiving environments, a new nonprofit organization takes conflict resolution to new heights

By Adam J. Sacks

Published February 17, 2006, issue of February 17, 2006.

The philosophy behind a new nonprofit organization, Breaking the Ice, suggests that reconciliation under extreme conditions is not only possible — it’s preferable. Or at least that was the thinking behind an Antarctic trek pairing four Israelis and four Palestinians.

Project founder Nathaniel Heskel, a Berlin-based Israeli banker, was convinced that “something crazy must happen, an exciting action” to open the door to peace.

And so, on January 1, 2004 — with the aid of a variety of private and corporate sponsors and the blessings of by the Dalai Lama, Kofi Annan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Shimon Peres and the late Yasser Arafat — a group of eight functionaries, which included a Fatah functionary and a veteran of an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces, left South America for a 35-day Antarctic expedition.

The eight, part of a 21-person team, were forced to adhere to a rigorous schedule, including three-hour shifts on deck followed by six hours below. The crew arrived at Deception Island, home of one of Antarctica’s two active volcanoes; then they went on to the mainland for a 30-kilometer trek toward a 2,000-meter-high peak, which the team would later call “the mountain of Israeli-Palestinian friendship.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Disputes between the two factions broke out even more quickly than many had expected. On the boat ride over, conflict erupted over whether or not to name the mountain “Jerusalem,” as the Palestinians team insisted. A member of the Israeli team was disturbed to learn that one of the Palestinian had accepted a phone call

from Yasser Arafat while on board. Even greater offense was taken later, when project organizer Heskel learned that Arafat received a summit photo of the four Palestinians with flag minus the Israeli contingent.

At the same time, though, Heskel was pleasantly surprised by how easily the Palestinians put their lives in the Israelis’ hands. The Israelis were veteran mountain climbers, while the Palestinians never before had climbed a mountain or trekked through snow. And so a Palestinian jailed 11 years for stabbing an Israeli soldier came to depend on a child of the Holocaust.

Denis Ducroz, the group’s French trainer, remarked, “In their countries they have the feeling one or the other will win, and the other will lose; in front of the mountain, they understand they are all the same.”

The good will spread over into Chile, where representatives of local Jewish and Palestinian communities organized a welcome ceremony at Santiago International Airport. Maio Nazal, director of the local Palestinian federation, confessed that “it was the first time he voluntarily” came to the table with members of the Jewish community.

“It’s crazy that we have to go to the end of the world to understand peace,” said journalist Ziad Darwish, a member of the expedition’s Palestinian contingent. “An Israeli will give me a hand, and I’ll give my hand…. It’s very symbolic to tell the world we were here.”

Recently Breaking the Ice created a partnership with adventure-based conflict-resolution company Outward Bound to create the Palestinian-Israeli Unity Project. This past August, five Jewish and five Arab teenagers from Haifa, Israel, were brought to the Appalachian Mountains, where they joined together in a weeklong expedition.

The group’s next project, set to begin in March, is perhaps even more ambitious than the first. The journey, a four week trans-Saharan trek from Jerusalem to Tripoli, will include adventurers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the former Soviet Union and the United States. Its professed mission: no less than healing the rift between Western and Muslim ideologies.



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