Palestinian and Jewish Israeli youth become friends at Ontario camp

A group of 20 teenagers, both Jewish Israeli and Palestinian, are headed home after three weeks of peace, friendship and dialogue at an Ontario camp -- showing that they refuse to hate one another.

20 teenagers head home where the bloody conflict continues

Twenty teenagers spent three weeks at an Ontario camp as part of a peace initiative that brings together youth from both sides of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict to talk about their experiences. (CBC)

Two young teenagers sit, arms around each other at an Ontario camp, talking about their lives and their new-found friendship. But these teenagers, and their bond, symbolize much more than the usual summer camp memories many hold.

Yanal Abdallah, a Palestinian and Roei Hasnes, an Israeli, both 15, have long since learned to internalize the ongoing conflict back home.

"Every time I said to [my friends] that I love Jewish and Israeli people, they’d say to me 'you are not with us,'" Abdallah said, adding that in feeling as if he was forced to hate the other side he felt more and more alone. "I am lonely… I love the Jewish people; I don't want [there] to be a war between them."

It's the same story on the other side.

"We always heard stories in Israel that Palestinians are bad, mean, not good," said Hasnes. "I know that I have a little fear.  But when we go here, and I met [Palestinians], I talked with them, and know who they are, I learned that they are human like me, not monsters, they do everything like me."

Abdallah and Hasnes are two of a group of 20 teenagers who spent three weeks at Camp Shomria, near Perth, Ont., as part of Heart 2 Heart — a partnership between Givat Haviva, an educational institution in Israel and the youth movement Hashomer Hatziar.  The camp's goal is to foster dialogue and bring together teenagers on both sides of one of the world's most entrenched conflicts.

The group arrived in Canada on July 5, only a short time after a Palestinian teenager's burned body was discovered in Jerusalem following the discovery of the bodies of three murdered Israeli youth near Hebron.

The terror, beginning with the deaths of those not much older than the youth gathering in Ontario, would only increase after Israel launched an offensive against militants in Gaza, which has involved air strikes and ground operations. More than 2,000 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza since the start of the conflict.

Hundreds, mainly Palestinian civilians, have died, as have more than 30 Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.

However, the war shown in headlines doesn't represent the views of the young people on both sides that refuse to be told to hate each other while hundreds back home are perishing.

The group in Ontario has taken part in a highly structured process to help them talk about their experiences and to hear about the experiences of "the other."

There are a handful of similar camps across North America.

Upon arriving at Pearson International Airport, Hasnes remembered the shock of having his bags searched multiple times and being asked to remove his shoes. It was a moment, he says, that gave him insight into the very different experiences of Palestinians.

Hasnes says he and the others are growing up this summer and that he's learning to trust his own ideas on one fundamental truth, how to be human.

"First of all, it's how to be a human," he said. "How to look at the people, how to try and understand them before religion, before everything."

The teens were scheduled to head back to Tel Aviv Wednesday night, but flight cancellations forced them to stay one more night. The cancellation reminded them of the conflict back home but it also gave them more time to spend together, and continue learning.

After Wednesday's flight was cancelled, the teenagers depart from Pearson International Airport Thursday for Tel Aviv. (CBC)

With files from The Associated Press