Who says that Israelis and Palestinians can't work together? On New Year's Day, a group of Israelis and Palestinians embarked on a 35-day expedition to Antarctica that culminated in the scaling and naming of an unexplored mountain.
The group, Breaking the Ice, was honored this month for diplomacy through sport by Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conflict resolution.
" felt paralyzed not being able to do anything," said Heskel Nathaniel, an Israeli living in Germany who launched the project in order to make a contribution to peace. Nathaniel teamed up with an Israeli climber friend, Doron Erel, to assemble the expedition.
Through their connections, including Israeli journalists working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they found four Israelis and four Palestinians willing to sail from the southern tip of Chile through the Drake Passage to Antarctica. They also organized an eight-person support crew, including a physician, mountain guides and cameramen to produce a documentary.
The hikers included an Ethiopian Israeli who had lost most of her family trekking across Sudan en route to Israel, a Palestinian from Jerusalem who had been jailed for attacking Israeli troops with Molotov cocktails and a lawyer who served in an elite Israeli army commando unit. Despite their differences, members of the team knew how to "treat each other as human beings," said Olfat Haider, an Israeli Arab from Haifa.
But the expedition had plenty of rough spots. Crossing the Drake Passage, which Nathaniel calls the "largest ships' graveyard in the world," meant enduring waves nearly 50 feet high and winds up to 80 mph. Almost everyone became seasick and two participants suffered bruises as the boat was tossed around.
There also were political battles, like the one that occurred when Nasser Quass, the Palestinian who had been in an Israeli jail, said Jews have no claim to the Temple Mount.
"We were completely insulted," Nathaniel said.
Avihu Shoshani, the Israeli lawyer who often butted heads with Quass, was furious. Haider began to cry.
The parties separated, avoiding each other until the next evening, when they had to continue navigating, Nathaniel said.
Now, with the trek behind them, Breaking the Ice leaders are working to turn the event into an annual program -- though not to Antarctica. The next trip, slated for March 2005, will be a camel trek across the Sahara Desert for Jews and Arabs from several countries.
The group also hopes to inspire children with the example of bold adventurers who will symbolize a "new kind of hero," Nathaniel said. He explained that the group plans ultimately to create programs to instill friendship among children from countries of conflict.
For more information about the program and to read a diary of the trip, go to www.breaking-the-ice.de .