In the past two years, a soundproof curtain has descended on dialogue between individuals in Israel on the one hand and Gaza and the West Bank on the other. Without the possibility of interchange, it is but a small step to collective demonization of the other.
If Palestinians and Israelis are linked by anything, it seems to be fear and mistrust.
Now a one-of-a-kind social experiment has stepped into the void, attempting to pierce the soundproof curtain. Not between politicians. Not between delegations. Not between professional groups. Not between celebrities.
With supreme -- and perhaps naive -- faith in the common man, a local group has come up with a scheme to allow Palestinians and Israelis a first step in one-to-one contact: giving them the opportunity to talk.
The binational organization, Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Parents for Peace, is made up of about 400 Israeli and Palestinian parents, whose children have been killed by the other side. Until now, its efforts have been focused on using its members' immense moral credibility to press leaders for peace.
With their tragic credentials, hardly any door remains closed to them. In addition to meetings and workshops among themselves, the group has also conducted projects to raise public consciousness.
For example, it has filled Tel-Aviv's biggest square with symbolic coffins to represent the victims of both sides, as well as undertaking hunger strikes in which each day another bereaved parent volunteered to fast.
With its new telephone project, Hello, Salaam! Hello, Shalom! Hello, Peace! the parents group has initiated a program audacious in scope, yet employing the simplest tool of communication available to almost everybody: the telephone.
Although Israelis and Palestinians are now unable to meet in person, telephone lines between them are as open as a conversation between two girlfriends living in adjacent apartments. Often mobile phones even have the same area codes.
But how would anybody from either side know whom to contact within the sea of the other nationality?
Hello, Peace! has established an ingenious matrix for telephone contact: an automated telephone system through which any individual can, without charge, talk by phone to a member of the other side. It is a grass-roots connection of the most basic and immediate kind.
Callers within Israel, the West Bank or Gaza dial 6364 from any telephone. They then have the option of browsing through a list of messages and names of individuals who have signed up as interested in receiving phone calls -- to date, 590 Israelis and 1,377 Palestinians are listed.
Participants can decide to whom to place a call, which is done through the project's system. Additionally, every caller may create a personalized message box identifying himself and giving a short greeting, thus enabling another caller to contact him. The data is further broken down by gender and age, so that a caller can direct contacts.
When instituted in October 2002, the project was advertised on billboards, the radio, the Israeli press and in the Arabic-language newspaper, Al Quds. Since then, its existence has spread by word of mouth. To date, more than 100,000 calls have been made, far exceeding the expectations of its creators.
Edna, a 66-year-old Israeli living in Beersheba, has been calling Hello, Peace! regularly. She very much would like to speak to another woman, but has yet to find a Palestinian woman who speaks English or Hebrew, and Edna's Arabic is too rudimentary to have a real conversation.
However, Edna has established contact with two young men with whom she speaks often. At first, Edna was hesitant to give her age but decided that a 66-year-old on the line is a message in itself. Their conversations are not limited to politics.
One man, previously injured in a car accident, told her that he has been treated in the Beersheba hospital in the past. "If he comes again," Edna said, "I will definitely go to visit him."
Last year 22-year-old Yaniv finished his Israeli army service, serving in a combat unit. This winter he has been speaking on Hello, Peace!Â "I heard many -- at least 10 -- say they are against suicide bombers and support peace," Yaniv said. "It is important for us Israelis to know there are Palestinians who feel this way. Because when we see all those pictures on the TV, we think there are no normal people on the other side. And they feel exactly the same way."
Trying to get through to someone sometimes takes determination and perseverance. The language barrier is frequently a stumbling block. Often English is the lingua franca.
In the opinion of the project's organizers, the language barrier is symptomatic of the noncommunication of the two societies in general. Even after there is a human being on the other end, it is not always easy to break the ice with a stranger and exchange more than platitudes.
Ahmed from Hebron learned Hebrew during his many years working in Israel as a building subcontractor, so he was able to freely express himself to his Israeli counterpart. In fact, Ahmed has spoken with many Israelis through Hello, Peace!, some of them several times. When he calls, he gives only his first name, as is customary.
When asked if he thinks these calls can help and what private individuals can actually accomplish by talking, Ahmed responded, "It is true, I can do nothing. But Israelis can."
"Israel is a democracy," he continued. "Israel has all the power on its side. The scales are not even. Israelis are the ones who can make a choice."
Ahmed has a message he wants to convey to Israelis: "To know that we, too, deserve to live like human beings."
When asked if he was working, Ahmed replied, "Not now. Now the situation is terrible."
Then further questioned about what he does instead, Ahmed laughed and said, "I sit at home and watch television -- and I talk on the phone."
The Common Ground News Service, which supplied this story, distributes articles to promote constructive perspectives and dialogue about current Middle East issues. Â
Helen Schary Motro is an American writer and lawyer living in Israel, who teaches at the Tel-Aviv University law school.
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