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Gaza needs a peace stimulus

History shows the power of people-to-people contact.

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"We have failed, haven't we?" our colleague from Gaza said over the phone, amid the sound of explosions.

For those of us engaged in "people to people" peace building, the latest violent chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is both tragic and surreal. All around us, people remain convinced that the solution to the conflict depends on military fatigues, armored tanks, Qassam rockets, suicide bombers, stones, and F-16s. But violence will only prolong the conflict and inflict deeper wounds.

Israelis and Palestinians have a choice. They can continue business as usual: violence, separation, hatred, and fear. Or they can recognize that they must look for mutually beneficial ways to share their small corner of the world.

People-to-people diplomacy works on the assumption that if Israelis and Palestinians connect at a human level, they will build compassion and trust. They will change public opinion. Painfully, slowly, they will create cross-border movements to transform the cultural and political reality on the ground.

Many question the impact of people-to-people diplomacy. But it has hardly been tried. Researchers estimate that perhaps 5 percent of the Palestinian and Israeli populations have engaged in an organized "dialogue" or "encounter" program of any kind.

Since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, an estimated 1 percent or less of Palestinian and Israeli youth have had such an opportunity. It's unreasonable to dismiss people-to-people programs based on such a meager attempt.

When the conflict between Israel and Hamas took its latest ugly turn, Israeli and Palestinian graduates of the Seeds of Peace summer camp in Maine were at a citywide interfaith celebration in Haifa. While Hamas and the Israeli government communicated through violence, the "Seeds" communicated with words and affirmed their commitment to finding nonviolent ways to build a better future.

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