Final Project for the YaLa Peace Institute
by Abigail Levitt (Israel)
As the year 2025 comes to a close, we look back at ten years of peace and friendship between Israel and Palestine. Reporter, Abigail Levitt, heads out to interview some of the people who are dedicating their lives to sustaining the 2015 Starting With The People Peace Initiative that has brought such change to our region.
It’s eight o’ clock on a Sunday morning and I am taking the intercity bus from West to East Jerusalem. Despite the crowds of people on their way to work and school, I feel a sense of serenity in the air. It’s not quiet. There are the usual noises of people talking too loudly on their cellphones, teenagers insulting one another, babies crying and an older woman shouting at the teenagers for disturbing her ride. However, maybe I’m imagining it, but I feel that there is a sense of safety and belonging in all of this noise. A deep feeling that despite hardships, we are at home. As we drive further East, I see less black hats and Jewish style headscarves and more hijabs and keffiyehs. But the sense of serenity and belonging remain.
I get off the bus in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina and walk down the narrow streets to the family home of Ahmed Said, founder of the Starting With The People Peace Initiative. At the entrance a man in black clothes and an earpiece glares at me. After finding out who I am, checking my identity card rather thoroughly and making sure I carry no weapons he lets me in.
Inside, Said greets me warmly, apologizing about the security guard outside: “I really feel it’s not necessary anymore,” he says. “But the Palestinian government insists. They’re afraid some of the remaining anti peace extremists will try to assassinate me and use my assassination to start a civil war. It’s rather annoying for my wife and kids, but I will say that when I go out I’m glad for the protection. Teenage girls treat me like a celebrity and their attempts to get close can be rather alarming.”
Noticing the personal price Said pays I ask him if it’s worth it.
“Of course!” Said exclaims smiling.” I am so proud of how far we have come.”
I ask him to tell me about the process of change back in 2015.
“At the start of the Transition Period, there was so much violence going on that it was hard to imagine that today we would be where we are. It’s not just the physical acts of violence that I remember, but the words of hate, the public discourse of anger and exclusion, the defensiveness and grouping off. When we realized that the root of the problem lay not at the leadership level, but at the level of the ordinary citizens, we realized that the solution must start from there as well.
We started to create circles of public discourse in all parts of Israel and what was then called the Palestinian Territories. We trained leaders from all segments of society to lead these discussions in such a way that every opinion was tolerated and that led the group to reach joint conclusions about the best possible future that they envisioned.
Then, in the second step, those leaders met in groups and together made decisions about how to create change. At that point we were able to create a complete plan to be voted on in national referendums. Once the plan had the support of the people, we were able to start implementation.”
I asked Said about the public’s reactions to those early events. He recommended some people he thought could help me. I had many more questions for Saud but his duties called and I had to let him go.
I thanked him for his time, wished the grumpy security man ‘Yom Moubarak’ and caught a bus to the town of Beit Nahala where I would meet Bracha Krauss and Abood Jallad, members of Palestinian Civic Support.
Krauss, graciously invited me into her home, where Jallad was already waiting and began to tell me her story.
“My husband and I have been living in Beit Nahala for thirty five years, since we were married. When the decision was made to create a Palestinian state in the west bank and we found out it would include this area, we were devastated. We faced the choice of moving into the new borders of Israel, or staying put and becoming residents of Palestine. I didn’t want to leave my home and at the same time I couldn’t imagine living in a Palestinian state. But ultimately, our connection to our home and community won and we decided to give it a try. Soon after services were transformed from Israel to Palestine, it became clear that life was not going to be easy here. Garbage collection was less frequent, healthcare clinics were understaffed, our power supply was unsteady and any dealings with government institutes were tediously slow and bureaucratic. The new Palestinian government was fighting inner corruption, and with the best of intentions just couldn’t control all the local issues while simultaneously trying to create a stable economy, enact laws and create the new State’s identity.
Many people left our community at that time, preferring to move to Israel where things were steadier. But my husband and I were determined to give it a longer trial. A group of us within our town decided to take matters into our own hands by creating Palestinian Civic Support, a volunteer basis organization that supports the government and local authorities in various ways.
Over time, and with the help of the organization, things have drastically improved here. I feel blessed to live in a beautiful supportive community in the Holy Land and proud of my part in strengthening Palestine, for the sake of my community here in Beit Nahala and for the sake of Israel’s safety and security. I’m also grateful for the wonderful Palestinians I’ve befriended in this process, especially my dear friend Abood.”
Jallad smiles at Krauss and I ask him how he became involved in the organization.
“Ten years ago, all I wanted was to get out of here. There were no good jobs, no freedom of movement and I couldn’t see a future here. I loved my land and the people in my town, but it felt suffocating and I was desperate to travel and see the world. I had no passport and travelling was complicated and tedious to organize. As soon as the State of Palestine was founded and I was given a passport, I caught the first flight into Europe and travelled for six months.
After the six months ended, I came home. Europe had spoilt me and for the first few months after I returned, I was driving everyone crazy making comparisons and complaining about everything. One day my mother got angry at me and said ‘If Europe is so great then why did you come back? Go, and take your complaints with you!’ I was hurt and upset, but it made me think. Why did I come back? Where did I really want to be? That was when I remembered that I loved my land and my people and I realized that for the first time we were in charge of our destiny. We couldn’t blame the Israelis or the Ottomans. This time, we would rule ourselves, and it would be what we made of it. I started trying to find out how I could help and get involved and I was told to go and see Bracha Krauss in the town of Beit Nahala. I was a little confused as to why I was being sent to a Jewish woman, but people insisted she was the one who was improving life here, so I went. When Bracha started telling me her plans, I got carried away with her optimism and faith, and since then we have been working together. We’ve managed to get people who come complaining to get involved in creating change and improving things.”
I thanked Bracha and Abood for their time and wished them luck.
I decided it was time to head to Tel Aviv to see Aviv Ben David, JDF officer.
The biggest concern, on the Israeli side, about the peace agreements, ten years ago, was of course, the issue of security. I asked Ben David, who was part of the IDF committee dealing with the Peace Process, what concerns the IDF had at that time and how they were addressed.
“We were particularly concerned that if the new Palestinian state had its own army, that at some point or other, extremists would gain control over it and start attacking Israel. On the other hand, we knew, Palestinians would not feel safe being protected by the IDF who they’d often had negative experiences with in the past. We realized that if this was really going to work, we had to have the two people’s working together to defend and protect the two nations.
In 2016 the name The Israeli Defense Forces was changed to The Joint Defense Forces and started drafting Palestinians. We ran extensive character and security checks on every Palestinian drafted, making sure nobody had extremist tendencies or connections to terrorists. Today we run some basic tests on all Palestinians and Israelis who are drafted. Some people don’t get through for a variety of reasons and can choose to do civilian community service instead. But serving in the JDF is definitely felt to be an honor by Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Initially it was hard for Palestinian and Israeli soldiers to train side by side. There was a lack of trust and often language barriers. We added some elements of bonding, connection and language skills to every soldier’s basic training. Ultimately a group of soldiers will bond through their joint experiences and start to feel pride in their unit and mutual responsibility for each other.
I believe that all of our soldiers feel a sense of pride and a shared responsibility to protect our homes and families from terror and violence.”
I thank Ben David and head to the beautiful city of Jaffa to meet with two very special women. Zeynep Cannane and Rafaela Levi are human rights educators and great friends. I’m meeting them in Cannane’s home.
She greets me with a smile.
“I’m excited to meet you. I always like talking about my love story with Jaffa. My grandparents lived in Jaffa and became refugees in Lebanon in 1948. After that my family moved to various different countries ending up in Turkey.
I first came to Jaffa to visit in 2012, to see where my grandparents had lived and it was love at first sight. In 2016 when I found out that refugees could return and be Israeli residents, I just knew that I had to come. I feel at home here in a way I have never felt anywhere else. I was a little concerned that I would face racism and maybe not have the same rights as Israeli citizens. The fact is that we do get all the basic rights, accept for the right to vote or be elected. We also automatically receive Palestinian citizenship.
As for racism, it is sometimes a problem, but at the same time there are so many wonderful people here of all religions who are working to change that.”
Cannane smiles at Levi.
I ask Levi about her story.
“I’m Israeli but I lived outside of Israel for many years. I was a very active peace builder on the internet before the peace agreement, trying to get Israelis and Palestinians to get to know each other as human beings and develop friendships. Now, Zeynep and I are both part of an Israeli government program to teach human rights and racism awareness and prevention at schools. We sometimes work together, using our friendship as an example to the children.”
I thank Cannane and Levi and head back to my home in Jerusalem.
It’s been a long and exciting day. As I watch darkness fall on the hills surrounding Jerusalem, I think about Ahmed, Bracha, Abood, Aviv, Rafaela and Zeynep, each playing their roles to insure that peace continues to reign. I think that what they all have in common is shared by Palestinians and Israelis throughout the region. A great sense of pride in their accomplishments combined with a characteristic determination to look forward and create an even better future for our children.
To learn more about the YaLa Peace Institute in Honor of Nelson Mandela, click here.
To view more final projects, click here.