Israelis and Palestinians team up in Germany to help Gazans

Five people (including, from left, Tom Kellner, Seba Abu Daqa, Gali Blay and Elisha Baskin) sit on chairs in a room; one is talking, all others are looking at her
'The very fact that Israelis and Palestinians sit together in the same room at a time like this seems like a miracle,' writes Sarah Judith Hofmann. Pictured here: (from left): Tom Kellner, Seba Abu Daqa, Gali Blay and Elisha Baskin attend a workshop in Berlin (image: Slieman Halabi)

In Germany, a unique Israeli–Palestinian initiative is helping to organise urgently needed sanitary facilities and shelter for people in Gaza. Its members say that taking action in this way helps them deal with the anxiety they feel as a result of the conflict. Their group also shows that dialogue is possible even in difficult times

By Sarah Judith Hofmann

The toilet cubicles measure just 1 square metre and are covered with plastic sheeting attached to simple wooden slats. They provide a tiny amount of privacy in the former village of Al-Mawasi, a place where thousands of displaced people from all over Gaza now crowd together. Although the Israeli Defense Forces have designated it a "safe zone", the site lacks the corresponding infrastructure.

"My parents, friends and acquaintances are in Al-Mawasi. I asked all my contacts: What do people need most? And they said: toilets, showers, tents. So when Tom asked me if she could help, I said yes," says Seba Abu Daqa, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip.

Tom Kellner is a Jewish Israeli woman from Haifa. Both live in Germany: Abu Daqa in Munich, Kellner in Berlin. The two would probably never have met in Israel or Gaza. But in Germany, they have teamed up to appeal for donations from friends, acquaintances and relatives in Israel, the Palestinian territories, Germany and beyond.

Abu Daqa used her contacts in Gaza to organise materials and the construction of sanitary facilities and tents. It was clear from the outset that they would only be able to work with what was already available in the enclave, with even large aid organisations unable to deliver materials due to restrictions imposed by the Israeli military.

Since their Clean Shelter project began in January, 28 toilets, some with showers, have been set up, as well as 30 tents, each of which can accommodate 10 people. One toilet costs between €200 and €500.

A man (Slieman Halabi) and a woman (Gali Blay) stand beside each other and smile into the camera
Slieman Halabi (left, pictured here with Gali Blay) had the idea to create a group of 'exiled Israelis and Palestinians' in Europe (image: Sarah Hofmann/DW)

War in the Middle East, loneliness in Europe

The two women met through a dialogue project for Israelis and Palestinians living in Europe. After meeting online regularly for weeks, they recently met in-person for the first time at a workshop in Berlin. Tom Keller beams when she relates how overcome she was when she was able to embrace her "online friend" for the first time after working together on the Clean Shelter project for weeks.

The dialogue group was initiated by Slieman Halabi, a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who holds a doctorate in social psychology and, like Abu Daqa, now lives in Munich.

"We live in Europe and feel very lonely, especially now that there is a war," says Halabi. He was a student when he first took part in a workshop where Jewish and Palestinian Israelis met. "It changed my life," he says.

Halabi trained as a facilitator in the village of Neve Shalom – or Wahat al-Salam as it is known in Arabic – which translates as "oasis of peace". Located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the aim of the village's School for Peace is to facilitate encounters between Israelis and Palestinians. This is not par for the course in Israel, where Jewish and Palestinian Israelis rarely come in contact with each other. They go to different schools, live in different towns, villages or districts, and tend not to know what moves the other.

"It's a learning experience. It's not seeking an immediate solution to the conflict, but we believe that to find a solution, people really need to understand each others' perspectives and not act separately without knowing the underpinning mechanisms that lead people to act in certain ways regarding the conflict," says Halabi.

A toilet can be seen in a rudimentary cubicle made of wooden slats and plastic sheeting. In the background are tents
After being told by people on the ground that what was needed most were tents and toilets, Seba Abu Daqa, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, used her contacts in Gaza to organise materials and the construction of sanitary facilities and tents (image: Clean Shelter)

First meeting in a state of shock

Palestinians from Gaza, Syria and the occupied West Bank also took part in the School for Peace's first dialogue group outside Israel and met with Jewish Israelis. This was only possible because they all now live in Europe. Yet even though they are far from Israel, they still know little about each other, and prejudices and ignorance remain.

The idea to create a group of "exiled Israelis and Palestinians" had been on Halabi's mind for a long time when he scheduled the first online event for 8 October 2023. The 17 participants had no idea when they signed up for the event that they would all be in a state of shock at the first meeting. But so it was because on 7 October, hundreds of terrorists from Hamas and other militant Islamist groups broke through Israel's border fortifications. According to Israeli figures, they killed 1,160 people and took around 250 hostages, most of them civilians, including many women and children.

Halabi remembers that day vividly: "When I woke up on 7 October and saw the news as I always do, I was completely in shock. Israeli television was showing interviews with people who were hiding in the bunkers of their houses, describing what they could hear outside. It was too much to take in. They spoke to people who whispered into their mobile phone 'there are terrorists out there. Please come and help us'. And I couldn't do anything but sit there, watch this and go crazy," he says.

Two people hug in a room while two others look on (image: Slieman Halabi)
Being at the workshop in Berlin 'felt like living in a different reality, a world full of love and respect for each other,' says Gali Blay. Pictured here: two participants at the School for peace workshop in Berlin hug (image: Slieman Halabi)

Death, disease and hunger in Gaza

Many of those who had received an invitation to the meeting asked whether it ought to be cancelled. But Halabi didn't want to do that. "I told them: Please come. We need to talk – now more than ever," he says. All 17 participants showed up for the video call the next day.

Among them was Gali Blay, who now sits beside Halabi in a café in the Berlin district of Neukölln. Her cousin's family lived in Be'eri, one of the kibbutz communities where the terrorists committed the worst atrocities. "At the time, I didn't even realise the extent of it. I was just in shock. Everyone was in shock," she recalls. Blay later learned that some of her relatives had been murdered. She says that all she feels is sadness. "I have lost my home," she says. And yet – or probably specifically because of that – she also thought about the people of Gaza on 8 October. "My biggest fear was that I knew the reaction would be very hard, and innocent people would be affected," she says.

Shortly after 7 October, the Israeli military launched heavy airstrikes on Gaza, followed by a ground offensive and a far-reaching closure of the coastal strip. According to the Hamas-led Health Ministry, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of the offensive – two-thirds of whom are women and children. The widespread destruction and displacement of the population has led to a humanitarian crisis, with the United Nations warning that famine is imminent for many. 

Meanwhile, more than 100 Israeli hostages are still being held by Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organisation by the EU, US and other countries. The prospects for dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians could not be worse. The very fact that Israelis and Palestinians sit together in the same room at a time like this seems like a miracle.

Two Israeli soldiers in full combat gear lean on a pile of rubble and train their weapons on a target in the distance. They are surrounded by rubble and destroyed buildings, Gaza Strip, February 2024
Some Palestinians attending the Berlin workshop asked what goes on inside the head of an Israeli soldier who is bombing Gaza. Such difficult questions evoke strong emotions all round (image: Israel Defense Forces/Reuters)

Can people learn to talk to each other?

"At the start of each new group, we decide on common rules about how we want to talk to each other," says Halabi. Nobody wants to be insulted or hurt, he adds, and voicing expectations prevents that happening. The most important rule is that everyone listens to each other. "Some Palestinians asked, for example: What is going on inside an Israeli soldier who is bombing Gaza?"

Such sensitive topics evoke strong emotions. Both Halabi and Blay say there were plenty of tears during the meeting in Berlin, but there were also hugs. "It felt like living in a different reality, a world full of love and respect for each other," says Blay, adding that reality often looks very different indeed. "People don't listen to one another." 

In Europe, and especially in Germany, the dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "toxic", she adds, describing how people immediately label each other. Herself the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she feels that the accusation of anti-Semitism is dished out far too lightly. "It's not the kind of discourse we do in our groups," she says.

Basic white tents made using plastic sheeting from UNICEF are lined up close to each other. There are more, larger tents and palm trees in the background
The Clean Shelter initiative constructed these tents using plastic sheeting from UNICEF that was already available in the Gaza Strip (photo: Clean Shelter)

'We want to have a change'

Since 7 October, it has become clearer than ever that something has to change for Israelis and Palestinians. "We want to have a change. This situation cannot go on forever," says Halabi. "There is a lot of fear and defence mechanisms that people have because of beliefs that are so deep-rooted from childhood, from their memories, from their education. They are socialised to fear and to hate the other side. But I've seen people changing. I've seen people in groups coming out totally different."

The aim of the group is to encourage people to get involved and become activists to bring about grassroots change. Just how they do that is up to them. Seba Abu Daqa, Tom Kellner and Gali Blay have all become more active as a result. Gali Blay set up the website for the Clean Shelter initiative

Clean Shelter's sanitary facilities don't just offer privacy, they can also save lives. Aid organisations have long been warning of the potential for disease outbreaks caused by a lack of hygiene and clean water for drinking and washing in Gaza.

The group doesn't know how long the tents and toilet cubicles they provide will stand. The Israeli military is planning a ground offensive in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. It remains unclear what this could mean for Al-Mawasi.

"I'm worried all the time, anxious all the time, every call that I get from Gaza," says Abu Daqa. "The only thing that keeps me alive is to do something and that it's not about waiting anymore. And that it's us who do something and not just others who define what is happening." 

Sarah Judith Hofmann

© Deutsche Welle/ 2024