`Hello! Salaam! Shalom!'

Dialogue: Peace activists set up phone lines to encourage Israeli-Palestinian conversations.

October 06, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - To one group in this war-torn region, peace is just a phone call away.

A peace-seeking organization that promotes dialogue between people who have lost loved ones on both sides of the conflict has set up a service to encourage Israelis and Palestinians to talk on the telephone.

By dialing a four-digit number, any Israeli can talk to a Palestinian, and any Palestinian can talk to an Israeli. Full-page ads for the service began appearing last week in newspapers in Israel and the West Bank. Within a few days, more than 5,900 people have called to get connected to the other side.

"The concept is simple," said Itzek Frankenthal, who heads the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Parents Association. "Let people talk to each other."

The advertisement appeared yesterday in Ha'aretz, an influential Israeli newspaper. Big, bold letters across the top of the page screamed a greeting in Arabic and Hebrew: "Hello, Salaam! Hello, Shalom!"

Using names of neighboring Israeli and Palestinian cities, it continued: "Two years have passed without our speaking to each other. I from Gilo, you from Beit Jala. I from Hadera and you from Tulkarm. You get shot at and we get bombs exploding on us. We're angry and we're in pain, and the other side certainly feels the same. It's time to put an end to this."

Frankenthal, who lost a son to a Palestinian suicide bombing eight years ago and has long been active in the peace movement, said the phone line costs his group about $2,500 a month.

People who call the number tell an operator whether they are Israeli or Palestinian, and whether they would rather speak to a man or a woman. A computer then searches through a database of names compiled from interested people on the other side and relays a phone number.

Frankenthal, 51, said that for now, the only users are people who want peace and probably share similar views. He hopes that as more and more people call, out of curiosity or idealism, the database will become more diverse.

On Thursday, Frankenthal tried the system he created. He soon got a number for a Palestinian living in the West Bank city of Ramallah, who had registered after seeing the ad in the Palestinian al-Quds newspaper.

They talked for half an hour, and Frankenthal learned that the man's sister had been killed by Israeli army gunfire a few months ago. "He told me he had lost his sister, and I told him about my son," Frankenthal said. "And he said, `Here we are talking. I don't want revenge, and I don't feel hatred.'"

The conflict has been so fierce and so painful that many on both sides feel there is no common ground for discussion.

Nabil, the Palestinian who chatted with Frankenthal, would not give his last name to a reporter, fearing reprisals from his friends and family if they found out he had participated.

"I called because I believe in peace," Nabil said in a telephone interview. "And I believe that there are more people like me. The two sides have not talked in two years. I think that we can rebuild if we can get the two peoples together."

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