Even after seven years of activity, they are evidently still deeply excited. They are called the “Women of the Sea," as they have taken it upon themselves to give Palestinian children a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fun at the beach. So far, more than 5,000 children — newborn babies, young kids and teenagers up to the age of 15 — have enjoyed the experience.
It is Wednesday, Aug. 21, at 8 a.m., and the “Women of the Sea” are already waiting at Tel Baruch beach, north of Tel Aviv, for the arrival of the bus full of young Palestinians. They watch the goings-on on the other side of the border in the framework of the Machsomwatch (Checkpoint Watch) movement, in which they follow closely the behavior of Israel Defense Forces soldiers at the West Bank checkpoints.
Rachel, one of the organizers of the children's trip to Israel, paces restlessly, and so do the 30 volunteers who arrived at the Tel Aviv beach at this early hour of the morning to play host to their guests. Rachel calls Morthada, the group's Palestinian escort on the bus. Morthada tells her that the bus set out at dawn from the Palestinian village of Haris, but is now held up at the Eyal checkpoint, not far from the settlement of Ariel. Rachel hopes that the security check will be over as quickly as possible, without any incidents.
Each group of Palestinian visitors brings tension with it. Once the civil administration in the territories approves the list of Palestinians seeking entry into Israel, they are all thoroughly checked from head to toe at the barrier — even children and babies. Each bag they carry is opened and its contents examined by means of the most advanced equipment.
It is 8:30 a.m. already, and the bus is not yet in sight. A routine trip should not have taken more than 20 minutes. However, it has been three hours since the bus left the village.
“At times, it takes an hour and at other times it can take as long as four hours,” Rachel notes with a sigh. She is accustomed to such situations of anxious apprehension, and says, “We are trying to change the terrible reality of the occupation, but unfortunately, not always successfully.”
After some nerve-racking moments, Rachel's phone rings. Morthada is on the line, saying they will reach the Tel Baruch beach in a few minutes. The Israeli volunteers wait excitedly. They have brought bottles of cold water to revive their guests' spirits, and swimming tubes for the kids. For most of the visiting Palestinians, it is their first trip to the beach. One boy had told Rachel that he had not imagined the sea was so large, noting, “It looks rather small on TV.”
The bus comes to a stop not far from the beach. The Palestinian children get off the bus, one after the other, each next to his mother. The Palestinian women are shrouded in black clothes, their heads covered and only their faces exposed. Morthada says that when they reached Tel Aviv, the children had their noses pressed against the windows of the bus, wide-eyed, admiring the high-rise buildings of the city. He added, “And when they caught sight of the blue sea, they were thrilled with excitement.”
Rachel recounts that when young Palestinians in the West Bank are asked what they would like to see most of all, they name the beach first and only then the Al-Aqsa mosque.
The children are quick to shed their clothes, enthusiastically stamping their feet in the sand, eager to jump into the water. The volunteers accompany each of them into the sea — but not before they are all rubbed with sunscreen. The mothers, too, take part in getting the children ready to go into the water. They help the volunteers apply the sunscreen to their children, and everyone seems to have fun and enjoy the unusual outing. Even day-old babies are covered with the white cream.
Three hours pass and the children have a great time in the water, happily singing and shouting. It is obvious that it is the first time they have seen the waves. The mothers wait, fully clothed, out of the water. The volunteers, in tiny bathing suits, urge them to go for a dip.
However, the cultural differences between the Israeli and Palestinian women are too wide to be ignored, and the unresolved, long-standing political conflict lurks in the background. While the latter are highly conservative, the former are conspicuously liberal. The Palestinian mothers watch in amazement as the young Israeli women take charge of their children. The Israeli volunteers address them in Hebrew spiced with English, and the Palestinian mothers reply in Arabic with a few Hebrew words mixed in.
“Where is your Hebrew from?” I asked one of them.
“We have learned it from the settlers who come to do their shopping in the village,” she replied. After all, it is just a few minutes’ drive from the village of Haris to Ariel, the largest settlement in Samaria.
It is simmeringly hot today, and it seems that the Palestinian women would be happy to splash in the water. They look at each other, as if waiting to see who will be the first to dare. Finally, it happens. One of the mothers sits down on the shoreline and dips her feet in the water. The others join her until, eventually, a rather long stretch of the Tel Baruch coast is “conquered” by the Palestinian visitors from the village of Haris. The Israeli visitors to the beach look on, surprised at the unusual spectacle, and possibly even impressed.
“It's amazing,” noted Zviya, one of the leaders of the “Women of the Sea” organization. “Look at these kids. They have never before set eyes on the sea or caught a glimpse of the waves. And most important for me is to see their eyes, shining with joy.”
It is the 26th group of Palestinians from the territories that has been invited to visit Israel and get acquainted with the sea. Rachel takes pride in the enterprise that she and her colleagues launched. Thanks to their initiative, thousands of Palestinians have experienced Israel for the first time in a remarkably novel and unforgettable way, which made them see the country from a totally different perspective.
“It isn’t humanitarian activity that we are engaged in,” Rachel emphasized. “In fact, it is a political endeavor aimed at bringing together Israelis and Palestinians, contrary to the official position that seeks to separate the two populations. We wish to allow them the freedom and give them the opportunity to get to know a different Israel. I am really touched when, at the end of the day, the mothers tell me that it has been the happiest day of their lives. I believe that we can achieve peace, and I am confident that the Palestinians, too, want peace. The mothers are always asking me, 'When will there be peace?'”
In the evening, at the end of an extraordinary day on the Tel Baruch beach and after a hearty meal at a restaurant in Jaffa, the busload of Palestinian tourists leaves Israeli territory and is on its way back to the village of Haris. It is a day the Palestinian youths are not going to ever forget, one of the volunteers noted — no doubt about that.
Fatma, in her 40s, brought four of her children for a day of fun at the beach. She had a hard time containing her excitement, watching her children's joy.
"I am so happy," she said. "It has been a long time since I felt as happy as I feel today. I see my children singing in the water and I see them walking on the wharf. One cannot describe the happiness within my heart today."
Daniel Ben Simon is a former Knesset member from the Labor party. Prior to his political career, he was a journalist with Israeli dailies Haaretz and Davar. Ben Simon wrote four books on Israeli society and is the recipient of the Sokolov Prize, an Israeli journalism award.
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