By John Wilkens – STAFF WRITER
May 14, 2006
They have reasons to hate each other.
Nader Elbanna, a Palestinian, lost his homeland, then his best friend to the Israelis.
Miko Peled (left) and Nader Elbanna have become close friends in the past five years as they’ve worked together on a project to send 1,000 wheelchairs to Israeli and Palestinian children. “They’re not jsut wheelchairs,” Elbanna said. “They are ambassadors of peace.”
Miko Peled, an Israeli, lost his niece to a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem.
The two men wound up in San Diego County, Elbanna in Escondido and Peled in Coronado, and they met five years ago at a discussion group designed to move people like them beyond the hatred.
Together, Elbanna and Peled raised $84,000 to send 1,000 wheelchairs to the Holy Land. Half will go to Palestinians, half to Israelis, many of them victims of the region’s relentless violence.
“We know that 1,000 wheelchairs will not solve the problems there,” Elbanna said. “But these are seeds of hope.”
“There is so much distrust and resentment on both sides,” Peled said. “But if a child there can see that an Israeli and a Palestinian worked together to make sure he had a wheelchair, and that the money was contributed by people in America who care – that’s a lot of symbolism. We want to break through all the stigmas and stereotypes.”
They had their own stigmas and stereotypes to break through when they first met.
Peled, 44, was born in Israel and came to the United States almost 20 years ago. He owns his own martial arts school in Coronado. He’s married and has three children.
Elbanna, 60, was born in Palestine. When the nation of Israel was proclaimed there a couple years later, his family fled to Jordan. He came to the U.S. in 1990 with his wife and six children. He owns a business that supplies industrial and medical equipment.
Both men have American citizenship.
Peled calls himself a third-generation peacemaker; his grandfather and father both believed in cooperating with Palestinians. Despite the tragedy of his niece’s death in 1997, he felt himself naturally drawn to the San Diego Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue, which started six years ago.
“The most difficult thing is to see what’s on the other side, and to empathize,” he said. “What happened to me is that the walls that divide us and them began to crumble and I realized that we really are on the same side. I found that very exciting.”
It didn’t come as easily for Elbanna.
“I was raised not to love the Israeli people,” he said. When he came to the dialogue for the first time, he was suspicious. He wondered if Peled might be a spy. He had prepared himself for the possibility of a fistfight.
Elbanna told the group about serving in the Jordanian army and how, in March 1968, during a battle with the Israelis, his best friend was killed. “He died slowly in my arms.”
Peled knew about the battle. His brother had fought in it, too, as a tank commander for Israel. This was common ground, they realized.
At the end of the meeting, Peled approached Elbanna. He had in his lapel a pin with both the Israeli and Palestinian flags on it. He always wore it to the dialogues.
Peled took the pin off and gave it to Elbanna.
Before too long, just talking to each other about the problems “over there” wasn’t enough.
The two belong to the Rotary Club, which had recently completed a project to send wheelchairs to Africa. They thought: What about doing the same thing in the Holy Land?
They contacted the Wheelchair Foundation, based in Northern California. The group matches donations and arranges for the chairs to be built and shipped. They said they learned there is a desperate need for wheelchairs in the Middle East.
For the next year, Elbanna and Peled gave dozens of fund-raising presentations at clubs, churches and schools. Money came in through donations large ($25,000 from Rotary International) and small (bags of coins collected by kids who did walkathons).
“People feel helpless sometimes about what’s going on,” Peled said. “This gave them an opportunity to do something.”
Some of the presentations were tricky, they said, because Mideast peace is such a thorny subject. “As soon as you say one thing that doesn’t come out as clear or fair as they think it should, then they get suspicious,” Peled said.
They heard from Israelis who wanted to know why they should help those Palestinian “trouble-makers.” They were asked why, when the Palestinians obviously need more help, the Israelis should get half the aid.
They said it helped to make the presentations together. If someone said something that offended Peled, he could step away, take a deep breath, and let Elbanna diffuse the situation. And vice versa.
The tense moments were offset by others. Elbanna said some people were moved to tears seeing the two of them “standing side by side, talking with respect, as friends.”
The $84,000 they raised will pay for 1,120 wheelchairs, said Chris Lewis, a spokesman for the Wheelchair Foundation. Each chair costs $150, half from the San Diego donations and half from the foundation.
“Theirs is really a great story,” Lewis said. “They are quite dedicated and passionate people.”
When they started, the intent was to give the chairs to children who were victims of the violence there, but eventually they decided the source of the disability wasn’t as important as the age of the recipients.
“The children will get them first, because we want them to be raised not under hatred, but with normal lives, with hope and freedom,” Elbanna said. “Without a chair, they spend their whole life in the house.”
Doris Bittar, a San Deigo artist who along with her husband started the dialogue that brought Peled and Elbanna together, called the wheelchair project “remarkable,” in part because of what the two men had gone through before they ever set foot in the same room.
“They both came from perspectives of utter grief and pain,” she said. “They both had real losses on the ground. But they figured out a way to build bridges and work together.”
She said the dialogue, and others like it around the county, continues to send out branches of cooperation between Arabs and Israelis. Two men are working to bring more musical opportunities to children in the West Bank. Others are doing art projects together.
“It’s a stretch, but maybe if there are enough of these, they will reach critical mass and begin to affect the political situation over there,” she said.
They have become close friends, not just project partners. They socialize. Sitting together recently at a coffee shop in Old Town, Elbanna looked at Peled and said with a mixture of pride and wonder:
“I have reached the stage with Miko that he will send his children to sleep over in my house without feeling scared that they are under the roof of a Palestinian.”
When they travel to the Middle East, they visit each other’s families. Elbanna knows Peled’s mother. Peled knows Elbanna’s 37 cousins.
But it doesn’t escape their attention that when they go back, they are not treated equally.
“Crossing from Jordan into Israel was interesting,” Peled said. “He was born there. I was born there. But he can only come in as a tourist with an American passport. He can’t go back to live there. And I can come and go as I please. The symbolism is hard to overlook.”
And it helps explain what they are eyeing as their next venture.
Hand in Hand runs three schools in Israel. Each has two principals, one Israeli and one Palestinian. Each classroom has two teachers (again one of each) and the enrollment is evenly split between the two sides.
The students learn Hebrew and Arabic and become fluent in both. They learn each other’s history and culture. “The vision is that these kids grow up feeling equal,” Peled said.
The first Hand in Hand school opened about eight years ago, with a class of first-graders. People doubted it would work. But enrollment keeps growing; it’s more than 600 now, combined, for the three schools. Eventually they will offer instruction all the way through high school.
The newest one is in the Palestinian town of Kfar Kara. Israeli kids, for the first time, are crossing into an Arab village to go to school.
That’s the one Elbanna and Peled visited last winter. They came away impressed with the school and what it says about how the next generations will see each other. “These children are the future,” Elbanna said.
The school wants to turn one of its old buildings into a library and computer center. The two San Diegans think they’d liked to support that as their next project, for both practical and symbolic reasons.
The building used to be a bomb shelter.