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Will Blog For Peace

A Boise man's small-scale peace effort for the Middle East

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Peace Man didn't blog much last week. There wasn't enough peace to write about.

"I want to write good news," he said. "I don't want to talk about any more killing."

Peace Man is the Palestinian half of a two-man blogging team in the Middle East. While Peace Man lives in a refugee camp in the blockaded Gaza Strip, his counterpart, Hope Man, lives just a few miles and a world away in the Israeli city of Sderot, a city often targeted by Palestinian rocket fire. Neither of them uses their real name to protect their safety and the safety of their families.

"We have better days and worse days," said Hope Man.

Over phone connections that were sometimes tenuous, the two men explained how their blog, started in late 2006, serves as a way to illuminate what they hope is some kind of powerful center in the ongoing war between Israelis and Palestinians. They represent, they said, the majority of residents of the Middle East who are dreaming about more peaceful coexistence. Blog postings run the gamut from discussion about the latest round of rocket attacks to quieter ponderings about life in the battle zone. Each post is in some way a rallying cry for peace.

"People on both sides of this conflict are just looking for a normal and peaceful life," Hope Man said. "Any kind of activity that can promote this is very helpful."

Their blog is the kind of minor, rear-guard effort that rarely makes big headlines. It's also just the sort of thing that drew Whit Jones to the Middle East almost five years ago.

Jones, at 63 is a boyish bear of a man and a clinical psychologist in Boise who, as he approached retirement age, began to look around for what he calls "extra-big challenges." His company, Business Psychology Associates, which provides employee counseling, was humming along and he was ready to find his next challenge.

"I said, 'I'm not going to help soccer moms manage stress,'" said Jones.

He knew he wanted to work on big world problems like poverty or violence. He had ideas about starting a nonprofit of some sort. But he thought he might wait until he could sell his business. He tried retirement. He went crazy.

Then in 2003, Jones attended a conference in Nova Scotia focused on encouraging peaceful dialogue in areas of conflict. It was just the sort of thing he was interested in doing—somehow. At the conference, he met some Israelis and Palestinians who sensed his interest in their particular crisis. They told him if he thought he could go over to solve the problem, he shouldn't bother trying. But, they said, somebody who wanted to help a few people at a time would find a world of opportunity.

It was all the opening he needed. The nonprofit started by Jones, The Center for Emerging Futures, grew out of those meetings. Twice a year, the group convenes what Jones calls "Global Village Square" conferences in Bethlehem at a location that is accessible to both Israelis and Palestinians but considered safe by all sides. A typical meeting might draw 60 people.

"The classic thing that nonprofits do is sit over here and say, 'This is what people need,' and then go over and try to apply it," Jones said. The strategy, he said, never works.

Instead, Jones said, his idea would be to go to the Middle East as a "convener."

"The special thing we bring is an absence of agenda," he said. It took two years for people to believe that.

The conferences, which occur twice a year in Bethlehem, draw Palestinians, Israelis and others to talk, share ideas and come up with unique ways to connect two wildly disparate societies.

"Children on both sides over there believe that the kids on the other side have horns," he said. "That's literal. That's not a metaphor."

If he was worried that people from those two sides wouldn't talk, he needn't have been. In their first attempt at a Global Village Square, in October 2004, about 16 people gathered in Bethlehem. Jones had arranged to have a facilitator on hand, to help move discussions along when they started the next morning. But the night before the conference's scheduled beginning, the Israelis had arrived and the Palestinians, who had been scheduled to arrive the following day, had come early, to avoid roadblocks. The awkward gathering quickly turned into an intense discussion about what each group had done to the other. Jones turned to his facilitator and said, "Guess what? You're starting now."

The possibility of such conversational conflict, and the opportunities for reconciliation that come along with it, are among the motivations for the Gaza/Sderot blog.

"When we started the blog, we knew there would be some people who would agree with us, and some who would disagree," Peace Man said.

He and Hope Man met at one of the Bethlehem conferences set up by Jones. In spite of their obvious differences, they became friends. Their blogging identities came immediately, they said.

"For me, I dream of peace," Peace Man said. "He has hope for the situation. He always encourages me. He's amazing, this man."

They have not been able to see one another in over a year.

"Our connection is so strong because we have the same problem," Peace Man said.

Their posts cover a variety of topics, from their concerns over recent rocket attacks to anxiety over the Israeli Independence holiday. It is not like many blogs, in which posts appear regularly. They often alternate posts, counter-referencing the other's writings and comparing notes on the experience they share, albeit from opposite sides of a wide gulf.

"There is an agenda. The agenda is, 'let's discover our shared humanity,'" Jones said. "That may not seem like a big deal in Boise, but it is over there."

But, Jones said, it has to be more than that. Otherwise, the euphoria of finding out that the guy on the other side is a decent human being wears off after a while. Which is why his foundation has pushed for joint business ventures between Israeli and Palestinian collaborators. One such effort is a clothing company that combines Palestinian embroidery with Israeli manufacturing.

Jones monitors the blog but not with anything like control.

"Whit's been very supportive," Hope Man said. "It's been a moral help; he's been very encouraging."

Back in Boise, Jones said he sometimes feels lost. His neighbors, he said, treat him either as a kook or a man with an obsession too complicated to understand. His extended family, he said, "think that I'm kind of a knothead." He is gone a lot, to a region of the world that most know through depressingly repetitive newscasts about violence born of ancient grudges. He is learning, he said, to take things slowly. Peace in the homeland of Hope Man and Peace Man, he said, will not come right away. But he believes in its ultimate arrival for his two blogging friends.

"Someday, the gates will open and they'll be able to meet again," Jones said.

Visit the blog at gaza-sderot.blogspot.com.

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