Dialing for a peaceful future

Roni Hirshenson, the “Hello, Peace” founder hopes the hotline will “make a connection that will send them the message that our conflict is not unsolvable.”It all started with a wrong number.An Israeli woman named Natalia Wieseltier misdialed a telephone number …

Roni Hirshenson, the “Hello, Peace” founder hopes the hotline will “make a connection that will send them the message that our conflict is not unsolvable.”It all started with a wrong number.

An Israeli woman named Natalia Wieseltier misdialed a telephone number one day and accidentally telephoned a Palestinian living in the territories. The two began chatting, talking about their lives and Middle East politics, inadvertently creating dialogue with a member of the other side of what the world views as an
intractable conflict.

Wieseltier’s experience reached the ears of members of the organization “Parents Circle – Families Forum” a joint group of over 200 Israeli and over 200 Palestinian parents, each one of whom has lost children or close family members in the conflict, and who state that they “know from our own painful experience that to move beyond silent despair and isolation, people must begin talking again – especially with people on the other side.”

For years, the Israeli members of the group have tried to think of ways in which their countrymen could experience the kind of communication they have been able to achieve with bereaved Palestinians. After hearing about what had resulted from Wieseltier’s wrong number, the question was asked: what if any Israeli or
Palestinian had the ability to simply pick up the telephone and speak to a member of the “other side?”

It turned out that this was no fantasy – the technology to make this possible already existed, and so the group moved forward to make it a reality.

The project officially premiered last October, when “Hello Peace, Hello Shalom, Hello Salaam” was inaugurated as an utterly original attempt to facilitate dialogue between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians. The stated purpose of the project is to encourage large numbers of Israelis and Palestinians to begin conversations about peace and reconciliation in order to increase pressure on their leaders to follow suit, and to demonstrate to their leaders and the world that there is a “hunger for dialogue” on both sides.

The first step was a large-scale awareness campaign launched in the Israeli and the Palestinian media -including radio spots, the Internet, billboards, targeted phone calls, and a massive e-mail messaging campaign. asking those who were interested in dialogue to pick up the telephone and talk.

The message: “When people are stuck in despair and separation, someone needs to take a first step – someone has to be willing to reach out and begin talking again. Maybe that someone is not our political leaders. Maybe that someone
is… you.”

The project has proved itself. In eight months, more than 210,000 calls have been made and conversations held. And if its organizers hopes have been realized, that means that thousands of Israelis became aware of what Palestinians are going through and thousands of Palestinians shared the Israeli experience.

“The pain on both sides is identical,” says Roni Hirshenson of the Parent’s Circle. “Our goal is to increase the empathy on both sides. Right now, our images of each other are controlled by the media and our leaders. Israelis see
Palestinians as terrorists, and Palestinians see Israelis as soldiers and settlers. This must change.”

Hirshenson knows a great deal about pain. He lost his elder son, a soldier, in a 1995 terrorist attack on a bus stop. Subsequently, his younger son’s best friend fell in Lebanon, and his younger son, unable to handle two such great losses took his own life.

Together with other grieving parents, working out of an office located in a small caravan on a Tel Aviv-area college campus, Hirshenson has channeled his anguish into activism and the Parent’s Circle group, reaching out to their
Palestinian counterparts to try to find common ground. He hopes that those who phone the “Hello, Peace” hotline will “make a connection that will send them the message that our conflict is not unsolvable.”

They say they are swimming against a tide of media images that have created a barrier to peace.

“In the modern world, television creates our images of one another. And television loves action and violence,” says Hirshenson. “That is what we are up against.”

Another member of the Parent’s Circle, Aharon Barnea added that “years of demonization of the other side results has resulted in Israelis and
Palestinians seeing the other as subhuman. The moment you are able to make people understand that they are dealing with people who have hopes, dreams, and problems just like you do – and who demonstrates no desire to kill you – things change, and this is very important. The only way to a better future is by building these bridges.”

The process is simple. Those who call the hotline first hear a voice message: “Hello, you have reached Hello, Shalom, Hello Salaam. If you wish to talk to an Israeli about reconciliation, tolerance and peace, dial 1; if you wish to talk
to a Palestinian about reconciliation, tolerance and peace, dial 2.”

If the caller wishes to begin talking to someone on the spot, the computer automatically connects them to someone on “the other side” who has expressed a willingness to talk. They may speak for up to 30 minutes, free of charge.

If they want to talk later, they leave their name, phone number, and the hours when they are available to receive a call, and any preferences as to the age, gender or other characteristic of the Israeli or Palestinian they wish to speak with. Callers can speak to as many Israelis or Palestinians as they wish to. Conversations take place in whichever language the two callers determine: Hebrew, Arabic, or English. An operator’s assistance can be requested at any
time, and anonymity of the caller is protected at all times.

Funding for the program comes from the European Union and the U.S. government, and private donors.