The eight-member Breaking the Ice team pose at the summit of the “Mountain of Israeli-Palestinian Friendship.”Fifteen days after setting out on its historic trek, the Breaking the Ice expedition successfully climbed to the summit of an unconquered Antarctic mountain on …
Declaring that “our people can and deserve to live together in peace and friendship,” the four Israeli and four Palestinian participants named the peak “Mountain of Israeli-Palestinian Friendship.”
Speaking via satellite telephone from the peak of the snow-capped, windy 2,770-foot mountain near the Bruce plateau in Antarctica, expedition leader Heskel Nathanial read from a statement that the four Jews and four Arabs had written: “By reaching its summit, we have proved that Palestinians and Israelis can cooperate with one another with mutual respect and trust.”
The expedition, which includes two women, departed in a rented British yacht on January 1 from Puerto Williams, a Chilean Navy base on the southern shore of the Beagle channel, 2,050 miles south of Santiago.
The group – including former IDF commandos and Fatah members – reached Antarctica after sailing 600 miles through some of the world’s most dangerous waters. Then they trekked for a week on Antarctic soil to the foot of the mountain.
High winds and driving snow welcomed the expedition team members Thursday morning as they awakened at their high camp on the morning of the intended summit assault. The Israeli expedition leader, Doron Erel, and lead mountain guide Denis Ducroz from Chamonix, France, debated the wisdom of setting out on the projected route, which would take the inexperienced Israeli and Palestinian mountaineers within feet of yawning crevasses. After almost an hour, the green light was finally given. The expedition would go for the summit
With crampons attached to their boots and ice axes in hand, the team members ascended slowly along the icy slopes of a glacier that leads up to the sheer rock faces of the mountain, itself. In a gesture that was only coincidentally symbolic, they were roped together in mixed groups of four: these Israelis and Palestinians would literally be taking responsibility for one another’s lives.
Navigating in and above the clouds in near-zero visibility made finding the summit difficult and led to several impromptu changes in the route. But, finally, at 4pm, after four and half hours of climbing, on the fourth day of their ascent and more than 13,000 kilometers from their homes in the Middle East, they stood on a spot approximately 1000 meters above sea level, treading on pristine snow where no one has ever stood before.
The ceremonies at the summit were informal and varied. The three Palestinian men in the expedition team knelt in Muslim prayer. The Israelis opened a bottle of champagne for everyone. Palestinian team member journalist Ziad Darwish was moved to tears.
“This moment is so beautiful,” he said, “seeing Israelis and Palestinians doing this kind of thing together. Yet, it also makes me think of all the horrible things we’re doing to one another back home.”
Erel, the Israeli expedition leader – said, “The point is that Israelis and Palestinians have done something unique together, something that required the kind of cooperation and involvement that you rarely if ever find among us. I can’t tell you how pleased I am about how well we’ve all gotten along together and how well everyone performed. No one thinks that we’re going to bring peace by climbing mountains, but everyone should know what we as Israelis and Palestinians are capable of doing when we set our minds to it. That’s what I hope that both our peoples will be thinking when they hear about what we’ve done.”
That, says Erel, is the impression the members of Breaking the Ice want to leave on their fellow Israelis and Palestinians: like climbing mountains, making peace requires a deep personal commitment. These Israelis and Palestinians were willing to go all the way to Antarctica to drive that message home.
“The idea was to bring together people that could easily be enemies outside. But because they have this shared goal and a challenge to face together, they have to support each other in order to succeed, despite any political, religious or philosophical barriers,” Nathaniel told ISRAEL21c back in September when the expedition was still in its early planning stages.
While the trekkers eventually agreed on a name for the mountain and worked successfully together as partners, relations were not always easy. Fiery debates broke out over the security fence, the Temple Mount, peace accords, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, and even the wording of the proclamation. On the last day, they reached a unanimous agreement that the proclamation should reflect human and not political values.
Despite vastly different takes on historical and political events, the group bonded and came to each other’s aid during personal conversations as they faced sea sickness, violent winds, and near-zero visibility during parts of the journey. They also spent many hours together contemplating the work of nature, as they saw for the first time penguins, seals, whales, and glaciers in the Drake Passage and the stark landscapes of Antarctica.
The expedition was the first organized by Extreme Peace Missions, a charity which hopes to bring people together through adventure and sporting endeavors.
It was initiated by the Peres Center for Peace in Israel and is funded by German, Palestinian and Israeli donors.