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Middle East Kids Try Listening Test

June 3, 1999

JERUSALEM (AP) _ When Yaara, an Israeli seventh-grader, traced the soft curves of Jerusalem’s architecture on a sketchbook and said, ``My house is Jerusalem,″ a Palestinian boy spontaneously applauded.

For Yaara Leibowitz, of the central Israeli town of Ramle, and Omar Azmi, of the Arroub refugee camp in the West Bank, just acknowledging each others’ affection for the bitterly divided city was a measure of the success of ``Education for Life,″ a program for nonviolent communication.

As Palestinians clashed Thursday with Israeli soldiers to protest Jewish settlement expansion, 120 Israeli and Palestinian schoolchildren gathered in a forest setting to put the program to a new, political test: Can Israelis and Palestinians listen to each other before they judge?

The experimental two-year program is primarily aimed at reducing violence in schools _ alarmingly high in both societies. But organizers wanted to see whether its lessons in schoolyard peace-brokering could apply to the region’s knotty political tensions.

Other Palestinian-Israeli dialogue programs tended to leave young participants frustrated because of wide cultural gaps, said Italian businessman Daniel Kropf, the chairman of the program and one of its principal funders.

Kropf modeled the program on the teachings of U.S. psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, who constructed a ``giraffe language″ to teach children to control their anger in conflict situations.

Using music, exercises and stories, Rosenberg encourages children not to react to the tone of a verbal attack, but to understand its substance _ to use the gentle tones of the giraffe instead of the stridency of the jackal.

``It tries to get people to speak of needs nonjudgmentally,″ program director Sharon Rosen said.

Kropf, assisted by European Union donations, has run the program in schools in Yugoslavia, Italy, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The first Israeli school to apply the program saw a drastic drop in school bullying after two years, according to two independent assessments last year.

``The feelings of physical security shot up,″ said Miri Shapiro, then the principal of the school and now a facilitator for the program.

Israel was ranked eight in the world in school violence in a study published last month _ an assessment that shocked a nation that regards school shootings as a remote American phenomenon.

On Thursday, the Israeli and Palestinian children _ ages 8 to 15 _ kept apart, rubbing elbows only when they reached for freshly baked burekas, savory Turkish pastries popular in both societies.

It was when Yaara drew her Jerusalem dream house that the ice broke, and both sides spontaneously applauded _ an extraordinary reaction among the children of two peoples who have fought bloody wars over the city.

``Jerusalem is our capital, and it is also the city where everyone should live in peace,″ Yaara said afterwards. Separately, Omar echoed: ``Jerusalem is our capital and it is for all religions.″

The youths warmed to each other slowly. Israelis clapped to Palestinian songs of longing for Israeli cities that make some of their elders apoplectic. Palestinians accepted the spontaneous hugs and caresses typical of a society more tactile than theirs.

But it was impossible to shake all differences. Fadi, asked to write an imaginary pen pal, drew a picture of an Israeli soldier toting a rifle and captioned it: ″I hate you.″

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