Dial P for Peace

Can a telephone hotline bring Israelis and Palestinians together?

By Tamar Miller, 5/18/2003

WHEN NATALIA Wieseltier of the Golan Heights dialed a wrong number on her cellphone last fall, she had no idea she'd end up hatching a new peace initiative. Wieseltier accidentally reached the cellphone of a Palestinian man in Gaza named Jihad. He called her back and they talked for a while. Now he calls to make sure she's all right after suicide bombings in Israel.

Since last October, over 180,000 calls between Israelis and Palestinians, totaling over 606,000 minutes, have been placed on Hello Peace, the free chat line inspired by Wieseltier's wrong number. ''Stop shooting, start talking,'' say ads for the service, which is sponsored by the Parents Circle, an organization of about 500 Israelis and Palestinians whose children have died in the violence. Callers can just dial #6347 to talk ''reconciliation, tolerance, and peace'' for up to 30 minutes.

While many conversations stick to politics, some have evolved into ongoing phone friendships. Tali Fahima, a 26-year-old Tel Aviv businesswoman, has spoken to more than 100 Palestinians so far in Hebrew, English, and a bit of Arabic. ''It's amazing, beautiful, shocking, even when people are cursing and making me very upset.'' The experience has shown her ''that they are people like me,'' she says, adding ''No, I didn't know that before.''

''We hate each other. We don't agree on anything,'' says Ali Ismail, a Palestinian living in Ramallah who has spoken to more than 20 Israelis, some on a regular basis. Ali uses the system, he says, so that Israelis ''start to know the Palestinian suffering.''

Yaniv Shaked. a 22-year-old from the Tel Aviv area who recently completed his military service, left a message in the Hello Peace mailbox saying, ''I would like to speak to Palestinians and see if there is someone to talk to on the other side.'' Once he got connected, he says, he was ''very surprised'' to learn that there were Palestinians who favored reconciliation.

''We have the same interests, suffer the same losses,'' says Rihab Essawi, a Palestinian professor of education at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, and an early member of Parents Circle who lost her nephew, brother, and mother in three separate incidents involving the Israeli army. ''No matter how much we kill and kill, it won't do anything. Why not try to talk?''

Yitzchak Frankenthal, who founded the Parents Circle in 1994, after his son was killed by Hamas, says that there are surprisingly few abuses of the system. Most callers want to find some common ground, however painful. Frankenthal recalls speaking with a Palestinian man from Gaza named Nabil Tawiti. ''He said he was from K'far Akab. I know that village because my son was murdered there. He knew about my son because his sister was killed by the Israeli army''-on the day of her memorial service the roads were closed because the army had just found the body of Frankenthal's son.

Eventually, Tawiti and his brothers came to one of the Forum's seminars and the families met face to face. ''We each gave blood for the other side,'' says Frankenthal.

Tamar Miller is a writer living in Cambridge.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.