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  Peace Expedition to Antarctica - 2004


On January 1st, 2004, four Israelis and four Palestinians (two women and six men) set off on a sea and land expedition to the distant reaches of Antarctica. Their goal is to summit and name a previously unclimbed mountain. Their expedition is called : 'Breaking the Ice'. This journey combines the spirit of adventure with a quest for understanding. It will force people separated by deep political and religious differences to cooperate in pursuit of a shared goal.

Icebreakers Set Out to Sea (Expedition Log 3)

By Michael Greenspan

In the Beagle Channel, Chile (55° S -- 68° W)

 

At 12 midnight, they raised their cups in celebration, trading hugs and kisses and best wishes for the year ahead. To a casual observer it could have been almost any New Year’s party, anywhere in the world. But this one, held in a tiny Chilean Navy outpost at the southern tip of South America, brought together four Israelis and four Palestinians -- people far more accustomed to confrontation than expressions of affection. The members of the “Breaking the Ice” peace expedition to Antarctica traded toasts of  “le’chaim” and “sacha”, wishing one another “life” and “health”, and hoping aloud that 2004 will be better than 2003, 2002, 2001 and any number of other years before them.

Early the next morning, at an hour when most people around the world were contemplating a day of relaxation, the team was busy making final preparations on Pelagic Australis, the ocean-going yacht that will carry them to the Antarctic Peninsula. The Israeli expedition leader, Doron Erel, stowed mountaineering gear in the boat’s forward hold, helped by Palestinian team member Nasser Gouss. The realization that Erel once served in an elite Israeli army combat unit -- and that Gouss spent three years in an Israeli prison for throwing a Molotov cocktail at Israeli troops – lent special poignancy to an otherwise prosaic moment.

As Israeli Arab Olfat Haidar carried supplies of fresh bread into the boat’s tiny kitchen she encountered her Israeli cabin mate, Yarden Fanta, who was still receiving compliments on last night’s dinner. The Ethiopian immigrant had joined forces with Palestinian journalist Ziad Darwish to create a truly delicious, and unforgettably spicy, repast.

Pelagic Australis’ skipper, Steven Willis, had good news: the weather forecasts for the unpredictable Drake Passage showed a window of opportunity. The preparations moved into high gear and the realization crept in that the dream of Israeli businessman Heskel Nathaniel was about to become a reality. It was more than a year ago that he first conceived the idea of combining his love of extreme sport with his desire to do something to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East. The result was what most of his friends told him was an absolutely crazy idea: taking a group of Israelis and Palestinians to Antarctica to see if they were capable of working together in order to do things most people never attempt.

“I knew that to make it across the Darwin Passage, to trek 20 miles across Antarctic glaciers and to reach the peak of a mountain that no one had ever climbed before would demand real teamwork. And I knew that if we could succeed it would send an important message to both our peoples and the whole world. We have to prove that we can do the impossible. That’s the same challenge we face in making peace.”

The physical challenges will be formidable. With the exception of Doron Erel and Heskel Nathaniel, none of the expedition members has any background in sailing or mountaineering. Psychological challenges will also play a major role. How will Israeli Special Forces veteran Avihu Shoshani be able to overcome his distaste for the actions of Suleiman al-Khatib, a Fatah Organization activist? As al-Khatib made a farewell phone call to the oldest known Palestinian terrorist – with the news cameras rolling -- Shoshani stood on the side shaking his head. “Just like that old guy, Suleiman was also in jail for attacking Israelis. Now he says he’s abandoned violence in favor of diplomacy. So why’s he making a folk hero out of a guy who murdered Jews?”

That’s just one iceberg tip out of many that are bound to surface during the weeks ahead as the group makes its way further southward. As they begin to understand that the routine of round-the-clock on-deck watches, cold weather and seasickness is more than a one day “experience” these voyagers from the Middle East are likely to find their nerves fraying fast. Yet all of them know that their success and safety depend upon overcoming their differences and working together in a way that, should they succeed, will truly set a new precedent for their peoples. 

On the first day of January, 2004, Pelagic Australis left its moorings and headed for the Beagle Channel, the first step on its way to a great adventure. It carried four Palestinians, four Israelis and a world of hope.

 
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