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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.

Israeli-Palestinian Expedition Makes Peace with the Sea

(Expedition Log 6) By Michael Greenspan

Off the Coast of Antarctica (64° S -- 62° W)

Why travel so far in a sailboat – about 650 nautical miles so far? Why stand four-hour watches on deck, day and night, in freezing weather? Why ride on a yacht that rolls from side to side, bounces up and down and sometimes makes you feel queasy? Why put up with congestion that makes it awkward to do even simple things, like bending over to tie your shoelaces?

Seasoned sailors might say: this is the truest way to enjoy the essence of the sea. Veteran adventurers might argue: this makes getting where you’re going part of the experience. But, the eight Israeli and Palestinian explorers of the Breaking the Ice peace expedition to Antarctica had no preconceived notions and no way of knowing how this journey might affect them. For many of them it has truly been a voyage of discovery.

Among the things they’ve discovered so far is that the sea has a rhythm of its own. In an age of air travel, where it’s difficult to imagine a journey of more than 24 hours, sailing forces us to reevaluate the meaning of time. Five days at sea, progressing slowly toward Antarctica compels us to adjust our expectations concerning the pace of events and opens us to new enlightenment. It’s an experience not unlike those that people have had in the deserts of the Holy Land, from the time of the ancient Jewish Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judean Wilderness and Jesus, who resisted the temptations of Satan there for forty days, to our own times, when campers trek the Negev Desert and populate the beaches of Sinai, seeking and finding a deeper level of serenity. This is what has begun to happen to most of us as we sail further and further from the constant turmoil of the Middle East. All of us suddenly have the time to sit and talk, to observe and contemplate.

Some of the team’s time is spent in friendly conversation and some of it in heated debate, dealing with the basic questions that have fueled more than a century of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Who is right and who is wrong? Who does the land really belong to? If they can get along so well with one another on a boat or on a mountain, why has it been so difficult to strike a compromise that will enable their two peoples to live in peace? Can they learn to trust one another? Can they learn to forgive? How can they heal the wounds of the bereaved and solve the problems of the dispossessed? The same questions arise time after time in these discussions. The same opinions emerge, the same stalemates. But, while there may be disagreement here there is little apparent anger. That, too, may have something to do with the calming effect of the sea.

Just as Doron, Ziad, Olfat, Yarden, Suleiman, Avihu, Heskel and Nasser slip into this newfound tranquility, they are startled awake and gripped by excitement. It begins when they catch sight of a duo of humpback whales breaking the surface in the still waters of the Gerlache Strait. Pelagic Australis cuts its engines, news of the whale sighting is shouted through the boat and, in the quiet moment that follow only three sounds are heard – the deep whoosh of the whales blowing out air, the “oohs” and “aahs” of the expedition team members and the constant clicking of cameras. And then Yarden Fanta’s voice, tinged with her Ethiopian accent, is heard above all the others: “Look, look! There’s a third one! It’s a baby!”

Yarden, Olfart, and Nassar on board of Pelagic Australis

We continue watching the humpbacks for almost an hour, slowly coming to understand their cycle of breathing and diving, and catching the pungent scent of their steamy, fish-scented exhalations. As we watch, the sun comes out from behind the clouds, breaking the monotony of grey skies that have accompanied us since we set sail from Chile. The moment is almost too perfect. Yet another is about to follow.

A tiny iceberg comes into view, riding low in the water -- one of dozens we’ve seen in the last two days. But, as we come closer we detect movement: a small flock of Chinstrap penguins are using this ice island as a floating perch, diving off it to search for fish in the surrounding sea, then climbing back up again to rest. When we pull alongside, we discover a small pond of crystal clear water in the middle of the iceberg, with several more penguins bathing in it. They’ve got their own private luxury liner, complete with swimming pool.

The expedition members are so caught up in the excitement of this utterly beautiful morning that they almost fail to notice: just ahead and off to the left, the coast of Antarctica has come into view. We see the bases of black mountains, their slopes covered in snow and their peaks shrouded by low-lying clouds. We are almost at our destination.

Ahead of us lay days of exploration and challenge – of coping with the elements and learning how to work together in a way that Israelis and Palestinians rarely do, anywhere on earth.

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