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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 Debate Heats up Antarctic Wonderland

(Expedition Log 8) By Michael Greenspan

Cuverville Island, Antarctica (64° S -- 62° W) January 7, 2004

Sitting on the deck of Pelagic Australis in a quiet anchorage in a small cove on Cuverville Island, just off the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula, Avihu Shoshani admitted that he has to pinch himself from time to time, to make sure not to take things for granted – especially the things he’s been seeing around him for the last few days. This Israeli lawyer, a veteran of one of its elite combat units, has experienced many different aspects of life. “But never,” he tells me, “never anything like this. It’s incredible. Stunning. I can’t believe I’m here.”

Most of the eight Palestinians and Israelis taking part in the Breaking the Ice peace mission echoed Shoshani’s feelings, full of wonder at a land and seascape like no other on earth: imposing, snow covered mountains composed of meta-sedimentary rock, appearing dark brown or black, depending on the angle of the sun; broad channels and narrow inlets that, on a windless day like today, reflect the mountains flawlessly, creating scenes of ultimate kitsch; and, scattered here and there in the water, close enough to touch in some cases, icebergs sculpted in various sizes and shapes, in shades of white and light grey and blue.

Yes, you do have to pinch yourself when you feel you’ve become too accustomed to the sight of penguins leaping from the water alongside you as they seek their next meal. Or when the seal poking his head above water for a breath of air doesn’t overly excite you. Or when you consider that you can see all of these things at any time of day or night because, during the Antarctic summer, it never gets darker than dusk. The beauty of our surroundings is almost unspeakable – and it’s always on display.

At the anchorage, Pelagic Australis met up with its sister ship, Pelagic, skippered by Richard Howarth, from England with Catrin Ellis Jones from Wales serving as first mate. The smaller Pelagic carries the expedition’s staff of mountain guides and its physician. It’s a veteran boat that has been down this way numerous times. For Pelagic Australis, this is a maiden Antarctic voyage. After the two vessels tied up to one another an instant cocktail party developed, with toasts of beer, wine, whisky and orange juice all around, followed by another fine dinner from the galley of Palestinian Journalist and chef extraordinaire Ziad Darwish, assisted by Israeli video cameraman Colin Rosin, himself no mean hand in the culinary arts.

After dinner, the atmosphere became more heated as Avihu Shoshani, the Israeli lawyer and Nasser Quass, the Palestinian Al-Fatah activist from the Old City of Jerusalem, once again found themselves locked in debate. Within moments, Colin Rosin and Suleiman al-Khatib, a Palestinian from the West Bank village of Hizmeh, joined in. As it has before, the argument revolved around Shoshani’s claim that Israel wants peace but can’t find a Palestinian partner with whom to make it. Quass begged to differ. “All the Palestinian leadership supports the Geneva Plan to have two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace,” he said. “You give us back the lands you occupied in 1967,” added al-Khatib, “and give us back our part of Jerusalem and then it will be no problem to make peace. We shouldn’t fight one another. We should talk, even if we can’t agree on everything.”

I agree with you on that,” said Shoshani, “but I don’t think your side is really ready to make peace. Yasser Arafat had the chance to make exactly that kind of deal with the Israelis at Camp David in 1999, and President Clinton was willing to help him, but Arafat walked away from the negotiations and since then he hasn’t done anything to stop the terror attacks on Israelis. So with whom are we supposed to make peace?”

“You should make peace with the Palestinian people,” said Quass. 

“But the Palestinian people never make their voices heard,” argued Shoshani. Only Arafat and the Islamic fundamentalists like Hamas and Islamic Jihad are allowed to speak. You don’t have democracy like we do in Israel. You can’t say what you think. You’re even afraid to express in public some of the opinions you’ve shared with me in private.”

Frenchman Denis Ducroz, the expedition’s lead mountain guide and nature videographer, joined the conversation. “Why must you have two separate states? Why can’t you share and live in peace in one state? Take Jerusalem, for example. Why can’t it belong to everyone – to Jews, to Muslims and to Christians like me, too?”

“Yes,” added Rosin, “why can’t Jerusalem be under international rule and open to everyone?”

“Or why can’t it be jointly ruled by Israelis and Palestinians – Jews, Muslims and Christians?” asked Ducroz. “After all, Jerusalem is holy to all three.”

While none of the Israelis or Palestinians sitting around the table seemed able to explain their reasoning to Ducroz, they were in complete agreement in rejecting his idea.

“Then, really,” concluded Ducroz, “the root of the problem is religious. If you didn’t have these three religions competing over everything, maybe things could be different.”

“Maybe, said Shoshani, “but they’re not.”

Out on deck, another drama was unfolding. Yarden Fanta, who came to Israel on a secret exodus from her native Ethiopia at the age of eleven, was telling Breaking the Ice expedition leader Doron Erel that she was anxious at the prospect of climbing a mountain in Antarctica -- the peace mission’s ultimate goal. “I’m scared,” she kept saying. “I don’t think I can do it.”

Erel reminded Fanta that she’d done well during the expedition’s November training camp in Chamonix, France, where she and the rest of the team had been forced to make an emergency evacuation from a 3800-meter peak in the Mont Blanc range during an unexpected blizzard. “You know what?” Erel told Fanta. “I’m going to show you that you can do it.”

With that, Erel helped her into a climbing harness while Pelagic Australis’ skipper Steve Wilkins rigged a safety rope to the boat’s mast. Before she knew it, Fanta was climbing the mast, protesting all the way, until she reached the spreaders about half way up. She sat there for a few moments, showing off for several cameras that had turned up to record the event, then slowly began making her way down, again protesting that she was frightened. Back on deck, she smiled to a round of applause from her fellow expedition members and told them, “Okay, so maybe I can do it.” Many of them share her apprehension, yet seem determined to achieve their objective and to send a message to the world – that Israelis and Palestinians, whatever their disagreements, can achieve great things when they work together.

After a good night’s sleep at anchor, the team set off to visit a colony of Gentoo penguins located a short dinghy ride away from their boats. Along the shoreline they watched the birds, about 30 to 40 centimeters high, waddling up and down the snow covered slopes from their nesting area and taking turns at entering the water to search for food. Scattered among the rocks on shore were a few old whalebones, evidently washed up here by storms. Before reaching Antarctica Pelagic Australis’ captain, Skip Novak, had given everyone strict instructions to respect the environment, and not to take anything from or leave anything on Antarctic soil. The whalebones stayed where they were.

After taking stock of the penguins Avihu Shoshani, Nasser Quass and Suleiman al-Khatib found time to continue their debate from the night before. “You know,” Shoshani told the others, “I may be an Israeli but I’m also a Palestinian. My grandparents lived in Hebron in what is now called the West Bank back in the days of the British Mandate when the entire area was known as Palestine.” Eyebrows were raised for a moment at this comment and then the debate continued. It seems likely to do so throughout our journey.

After lunch back on Pelagic Australis, Breaking the Ice’s initiator, Heskel Nathaniel, an Israeli living in Germany, gathered everyone on deck. There, Doron Erel and Skip Novak gave the first of what will be many briefings on  the expedition’s planned trek across the Antarctic ice. “Getting all your equipment organized and keeping the weight of your packs down is critical,” Erel told them. “We’ve got to carry as little as possible. This expedition is going to be very challenging and it’s also going to be dangerous,” he added. “You’ve got to stay together during the trek and mountain climbing and pay strict attention to what the mountain guides tell you.”

“Your safety is the most important thing,” added Nathaniel. “We really want to get to the top of that mountain but it’s even more important that all of us get there in one piece.”

When they reach the summit of that unclimbed mountain on the Antarctic Peninsula, the Israeli and Palestinian members of the Breaking the Ice expedition will plant a symbolic flag there and give the mountain a name meant to reflect their yearning for peace and their hope that their two peoples can learn to work together in order to overcome the obstacles that stand in its way.

Yarden, Olfart, and Nassar on board of Pelagic Australis

Still days away from reaching that summit and planting their flag, the expedition members symbolized their desires by attaching a painting by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman to the mainsail of Pelagic Australis. Over a blood red background, It depicts the meeting of two peaceful doves. They will fly above the expedition team as it moves on towards its final destination.

After raising anchor, we began moving slowly away from Cuverville Island, setting sail for the Gerlache Strait and tonight’s planned anchorage at Booth Island. Along our way there’s little doubt that most of us will go on pinching ourselves from time to time, just to make sure we leave nothing overlooked, here in the middle of this frozen paradise.

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