Broken Promises

Israeli, Palestinian Kids Speak Up

On Academy Award night, one of the contenders for Best Documentary of 2001 will be a film called "Promises." It's a film about Israeli and Palestinian children who live in and around Jerusalem. Most of "Promises" was shot four years ago, during a period of promise in the Middle East. The peace process was very much alive and there was very little violence.

By watching the film, and then hearing from the same kids now, one can learn a great deal about what is happening in the Middle East. Bob Simon reports.

The film begins in Jerusalem in 1998. Almost all of the characters in the film are children, 11 or 12 years old. The first to appear are two 12-year-old Israeli twins, exceedingly regular kids. Daniel and Yarko tell what goes through their minds when they take a bus to school.

"When I get on I'm anxious, so I look for suspicious people. If I see a really scary person, I watch him. I try to get off before he does. I keep waiting for the explosion," says Yarko.

The twins were filmed in West Jerusalem, the Israeli sector. A third child, Mahmoud, appears in his father's coffee shop in another world, the Arab sector, just five minutes away. All the kids in the film talk and act like young adolescents anywhere, except for their intense involvement in politics. Politics comes down Mahmoud's street periodically when militant Israelis march through his neighborhood, proclaiming that it really belongs to them.

"They say today is the celebration of the reunification of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem isn't for the Jews. It's for Arabs. This is just a provocation. The Jews act like they own this land. How would you feel? My heart wants to burst," says Mahmoud.

And then there's Moishe. His home is a religious Israeli settlement on the occupied West Bank, 20 minutes from Jerusalem. "We're surrounded by Arabs," he says. "If the Arabs break in, there's nothing we can do. We're surrounded. We can't escape. But we have our army to protect us. We have our firing range. And if the soldiers aim poorly, it's OK 'cause they might shoot an Arab!"

Moishe's best friend was shot by Arabs. Twelve-year-old Ephraim was driving home to the settlement with his mother. They were both killed.

"He was such a good friend. I can't accept it. I just can't accept that Ephraim's dead," says Moishe.

Sanabel says the nicest thing she's been given is her name. She lives in a Palestinian refugee camp 15 minutes from Jerusalem.

"My name means giving and loyalty and it's also the symbol of love," she says. Sanabel's father, a Palestinian activist, was in an Israeli jail four years ago, when the film was made.

"We write letters. We wrote one on his birthday but they didn't deliver it. Because we sent it with a stack of photographs," she says.

Once a month, Sanabel went to see her father with her family, a four-hour bus ride dotted with Israeli checkpoints. Sanabel did not know when her father would get out of jail. He had never been convicted or sentenced.

All the kids in the movie knew, of course, that other kids were being filmed. So it was perhaps inevitable that curiosity would get the better of them, that they would start thinking the unthinkable. Should they meet? Moishe, the settler kid, had no interest in meeting Palestinians.

But the Israeli twins did. And the Palestinian girl Sanabel wanted to meet them. She encountered a lot of resistance from her friends in the refugee camp. Israelis will never understand us, they said. But she argued.

"Arabs and Jews should meet. No Palestinian child ever tried to explain our situation to the Jews," Sanabel said.

And she won the day. A couple of weeks later, the twins were on their way, driven by their mother, a 20- minute drive into an Arab world, a road Israelis never take.

They met. The first item on the agenda was a political tour of the camp. Bullet holes, courtesy of the Israeli army; grafitti, courtesy of Hamas.

"I used to think that anyone who liked the Hamas was totally insane," says Yarko. "Some of the kids here like the Hamas and now I can understand why. The graffiti might make me uncomfortable, but I can understand it. If I were them, I'd feel the same way."

Promises. A film. A period. A war that had been going on for 100 years took an intermission. Children could play and dance in the sun. But the darkness came quickly. It came 18 months ago when peace talks broke down and everyone went back to war.

60 Minutes II went back to see the kids a couple of weeks ago to find out what they're thinking. The twins are almost 17 now. Even if they wanted to return to the refugee camp to see their friends, they couldn't. It would be too dangerous. So many Palestinian kids have been involved in the violence against Israelis.

What would Yarko and Daniel say to the Palestinian kids today? "I wouldn't say, 'Good for you, keep up the good work'. I would say that I understand them, and on the other hand I would say to them 'Guys, I don't want to die.'"

Daniel says he would say: "This is not the solution; there are better solutions'."

Moishe, the kid from the Jewish settlement on the West Bank, has an answer, too. He never liked Palestinians much to begin with. But now he believes they all have to leave.

He would like to see all the Palestinians thrown out of the country. "They will go. It will take time, but they will go in the end, whether they like it or not."

Why didn't Moishe go to meet the Palestinian kids? "I don't think there is any reason to meet them. They will simply grow up and be like their parents, terrorists, so what difference does it make? It seems to me if I meet a Palestinian the only thing I will do is just throw up."

"They are repulsive to look at - disgusting. They are humans - oops sorry I called them humans. They are animals, most of them. I'd rather not meet them and I would prefer to [stay] with the society that we have here, with the Jews, the Israelis."

Of all the children featured in the film, it is Sanabel's life that has changed the most over the last four years. She is 15 now, and her father was released from the Israeli prison and is now living at home in the refugee camp.

"When my father was released from prison, I was very happy, but then I realized that I live in a prison, I am occupied by the Jews and I should not be living like that," she says. "I should be like all other children in the world. Why can't I live like them? Why can't I live my childhood?"

Sanabel didn't seem this angry when the film was made four years ago. But, of course, that was before the latest uprising.

Have you been involved in clashes with Israelis, she was asked. Has any of her friends been injured or killed?

Sanabel says, "To tell the truth, I haven't participated in any clashes with the Israelis, but I have a friend, a dear friend, who participated in the clashes and was shot. He became a martyr. His name is Kifach Abeit and he was one year younger than me, but was a very dear friend, and he gave up his life for our homeland. The Jews killed him with a bullet."

It was Sanabel who convinced her Palestinian friends to invite the Israeli twins to the camp.

Would she be willing to meet the twins now?

"No, I am not willing to see them. I am not willing to see any Jewish person. I'll repeat that a hundred times. I am not willing to meet any Jewish person because they are all the same. They are all racists. They are all evil."

She continues: "When I hear about a bombing I get so happy that I feel that I am part of the operation. And I wish that I was the suicide bomber. I feel that if I did that I would be a part of our county's liberation. I start wondering how I can become a suicide bomber. How I as a girl can blow up a place in Netanya or Jaffa street, or anywhere else. I want to be with them and die as a martyr for the sake of my homeland."

Even though it was released only recently, the film is already a period piece of sorts. There are no promises in the Middle East today, except the promise that one more generation is doomed to war.