Interview series #1: Odel Harel, Israeli peace activist

What’s your name and where are you from?

My name is Oded Harel and I’m originally from Jerusalem, and my family currently lives in a small town right outside of the city. Over the past 4 years I’ve been living in Be’ersheva which is in the south of Israel which is where I study.

What do you do?

I’m currently doing an MBA here at Ben Gurion University – a programme concentrating on the 3rd sector, NGOs, and I’ve been working in the student union for 2 years now, doing publicity and media.

What was your experience of growing up in the conflict?

My first major experience of growing up in the conflict was during the second intifada aged 12. There were so many suicide attacks on buses filled with people, and I was forbidden by my parents from riding buses, even though I needed to get to the city for many things, basic things that kids do – cinema, mall, so many things I couldn’t do. So much fear changed my reality. I was always looking for people on buses dressed weirdly, looking differently, acting strangely, looking nervous, and that was the reality at that age. I lived abroad for a few years, and it was weird to me that when I went to malls, shops, or on trains, I wasn’t checked by security guards, and it was back in Israel that I realised that we lived in the reality of a conflict, and it wasn’t normal.

Were you scared of the Palestinians growing up?

Yes I was scared of them. Absolutely. At the age of 12-16/17 you don’t think too much you just see things that the media says and you get scared and you don’t think or know about what truly goes on, and all you hear about and see are pictures of buses and restaurants being bombed and you definitely get scared and you see the other side as a sort of demon. This is how people grew up. Sadly this is normal for a conflict. It takes quite a while to really understand what is going on.

When did you first meet a Palestinian?

I first met a Palestinian formally in the army, which was 3 years of mandatory service, when I spent a few months in the West Bank where Israelis and Palestinians both live. This was the first time that I saw Palestinians who could not move freely – living in an occupied area – soldiers around and inside cities, towns, and villages, and it was the first time I met them formally, and I don’t consider it formal as it’s not a meeting – the situation is really one-sided – a soldier and a citizen meeting one another is not a real meeting. The first time I really met a Palestinian was when they came to speak to us as part of a political group I was part of at university. I started to understand and see things differently that I don’t see before. It was a really meaningful meeting. This was one of the main experiences that changed my perspective on this conflict.

When did you come on a SNS tour?

It was March 2015 and I came with someone called Amro, to do a tour of the Midlands.

Was the experience how you thought it would be?

I think it was better than I expected – I found the audience really willing to listen and to understand more. I received very interesting and mature questions which challenged me and my thoughts and I think that the cooperation between me and Amro was really great which made things a lot easier. Everyone was in a really good and positive mood and it allowed us to speak about really difficult things. I really think that it was an amazing experience. I felt that it affected me a lot and really affected the children.

What surprised you the most?

I didn’t think that the audiences would care as much. We are talking about a conflict that looks really big to us but it’s so far away from them. At the beginning I wondered why they would even care about this. They can deal with much more positive things in their life than Israel’s problem with the Palestinians. But the whole process that happened during the sessions, from the confused and shy faces at the beginning like most teenagers, to people who really wanted to understand the root of the problem and to be involved in this process, who ended up with fascinating questions, was incredible. I never thought it would get that deep.

What did you like most about the UK?

 I like the UK generally as a place – I like the people, the atmosphere. Very kind people.

Lots of people in the UK are concerned about what’s happening in Israel and Palestine. We watch the news and read what’s written on social media, but it’s not always the truth or a fair reflection of reality. What do you recommend to young British people here in the UK to do to better understand what is happening in Israel and Palestine?

Always question what you read, and try to understand the bigger picture. There are always two sides. Yes there is one strong side, one occupying side, but there are two sides to this coin, and I think that’s the most important thing. To always question, understand the broader context, understand what happened before. Not to see something specifically that happened today or yesterday. And understand that this is a really negative reality for both sides and both sides suffer.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

Hopefully influencing. That’s something that I’m hoping to do. I don’t know who or what exactly, but I hope it’s a good cause and its doing good for Israel and for people here.

What’s top of your bucket list?

To travel as much as I can. New Zealand definitely.

Any last words for our readers?

Help us give hope because I think people on both sides are starting to lose it in big numbers. We need hope and influence of people from around the world.