While the IDF and Hamas were exchanging bombs, a few visionary souls from both sides of the border were exchanging messages of another kind: phone calls, text messages and e-mails. These "other voices" believe that the military option has failed and that the way to peace is through people-to-people contact.
"There's no one to talk to" has become an iconic phrase here," says Eric Yellin, 43, founder of Other Voice, the non-political, grassroots group of residents of Sderot and nearby communities that spearheaded the citizen dialogue effort. "It's hard, it's complex, but it's possible. There are people to talk to in Gaza."
This cross border dialogue has been going on for several years and the group was officially founded a year ago. It is made up of young and old, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, who believe peace can be advanced through citizen action.
During the Gaza war, SHATIL reached out, networked and helped give voice to those moderate, restrained voices outside the mainstream consensus. Shimon Malka, a media expert and director of SHATIL's new Center for Policy Change, traveled to Sderot during the hostilities to meet with members of Other Voice to help them sharpen their message and access the media. The group's activities were covered on Channels One and Two, in newspapers and on websites.
Malka said he helped the group to think strategically about the media in order to create a more open and varied public discourse that in turn will "influence our leaders and the directions in which they take us."
With a formal end of the hostilities, the connection between SHATIL and Other Voice continues to deepen. Yellin and two other members spent three hours in Malka's office on Sunday learning additional media strategies and planning for "the day after."
"The deep and wide ranging experience we encounter at SHATIL opens up our thinking and our possibilities," said Yellin, a native of New York who moved to Sderot 20 years ago to live on an urban kibbutz.
Other Voice, which has about 40 members in Israel and approximately 20 in Gaza, grew out of a blog Yellin initiated with a cross border friend. The blog describes both the difficult daily realities in Gaza and Sderot and expresses the writers' hopes for peace.
"It was a successful dialogue and I thought it would be a good idea to expand it to more people," said Yellin, who works in computer software. "We found more people on both sides who wanted to bring out a different kind of relationship between Gaza and Sderot, which have been in the middle of this conflict for such a long time.” Their blog posts, signed Peace Man and Hope Man, continued throughout the war.
Other Voice members meeting in consultation with Shimon Malka
"Aside from my personal feeling that I could not keep living so close to Gaza without having any personal connections with people there, I knew both sides had to stop dehumanizing the other," said Yellin. "People in Gaza are at least as afraid of us as we are of them. We try to connect as human beings, to show ourselves on each side of this conflict as live people who have the same basic aspiration of living quiet, secure lives. We share our reality, our stories, our fears, our hopes, and try to create initiatives that help both sides move forward."
Coming out of their training/meeting with Shimon Malka, Julia Chaitin, a member of the group who teaches social work at Sapir Academic College in Sderot, explained her participation in Other Voice: "It's a matter of survival. We need to find a way to live in peace with our neighbors. The military way hasn't proved itself. We believe that ordinary citizens can have an influence."