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Meet two Holy Land tour guides who bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide

May 5, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Two women from different sides of the long and bitter Israeli and Palestinian conflict are trying to make a difference in their own way. Breaking Bread Journeys offers guided tours of the Holy Land and a variety of perspectives on daily life there. Special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports from the West Bank.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just one more day to form a coalition government following March’s election, or someone else will be asked to try. His efforts hit a snag Monday when his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, quit his post and announced that his party would join the opposition.

Netanyahu shocked many when, just days before the election, he reversed position and said there wouldn’t be a Palestinian state if he remained prime minister, a statement he softened after his victory.

Despite that and many other setbacks to the peace process, our special correspondent, Martin Seemungal, recently met two remarkable women who have chosen to blaze their own trail forward through the painful realities of the region.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL, Special correspondent: Elisa Moed on the left is an Israeli. Christina Samara is a Palestinian. And they are doing something rare, some would say revolutionary, in this part of the Middle East. They’re in business together.

CHRISTINA SAMARA, Co-Founder, Breaking Bread Journeys: First of all, it feels good to have a friend and a partner in business who is an Israeli and doing this on a very personal level.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: They are seasoned tour operators who met by chance when they were invited to take part in a panel on marketing the Holy Land.

ELISA MOED, Co-Founder, Breaking Bread Journeys: Christina and I, we spent a lot of time together. And we found that we really had a shared vision about the type of program that we would like to do and that we could do if we worked together.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: A typical Holy Land tour will begin in Jerusalem’s Old City, visit sites revered by Muslims, hear about Jewish history, see the Western Wall, pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, visit nearby Bethlehem and go north to Galilee.

Christina and Elisa’s tour goes to those places.

CHRISTINA SAMARA: The Israelites coming from the Transjordan from the Jordanian side crossing to the land of Israel.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: But also deep into the West Bank.

CHRISTINA SAMARA: Between Judea, which is south of here, the area of Jerusalem today.

ELISA MOED: We thought that, by working together, it would provide travelers with what they really want, which is to see Israel and the Palestinian territories, one tour in an authentic way, where they can meet people and really learn about their cultures.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: On this particular day, the tourists are Christian evangelicals from Houston. They signed on because they believe in what Elisa and Christina are doing.

TORI LORENZO, Tourist: I think that it shows a peace. I think that it shows a coming together that doesn’t normally happen. And I think that’s a beautiful integration.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Few tourists make this journey into the West Bank. It is largely under Israeli control, a source of violent conflict with the Palestinians for decades. In places, Israel’s presence is obvious, sometimes not so. When the tour stops at this gift shop, few realize that because of a line on a map, one aisle is under joint Palestinian control, the next aisle under the full control of Israel.

Shop owner Mahmoud Ghazal sometimes uses it to make a point about the Palestinian cause.

MAHMOUD GHAZAL, Shop Owner: We are peaceful people, the Palestinian people. They are looking for peace. They are looking to have peace in the country, but we cannot have the occupation sitting in our areas and in our cities. And it provokes the people, usually.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Modern history then is as much a part of this tour as the ancient history, which is why the bus goes to Nablus, a big city in the heart of the West Bank under full Palestinian control.

Nablus is considered a hotbed of Palestinian militancy, but the tour organizers think it’s important that they visit here. Jacob’s Tomb is nearby, and there is an ancient market in the Old City here still bustling. Tension is low right now, but security is always a concern.

CHRISTINA SAMARA: In the morning, we check what is going on in the news. The bus driver and the guide are very aware of the procedures, what to do.

ELISA MOED: We believe it’s very safe. We take every precaution, ahead of time calling, what have you.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: A few in the Houston group admit they got some worried questions from family.

JEN CHEESEMAN, Tourist: They were like, oh, you’re going to those places and you’re doing those things, and are you sure that’s OK?

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And they say standing in the center of Nablus was a little unsettling at first.

WOMAN: We feel we stick out like a sore thumb, for sure.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: There is the language barrier, but some manage to interact.

MAN: What grades are in you in school?

MARIE JANSEN, Tourist: I think it’s wonderful that the trip that our church set up is going to spend so much time in Palestine. We only see what we see on the news, and I think it’s good that we see for ourselves the way people live.

MICHAEL CHEESEMAN, Tourist: I’m not sure what I was expecting, but not — not — not just a normal place.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Definitely not the place you would normally see an Israeli Jew on the street. For Elisa, there are risks being here, but she believes in what she is doing.

ELISA MOED: People only see a small slice of life on most of the typical Holy Land tours. To come to Nablus is to get an entirely different experience that you’re not going to get anywhere else.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: They call their tour company Breaking Bread Journeys. And food is a big part of the daily routine, going into homes on both sides, sharing meals with Israelis and Palestinians.

CHRISTINA SAMARA: We want people to understand, get a deeper feel for the communities and all the different religions that are here.

RUTH LOPEZ TURLY, Tourist: I think many people that we visited, they truly, they genuinely want peace. So that gives me some hope that that is something that is attainable.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The tour even stops at one of the many Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Har Bracha is famous for its wine. The settlements are widely seen as a big obstacle to peace. The international community views them as illegal. Israel disputes this. Har Bracha is on the list because these tourists want to hear from both sides.

Nir Lavi tells them the settlers are in the West Bank because of an ancestral connection.

NIR LAVI, Har Bracha Resident: And this connects us very much. If you ask us how come we live here, what we have to — we are we looking, well, we’re looking over our roots.

ROB DICKENSON, Tourist: It’s an obvious difficulty. They’re saying that. And the Palestinians are saying, I think with some truth to it, that they have lived here for millennia as well. I don’t see how this will be solved.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Chris Seay is the pastor leading the group from Houston.

REV. CHRIS SEAY, Tourist: We believe there is a lot of truth on both sides to this thing. And so to be here really meeting people, having cultural experiences, not trying to take sides in some of the battles that take — we want to be here and be pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. And we want to be pro-peace.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: As a Palestinian, Christina had never been to a settlement before she co-founded Breaking Bread Journeys. She admits it hurts to listen sometimes, but feels strongly that it needs to be part of the tour.

CHRISTINA SAMARA: These are people telling — telling their story to the tourists. And this is what we want them to hear. They can make up their own minds about the situation. Maybe they get a deeper understanding for all the different people they meet here. And this is what we’re offering them, regardless of what my personal feelings are.

ELISA MOED: I don’t know what’s going to happen moving forward, but I can say that I feel like we’re making a difference in our own little way.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Two women from different sides of a long and bitter conflict working together, hoping it will become a model for others.

For the NewsHour, I’m Martin Seemungal in the West Bank.

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