OTISFIELD, Maine – Israelis and Arabs attending a camp reunion in the woods of Maine are keeping an eye on the Gaza Strip (search), where a move is being made toward peace in the Middle East.
Badawi Qawasmi, a 26-year-old Palestinian, said Monday he hopes Israel's withdrawal of 8,500 Jewish settlers from Gaza will lead to better lives in the impoverished, overcrowded area of 1.3 million Palestinians.
"I hope it's just the first step," said Qawasmi, who is among the former Seeds of Peace (search) campers, now in their 20s, who gathered for the first formal reunion in the camp's 13-year history.
Seeds of Peace was established to bring together Israeli and Arab teenagers in search of common ground, a daunting task well before the historic evacuation of Gaza. The withdrawal marks the first time Israel will give up land captured during the 1967 Mideast War (search) that is claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
"I think it's the worst thing that can happen to the region and the Palestinians because they're not a player in what's happening to them," said Liav Hertsman, 25, a TV producer in Tel Aviv.
Still, the tranquility of the 67-acre camp was in stark contrast to the events in Gaza. Monday was the first day of a 48-hour grace period during which settlers can leave voluntarily without losing any of their government compensation.
On Wednesday, troops will begin dragging out any settlers still there.
Although the withdrawal was on the minds of the former campers, they also spoke about life back home, school and careers. The reunion was billed as a "Leadership Summit" where alumni can reconnect and recommit to promoting Israeli-Arab peace.
Standing near the shore of Pleasant Lake, two Israeli and two Egyptian men laughed as they talked about old times and caught up on each others' lives. A sign stuck in the ground has arrows saying "Portland 45 miles," "Jerusalem 6,000 kilometers."
About half of the campers are Israelis, with an equal number of Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians, and a handful of Americans.
Former campers were attending workshop sessions on politics, the media, business and conflict resolution, in addition to traditional summer camp activities such as basketball, canoeing, water skiing or maneuvering the ropes course.
They are beginning their careers and finishing up their education, with a different outlook on life than in the 1990s when they were campers. Hertsman said attending Seeds of Peace in 1994 motivated her to get involved in world events.
"This is a chance to get back in touch where it all started," said Hertsman, one of two alumni chosen to monitor the news during the camp and distribute articles.
Yaron Avni, a 24-year-old Israeli who spent time in the Israeli Army intelligence, said the Gaza pullout is a painful time in Israel's history. Many of the settlers have known no other home.
"Still, it's something we have to do and it's for the best," he said.
For Hani Alser, who attended Seeds of Peace in 1999, the withdrawal could have profound implications. Alser, 21, grew up in Gaza but hasn't been back home for three years because of travel restrictions on the area since he began studying in Jordan.
He is optimistic that the pullout means he will finally be able to see his parents and the 1-year-old brother he's never met.
"I hope I'll be able to go home," he said. "But I'm afraid this might take a long time, one or two years after the withdrawal, to see my parents."