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Book Reviews

Three Wishes: Palestinian And Israeli Children Speak

by Deborah Ellis
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004, $12.95

Reviewed by Major (Ret’d) Roy Thomas

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Book coverOperation JADE, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which originated in 1948, and Operation DANACA, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), created in 1973, are two of Canada’s longest-standing overseas commitments. These Middle East deployments appear destined to continue for decades, unless they are revoked. Furthermore, this need assessment is implied within the pages of Three Wishes, authored and edited by Deborah Ellis, a writer best known for her children’s fiction.

Imagine, Human Intelligence contained upon the shelves of children’s literature. Indeed, the future of any road map to peace for the Palestinian/Israeli conflict may be partially gauged by reading Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, for what the children say is so important in any evaluation of the situation.

The twenty voices – half-Israeli, half-Palestinian, ranging in age from eight to eighteen – do not necessarily want peace. “I want the war to end,” says an Israeli teenage girl. “I wish the war would end,” echoes a fourteen-year-old Palestinian boy. Notably, there is an absence of hope in many of these comments.“I don’t know how it will end or if it ever will,” says a twelve-year-old Israeli boy. A Palestinian girl of eleven is equally pessimistic. “Maybe in heaven there is happiness, after we die. Maybe then.” Of course, some acknowledge the need for hope. As an Israeli girl remarks: “It is scary, being surrounded by people who want to kill us, but we have to have hope.”

An eighteen-year-old Israeli girl feels a lot of anger towards Palestinians. “This is our land,” she offers. “I wish all the Jews in the world would come to Israel, and that all the Palestinians would leave and go live in some other Arab country.” There is a similar Palestinian view expressed by an eleven-year-old girl. “I wish all the Israelis would leave my country.”

And there is more reason for pessimism. A twelve-year-old Palestinian girl says: “They want our land and that makes them mean!” Another Palestinian girl of twelve is more militant. “I want all the Israelis who are trying to take our land to be killed.”

Apparently, the dialogue that might provide some bridge between the antagonistic communities is not there in abundance. As an Israeli lad of thirteen remarks: “It is impossible for us to meet.” Another, about to be drafted, says: “There is nothing for us to gain by trying to get to know somebody who hates me. It will only make me look weak.”

The comments of some Palestinian children would also indicate that the time for talking to each other has passed for their generation. An eleven-year-old male says, “I don’t know any Israeli children. I don’t want to know any. They hate me and I hate them.” A twelve-year-old female asks: I don’t know any Israeli kids. Why would I want to? An ailing twelve-year-old boy takes this sentiment even further. Not only does he not want to know any Israelis. “I have only one wish. To get well soon so I can go back to fighting the Israelis.”

However, as cause for faint hope, there is limited recognition that some dialogue is necessary. “It would be good for me to meet some Palestinians,” says a sixteen-year-old Israeli. And the need for learning about the other side is perhaps best expressed by an eight-year-old. A I don’t know why the Palestinians are so angry with us.” Another eighteen-year-old Israeli noted that the only way peace can happen is through contact with each other.

That said, there are many obstacles to the children learning about each other. For example, author Ellis states in her preface that many parents did not give permission, either for interviews or for publication, when it became clear that she was talking to children from both sides of the dispute.

Indeed, with the voices of only twenty children selected and recorded by Ellis, the reliability and even the legitimacy of this report for intelligence purposes could certainly be challenged. However, Ellis did not direct this book at an adult audience for its military intelligence value, or even to sway the opinions of various politicians. She collected the comments and inserted her introductions for a reading audience of between nine and twelve years of age. It is the fact that this is a children’s book intended to capture the views of youth in the embattled bible lands that makes it useful for both human intelligence and for its intelligent insight.

The words that the author inserts to place these conversations either in context or to make a point can be glossed over. It is the young voices that she has put into print that constitute the value to any adult interested in the Middle East peace process. If these views are only the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ then an international peace effort will be required in the Middle East for a long time to come.

Moreover, this conflict will have to feature in any reviews of Canadian foreign and defence policy well beyond the political life of Prime Minister Paul Martin and the present government. After all, the oldest of the children interviewed in this book is only eighteen. Although overshadowed by the situation in Iraq, the Arab/Israeli conflict will continue to engage our American allies and neighbours, even if Canada’s own role remains limited to a logistic element on the Golan Heights, some observers and some diplomatic initiatives. As one youth of fifteen said in the book: “Neither of us is going away.” Nor is the need for Canada to continue participation in Operations JADE and DANACA.

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Roy Thomas has served in seven different UN mission areas, including UNDOF and UNTSO, during which he was hijacked in South Lebanon.