Published on Tuesday, October 10, 2000 in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald
Maine 'Seeds of Peace' Youth Shot To Death By Israeli Soldiers
by Tess Nacelewicz
Maine's Seeds of Peace summer camp, where Israeli and Palestinian teen-agers come each year to learn to live in harmony, has lost its first graduate to the ongoing violence in the Middle East.
Asel Asleh, a 17-year-old Arab youth, was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers on Oct. 2 during a rock-throwing protest in northern Israel.
Asel, a friendly, broad-shouldered teen-ager with a big smile, was a camper and then a peer counselor at the camp in Otisfield during the summers of 1997, 1998 and 1999.
He was so committed to Seeds of Peace that he was wearing one of the organization's T-shirts with its olive branch logo when he was shot. His family buried him in the bloody garment.
His death has rocked the 7-year-old organization and its members, even those who didn't know Asel personally.
"It brought me to tears, literally," Sheena Portas, a Deering High School junior, said Monday. Sheena is a peer counselor who has participated in Seeds of Peace for the past three years as an ambassador of American culture.
She didn't know Asel because they attended the camp during different sessions. But she said it shook her that "a fellow Seed lost his life."
Merle Nelson of Falmouth, who is on the board of directors of Seeds of Peace, also never met Asel but mourns his death.
She said her thoughts were with him Monday, which was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Nelson said that she said a special prayer for "peace and understanding and co-understanding."
"I extend my most sincere condolences to his family and friends," Nelson said.
She said Asel's loss is not an indication that Seeds of Peace has failed but that it is needed now more than ever.
"His life and his death should be a symbol we can't let this happen again," Nelson said. "I continue to believe in the process of peaceful coexistence."
Wallach's son, Michael Wallach, echoed Nelson's words Monday.
"That is why Seeds of Peace is so important," said Michael Wallach, coordinator of special projects at the organization's headquarters in New York. "These people have to learn to live with each other. It makes us more committed to working for peace."
Although friends and relatives of campers have died in the ongoing battle between Israelis and Palestinians, Asel is the first "Seed" to become a casualty, Wallach said.
He was Asel's soccer coach at the rural camp. Asel loved to laugh and join in pranks, Wallach recalled. "He was someone who all the kids enjoyed being with," he said.
But Asel was torn over his dual existence as an Israeli Arab. Israeli Arabs live in villages within what were Israel's original borders before the capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. They have full citizenship but complain of unequal treatment.
Gradually, however, Asel "came to use the fact that he was both Arab and Israeli to become a bridge between other kids," Wallach said. "He was incredibly committed to working for peace."
Back in Israel, Asel regularly visited the homes of both Palestinians and Israelis and wrote for "The Olive Branch," the Seeds of Peace newspaper. An aspiring computer engineer, he also spent a lot of time e-mailing his Arab, Israeli and American camp friends.
Asel also was a member of a Seeds of Peace summit in Switzerland in 1998, at which young people drew up a charter calling for Israelis and Palestinians to share Jerusalem as the capital of two states.
Then came the violence that has rocked the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel's Arab communities since Sept. 28, when hard-line Israeli leader Ariel Sharon visited a Jerusalem shrine that is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. More than 80 people, most of them Arabs, have died.
Wallach said that the director of the Seeds of Peace center in Jerusalem told him that Asel's father was an eyewitness to the protest in which Asel was killed and said that he was not throwing stones but trying to help a friend.
Asel's sister, Nardeen, 21, has sent an e-mail to Seeds of Peace urging members not to give up. She said Asel was "a gift for peace," both to the Arab and Israeli people.
"Please take his life as a present to go on hand-in-hand we'll work together," she wrote. "This is what Asel wants and what will give meaning to his life."