In this photo taken Monday, July 27, 2009, Palestinians from the West Bank village of Samoa enjoy a day at the beach in Bat Yam, Israel. Giggling children built castles, drew pictures in the sand and splashed water on each other. What would seem like a routine summer day in the Middle East was a refreshing first for these Palestinian children from the landlocked West Bank: a day on the beach. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
BAT YAM, Israel (AP) -- Giggling children built castles, drew pictures in the sand and splashed water on each other in a refreshing first for Palestinian youngsters from the landlocked West Bank: a day at the beach.
While Israelis and Palestinians are increasingly kept apart by distrust and a separation barrier, grass-roots organizations have been trying to bring them together in outings like this, maintaining that peace is built one personal encounter at a time.
Two such groups, Combatants for Peace and Machsom Watch, have been arranging trips to Israeli beaches for Palestinian children and their parents. On Monday, about 75 Palestinians drove by bus from the West Bank's Hebron area to a beach south of Tel Aviv, after crossing an Israeli checkpoint on foot.
For many of the Palestinians, it was their first glimpse of the sea - and a moment of hope.
"We feel we have to live in peace and create an atmosphere for our kids to live a better life than the life we lived," said Ziad Sabatein, a 37-year-old father of five.
"We lived through the (Palestinian) uprising and the attacks on each other, we experienced these things together (with the Israelis). Why not experience this way of life?"
Palestinians have largely been barred from Israel since 2000, when they launched an uprising against Israeli occupation and bloody fighting erupted. Although the fighting has calmed down, West Bank residents still need to apply for special permits to enter Israel.
Peace talks with the West Bank government of President Mahmoud Abbas remain frozen, in part because he refuses to negotiate until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halts construction in Jewish settlements in the territory.
But the hawkish Israeli leader has lifted some West Bank checkpoints and pledged to boost the area's economy in a bid to improve the climate.
With calm largely restored in the West Bank, Israel has relaxed some restrictions on movement and has made it somewhat easier for some residents to obtain entry permits to Israel.
In contrast, the Gaza Strip, ruled by the rival Hamas militant group's government, remains sealed. Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group, has no relations with the Islamic group and has imposed a blockade of the coastal territory, preventing its 1.4 million people from entering the Jewish state except for rare humanitarian cases.
The permits for the beach trips were arranged by the organizers, but some requests were turned down by the Israeli authorities on security grounds.
On Monday morning, the Palestinians from Hebron set out for the beach, holding their first permits in years. It took them about an hour to cross a checkpoint in the separation barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank. Israel says the barrier is to keep out militants, while Palestinians see it as an attempt to grab land.
After emerging from the checkpoint, the group boarded buses and cars.
"We're going to the sea," some children happily cheered.
Upon arrival in Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, some of the younger girls were so excited they parted with their long robes and headscarves and leaped into the water wearing cotton shirts and pants.
Their mothers, equally thrilled, kept their veils in place while sitting on plastic chairs at the edge of the shore and dipping their toes in the water.
One of the women, Fahima Nabil, 45, had never been to the beach before. Her husband is barred from Israel on security grounds, and as a traditional housewife, she wasn't allowed to make the trip alone.
The Israeli organizers made sure to remind the Palestinian women to rub sun block on those parts of their skin still exposed to the sun and gave floaties to the kids, who frolicked for hours in the water.
They also handed out bread with chocolate spread and slices of watermelon.
Later, everyone boarded a boat for a 40-minute boat cruise along the coast.
Tzvia Shappira, an Israeli peace activist, has been organizing outings like this for three years. She said the goal is to introduce Palestinians to a kinder Israel.
"These people now know that there are different Israelis because what they see in their villages are soldiers and guns and the checkpoints," she said. "And now the children and women see that we are simple women and men of Israel who are not soldiers who are not with guns."
"And they had a good time, which is also important," she added.
But not everyone was pleased with the festive atmosphere.
Ahmad Salameen stayed out of the water and wasn't happy about his daughters sharing the beach with Israeli girls in skimpy attire.
"If I knew this is how it was going to be, I wouldn't have joined. Look at these views," he said, pointing to girls in bikinis. "As a Muslim, I shouldn't see this."
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