Extreme peace: enemies go to the ends of the earth to forge future for a land divided by hatred

Antarctica is a long way to go to prove a point. But yesterday four Israelis and four Palestinians were crossing the treacherous waters of the Drake Passage on small boats to get there.

They are on an expedition that sounds as if it comes from the pages of a Tintin adventure. They are sailing some of the roughest seas in the world to reach their objective. When they arrive in Antarctica, they will walk for two to three days across the ice, roped together for safety, dragging their supplies on snow-sleds. Then they plan to climb a mountain that has never been conquered; it does not even have a name.

Their venture is meant to prove something to their fellow Israelis and Palestinians. As the violence continues in the Middle East and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, talks of unilaterally separating the two peoples, the eight explorers at the other end of the earth want to prove that Israelis and Palestinians can live and work together, and overcome great dangers by depending on each other. They are calling it an "extreme peace mission".

The expedition was the idea of Heskel Nathaniel, an Israeli outdoor sports enthusiast, who spent a year putting it together. The expedition is also sponsored by Israel's Peres Centre for Peace. Shimon Peres, a former prime minister, and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, telephoned good luck messages to the team members before they set off.

"It's going well," Mr Nathaniel said yesterday by satellite link from the small boat in which he and his colleagues set out on New Year's Day. "Some of the team are seasick. There's a bit of high seas."

There is plenty of scope for confrontation. The team Mr Nathaniel has put together is no collection of like-minded peaceniks. One of the Palestinian members, Nasser Quass, spent three years in an Israeli prison for firebombing Israeli soldiers. Another, Suleiman al-Katib, was sentenced to 10 years in an Israeli prison at the age of 14 for involvement in Palestinian militant activities. Today he is a political activist. Ziad Darwish, a journalist and cousin of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, lost his brother in an Israeli air raid on Beirut in 1982.

Two Israeli members of the team, Avishanu Shoshani, a lawyer, and Doron Erel, a professional mountaineer, have served in Sayeret Makal, the Israeli army's SAS. Mr Shoshani is described as "belonging to the right-wing political scene in Israel", where there has been little room for peace initiatives in recent years.

All have a stake in the small patch of land in the Middle East fought over by their peoples. Mr Erel's parents were Holocaust survivors who tried to reach British-mandated Palestine on the illegal immigrant ship Exodus, but were turned away by the British blockade and could not return until the establishment of the modern state of Israel.

The only member not born in Israel or the occupied territories is Yarden Fanta. She was born in Ethiopia, but at the age of 14, she joined a massive secret trek across the deserts of Sudan to reach the "promised land" and take Israeli citizenship. The journey lasted half a year and most of her family died on the way.

The other woman in the team is Olfat Haider, a Palestinian sports trainer who was born in Israel and has Israeli citizenship.

This disparate group of people will depend on one another to survive a gruelling journey in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Most have little or no experience of mountaineering, sailing, or surviving the harsh conditions they will encounter, except for a short training session in France. The exceptions are Mr Nathaniel, who has some climbing experience, and Mr Erel, who has climbed the highest peak on every continent and was chosen as expedition leader.

For the sailing part of their journey, the team will have the help of a three-man crew. But all team members will have to take three-hour watches on deck. When they arrive in Antarctica, with two mountain guides, Mr Erel will have to shepherd novice climbers up a mountain no one has climbed before. On this expedition, they can ill afford to air political differences.

"I can't say we've had much time to discuss politics so far," Mr Erel said on the satellite phone yesterday. "We've been too busy sailing. We're totally focused on our target, and we're working together. The political issue isn't an issue at all. We are a group of people trying to do something together. There are no differences between Israelis and Palestinians."

Mr Darwish said: "I believe this is a message of peace. It's time to end the bloodshed [between Israelis and Palestinians]. I'm not so naive as to believe we will bring peace, but I think it will push forward other groups of people to go ahead and talk, just sit and talk.

"You can feel the unity. One of the Palestinian members is seasick. My Israeli colleagues were the first to run and bring him water and give him a hand. Our vision is that we are going to Antarctica as one group. There is no Palestinian delegation and no Israeli delegation."

The team sailed from the military base of Puerto Williams in southern Chile. They passed Cape Horn and began the 600-mile crossing of Drake Passage, the narrowest stretch of sea between Antarctica and South America, considered one of the roughest stretches anywhere in the world.

They will take three more days to make landfall off the coast of Antarctica on Deception Island, the tip of a mostly submerged volcano jutting from the sea. They can sail to a calm harbour in the crater through a crack in the rim of the volcano. Then they will make a five-day, 250-mile voyage along the coast of Antarctica and begin a 10-day trek across the ice and snowfields to the 6,560ft mountain.

If they succeed in reaching the top, they plan to name the mountain in a ceremony. The expedition is expected to take 35 days, but they are taking no chances. They will bury an extra week's supplies when they land in case of mishaps.

Because the aim of the expedition is to promote peace in the Middle East, the members are trying to promote it. They are publishing a daily diary on their website, www.breaking-the-ice.de, and they hope to include footage sent by videophone. When they get back, they plan to make a documentary.