The Paradox of People-to-People Peace-Building

People-to-people peace-building works.

It’s been researched and documented, in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and many other places. Without people-to-people peace-building on a massive scale that includes the most partisan sectors of the population, it is nearly impossible to bring the sides to the table to sign an agreement. Even if they sign, it won’t hold. Let the Oslo Accords serve as exhibit A.  The signatures of politicians are not worth the paper they are affixed to if the people on both sides aren’t ready.

In intractable conflicts like ours, the two sides have inflicted such terrible suffering on each other that each sees the other as evil incarnate. Palestinians and Israelis are traumatized to the point at which the other side can do no good. Every act of theirs is perceived as part of a long line of aggression that only confirms what was already known about them.

‘They are bad, we are good.  They don’t want to live together in peace, their only intention is to overcome us. They are the perpetrators and we are their victims. There is nothing that we can do; nothing will change until they take responsibility for their sins.’

‘You have to be realistic; the day is not near when they will wake up and see the light of their own free will.  Therefore we must stand against them in steadfast resistance. All they understand is force.’

‘They must never be given the benefit of the doubt. To do so is naive and foolhardy. It is to deny reality, not to see the simple truth, to show weakness in the face of evil. Do not believe them and do not put your trust in them. They will only trample upon you.’

This pervasive narrative is unassailable – until you actually meet someone from the other side in a true encounter.  The face-to-face experience is the key. Then the menacing, indistinguishable mass of the enemy becomes a human being.  The ‘they’ become a ‘he’ and a ‘she’. In the finer resolution of direct human contact, the contours of nuance gradually emerge.

A bit of understanding and even empathy begin to take root. The callous, hard shells of our exclusivist identities are breached and room is made in our souls for another story. Stereotypes are exposed for the half-truths that they are.  Black and white begin to give way to gray, and a glimmer of hope is born.

People-to-people peace-building does not begin with lectures, debates or position papers. It begins with simple gatherings, ice breakers, small talk, breaking bread, joint sporting activities, interfaith dialogue, photography workshops, clean up campaigns or other projects in which the two sides work hand in hand. These interactions allow us the rare opportunity to bypass the lens of the conflict, and meet the other in his or her human individuality. They are no longer just a part of the hated and feared collective enemy, they are Noor or Khaled or Shaul or Hanan.  Humanity comes to the fore, commonalities are revealed. Walls weaken and collapse, and bonds form.

When enough empathy, goodwill and trust are amassed, our hearts are ready to explore national narratives with less rancor and self-righteousness and to listen with less defensiveness.  We tell the stories of our identity and our pain and they listen, then they tell their stories and we listen. It is so hard to listen, but both sides begin to make room in their hearts for two truths, and thereby to make room in the Land for two peoples.  A process of personal transformation begins in which partisan players in the zero sum game of them against us, move from a place of exclusively pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel, to a place of pro-peace, justice and security for both sides. Israelis and Palestinians become soul brothers and strategic partners, advocating together for a better future for both sides.

In the Roots/Shorashim/Judur Initiative, a joint Palestinian-Israeli partnership, we are breaking new ground, applying these methodologies in a space where few have applied them in the past. We bring together those people on both sides most invested in the conflict, those with the strongest exclusivist identities, those most connected to the land, and those who carry the most pain. On the Israeli side, that means Orthodox Jews and West Bank settlers; on the Palestinian side, it means observant Muslims, people from refugee families, and former security prisoners who have spent time in Israeli prison.

We believe that only people-to-people encounters between these two populations on a massive scale can lay the groundwork for political peace negotiations that will reach an agreement that is good for both sides, will be accepted by the people on both sides, and can be successfully implemented.  

Experience, research and logic teach us that there is no other way. But paradoxically, the true and tried way is often blocked by the very narrative of the conflict that people-to-people peace-building, if given a chance, could overcome.  Especially among Palestinians, even people of goodwill who are interested in reaching a solution are very often willing to sit around the negotiating table but not around the dining room table.  They are willing to talk about justice or rights or security but not about photography. They are willing to draw maps but not to draw pictures together.

And it is clear why. To play together, or to engage in a joint project, seems to them pointless. ‘What does playing games have to do with freedom and justice?’ they ask. Even worse, such human interactions appear to frivolously make light of the seriousness of the situation, to dishonor the memory of those who have been killed, to irresponsibly eat, drink and be merry while kin and countrymen are suffering.

Such actions may even appear traitorous, undermining the national resolve to maintain the struggle until victory. Politically conscious Palestinians are afraid that entering into normal interaction with Israelis will lull their people and the world into a false sense of satisfaction, as if the occupation is acceptable.

Many Palestinians feel robbed of their human dignity, subjugated and humiliated. They have limited means to express their sense of individual and national pride, and to practice any sort of resistance. One of the few things they can do is to refuse to grant legitimacy to their oppressors. ‘How can we engage in humanizing the enemy when he does not deserve to be humanized?’ We will meet the enemy to demand our rights, they say, but not to normalize the occupation.

But in the case of Roots/Shorashim/Judur, there is even more to the opposition than that: The Palestinian Authority was born of the Oslo Accords, which were predicated on the concept of separation. As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak famously summarized it – us here and them there! Palestinian refugees from around the world would return to the State of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza – and not to the State of Israel – and the State of Palestine would be free of Israeli settlers. How this would actually happen was not fully worked out, but it was clear, at least to the Palestinian side, that settlement activity would end and that eventually the existing settlements would be evacuated.

As opposed to the situation before Oslo, in which the official Palestinian position was that all Jewish settlement between the River and the Sea is anathema, now Palestinian opposition was focused only on the West Bank and Gaza settlements. Every additional settlement was understood as another nail in the coffin of the Oslo Accords – as indeed they were and in many cases were meant to be – and all settlers, even those there before Oslo, came to be seen as the archenemy.

Roots/Shorashim/Judur operates in the heart of the conflict; its Israeli peace activists and participants are West Bank settlers. They are the ones who are shedding their hard outer shell of exclusivity and superiority through the encounter with the other. They are the ones who have become advocates for Palestinian rights and dignity. But for the vast majority of Palestinians, and for the Palestinian Authority, that does not matter. They will not talk to settlers and they certainly will not be involved in games, group dynamics, and story exchanges with settlers!

I understand and even empathize with such emotions and principles. I appreciate how inhumane and unfair it would be to make light of them, but I fear that those who implement them are shooting themselves in the foot.  They are unwittingly slamming the door on the one avenue forward towards a better future, almost guaranteeing the continuation of the status quo of occupation and subjugation.

As Huda Abuarquob and Joel Braunold wrote in a Ha’aretz article a few years ago:

While the argument for anti-normalization is intellectually coherent, it is ultimately self-defeating. How, for example, will those who seek a full right of return for Palestinian refugees but refuse to allow them to engage with Jewish Israelis who reject the idea, succeed in convincing the Israelis that it is a viable option? How do they expect two conflicting parties to empathize with one another’s narratives when neither side has the opportunity to learn of the other’s struggle on a personal level? And how can they break the victim-perpetuator cycle if they do not seek an end to the victim-perpetrator identities? Preventing the conflicting sides from interacting enables anti-normalization activists to define the “other” in their own terms.

And I would add: There are half a million settlers. They are not going to disappear tomorrow. We cannot achieve freedom and justice for Palestinians without getting those settlers on board on some level. How do you expect to do that if they have never met a Palestinian and never will?

Even Palestinian activists who have themselves been transformed by meeting the other side and have seen Israeli settlers transformed into allies, and believe deeply in the value of people-to-people peace-building, are reticent about publicizing the matter among their people.  They feel powerless to sell it to their countrymen. They are afraid of ridicule and social sanctions – that could set the back the Roots agenda by years – and intimidated by the threat of arrest by the Palestinian Authority.

So Roots/Shorashim/Judur spreads its message among the Palestinian population by word of mouth, one by one, with great caution. We are growing, but not fast enough to ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren. The way forward is not clear and I have no magic bullet. Here are four optimistic, mutually complementary scenarios:

  1. Our quiet word-of-mouth recruitment will, over the course of a few years, bring us a sizable mass of Palestinian participants who will become leaders in their communities. These supporters will be able to affect the discourse in a fashion that allows Roots/Shorashim/Judur to begin to openly advertise its message among the Palestinian public.
  2. Over the years, we have prepared a small number of open letters and newspaper articles presenting our work to the Palestinian public. We have debated them and honed their content and quietly showed them to certain Palestinian thought leaders. Again and again we have been advised to shelve them because the time is not right, the people are not ready, and the effort would only boomerang against us. Despite the inherent risk, we shall renew our efforts to find the right language and the right time.
  3. The Israeli side of Roots will step up its advocacy for Palestinian rights and its acts of solidarity with those who have been harmed by the Israeli military occupation.  The Palestinian side of Roots will find the way to publicize this among the Palestinian public, thereby building up the sense that there are ‘good settlers’ with whom it is legitimate and worthwhile to interact with.
  4. After fifteen years, Palestinian elections are scheduled for the late spring and summer. We have reason to hope that candidates will be elected who are more sympathetic to the philosophy and methodology of Roots/Shorashim/Judur.

This coming Sunday, March 14, 2021, Roots/Shorashim/Judur will be conducting our second Run for Reconciliation. This time it will take place in the Jordan Valley, showcasing our branch there which has recently expanded its work. Thirty or so runners will traverse the 9-kilometer course, Israelis all of them. A number of Palestinians expressed interest in running, but alas, it was decided – as in the past – that the time is not ripe for their participation in such a public and normalizing-like event. But we do expect a large number of Palestinians joining the Israelis at the celebratory event at the end of the run (outside, and with appropriate social-distancing measures in place of course). That, it was decided, is less dangerous for them and for Roots/Shorashim/Judur in general.

And so we will continue to try and find our way among the raindrops, until the weather clears or until the rain becomes nothing to be afraid of. With great effort, the sun will eventually shine.

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