Amid Israel-Hamas War: Is Peacebuilding a Dream or Reality?

Published: 
July 25, 2014
By: 
Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen

While in Israel two weeks ago, as sirens sounded, rockets and missiles flew, and the sadly-certain descent began to where the two sides find themselves today, I heard a common refrain from a range of partner organizations and other civic activists working on peacebuilding in Israel:  The current fighting will end, hopefully tomorrow, maybe in a week or a month. But when it does, the underlying dynamics and problems remain to be addressed.  Our work can't stop.

Participants in USIP’s recent facilitation skills workshop in Ramallah experience a dialogue process lead by the Academy’s Alison Milofsky.

The battle between Israel and Hamas forges ahead with little sign of let-up.  The death toll rises – more than 800 Gazans and at least 38 Israelis at the time of publication. And while international efforts to broker a ceasefire seem to be gaining momentum, they have yet to bear fruit. Analysts comment on the depressing déjà vu of it all; the term "cycle of violence" has become a cliché.  It is easy, in the face of this renewed round of militant and military force, to retreat to fatalistic talk about the futility of grassroots conflict-resolution efforts and assume that the players involved are locked in an inevitable zero-sum fight to the finish, whatever that means.  And it is worth dwelling, for a moment, on what that means.  

In seemingly intractable conflict arenas, peacebuilders are all too often dismissed as an army of dreamers clinging more to hope than to harsh realities. In Israel and in Palestine, civic activists who work on conflict resolution have been criticized by their compatriots as irrelevant, at best, and traitors to the greater nationalist cause, at worst. 

But what enables these peacebuilders to push forward in the shadow of war is precisely the grounded understanding that there is no "zero-sum" result to be realized by anyone in the sustained battle that is the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Countering 'insanity'

The reality on the ground dictates that the parties will either "triumph" in mutual loss, or will need to find a formula for peaceful co-existence in a region fraught with resource and security challenges from which no one – Israeli or Palestinian -- is exempt.

This is not starry-eyed optimism or blind naiveté.  Neither is it a prescription for business as usual in peacebuilding.  Albert Einstein's famous definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results -- has been oft-invoked in this conflict.  It has been hurled by critics who, depending on their respective ideological stripes, apply the truism to everyone  from the U.S. and its diplomatic efforts, to Hamas, the Israeli political establishment, the Palestinian Authority or whoever one's ideological opponent happens to be. 

But it is equally incumbent on civic activists in conflict resolution to evaluate their approaches and be willing to innovate and adapt accordingly.  The good news is that this is happening.

Indeed, in an otherwise bleak and sobering week in Israel two weeks ago – one that perhaps fittingly began with attendance at a peace conference interrupted by an air-raid siren – glimmers of hope arose from inspiring individuals and organizations working innovatively, patiently, courageously -- and yes, grounded in reality – for a peaceful future. 

These initiatives are varied in their approach.  Examples include:

  • dialogue among groups of Jewish Israelis from across the ideological and political spectrum;
  • humanitarian interventions bringing Gazan and West Bank Palestinians to Israel for medical care, routinely and still amidst the current war;
  • efforts to counteract racism and to promote shared society initiatives between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel;
  • partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians based on shared technical and technological learning and cooperation; and
  • educational interventions that focus on informing the public and infusing curricula and classroom experience with values germane to a culture of peace and tolerance.

Preparing the ground … for peace

In the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank and the apparent revenge killing of an Arab teenager in Jerusalem, several jointly-led Jewish and Arab civil society organizations and networks in Israel jumped into gear. Their aim was to combat racism and incitement within their respective and shared communities; strengthen institutional capacity to prevent violent outbreaks and escalation; and promote security and solidarity within mixed neighborhoods and public spaces. 

My colleagues and I have similarly found inspiration in our ongoing contacts and conflict-resolution work with Palestinian organizations and individuals. Throughout these efforts, including during Ramallah-based trainings we have conducted over the last six months for Palestinians working in groups that focus on conflict resolution, we have encountered many individuals and organizations dedicated to preparing the ground for peace. 

These Israeli and Palestinian projects do not rely purely on engagement of "the usual suspects" or what has, in times past, been labeled "the peace camp."  Many organizations we have encountered on both sides ground their approaches in an awareness that if peace is to be realized, key constituencies who have previously been sidelined -- or have sidelined themselves -- need to be engaged and their interests understood. 

Accordingly, many organizations have chosen to focus on internal divisions within their societies. On the Palestinian side, in many cases, this shift does represent an ideologically-driven choice not to engage in cross-border Israeli-Palestinian activities either out of a sense of futility and/or opposition to "normalizing" relations with Israel.  But in other cases, on both the Palestinian and the Israeli side, the choice is borne out of a conviction that internal capacity to bridge divides, manage conflict and create an empowered citizenry is necessary for the health of a vibrant and viable state, and ultimately for forging peace with the other side.

Making the case

So while war and its dire consequences dominate the news, the power of civil society networks -- and the fruits of their sustained and ongoing work to prevent the spread of violence and unrest in this charged environment -- cannot be underestimated.  The networks of individuals and organizations engaged in determined, sustained conflict resolution efforts add up to more than the sum of their parts. Participants belong to families and larger communities and, as such, their platform and footprint can extend beyond the confines of their personal peacebuilding experiences.  

As the toll of death and injury rises, attitudes harden and many of these peacebuilders will no doubt encounter setbacks and pushback from their own communities. They will be taken to task over the value of their actions: after all, arguing for the preventative effect of peacebuilding often requires an exercise in counterfactuals, whereas death, destruction, fear and trauma are much more concrete, tangible and in many cases quantifiable. 

It is a challenge for civil society to make the case for peacebuilding; thankfully many are willing to rise to the occasion. They understand that peacebuilding is, by sad necessity, a long-term proposition. They also know that the top-down conflict resolution efforts of diplomats and politicians are only sustainable through the bottom-up engagement of citizens, who risk the ultimate price of this conflict.

Peacebuilders recognize that the value of their efforts, over time, will rest on their ability and persistence in addressing the so-called "soft" conflict driver of negative attitudes towards "the other," too often manifested in mutual demonization and dehumanization.  After all, Israelis and Palestinians being able to put themselves in the other's proverbial shoes is not an anodyne prescription for simply getting along in the face of macro structural challenges. Rather it is a necessary component of both sides' willingness and ability, over time, to push their leaders and fellow citizens towards the kind of structural and ideological changes that are capable of fostering meaningful co-existence and of breaking the "cycle of violence."

July 25, 2014