Grassroots peace-building tactics used to solve the decades-long Northern Ireland conflict may be a model for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a study suggests.
“Peace building projects work and are a vital missing ingredient in the Israeli- Palestinian peace process,” the study by the British Israel Communications and Research Center contends.
The BICOM report by George Washington University Prof. Ned Lazarus said it was “the most comprehensive review ever conducted in this area, based on 20 years of evaluation data and extensive field work” from Israeli-Palestinian peace-building activities.
Lazarus wrote that almost one in five Israeli-Palestinian peace-building participants is “still heavily involved in peace building 20 years after attending their first event and, on average, more than 80% of participants said they trusted the other community more.”
One key finding of the report regarding the Northern Ireland process was that “well-funded peace building projects that brought the two communities together were in place 12 years before the  Good Friday Agreement and helped make it possible.”
An international fund for such projects invested more than €900 million in more than 6,000 civil society peace-building projects in Northern Ireland over 32 years.
Further, these projects “remain in place today, to protect the agreement and show that long-term investment in peace-building can bring lasting change to intergroup relations in a conflict environment.”
Another key finding was that “peace-building creates peace-builders and constituencies for peace.”
For example, the report said that 17.5% of participants in a program run by the NGO Seeds of Peace went on to dedicate their careers to peace-building work.
This is not to say that peace-building is an easy effort. Rather, the report said that it “remains controversial and far from achieving its potential reach in both societies.”
The 164 active Israeli organizations are only a fraction of more than 20,000 active registered NGOs in Israeli civil society, and “the proportion is smaller yet in Palestinian civil society... any cooperation with Israeli civic initiatives is inevitably branded as ‘normalization of the occupation,’” said the report.
Further, it said donor fatigue and opposition to peace efforts takes a toll and 77 peace initiatives have closed or may close down, some of which had been active for decades. But overall the report said that peace-building has “endured, diversified and evolved... rebranded or rebooted.”
For example, if only 21 initiatives were founded from 1963 to 1989, the number jumped to 39 between 1990 and 1999, 57 in 2000-2009 and is still at 47 for 2010- 2016.
About 41% of peace groups are a mix of Palestinians-Israelis, 37% are a mix of Israeli Arabs-Jews, 12% are Jerusalem- based and the rest are programs within one of the societies. Out of 83 programs surveyed, 39 have annual budgets of more than $1 million, 22 are budgeted at NIS 1m.-NIS 3m. and 22 are under NIS 1m.
Lazarus wrote that peace-building projects can influence policy shifts. For example, Eco-Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian- Jordanian environmental NGO, has helped Israel double its water supply to the Palestinian Authority.
Sustained follow-up is critical to success, the report found. “One-off encounters were less successful than those that involved follow up meetings.”
The Seeds of Peace program, for example, found that alumni involved in follow- up meetings were twice as likely to remain active in the long-term as those who didn’t.
Besides impacting potential donors worldwide, the report was also targeted at the British government, criticizing the UK for investing only “very small amounts in peace-building projects. Just 0.2% of the £68.5m it spends in the Palestinian areas.”
Lazarus urges Britain and others to contribute to an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace modeled on the International Fund for Ireland.
The report also has a list of recommendations for peace-building strategies. For example, practitioners are cautioned to address security issues, to achieve practical benefits in areas like the environment and health and to share successful strategies.
Donors are advised to fund projects that have some degree of official Israeli and Palestinian support, to invest in a diverse range of projects, and to think about international funds and longterm impacts.
MK Hilik Bar (Labor) said, “The one thing leaders cannot resist is public support. If both peoples will honestly show their leaders how much they support and trust them in their efforts for achieving peace, they won’t be able to step backwards.”
Elias Zananiri, vice chairman of the PLO Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, said peace-building projects are valuable “not as an alternative to negotiations and the two-state solution but as one way to help those negotiations succeed... Only by understanding the other and accepting the other’s existence can the Arab-Israeli conflict be solved.”
Jonathan Powell, chief British negotiator during the Northern Ireland peace process, said, “This invaluable report suggests a practical course of action for governments and civil society. While every conflict has different causes and solutions, we know from Northern Ireland that long-term grassroots peace-building between the contending parties is always essential to achieving peace.