Initiatives have focused on what are called the core issues of the conflict: borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem. While core, it can be argued they are not the heart of the conflict. Rather, the heart of this conflict is about Israeli identity and Palestinian identity. For far too long the issue of identity has not been given the attention it requires in this unceasing conflict.
Personal identity is strongly connected to group identity which grounds us. Saira Yamin points out groups “represent safety, strength, harmony, and familiarity. They fulfill the needs for bonding, identity, cohesiveness, integrity, recognition, and security.” Seen in this light we can understand that a threat to identity can be as serious as a threat to personal safety.
Not much is left to negotiate with regard to the “core” issues. In many ways, what is preventing an agreement from being reached are the issues under the table – they also are the heart of the conflict.
These include fear, mistrust, trauma, responsibility, cultural differences, breaking down myths, and acknowledgment and a better understanding of the other. Until they are addressed, both in formal negotiations and in encounters between Israelis and Palestinians, any agreement will be much harder to reach and will possibly fail.
This summer’s Quartet Report included a recommendation to use Israeli and Palestinian civil society NGOs to “create the conditions for successful final status negotiations.”
For far too long those Palestinian and Israeli organizations, most members of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), have been underutilized peace assets on the ground.
Reduced to one of its essential components, this conflict is about land – more precisely, the borders that nations draw on the land. When we look upon the land solely as a geopolitical instrument, it is viewed as one of the major stumbling blocks to any reconciliation. However, when we view the land from an environmental perspective – which does not know from political borders, walls, or fences – a new framework opens up. For example, Dr. Clive Lipchin of the Arava Institute has pointed out the need to look at watersheds rather than political borders.
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Those who are against compromise on both sides know how to sing very loud; those individuals and organizations in favor of a two-state solution, or another mutually agreed upon just settlement, need to sing louder. This has three benefits: 1) it creates conditions for an agreement to emerge by creating buy-in among both populations; 2) this then gives the political leaders the cover and support they need to reach an agreement; and 3) it creates the conditions for an agreement to hold as there will be immense pushback; those negative forces need to be marginalized.
We read in the Bible and the Koran that Abraham believes he should kill in the name of God, and so he prepares to kill his son. But he learns that is not what heaven wants from him, the shared father so many people of the region, and his son is not sacrificed. That is God’s message to us. We challenge those who would respond with violence and say, “Will you be a true hero like Abraham and not kill or harm in God’s name?” After a 100 years this conflict is still defined by its original clash of two narratives. For Israelis, the Zionist endeavor is a homecoming after 2,000 years of exile. In their understanding they were able to find ways to hold on to a national identity, via Judaism, that was desperately reborn following the dark realities of 19th century European anti-Jewish pogroms and persecution culminating in the Shoah the following century. It should not be lost that the ideas of 19th century European nationalism played a role in the formation of Zionism, as well as influenced Arab nationalism, and by extension Palestinian nationalism.
For Palestinians, Zionism is not a homecoming but an invasion. In their eyes it is the latest expression of European imperialism, beginning with Napoleon in 1799, who called for the establishment of a Jewish protectorate in Palestine under French rule, and then carried further by the British in the 19th century. Lord Shaftesbury called for the return of Jews to Palestine in 1840 and others followed advocating the idea as the century rolled on, culminating in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Israelis need to understand how their endeavor can legitimately be seen by Palestinians as an invasion, while at the same time Palestinians need to understand Zionism is based on an authentic historic connection the Jewish people have to land.
Such an acknowledgment by Israelis will not lesson the validity of their cause, and such a recognition by Palestinians will not take away from their national aspirations. Rather, such mutual acknowledgments can open doors to new perceptions and opportunities. This conflict will not end when both sides agree on everything, rather the challenge is for both sides to learn to acknowledge profound differences while at the same time find a different way to go forward. An accord will not bring about instant peace with all the problems disappearing the day after the treaty is signed; such an agreement will be the most important step to continue the work of reconciliation. 100 years after parts of Austria were given to Italy after World War I not all the tensions from that change have disappeared, but people have found ways to move on.
Hanukka celebrates the Maccabees, who overthrew the Greek occupation of ancient Israel over 2,000 years ago. It is celebrated as a chapter in the long history of ancient Israeli sovereignty and independence. But at the end of the day any occupation is an occupation, and while Israelis have historic claims to the land, which Palestinians need to be clearer at acknowledging, there are other people who moved in who do not want to be occupied by modern Israel as ancient Israel did want to be occupied by the Greeks and the Romans.
It was perhaps best said by David Lehrer, the executive director of the Arava Institute: “For over a century due to the conflict between Arabs and Jews in the region there remains one critical resource that is scarcer than any other. The scarce resource is trust.” As this conflict continues the lack of trust only grows proportionally.
The Palestinian and Israeli civil society NGOs are not the magic wand that will create that trust, but they can provide key elements that have not been employed to their fullest to help build and create that trust. With someone you trust you can disagree, and with that trust you can create a different and healthier relationship despite disagreements.
The words of Martin Luther King ring so true for this conflict: “All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.”
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