A day after US President Donald Trump’s special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt completed his tour around Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan to explore avenues to revive peace negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians discussed peace in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.The event, which was organized by Minds of Peace, a nongovernmental organization committed to dialogue and coexistence, aimed to incorporate Israeli and Palestinian civilians in the peace process, according to organization founder Sapir Handelman.“Without the involvement of the people, making peace will not happen,” Handelman said.Minds of Peace has organized many similar, smaller-scale events in Tel Aviv and around Israel and the Palestinian territories over the past several years.Gathered under makeshift navy blue tents on Friday, the participants attempted to formulate basic agreements on a number of the conflict’s most difficult issues.“Will you recognize Israel as a state for the Jewish people?” Yehudit Korin of Yokneam asked her Palestinian counterparts.“No,” Iyad al-Natsheh of Hebron responded sternly. “Our government already recognized the State of Israel, and now you want us to recognize it as a Jewish state.”“We never asked Germany or any other state to recognize us as a Jewish state. So why do the Palestinians have to do that?” Yosef London of Herzliya interjected.
At table 13, where Korin, Natsheh and London were sitting, the participants sat across from each other engaged in an intense but cordial exchange about mutual recognition, ending violence and freedom of movement.“Can we agree that we all condemn violence?” Mira Atil, a psychologist who was born in Beirut but grew up in Israel, asked the group.“Yes, I am against violence from both sides,” said Natsheh.Murad, another Hebron resident who did not reveal his last name, disagreed with Natsheh. “How can I oppose people who are defending our land and children from the army and the settlers?” he asked.“So you are not against someone blowing up a bus on the street there?” Atil interrupted.“Of course I don’t support that,” Murad responded.The debate at table 13 continued, with some arguing, for practical measures that both sides can realistically adopt.“We need to decrease the friction points between us and the army and settlers,” said Ashraf, a merchant from Hebron who declined to give his last name. “All the problems happen at the friction points.”In the latest escalation of violence over the past two years, many of the deadliest confrontations between the two sides have broken out at places of heightened tension, such as checkpoints.While the event gave the participants a unique forum to discuss the details of the conflict, for many of the Palestinian participants it provided another rare opportunity, that of leaving the West Bank.“I have never been to Tel Aviv or Jaffa and have not left Palestine in over a year,” said Alaa, a student from Nablus who declined to give her last name.As the negotiations continued at table 13, some participants became frustrated with the lack of agreement.“I think this conflict will probably last until the apocalypse,” Murad stated.A majority of the participants at table 13, however, were able to find enough common ground to sign a joint declaration calling for freedom of movement and a halt to violence.“I think we made some important progress with this declaration,” Atil said following the event. “It gave both sides an opportunity to take responsibility for our futures.”Other participants saw the document as merely “ink on paper.”“The ideas we discussed here are positive and important, but I think there is little to no chance that they will be implemented,” Ashraf said. “There are not enough people here to make a difference with the leaderships.”Nonetheless, Handelman said Friday’s event left him optimistic about the future.“Israelis and Palestinians came because they want to end the conflict,” Handelman said. “This conflict will not end on its own. We need people in our leaderships, but also from our publics, to do the hard work.”
Reuven Rivlin meeting with US Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt on March 15, 2017 (credit: GPO)