Human rights and security

We need to create an environment where Israelis and Palestinians achieve greater levels of understanding.

palestinian IDF arrest (photo credit: AP)
palestinian IDF arrest
(photo credit: AP)
In the past two years the Arab-Israeli conflict has gone from bad to worse, leading the Middle East into a perpetual state of war, anxiety and loss of life. It has left the Palestinian people stateless and dispossessed, creating frustration and anger that deepen regional tension. More than 2,000 Palestinians and over 1,000 Israelis have been killed in the ongoing conflict. Most of the victims are civilians, and despite strong criticism from international and local humanitarian groups, the Israeli and Palestinian governments continue to violate basic human rights principles. Tight closures, assassinations, the destruction of public institutions and civilian homes and arbitrary detainment are just a few of the categories of Israeli violations against human rights. The poor state of human rights in the Palestinian territories has created a situation in which human security is in a precarious position. The victory of Hamas in the recent PLC elections serves to further threaten the security of the Palestinian people, as the fragile relationship between Israel and the Arabs rapidly deteriorates. This presents a huge danger to human rights, because at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict is a persistent pattern of failed communication and cultural misunderstanding between the people of both sides. Thus, in order to improve human rights and security in the region, it is vital to create an environment where Israelis and Palestinians work together to achieve greater levels of communication, cooperation, understanding and acceptance. THE FIRST barrier to cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian governments is that communication between Israeli and Palestinian organizations is extremely low. The political situation in the Middle East has stunted the development of communication and cooperation between Arab and Israeli groups, and has thus created a pressing need for relevant training, information flow, and networking between organizations. Future projects in Israel-Palestine should aim to help remedy this situation by establishing a comprehensive network of organizations and individuals working for human rights. Ultimately, this will create a higher level of efficiency and promote mutual understanding between Arab and Israeli organizations. One important factor in achieving greater cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian NGOs is the human rights organizations themselves. Human rights activists represent an important target group in achieving human security in Israel-Palestine. Regular meetings between representatives of Israeli and Palestinian institutions and NGOs working in the field of human rights have the potential to create lasting networks, especially between organizations in Haifa, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Hebron and Tel Aviv. By providing activists with forums to exchange experience and elementary training in implementing and enforcing human rights issues, the groundwork can be laid for a comprehensive, cooperative human rights monitoring system. JOURNALISTS and media professionals are also an important factor in the cooperation puzzle. These actors are needed to generate greater interest in human rights affairs, and have the ability to either promote or damage social perceptions and democratic behavior in regard to civil society issues. In addition, human rights NGOs can potentially use the media to multiply the impact of human rights projects on Palestinian and Israeli society, through the use of modern tools such as the Internet and through the strategic use of press conferences. However, communication and cooperation structures among Israeli and Palestinian journalists and professionals are weak, and there remains a great need for organizational leadership in forging systems of cooperation. THE SECOND important barrier to improving human security and human rights in the region is cultural misunderstanding. Understanding cultural differences brings awareness of how cultural background affects communication, and leads to a better understanding of significant cultural factors that can divide or unite groups. It also provides increased appreciation of the reasons why people from different cultures have different ways of interacting, behaving and expressing themselves. Many factors exist in promoting cultural understanding, of which education is at the forefront. There is a great void in Israeli and Palestinian educational structures of education centered on exploring differences in beliefs, languages and communication styles. Instead there is the huge necessity to teach Arabic and Israeli culture, the Hebrew and Arabic languages, and the belief systems of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It is especially important to provide discussions of Arab/Jewish stereotypes in Palestinian and Israeli education. It is vital to include a variety of groups in this educational picture. Improving human rights and human security in Israel-Palestine means educating children, news correspondents, government officials, NGOs, activists, and workers in large businesses. Additionally, this kind of education must be included in legislation, business codes of conduct, school programming, and NGO and corporate training. In this way, human rights education can reach enough populations to induce change on a practical level. THE CHALLENGE that faces the Middle East today is therefore instituting programs to successfully educate populations on cultural differences and to promote cooperation in Israel-Palestine. The Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) has held extensive discussions with a variety of Israeli and Palestinian human rights NGOs and government-sponsored organizations, and has found that a strong interest exists in creating these kinds of programs. This has prompted the PHRMG to design a project in cooperation with Galilee College, an Israeli academic institution, focusing on the development of a Palestinian/Israeli network of organizations and institutions working in the field of human rights for the purpose of peace building, conflict resolution, exchange of information, experience and strategies among Middle Eastern human rights organizations and for educating different groups on cultural understanding. The PHRMG was founded in December 1996 in response to the deteriorating state of human rights in Palestine during the post-Oslo era. The group is an independent Palestinian non-profit, non-governmental organization working to end human rights violations committed against Palestinians in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. OVER THE years, the PHRMG has gained the conviction that a peaceful Middle East will require the creation of innovative ways to educate Palestinians and Israelis in the areas of human rights, conflict resolution and cultural differences. By organizing and implementing workshops and training programs, the PHRMG hopes to further the processes of communication and understanding, which have the power to improve human rights and human security in the region. The PHRMG's combined program with Galilee College hopes to remedy the barriers of miscommunication and culture misunderstanding through the use of workshops and seminars and by developing joint strategies for lobbying and enforcing human rights issues. First, this involves raising public awareness of human rights and human security. The program will increase media cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian media institutions and between media outlets and NGOs. This will particularly involve training NGOs on preparing PR material, furthering program development and fund-raising strategies, and developing Internet resources. For media outlets themselves, this will mean training on press freedoms and human rights, and networking between Israeli and Palestinian media groups. Second, the PHRMG program will concentrate on developing NGO resources to remove the aforementioned barriers. This includes education on development of legislative initiatives and policy-making recommendations, networking between NGOs, and better training on techniques and strategies. Finally, the program will tackle the education question. Workshops and partnerships will be used to reach schools, form and distribute business-training material on cultural understanding, and introduce legislative action on the cultural curriculum. INCREASING cooperation and cultural understanding is not an easy task. Whether addressing media representatives, NGOs and activists, or educational resources, the agenda is complex and interconnected. Nevertheless, with workshops, seminars, training events and other such tools the PHRMG believes it is possible to improve human rights and security in the Palestinian territories. To do so, however, citizens, organizations, and donors must work together to solve the problems of human security. If we do not, political events and parties will shape the future of human rights in Palestine. The writer is the founder and director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) based in east Jerusalem.