Strategic normalization

In spite of the prohibitions, there are many coexistence projects, such as Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam a village jointly founded by Israeli Jews and Arabs.

Activists march in support of peace.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Activists march in support of peace.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has been a tough 70 years since the founding of the modern state of Israel. Wars, Intifadas, terrorism... and I think it is fair to say even tougher for the Palestinians. But from early on, both sides had their strategic plans. It is not an exaggeration to say that there has been strategic warfare, strategic violence and strategic occupation. Now with the sides more dug in than at any time in the past it may not be much of a stretch to speak of strategic annexation, particularly in light of the actions by the Trump administration to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and cut funding to UNRWA and other Palestinian causes to make its either-or-else proposition into an increasingly stark reality.
It is one thing for the governments to feud, even as the Palestinian Authority continues to perform security duties in the West Bank and Hamas is zealously breaching its Gaza border to draw Israel and the world further into the conflict. People die in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel as others are wounded and the prospect of peace goes from dim to ridiculous in the minds of many of those living the situation each day.
But the governments may not be acting in the best interests of their people. People, NGOs, academic institutions, private companies and international interests have all invested in peace and war and can be led to make novel contributions that over time can change the invariability of a zero sum outcome. I’ve written many thousands of words on the subject as have others with far more wisdom and yet things seem to be accelerating in the wrong direction.
Palestinian NGOs, academics and ordinary citizens have built a system of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions with support from their government to create a strategic resistance that includes a policy of anti-normalization that publicizes the idea that talking with the enemy, – aka normalization – represents an acceptance of its oppression.
For the State of Israel, it is that Palestinians in the West Bank have an affiliation with terrorism. There is a law against entering area A of the West Bank, the area exclusively administered by the Palestinian Authority, which is posted on signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English, “Palestinian Authority Territory. Area A Ahead. No Entry for Israelis. Entry Illegal by Israeli Law.”
In spite of the prohibitions, there are many coexistence projects, including some that have existed for decades, such as Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam a cooperative village jointly founded by Israeli Jews and Arabs with its own School for Peace and the Parents Circle Families Forum, which has conducted thousands of dialogue meetings led by Israelis and Palestinians who have lost a child, brother, sister, or spouse in the conflict and believe that reconciliation is the only path to peace and that their personal stories of bereavement are vehicles for engagement. Having been to NSWAS and having listened to Israeli and Palestinian members of the Parents Circle, I know that there is a path beyond anger and fear to begin to understand and eventually welcome the other. It is not an easy path and getting there for some will take a long time and a monumental commitment of heart and mind to overcome the grave losses embodied in this Hundred Years War.    
I had the opportunity about 20 years ago to look at Israel from afar with fresh eyes and begin an ongoing process of political acclimation as a representative of my Pennsylvania synagogue, Kehilat HaNahar. I read and read – and still do on a daily basis – with the goal of envisioning the conflict well enough to represent it fully to the members of my congregation and then to other organizations and individuals. In March 2000, my synagogue sponsored an Educational Forum for Peace and Understanding with a panel discussion led by the Israeli Consul General and the Deputy Director of the PLO.
Then I had to find the right entity to take me on my first trip to Israel. I wanted to see and hear both sides and learn enough to someday make a tangible contribution. I found a Citizens Diplomacy delegation that would travel to west and east Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and other locations in Israel and the West Bank while meeting a variety of politicians, peace activists, religious and community leaders. The leader of our delegation was Leah Green, who was presenting a new model for hearing the other in a non-judgmental fashion known as Compassionate Listening. About 20 of us traveled from the US and Canada, including a number of Jews, and landed at Ben-Gurion Airport in March 2001. We stayed first in a small hotel in east Jerusalem that was empty because of the Intifada.
I walked with my Jewish roommate early the next morning through Damascus Gate and we found our way to the Western Wall so early that we were nearly alone. I had prayers from my family and made my own and then we walked around the outskirts of the Old City and back to our hotel. Then we met a city planner in French Hill, the muchtar in Isawiya and an Israel guide in Gilo, who took us on to a yeshiva on the Mount of Olives. It was the beginning of an eye-opening and mind-bending journey that still haunts me to this day.
We learned to listen and try to present non-judgmental questions. It was an important exercise that has altered the remainder of my life. I believe that with international support, citizens of Israel, the West Bank and even Gaza can begin a facilitated process of strategic normalization not run by but acknowledged by the governments that over time will change relationships for the better and create a real path to reconciliation and lasting peace.
With God’s help and yours!
The writer was president of the Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace, an NGO based in suburban Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]