Next month, a French initiative to revive peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis is expected to take place in Paris.
The new initiative, however, is being held against the background of tensions that have boiled over into violence since October in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the blockaded Gaza Strip. During this period, the Israeli army has killed at least 206 Palestinians, including protesters, bystanders and alleged attackers, while 33 Israelis were killed in stabbing and shooting incidents.
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Detached from the reality of hostility are dozens of joint Israeli-Palestinian peace-building NGOs – and other highly creative ventures – who are working “to overcome challenges and foster tolerance in the absence of political reconciliation”.
Focusing on dialogue, social change and cooperation, activists say they are working to humanise “the other” and to construct peace on the personal level. These organisations range from joint Palestinian-Israeli schools, radio stations, cafes, women’s organisations to interfaith institutions and legal centres.
They have also manifested in the form of protest groups, whereby Palestinians and Israelis have participated in joint rallies such as the weekly demonstrations in the Palestinian village of Bilin, which made international headlines and became a symbol of the non-violent resistance movement in the West Bank.
This type of peace activism is known as grassroots, or bottom-up, peace-building.
Sophie Rose Schor, an Israeli-American peace activist, says that as an Israeli, she is implicated in the reality that exists in the country and the future that will play out.
It's a crazy process where you put the Palestinian with the Israeli, the occupier with the occupied. This basically maintains the power relations within the group itself.
As part of the several programmes she participates in, Schor is the Israel-Palestine project manager of Extend Tours, an organisation that gives tours of the West Bank to young Jewish American students interested in face-to-face dialogue with Palestinians.
“This person-to-person connection is vital in creating communities, networks, and empowering an individual to think that they can make a difference,” said Schor.
“I believe in grassroots efforts, and in the face of institutionalised racism, it’s the only thing that we, as individuals living here, have at the moment,” she added.
Although Amany Khalifa, a Palestinian activist and organiser at Grassroots Jerusalem , an umbrella NGO that supports Palestinian communities in occupied East Jerusalem, has previously participated in dialogue and collaborative efforts, she is critical of their tangible impact.
“It’s a crazy process where you put the Palestinian with the Israeli, the occupier with the occupied. This basically maintains the power relations within the group itself,” she said.
“You don’t talk about the group itself, you just talk about ‘Amany’ as a person and ‘Moshe’ as ‘Moshe’ – but you never address the political situation that led to this setting. And by the end of it everyone hugs everyone and we go back home to our own realities and nothing has been changed.”
Despite these individual efforts to garner substantial international and local attention, their work remains largely sidelined within Palestinian and Israeli societies. In fact, those who do participate risk being touted by both Palestinians and Israelis as traitors or collaborators.
Running largely on European Union and Western funds through packages such as the EU Partnership for Peace Programme, many civil society organisations are additionally often obliged to comply with the rules set by the donors – a sticking point for some ventures.
In mid-April, Khalifa’s Grassroots Jerusalem launched a crowd funding campaign to break free from the limitations set by EU funding programmes. Such restrictions include, among other things, bringing both Israelis and Palestinians together in order to receive funding.
“Current programmes perpetuate the notion that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a humanitarian disaster. They [donors] provide aid which helps Palestinians “survive under occupation”, not end the occupation. “This way they normalise military occupation and economic colonisation,” said a statement released by Grassroots Jerusalem at the launch of the campaign.
In the past, about 70 percent of Grassroots Jerusalem’s funds came from top-down project-based international aid. Today, the NGO is working to become financially independent – a strategy that the group organisers view as being more sustainable.
Critics, however, have also attacked what they see as the movement’s trivialisation of Palestinian oppression and the normalisation of an abnormal situation between two unequal sides.
The anti-normalisation movement stands in strong opposition to any joint Palestinian-Israeli activism that says peace can be achieved through dialogue and increased cooperation. The movement also refuses to accept any projects that dilute Palestinian oppression, right of return or right to self-determination.
Alaa Tartir, programme director of Al-Shabaka Palestinian Policy Network, says in the past 20 years a “peace industry” has been created, with the number of organisations that claim to build peace proliferating.
“This industry is helpful for few but harmful for many; simply because we are farther away now from any form of just and lasting peace than two decades ago.
“Any effort that does not fundamentally challenge and change the power dynamics in the colonial relationship between Israel and Palestine will just hinder the ability of the Palestinians to liberate themselves from the occupation.”
Grassroots peace-building initiatives entered the scene in 1967 when Israel occupied the remaining territories of historic Palestine comprising the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza. The Israeli Left stepped in to protest over the occupation side-by-side with Palestinians.
The 1980s came to symbolise the heyday of the Israeli peace movement. Civil society organisations and protest groups such as Peace Now , an Israeli group that campaigns against settlements, proliferated, working to foster dialogue and cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis and opposing policies such as the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
With the outbreak of the 1987 Palestinian popular uprising , known as the Intifada, however, many of these groups failed to survive in the atmosphere of the uprising.
Another set of similar peace-building organisations emerged after the 1993 Oslo agreements . They developed under a markedly different “co-existence” tone in contrast to the “co-resistance” one of the earlier movement.
Coming to be known as people-to-people projects, they evolved under the pretext that the Oslo agreements had resolved the political aspect of the conflict, and all that was left was to break down the psychological barriers of “us” against “them”.
Salim Tamari, a Palestinian sociologist and former director of the Institute of Palestine Studies, says that yet again, the failure of politics to institute real change led to the collapse of those efforts in the modern day.
“These projects became increasingly untenable because the political process was moving in the other direction in terms of Israeli dictate of entrenchment of settlements and undermining the authority of the Palestinian government. They involved collaborative gestures that created a social psychology of reconciliation without the political process of Palestinian independence,” said Tamari.
The ones that continue to exist today, says Tamari, are peripheral and have no real effect.
The current uprising, which erupted in October, has been spearheaded by post-Oslo Palestinian youth. For many, it signals a serious loss of hope and pent-up repression among the new generations who have turned to violence in the absence of other means to an end.
Schor believes that for any change to take place, the politics at the top need to change. “There needs to be a serious desire from Israeli society to make concessions and from Palestinian society to disengage from the rhetoric of all or nothing.”
Khalifa, on the other hand, believes that bottom-up grassroots efforts are crucial, but that Israeli peace activists need to work within their own communities to dismantle the Zionist ideology.
“Why is it that they’re leaving the 1948 [territories] and going to the 1967 [territories] to support Palestinians? Shouldn’t we expect them to talk with their own Israeli communities and families? It’s much easier to speak to Palestinians,” she said.
“They go to a protest and then after the protest they know there’s maqloubeh [a traditional Palestinian dish] somewhere in one of the villages. They know Palestinians will welcome them. But it’s the fight at home that’s going to cause them much more of a headache.”
Mustafa Barghouti, Palestinian non-violence activist, former presidential candidate and head of the Palestinian National Initiative political party, says he associates occupation with the 1967 annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the continuing refugee problem.
Barghouti is an advocate of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which he believes is key to moving forward.
“I don’t think there is anything that can be called a joint peace movement. We don’t accept them. They are normalisation projects used by Israel and certain foreign countries to normalise the situation.
“Palestinians now realise that we need to adopt popular resistance combined with BDS.”
Follow Zena Tahhan on Twitter: @zenatahhan