ESRAmagazine

Pockets of Peace In Our Time

peace-1 Roots, an organization that involves children and adults from Jewish communities in the West Bank and local Palestinians in cooperation and joint activities, based on mutual respect, understanding and common interests (Photo: Bruce Shaffer)

I recently attended an international conference at Tel Aviv University entitled "Innovations in Conflict Resolution". As a mediator, I found myself attracted to the sessions which focused on conflict resolution and peace-making in our region - Jews and Arabs in Israel and regional issues involving Israel, Palestine and Jordan. There were sessions which aimed to learn from the conflicts in Ireland and in South Africa, to see what is applicable to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A major theme throughout the conference was the importance of projects and activities on the civil societal level, as opposed to the political level.

Apparently political leaders vary in the impact public opinion has on their actions and on negotiations in the political arena. Some leaders try to change public opinion, some tend to follow public opinion and still others are cautious not to be too far ahead of public opinion. In any case, what people want and believe has an impact on peace-making. For that reason, it is very important, in my eyes, not to stand by passively, feeling frustrated by the lack of peace but not doing anything to bring about change. I am as "guilty" as most citizens in that respect, which is why my participation in the conference was a kind of "wake-up" call.

Women Wage Peace – in the air and on the ground (Photo: Paradive Skydive Center)

 I subsequently joined Women Wage Peace (www.womenwagepeace.org.il) and urge all the female readers to do the same. The organization is apolitical and heterogeneous - Jewish and Arab women, secular and religious, from all regions in the country - whose common denominator is the demand to work towards a peaceful negotiated settlement of the ongoing conflict and to involve women in the process.

Another smaller group, with activities mainly in the northern areas of Israel, focuses on finding common ground between Arabs and Jews in Israel. It is called Marching Towards Reconciliation and was founded in 2014 (www.marching-together.com). The focus is on reconciliation, which involves listening to the other, gaining knowledge and understanding of the other ( language, culture and surroundings), making personal acquaintance with the other, recognizing needs and feelings, mutual respect, empathy, closeness and partnership. The founders and members of the organization believe that while a final peace agreement depends on Israeli and Palestinian governments and other nations of the world, civil activity within Israel can have a decisive influence on the outcome.

The Times of Israel published a story about a sixty-year friendship between a Muslim and a Jew that was born on the soccer field. They live in neighboring villages in the Western Galilee. The connection between them was formed in 1954 when the young Arab man, Mahmood Einan, joined the same soccer team as Motke Berkovitz in Nahariya. Both men were born in 1935 and were in their early twenties at the time. They soon became friends and have maintained that friendship for sixty years, meeting once a week. In an interview with the reporter, Einan said, "We believed that if we played soccer together we could live in peace." I still believe that if Arabs and Jews work together, this country could be the pearl of the Middle East." He also said, "If government leaders played sports, they could have put a stamp on a peace deal a long time ago", and I tend to believe he is right. The separateness of the two sectors – Jews and Arabs – helps maintain distance, lack of understanding, mistrust and lack of cooperation.

I assume that in the 1950's when the friendship between an immigrant from Romania, whose family fled the Nazis and eventually came as a youth to what was then Palestine, and an Arab from a neighboring village in the Galilee who had been selected by Mapam to participate in a program to become a leader in his village, was more likely to occur then than in current times. Nevertheless, at the conference I learned about a current effort in a highly sensitive geographical area, the occupied West Bank.

During this period of violence and terror, there are Palestinian Arabs who have abdicated violence and believe in dialogue as a means of achieving peace. "When violence is put aside, dialogue becomes possible. We don't have to agree in a dialogue, it is just the secure place for argument. Dialogue is a place where two truths can meet, it is the place where one can accept that the painful price of peace is cheaper than the terrible price of war, it is the place where peace can be achieved. And finally, peace is a place where we can live by respecting our differences." The speaker is Ali Abu Awwad, founder of the Taghyeer Movement and co-founder of Roots. Awwaad is the man who inspired the positive impulse among the co-founders of B8 of Hope, a Swiss registered association co-founded in 2016 by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim friends, to support initiatives led by Israeli and Palestinian civil society activists who reject violence. The name B8 stands for Beit/Bait – "home" in both Hebrew and Arabic. The website is: www.b8ofhope.org.

The presentation at the conference emphasized that small changes can be done, focusing on solving small local problems. The emphasis is on dialogue in a space where we can see each other and understand the other side. Apparently there is a small minority on both sides of the conflict who seek peace through non-violent means. Here is a quote from the website: "The impossible might become possible through people-to-people connection and respect. The possibility of peace becomes more real through positive change from "bottom-up".

Palestinian peace activist Ali Abu Awwad (left) with a visitor to the Palestinian National Nonviolence Center (Photo: Bruce Shaffer)

On another level, there are important projects going on that most people don't know about. Water and air do not follow national boundaries and regional projects are essential for the sake of Israel and its neighbors. As part of the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Agreement in 1994, a joint water committee was established. Israel has been pumping desalinated water to Jordan and to the Palestinian Authority as well as for use in Israel. Another agreement in 2013 focused on producing more drinking water faster, on minimizing environmental risks and on creating a piping system for water to be pumped into the Dead Sea. In 2015, a Jordan-Israel agreement included three hydroelectric stations to be built for pumping the water. In 2019 a tender will be put out for a company to build another desalinization plant. There is also a plan for a desalinization plant in Gaza, but it is moving very slowly. A power station is needed to fuel the desalinization plant.

There is need for regional cooperation with at least Israel, Jordan and Palestine – for collecting regional data, for conducting scientific research on climate change and adaptation, and for increasing public awareness about the impact of climate change on agriculture, the economy and health. This requires close contact with governments. Currently there is a team of scientists from all three "countries" and they are trying to recruit additional partners. There is an organization called EcoPeace (www.ecopeaceme.org) with offices in Amman, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv. The primary objective of the organization is the promotion of cooperative efforts to protect our shared environmental heritage.

Another session at the conference focused on helping the Palestinians develop economically in the hi-tech field. One program brings Palestinian engineers as interns to get work experience in Israel. So far, 47 graduates have been placed. The isolation of the tech sector in Palestine holds back development and those professionals who can, leave the country for the U.S. and Europe.

Overall, it was encouraging to learn about the various programs and to sense the dedication of the presenters to the cause of working together for a better future in the region. Yet I ask myself, what am I going to do to support that goal? It is so easy to continue daily life, with all the comforts, and not think at all about how I can contribute to improving relations here "at home" with Israeli Arabs. I believe that if Arabs and Jews living in Israel had more positive attitudes toward one another and actually knew one another on a personal basis, the Israeli Arabs would be influential in supporting a peace process with Palestinian Arabs. If any of the readers share my belief that non-political activity of the kind described above can have an impact, small as it may be, on moving us closer to peace with our "neighbors", please contact me so we can get something going together. 

 

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Sunday, 16 May 2021

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