When President Obama declared that “peace begins – not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people,” he was urging Israeli and Palestinian students to think hard how to transition from a state of war to a state of peace. Empowering them with purpose, he recalled that peace is not made just between Governments but between people and that politicians will not take risks if the people will not push them to do so.
President Barak Hussein Obama draws time and again on his personal history to underscore his understanding of suffering. His African roots – much of his family comes from a continent where genocide is not a thing of the past; his education, where he learned that legal systems are necessary for positive change; and his work with grass roots communities, which underscored the potential for people to successfully organize and mobilize to create power and shape transformation for the greater good, are the essential components of a growing discipline called Transitional Justice.
And indeed, Transitional Justice has much to offer to us, both internally between Arab and Jewish citizens in Israel, as well as in the broader context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Transitional Justice mechanisms assist nations and societies torn by mass violence, conflict and civil war to rebuild, reconcile and create firm foundations for peace and prosperity. The foundations of Transitional Justice were laid during the Nuremberg Trials, convened after the Holocaust, where an international military tribunal heard testimonies from Nazi perpetrators and Jewish victims who survived the Holocaust. Along with important contributions to international law, the Nuremberg trials showed the power of bearing witness. Years later the Eichmann Trial also became an example of Transitional Justice. Since then, TJ tools have included Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, utilized in South Africa and Northern Ireland as well as in the United States, and International Criminal tribunals, in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
Israel’s apology and commitment to pay compensation for lives lost to Turkey for events occurring on the flotilla, Mavi Marmara is a prime example of Transitional Justice in action. This step will allow the countries to begin normalization of relations. Once again, President Obama was using the principles of Transitional Justice to guide him and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s offer and Prime Minister Erdogan’s apparent acceptance, made public, underscores their understanding of how acknowledgement helps societies move forward.
In Ramallah, when President Obama spoke of US assistance to help strengthen the Palestinian Authority governance, rule of law, economic development, education and health he said that the U.S. “considers these to be investments in the future Palestinian state – investments in peace which is in all our interests,” he was talking the language of TJ. Institution building is a key element of Transitional Justice.
Speaking to Israeli students, he called on them to lead in changing the impasse of the present, and shape transformation for the greater good to overcome a legacy of mistrust and develop empathy for the other. These are key themes in TJ, which is drawing to its ranks a growing number of practitioners – human rights activists, artists, journalists, doctors, economists and also donors who provide the means for greater engagement of civil society.
In fact, a wide range of TJ regional civil society reconciliations efforts exist today. The Parents Circle, a group of Israeli and Palestinian families who lost loved ones due to the conflict meet together and with outsiders to find ways to reconcile and end the conflict; All for Peace Radio, the first jointly run Palestinian-Israeli radio station strives to erase stereotypes and tear down barriers;
When the President visited Yad Vashem he experienced and shared with the world a prime example of Transitional Justice. Remembrance serves to safeguard public memory of victims and raise awareness about past abuse in order to build a safeguard against its return. Israel has established many such places to memorialize past atrocities against the Jewish people.
In Abu Dis, Ramallah and other places in the Palestinian Authority, memorials have been created serving to honor Palestinian memory and history as well as passing important lessons on to future generations. Unfortunately, memorialization for the Arab minority citizens, over 20 percent of the Israeli population, is still fraught with State bureaucracy, which emphasizes Jewish collective memory. This has been a real challenge and affects a critical field – education.
In Israel, for example, the common term “nakba,” used by the Palestinians to describe the “catastrophe” that befell their people on the day Israel was established, has been banned by Israel’s Ministry of Education.
Learning to listen to each other’s narrative and acknowledge the other’s suffering is a key building block for transitioning toward a better tomorrow. Likewise, most Palestinian textbooks don’t even acknowledge the fact that the State of Israel exists, nor do they teach about the benefits of peace.
Transitional Justice can also serve as deterrence. The IDF, for instance, has employed its lawyers to follow closely its own actions in anticipation that it could be brought into criminal proceedings at the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICC). Israel itself has referred acts by Hezbollah to the ICC accusing the group of crimes against humanity.
The Palestinians have threatened to complain to the International Criminal Court about Israeli settlement activities, utilizing this international legal body as many conflicting national parties have in their quest for an end to conflict. It has been reported that Israel has asked that the Palestinians not refer Israel to the ICC for settlement-building as a condition for restarting peace negotiations.
Transitional Justice attracts the finest scholars and human rights activists: Since 2010, the Faculty of Law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem has been offering the first and only program in Transitional Justice in Israel: TJ@HU. Students have traveled to learn firsthand about the history of the Rwanda Genocide and the various mechanisms that helped Rwanda transition to reconciliation, peace, and development. And this year the students will visit Northern Ireland to learn how civil society, and even armed organizations and political prisoners, may play key roles in the reconciliation process.
It is the hope of all of us who work in this sphere in Israel and the future independent State of Palestine that the methods of Transitional Justice are kept in mind as we move forward. President Obama could not have been more effective in outlining what needs to be done. The real challenge will come, however, when Israeli AND Palestinian students make the half-hour trip to meet with each other, learn from each other and work together deeply to create solid foundations for coexistence and peace.
Julie Gal, is the President of the Gal Foundation and the principal supporter of the Fried-Gal Transitional Justice Initiative at the Hebrew University Law School.