Today is an important, albeit somewhat inauspicious, day in Israeli-Palestinian history. Today the UN General Assembly voted to approve an upgrade of formal diplomatic standing for Palestine, from “observer entity” to “non-member observer state”. November 29th also marks the 65th anniversary of the ill-fated UN Partition Plan, as Irwin Cotler points out. (Today is also the day after the 100th anniversary of Albania’s Independence Day, incidentally.) From the strategic perspective, the connections between today’s UN bid by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the recent fighting between Hamas and Israel (as well as the upcoming Israeli elections) should not be ignored. I would like to look past the short-term implications and focus on some broader, more long-standing issues related to Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects.
Firstly, I do not see today’s vote as being nearly as monumental, seminal, disastrous, etc. as many commentators and leaders on various sides have argued. Middle East discourse, especially relating to Israel, tends to be hyperbolic. There are legal and political implications to the status change, but in practical implications, the impact has been widely exaggerated. In the long-term scheme, this move does little to address the complexities and reality of the situation.
If anything, today’s vote is a bid by the PA, not just for political recognition, but for its continued organizational existence. The peace process is seemingly dead in the water. Every party wishes to point a finger at someone else, but in fact the top-down situation will not change until leaders and politicians on each side can take responsibility for their own actions. Many, probably most, on all sides (as this is not truly a “simple” two-sided issue) have given up on formal negotiations involving leadership which is domestically seen as corrupt and illegitimate (Abba’s PA) or dis-incentivized from focusing on long-term issues (a challenge for the Israeli government, as for all democratic leadership). Indeed, if there is a practical lesson for Israelis from the Arab Spring, it is not to be skeptical about peace in the Middle East, but that a solely top-down peace process via non-publically supported Arab leaders will not prove beneficial or stable in the long-term. What is needed instead is a holistic plan involving economic, educational and social components, below the official negotiations.
A long-term peace plan must be popularly supported, at least by the vast majority of citizens. The time to rely on dictatorial influence in enforcing peace, never appropriate, has long passed. In its place, financial incentives should foster mutually beneficial economic growth, while education and grass-roots level encounters could be used to improve the social connections between Israelis and Palestinians. Crazy as that sounds, a peace that is not supported will not last. A top-down peace process has never worked. A bottom-up peace process recognizes the reality of the situation, the essential challenges that must be addressed and the key actors that have been largely neglected in Western-led negotiations between aloof, short-sighted leaders.
The good news is that when you look beyond the intransigence of governmental entities disincentivized from changing the status quo, there is much reason to be optimistic at the grass-roots level. There is certainly significant work to be done in an area that has been heavily neglected from the start. However, the basic underpinnings are our common humanity. In this regard, there is much more to be optimistic about. Even in the darkest moments, there is evidence of our ability to not just co-exist, but remain empathetic and caring, as the following episodic evidence from Operation Pillar of Defense testifies to.
In Israel, amidst the fighting, the fears, rockets firing in all directions, numerous volunteer organizations were in action. Yashar LaChayal, a non-profit focused on providing basic goods for soldiers, made numerous trips to southern Israel, distributing gloves, socks and underwear, all as rockets fell nearby. Israel’s is a civilian army, its soldiers come from (almost) every cross-section of its society.
Meanwhile, in Be’er Sheva, a couple planned to wed in a bomb shelter. Rather than flee to a more secure area, their families came down from Tel Aviv and surrounding areas in a victory for humanity.
Israel hijacked Hamas radio to broadcast warnings to Gazan citizens. The IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) facilitated the transfer of humanitarian goods even as war waged, leading to at least one special personal encounter: ‘Every day, I coordinate goods with a young Gazan woman who works for an international aid organization. Last month we forged a bond when we had to run for cover together when Hamas targeted Kerem Shalom Crossing — attacking the very aid provided to its own people. During the eight days of Operation “Pillar of Defense”, not one passed without a phone call, just to check in. “Are you ok?” I would ask. “I heard they fired at your base. Please stay safe”, she would reply. And every night I made her promise to call me if she needed anything.”‘
Even as Israel facilitated the transfer of supplies to Gaza, in the midst of a war, people came into Israel for medical treatment. Children from Gaza even received life-saving treatment as far north as Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center.
How different people choose to respond to conflict and the trauma of war can be incredible. Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, a Palestinian doctor who lost four members of his family, including three daughters, in the 2008-2009 Hamas-IDF fighting, wrote a compelling, moving op-ed in which he called for compassion. Dr. Abu Al-Aish finished with these words: “I shall not hate. Whatever happens to me, I am free to choose my internal reaction.”
In northern Israel, as rockets sent southern residents fleeing north, Druze and Arab villages opened their homes to families seeking refuge. As one host interviewed stated: “as long as the need exists, the door will be open. Anyone who wishes to arrive, we will accept.
These are just a very few of the bright spots, those that were reported, during the darkest moments of war. There are many more stories which never get reported, and when conflict is not direct and ongoing, the opportunities for positive interactions are much greater. But these examples of human empathy and compassion already constitute a greater source of inspiration and hope, hope that compassion, forgiveness, understanding and commonality can lay a foundation for cooperation that is sorely needed and which no governmental pact can replace.
Hamas is not a viable partner for peace; nor is Fatah in its current state a suitable party to represent the Palestinian people. The Israeli government seems focused on issues it feels more saliently—domestic social issues, the economy, national security, Iran. But that doesn’t mean that the peace process is or should be dead, just that it should be advanced below Tracks 1-2, at a more grass-roots level. Anyone who has met Israelis and Palestinians knows that peace can be made, but the way to do so lies with harnessing our commonalities, not relying on unilateralism or formal government negotiations that have lost any semblance of reality.