Amos Oz, the great Israeli writer, argued in a commentary a few years ago that to put an end to the conflict gripping the two peoples a political agreement that would resolve the key issues – borders between the two states, Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, status of Jerusalem, refugees – should precede the process of human, cultural, anthropological reconciliation between the parties; indeed it was a necessary condition.
The dilemma remains unsolved and still heavily marks that conflict. For a number of reasons from the peace treaty signed in Oslo in 1993 to the subsequent negotiations at Camp David, Taba, Annapolis up to the last attempt at diplomatic mediation conducted by the Obama administration in 2014, interrupted by repeated outbreaks of terrorist violence and war, that virtuous mechanism that would have led first to a formal peace agreement and then to lasting coexistence has failed.
Against the skepticism of many resigned to a conflict between enemies who appear irreducible, dominated by nationalist hysteria and the rejection of the other’s claims, the commitment of civil society associations dedicated to coexistence remains strong. Among these the numerous Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, now numbering 150, federated under the aegis of Alliance for Middle East Peace (www.allmep.org) – of which I chair the European section – which promoted last summer a meeting of several days in Jerusalem.
About 400 people listened to speeches by active members in many of those NGOs, as well as academics, diplomats and experts in the field, spread over several sessions devoted to the younger generations, the condition of women in conflict, tools of education for peace, and forms of non-violent action.
There is a persistent, under the surface, often ignored work of civil society movements aiming at peace education and coexistence in a number of important areas: health, environment, economics, education, defense of human rights, and interreligious dialogue. Here are just a few: Parents’ Circle (the forum of families of victims of war and terrorism), Combatants for Peace, the Peres Center for Peace, Givat Haviva, Hand in Hand (Arabic-Jewish bilingual schools), Kids4peace, Ecopeace Middle East, Sikkuy, Physicians for Human Rights, Rabbis for Human Rights, Standing together, Abraham initiatives, Road to recovery. An activity, called “people-to-people”, aimed at overcoming psychological obstacles to reconciliation and peace that reside in the “dehumanizing” perception of the other, portrayed as an eternal enemy.
Support from the rest of the world is crucial in this area. The United States approved an important bill – the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (Meppa) – which allocates $ 250 million over a 5-year horizon in part to the economic development of the Palestinian private sector and in part to “people-to-people” initiatives. The first funds have already been granted to some NGOs. Alliance for Middle East Peace works to transform the mechanism into an authentic Israeli-Palestinian International Peace Fund, modelled on the Fund for peace in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, with the financial contribution of other countries. In Europe, Asia and the Middle East have expressed interest in the project meant to give rise to a fully multilateral mechanism.
A common denominator that inspired the meeting in Jerusalem in such an ominous context marked even in the most recent period by episodes of brutal violence between Israelis and Palestinians, is that a political agreement cannot be translated into reality on the ground if there is no underlying process of reconciliation between the two peoples. For the Palestinians, in particular, as various members of grassroots movements – Zimam, Taghyeer, Holy Land trust – have said, the problem is on the one hand to strengthen civil society institutions given the weakness and the danger of dissolution of the Palestinian Authority itself, on the other to resist the pressure and threats of those who oppose any form of cooperation with Israel, including with NGOs; finally, to be able to transform the actual living conditions of Palestinians under occupation through non-violent action: water resources, the availability of houses, resistance to land confiscation and expulsions by Israel.
For Israelis, the urgency is both the defense of a failing democracy within Israel and the fight against anti-Arab racism not only among the settlers but also in the mixed cities of Israel where Jews and Arabs live together. According to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, 60% of Jews in Israel support a physical separation in material life between Jews and Arabs (only 20% of the latter consider it a desirable option). Nearly 40% believe that Arabs should acquire housing land only in Arab municipalities, nearly 70% are reluctant to physically enter Arab cities in the country. These results are much worse than those recorded before the outbreak of the near civil war between Jews and Arabs in May 2021; such attitudes are more pronounced among young people.
On the political level, if an agreement is not reached on the borders, the settlements and the status of Jerusalem, the very notion of “two states for two peoples” risks evaporating into the dream world of myth. The expansion of Israeli settlements and settlers into the territories, the confiscation of land owned by Palestinian private entities, the demolition of houses and structures make a Palestinian state that has contiguity and effective sovereignty even more difficult to achieve. The explosion of violence in Jerusalem in 2021, triggered by a long-term rift involving the expropriation of houses inhabited by Arabs, owned by Jews before 1948 and which now movements of the Israeli right are claiming and courts threaten to enforce, demonstrates the fragility of a status quo without peace.
The most worrying fact of those days was the eruption of tribal violence within Israel, in an unusual way since 1948, between Arab and Jewish citizens: attacks, desecration of places of worship, fires set on houses and things in many cities of the country. A severe threat to democracy and coexistence. The Arab minority in Israel suffers from inequalities and discrimination in the labor market, in the provision of education, in infrastructure, but is actively integrating into some sectors of society (health, universities) and aspires to influence the political course of the country, as evidenced by the presence of an Arab party for the first time in the past government coalition. I believe like many others that Jewish-Arab partnership not just in civil society but also in the political arena is a necessary condition to ensure equality and democracy to Israel.