Oldest conflict in the Middle East needs a new approach


“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” (Mahatma Ghandi).

Dehumanisation and demonisation are natural outcomes of perpetual violence. An Israeli child whose school friends have been murdered on a bus by a faceless suicide bomber or a Palestinian child whose family and friends have been obliterated by an Israeli bomb, must grow up to hate and fear the other. Where there is hatred and fear, there is little chance for progress.

For over 65 years, a state of perpetual violence has existed in Israel/Palestine. At times it has erupted into formally declared war involving neighbouring states such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Mostly, it has been a struggle for territory, recognition and definition between displaced peoples.

Who are they and what are their aims?

Simply put, the Jews fleeing Europe and the atrocities of Nazism, found a home in the mid-1940s in the newly-created State of Israel, while the Palestinians lost theirs. From a Palestinian point of view, one set of occupiers (the British Imperialists) had simply been replaced by another: the Zionists. Families that had occupied lands for many generations, albeit as tenants to wealthy absentee landowners, were displaced overnight during the post-world War II real estate boom. Later, as the State of Israel established and enforced its boundaries, thousands became not only homeless but stateless.

These two peoples have both suffered exploitation at the hands of Empires; the British, the Nazis and the Ottomans. From the outset, little or no attempt was made to comprehend or compensate for the real human suffering caused when departing occupiers drew arbitrary lines on maps.

At the extremes of zealotry and fundamentalism there is no meeting point, no common ground and little possibility for negotiation, let alone peace. Thankfully, despite the fact they both wield considerable power and are very vocal within their respective communities, these extremes are also minorities. This statistical reality gives rise to a glimmer of hope.

There has always been a military need to dehumanise and demonise the enemy. This makes it easier for human beings to kill each other; the more we humanise, understand and empathise, the harder it becomes to kill our ‘enemies’.

I recently interviewed representatives of two organisations committed to working for peace in the area. They come from different backgrounds: one an ex-Israeli soldier, the other a South African migrant to Israel whose son was shot and killed.

Combatants for Peace

Former Israeli Defence Force soldier Udi Gur is now Coordinator of Activity for the Israeli side of the Jerusalem-Bethlehem branch of Combatants for Peace. CFP was co-founded in 2005 by Bassam Aramin and Yonatan Shapira. In late 2004, people from both sides of the conflict began meeting in secret. Initially they were highly suspicious of each other with former IDF soldiers fearing they would be kidnapped, while Palestinian ex-militants feared similar treachery. After listening to each other’s stories they came to understand that the real enemy was (and is) the occupation of Palestine, not each other, and that peace could never come from war. The group has since grown. Now these ex-combatants fight for peace together.

Former Israeli Defence Force soldier Udi Gur

Former Israeli Defence Force soldier Udi Gur

Gur said one way they did so was by exchanging personal stories. Hearing someone else’s story shifts perspectives, creates empathy and builds understanding. Having your story heard offers hope that someone from the other side will listen. Holding this exchange in the intimacy of a home or an area of significance to the ‘other’ heightens the experience. “This is often the first time participants have even spoken to someone from the other side,” Gur said.

This in itself is an achievement that paves the way for any future political process, unlike attempts divorced from the reality on the ground.

Gur, a high-school teacher of literature and civics, illustrates the disconnect as he narrates a story from his classroom.

“We were talking about democracy for 9th grade and also about Israeli society. In the end they got a map of Israel and were asked to show, by painting or drawing on the map, something to express what they thought about the topics,” he said.

“There was one kid who asked me, ‘Where can I find Arab villages on the map?’ I said ‘there, there, here, and here’. He drew a red X on them and I asked, ‘Why is that?’

“He said, ‘We have to destroy them, we have to kill them!’

“I told him – we also learned about the holocaust – ‘Well how do you kill millions of people, like how do you plan to kill them?’

“He didn’t know what to say, so he said, ‘Well ok maybe not kill them but you know we should drive them away from here, they’re not supposed to be here’.”

That boy had never met a single Arab-Israeli citizen, let alone a Palestinian from the West Bank. CFP believes it is vital to reach young people with their message before they take up arms so they are equipped with awareness and empathy, not just weapons. Gur spoke to the boy that day about fear. Two years later in 2013 CFP took that same young man to Shfaram, an Arab town in Israel. He was hosted by Arab families in their homes with children his age.

Gur recounted: “In the morning the boy said, ‘This is my trial day, this is a test for me’ and when he came back, he had a light in his eyes because he saw openness and generosity that was overwhelming – the way they accepted him in their house with lots of food and enthusiasm about meeting him. This is for me also a little bit of hope that we can raise children differently in this country.”

At the peak of the recent conflict, CFP and other organisations such as the Parents Circle Families Forum held a demonstration for peace; 15,000 people participated. Gur said this was the largest demonstration in the last five years, especially significant during a war. Peace activism is building momentum, getting closer to transitioning from small isolated groups into a consolidated movement.

Gur described a personal breakthrough at a smaller demonstration years ago when CFP co-founder Bassam Aramin spoke to the predominantly Israeli crowd, holding a photograph of his 10-year-old daughter Abir in one hand. She was shot and killed by an IDF soldier in 2007. In his other hand was a picture of another young girl, the daughter of an Israeli friend who had lost his life to a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem.

Aramin told the crowd: “We have to defeat Hitler, because he is still defeating us.”

Gur explained: “When he said Hitler he meant the fear, this feeling of being a victim that Israeli society is still holding onto, and he understands the mechanism of Israeli psychology which the political leaders of the right take advantage of. That was an important moment for me. It was very inspiring– he helped me understand the psychological experience of my own people.”

CFP members work collaboratively for peace but that didn’t mean they agreed on everything, said Gur. But they do agree that peace will never come from violence, and what they understand through each other’s narratives is that Palestine must have an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

For Gur, reminding Palestinians of the complexity of Israeli society is also important. He recalled an incident that happened shortly after he became disillusioned with serving in the IDF.

“I went to the West Bank and I took part in a non-violent demonstration, solidarity with farmers on the ground etc. and I found myself facing the army that I recently served in, and I saw…violence from soldiers who I don’t believe were inherently violent. They were just put in a situation where they didn’t know what they were supposed to do– which is being oppressors,” he said.

“For me, emotionally it was very difficult to give up this blind trust of the army. That is very important for the Israeli identity. People still believe in this mechanism where everyone is equal, everyone comes to give their contribution to their security here. This is tragic now in my eyes, it’s out of context, but it does exist [as] something naïve.”

The cure for this naivety? “Go to the West Bank” with CFP in their educational tours.

All great peace movements begin humbly, gradually growing in urgency. Most also have a charismatic leader, but as momentum increases, those on the frontline are not waiting for one.

“Gandhi said you have to be the change that you want to make. We want to have a situation of not only cold peace but actual partnership; Combatants for Peace is like a corridor to enter through to the other side.”

Parents Circle Family Forum

The Parents Circle Families Forum is made up of bereaved family members from both sides of the conflict. PCFF was founded in 1995 by Yitzhak Frankental. By 1998 they had engaged with their first Palestinian counterparts, and together they work to change the paradigm of violence to one of peace and reconciliation. Today the organisation represents more than 600 directly affected families, and although they welcome support, they do not want any new members.

We don’t want you here is their latest campaign video. Unfortunately, their membership may well increase given the staggering death toll from the recent conflict in Gaza.

Robi Damelin spreads her message of peace

Robi Damelin spreads her message of peace

PCFF international spokesperson Robi Damelin became a member after her son was shot and killed in 2002 by a Palestinian sniper.

“It’s not working what we’re doing is it?” she asked.  “How many more wars in Gaza shall we have? How many more clever ideas will both sides have to surprise and kill each other?”

The answer, as she sees it, is compromise: “We are both going to have to just give up and not be right. It’s this being right that destroys people – the arrogance of being right.”

PCFF also engages people in peace with an arsenal of projects that involve direct dialogue.

PCFF members regularly visit schools to promote their message. “If you go into an average Israeli classroom with a Palestinian group member and ask the students ‘Who of you have ever met a Palestinian?’ it’s probably nobody. And ‘Who speaks Arabic?’, maybe one. And ‘Who’s been overseas?’, probably the whole class. So suddenly they meet a Palestinian, hear their story and see their humanity and that’s an emotional break-through.”

Damelin stresses that adult education is equally critical. “Parents have a huge influence. Why would children grow up to be different if the hatred still surrounds them?”

PCFF tackles this with History Through the Human Eye, a project that is rapidly becoming their flagship. It began with members who realised they shared the same pain, had empathy for each other’s personal narratives but were blind to their conflicting national narratives.

“If you ask an Israeli what is 1948? They will say ‘the creation of Israel’, if you ask a Palestinian they will say ‘the Nakbar – the catastrophe’,” Damelin said.

The project creates groups of Palestinians and Israelis from the same profession: doctors, educators, artists, even grandmothers, to learn each other’s national narratives.

“This involves visiting places like the Holocaust Museum and an Arab village that existed before 1948 and is now is part of Israel– nothing is left of that village,” said Damelin. The film Two Sided Story that documents a workshop where participants represent all sides of the conflict is one of the things that came out of this.

Robi Damelin, member of The Parents Circle Families Forum

Robi Damelin, member of The Parents Circle Families Forum

So far PCFF has focused on work at a grassroots level. That is changing. They are now also creating a peace and reconciliation blueprint to prepare both nations for peace. Damelin, originally from South Africa, was involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission isn’t necessarily what will work here. It’s a different culture, different people, different religions, and so we are working with the Hebrew University, George Town, the American University and Al Quds University to create an academic paper,” she said.

The group plans to hold a conference early next year with experts from all over the world to contribute to this paper. They also aim to bring people who experienced the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Perpetrators and victims– we want them also to be a part of this conference because they create the emotional breakthrough for people when they see the reality… that it is possible to reconcile.”

It is hoped this gathering may become a turning point, and not just for Israelis and Palestinians.

Damelin and Aramin will speak together in the US this month about what they share: bereavement, determination that no one should suffer, and most importantly, possible solutions. Damelin advises pragmatism: “Even if you don’t care about the Palestinians or you don’t care about the Israelis, you just care for one side – then please be part of the solution not the problem. Don’t be pro-anything, just encourage Israel to get out of the occupied territories. Encourage the Palestinians to understand that there is another way, because neither side is going to disappear. First we need peace not justice.”

The words of Bassam Aramin resonate: “The lives of the people here are more important than the land. Either we find a way to live together on this land or we will be buried together beneath it.”



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