by Katherine Prizeman
It is difficult to understand the extent of any conflict without engaging personally with the parties directly affected by it. These are the individuals who experience the real conflict, a conflict that goes beyond the confines of the official narratives found in the newspaper or heard from a government official’s podium. From March 12 through 20, I had the opportunity to travel throughout the Middle East to study the Arab-Israeli conflict and the potential for a peaceful resolution to the more than 60-year old struggle. In Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Amman and the West Bank, I met with government officials, academics, and civil society to get a sense of the intractability of the conflict and the deep-rooted positions of the Palestinians, Israelis and their regional neighbors.
The distrust between all parties runs so deep that it is no surprise why this conflict has persisted for several decades despite a series of peace negotiations that have come close to achieving a permanent resolution. The question, therefore, is not what the final peace negotiations will look like, but when they will finally be implemented. The parameters for a permanent solution have been laid out many times before in slightly different forms, but never has there been sufficient courage and conviction from all sides to follow through.
This field study allowed me to see beyond the surface of the conflict to begin to grapple with each side’s respective mindset. Although extremely abstract a concept, mindset is at the heart of this conflict. The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is much more than a territorial dispute, but a matter of vital concern to each people—statehood, sovereignty, and survival. Conflicting narratives and a battle for identity pervade the peace process adding further complexity. It is no longer about the process but about results.
The juxtaposition between the Israelis and Palestinians is mindboggling. Separated by a chilling security barrier, the division reaches far beyond this tangible blockade. My visit to Bethlehem in the West Bank engendered in me tremendous insight into the conflict. I visited a Palestinian refugee camp that has been in existence since the 1948 and has been home to some two generations of Palestinians that have known virtually nothing beyond the camp’s perimeter.
Crossing over into the Palestinian territory shed remarkable light on the unnatural partition between the Israelis and Palestinians— a schism that is unworthy of the human beings that have endured it for so long. No person should have to pass through a security barrier guarded by soldiers with machine guns just to travel to work, nor should children grow up in an environment in which they are forbidden from freely moving about their country of residence. Similarly, it was both painful and sobering to speak with young adults in Israel who comprehend little of the severity of the dangers and harmful effects of the conflict because they have never lived in a state that is at peace with all its neighbors. In other words, war has become a way of life. They must not accept this way of life as inevitable, but fight against it and press their leaders to make a just and viable change.
Despite high hopes for integrating the diverse perspectives for a solution formulation, my student colleagues and I experienced first-hand the difficulty of achieving this task and oftentimes felt discouraged at the prospect of peace. More often than not, the most poignant lessons learned derived not from what was said, but, rather, from what was absent. All parties to the conflict have successfully derailed the peace process at one time or another, choosing to highlight only those arguments that best serve their interests. The true sign of peace will be when all sides have the courage and political will to enact a change that guarantees peace for generations to come. Only then will the children I witnessed in the Palestinian refugee camps be able to raise their own children in a peaceful environment and Israelis will no longer feel isolated and existentially threatened from within their own neighborhood. Likewise, a lasting peace will finally free the wider region from the paralysis of instability and violence.
I can definitively say that I had not been able to fully comprehend the depths of this conflict until visiting the region and speaking with individuals on the ground. Changing the mindset of those involved is no small task, but the complexity of this undertaking cannot eclipse its indispensability to a successful conflict resolution. The first step towards changing mindset is understanding mindset. This understanding cannot be found exclusively in a textbook or newspaper article, but in the interactions with Israelis and Palestinians alike. It is time that a dedication to peace unequivocally overrides political interests and the comfort of the status quo. This must be led by the communities of Israelis and Palestinians that have suffered long enough under the shadow of conflict.
Katherine Prizeman is a graduate student at New York University studying International Relations.