by Walid Salem
With the collapse of the Camp David negotiations between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak in July 2000, official relations between Israel and the Palestinians moved from negotiations to cold relations till 2004. Israel then imposed a full boycott, claiming that there was no partner on the other side. With the success of Hamas in the Palestinian elections in January 2006, the claim of “no partner on the other side” became reciprocal, with Hamas also not seeing the Israeli government as a partner for peace.
The following observations represent an attempt to suggest some answers for a number of questions: How this new “no partner” attitude affects civil society cooperation? And more importantly: How should civil society organizations believing in peace respond? What changes should be made in their tactics, and probably even their strategies, in this new context?
The New Context
The new context of relations between the two societies has put civil society cooperation into grave jeopardy. The relations are characterized by: the inability of bringing the people of the West Bank and Gaza to meet Israelis because of travel restrictions – the separation barrier, the roadblocks and checkpoints; the inability of Israelis to move inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the same reasons.
There is escalating violence and counter violence from both sides, an anti-normalization process and the demonization of the other, the deterioration of hope among the two peoples that a peace agreement might be achieved between them, the settlement expansion on Palestinian lands and the closure of the Jordan Valley (one-third of the West Bank) to the Palestinians. Moreover, the Hamas government’s refusal to recognize Israel within the 1967 borders, and the new Israeli government’s plan of “convergence” represent additional moves backward compared to the previous disengagement plan from Gaza. The latter included the evacuation of the settlers and the army. “Convergence” includes the evacuation of the settlers only while the occupation will continue.
These new developments put the two-state solution under grave risk. This represents increasing security and demographic dangers to Israel, and indeed endangers the human security of both peoples.
How Did Civil Society Respond?
Civil society organizations cooperating with each other did not adapt their strategies in response to the new context described above. This led to the marginalization of these organizations in both societies. They were also attacked and accused as being “lovers of the other side, rather than being nationalistic patriots.”
Civil society peace and conflict resolution organizations continued their diverse paths practiced before the separation process between the two peoples took place. In this regard, those Israelis who believe in solidarity with the Palestinians continued to do their activities without investing the intensive work needed to persuade Israeli public opinion to move towards a two-state solution. On other hand, those who believe in project-driven professional joint activities continued doing that without investing enough in dealing with the two public opinions. A third group chose to continue working for healing, reconciliation and forgiveness between small marginal groups in both societies. Still a fourth group tried to recruit the grass roots and to organize mass movements in support of peace based on the two-state solution. But these movements were also marginalized. The question is why?
The deterioration of the impact of the peace and conflict resolution civil society organizations is not only a result of the overall situation, but also a result of chronic dilemmas in the strategies and tactics of these organizations, such as (among other things): the inability of these organizations as secular liberal democratic ones to address the average religious citizen on both sides with a language that this citizen can understand. A language that includes, for instance, the peaceful, nonviolent, and tolerant texts of the three monotheistic religions, which is a language that the secular democratic civil society agents do not know, and they might also not want to learn.
Moreover, these organizations addressed the mainstream of their societies with prepared texts trying to persuade it to adopt these statements, without accompanying them with an open, intimate, participatory and democratic process of communication. These top-down processes of communication with the public are arrogant, non-patient and counter productive, and they will need to be transformed into bottom-up processes that are respectful of all positions, whenever they contradict the beliefs of peace civil society organizations.
What Should Be Done?
With the new context, civil society cooperation across the divide might need not only to strengthen its work with the two public opinions – with all its subgroups, irreligious, non-religious, and antireligious, but also it might need to deal with questions such as: How to protect the two-state option? How to preserve the human security of both peoples which includes freedom from fear and freedom from want to all of them? How to move Hamas towards democratization and political moderation? How to move the convergence plan towards disengagement? And how to move the latter towards the two-state solution?
These “visionary” types of question should be addressed, because the work of the peace organizations should be visionary, and not only “professional.”
Other questions include: How to once more promote the role of Track II to get both sides together, taking into consideration that this track became very important in the absence of negotiations? How to act effectively inside each society not only targeting the mainstream, but also the governments? How to promote joint non-violent activities in order to transform the conflict, what type of activities, when and where? How to overcome fragmentation in peace activism and promote diversity and working together as an alternative? In light of the separation of the two peoples one of the strategies to be considered might be: coordinated unilateral tracks, where the activists will coordinate with each other, while working unilaterally with public opinion in each society.
Finally with the new context, it seems that the issues of reconciliation should be postponed, while the issues of getting to a two-state solution should be prioritized. This could be done in two stages: The first stage would be the disengagement between Israel and the settlements project, and the second would be through the disengagement between Israel and the occupation. These two stages should be accompanied by a move by Hamas to political moderation, something in which the regional civil society and also regional state actors can play a crucial role. But can civil society begin this regional civil society process? Can it promote the process of ending the occupation in two stages? If this would be done successfully, then reconciliation, healing and forgiveness could be achieved.