I believe in the goodness of human beings and in our ability to transcend our painful history to find ways of coping and healing. Over the past two years there has been growing skepticism about the impact of people-to-people projects, especially among the younger generation. It is extremely challenging to find people from both sides who are interested in meeting and listening to one another. People are tired of even talking! The cynics say that we have tried negotiation and dialogue for over 15 years, and it has gotten us nowhere; the other side is not genuine and does not seek peace. Yet these voices do not recognize that we have also tried force and violence for over 50 years, and that, too, has gotten us nowhere.
As Israelis and Palestinians we have been living in a cycle of violence for so long that each side's sense of victimhood has only become stronger with time. Both sides have constructed a narrative that is rooted in this sense of victimhood and righteousness - a narrative that dehumanizes the other: We are the good people, they are the bad ones; we seek peace, they seek war; we are the victims and only defend ourselves against their aggression; we stand alone and the entire world supports them, etc. Both narratives have been created to bolster our sense of victimhood and righteous cause.
As a result of this sense of victimhood, our brains and senses become selective. We see the world in black or white, right or wrong, with us or against us. We become increasingly judgmental and only speak the language of "facts" and the only "truth." Interestingly, we only see what confirms our narrative and preconceived worldview. Throughout the years of my work in the field of peace-building, I have been struck by the level of ignorance and negative images both sides have of each other.
Reasons why Palestinians and Israelis should meet together
Palestinians and Israelis from all sectors and spheres must meet one another to change these stereotypes and prejudices. Teachers must collaborate to create a dual narrative that acknowledges each side's connection to this land and to present a more human story of the other to the next generation. Business people must find ways in which both nations can build on their capital so that communities might prosper. Journalists and media people must find ways to present constructive stories that help people become hopeful and realize the dignity of the other side. Politicians must work to find creative ways to forge a proper political framework and solution that addresses the needs of all sectors and parties. Religious people must meet to find ways to prevent this conflict from becoming a religious one.
When the two sides come to the table, Israelis come to build a personal relationship with the Palestinians as if the occupation did not exist, and Palestinians come hoping that such a meeting will end the conflict and overlook the impact of building a personal relationship. Palestinians fail to understand the collective fear experienced by Jews, and Israeli Jews fail to understand the Palestinians' sense of loss and pain as a result of the Nakba. Both sides seek acknowledgment of their feelings of loss and pain. This is what any dialogue process tries to address. It tries to provide a safe space for the parties to discover the other's humanity and have their identity needs (i.e., recognition, acknowledgment and dignity) met.
Interestingly - and this is the good news - individuals and groups that engage in dialogue programs do see a positive shift in their attitudes. However, the bad news is that this shift is not sustained beyond the encounter (or the life of the project). Moreover, the change does not go beyond the individual to make an impact on his or her surroundings. It is naïve to believe that people will experience a positive and sustained shift in attitude from one or two encounters. It is very easy, and even natural, to hate in such an intense environment. It is too painful to engage with the enemy and try to unlearn years of hatred and fear in order to trust and listen deeply. If it has taken people years to learn and experience fear and hate, how many years do we need to replace those with courage and acceptance?
Successful dialogue requires a political framework or process
For people-to-people encounters to succeed, they must take place within a political framework or process. The absence of such a process leaves most dialogue encounters sorely handicapped, and they fall short of having a larger impact on both societies. Relationship-building projects must coincide with progress on the political plane; otherwise the positive impact that such encounters may have will erode with the next escalation or increase in violence. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we should wait for the resumption of negotiations in order to legitimize people-topeople encounters. People must meet and continue to dialogue. We need to increase the level of exposure that Palestinians and Israelis have for each other, especially in light of the separation between the two peoples and the filtered and biased news.
During the past year Palestinians have witnessed an increase in so-called "anti-normalization" voices that try to put pressure on peopleto- people encounters and sometimes prevent Palestinians from meeting with Israelis. While I understand the rationale my fellow Palestinians try to present here (i.e., not to show that we have a normal relationship with Israelis until the occupation ends), I disagree and find it counterproductive. I believe that Palestinians have a duty to engage with Israelis to get their message across and to counter a narrative that tries to delegitimize and dehumanize them. I have witnessed how people change and maintain this change over a long period of time as a result of their exposure to the other narrative.
Creating a successful dialogue process
The dialogue process begins with finding the "right" candidate and convincing him or her to engage. This, in and of itself, is a process of dialogue and unlearning! How do you convince people to join such projects? A personal connection is the best strategy. The core of this work is trustbuilding, and this involves us as workers in the field. Maintaining and expanding our relationships within and across communities - regardless of the presence or absence of actual projects - is very important, so when the time comes, people feel confident and ready to start their journey. It is extremely important to maintain our credibility within our communities and to embody our values.
Furthermore, people think dialogue programs must only take place between people who have not been exposed to those from the other side or who have negative perceptions. This is true to some degree, but some peacebuilding programs must also aim to energize, mobilize and recruit active people who are willing to work for the dignity of the "other." I have come to realize that having a diverse group (which includes people with positive experiences and perceptions of the other) is the best way to accelerate the humanization process. By witnessing the differences in opinions and positions among members of the same group, we can create the first fracture in the generalization and stereotyping of the other group. (No longer do all the members of your "enemy" group look the same; some of them are actually good!) This fracture is like a seed that the dialogue process aims to plant and water. Also, those same agents help bridge the gap between the two divides because they can communicate with both sides and model the desired attitude.
Overcoming the challenges to P2P projects
Anti-normalization voices and the difficulty of convincing people to engage in dialogue are not the only challenges we face when it comes to people-to-people projects. The biggest challenge is to help people maintain open channels of communication at times of increased violence. When such incidents happen (i.e., Gaza or the Lebanon War), the dialogue process comes to a halt, and the goal becomes how to prevent what we have built so far from deteriorating. Sometimes one feels as if we are starting over from square one. And even in the absence of an escalation in the conflict, maintaining a positive shift in attitudes and relationships among group members for a long period beyond the project's duration is a major challenge of its own.
In order to address many of the above-mentioned challenges (antinormalization, conflict escalation, maintaining relationships and positive attitude shifts), we as peace-builders - individuals and organizations - must think big and bold. First, peace-building organizations might benefit from creating an umbrella body that could unify this effort to become more effective and efficient. Peace-building groups and organizations would benefit greatly from having one voice and a coordinated, focused strategy to maximize their impact within their communities. Changing the culture from competition to collaboration and synergy among organizations and groups (i.e., sharing resources, expertise and data of best practices and participants) is the best way to have long-term programs instead of shortterm projects.
Second, peace-building organizations must transform their efforts toward a peace movement in both societies. Their efforts must be seen and heard publicly. The more peace organizations work in the shadows, the more they harm themselves. Therefore, the work must make it to the streets of Ramallah, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Becoming vocal, especially at times of escalation, and taking initiative instead of reacting passively is the best strategy - not only to fill a vacuum that is caused by the lack of a political process and filled by extremists and anti-normalization voices, but also to increase and regain the public's confidence.
Many people - and I am one of them - believe that the two-state solution is almost finished. However, this propels us to more engagement as two peoples to find new ways and solutions. We have no choice but to learn how to live and share this land with each other. We know that we cannot defeat each other militarily and that each nation is here to stay. As peace-builders we must not shy away from the challenges we face.
We fight for the freedom and dignity of every individual and human being, Palestinian and Israeli, for our generation and generations to come. This is not a matter of choice; it is a matter of destiny.<