An Assessment of Dialogue-Based Initiatives in Light of the Anti-Normalization Criticisms and Mobility Restrictions

The construction of the separation barrier along the Green Line has progressively eroded spaces for encounter and dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. Currently, the lack of free movement within the region is a critical aspect in the unfolding of the conflict, as it hinders the work of local civil society organizations (CSOs) and, specifically, impedes dialogue-based initiatives. In fact, the wall has increased obstacles to social interaction and mutual understanding, challenging the work of joint organizations — here defined as Israeli-Palestinian partnerships aimed at promoting a mutual understanding between the two sides.

Joint initiatives are also challenged by the anti-normalization paradigm, which is gaining increasing support among Palestinians as a result of the stalled peace negotiations and the frustrating political, social and economic situation. In light of the criticisms posed by the antinormalization movement, this article reflects on whether the creation and maintenance of spaces for dialogue can bring major changes toward peace. Specifically, the reflection focuses on the main challenges to the work of joint organizations in Jerusalem and their strategies to counter the present physical and psychological barriers between the two peoples.

The work of six CSOs was examined to provide relevant information on a range of strategies used to counteract threats to cooperation in Israel and Palestine. Of the six organizations considered, four are joint organizations which are directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian coordinator — Palestine- Israel Journal, Combatants for Peace, Search for Common Ground and All for Peace Radio — and endorse dialogue for political change; two are Palestinian grassroots movements — Grassroots Jerusalem and Stop the Wall — aimed at connecting and empowering Palestinian communities on both sides of the wall around Jerusalem (Table 1).

To investigate what happens to dialogue when people cannot move, it is necessary to look at the intersection between the spatial expression of the conflict and the role of dialogue in shaping it. As will be shown, policies engendering segregation are weakening the positive impact of dialogue-based activities and are ultimately impeding the achievement of a common ground.

Table 1: Civil Society Organizations Presented in This Study

Grassroots Jerusalem (
Type: Grassroots movement
Location: East Jerusalem
Founded: 2011
Direction: Palestinian
Mission: Addressing humanitarian, developmental and political issues which disempower and dispossess Palestinians around Jerusalem. Connecting to Palestinian life in Jerusalem, developing financial independence for Palestinian communities, sharing resources and strategically resisting the occupation.
Activities: Advocating for and supporting Palestinian local communities; participatory mapping of Jerusalem.

Stop the Wall (
Type: Grassroots movement
Location: Ramallah
Founded: 2002
Direction: Palestinian
Mission: Coordinating a comprehensive popular resistance all through the West Bank and outreach of international influential solidarity movements that back up the struggle. Supporting the rebuilding of a Palestinian National Liberation Movement based on democratic values and the respect of human rights.
Activities: Documentation and international outreach campaign; mobilizing local communities; coordinating the Boycott National Committee.

All For Peace Radio (
Type: Israeli-Palestinian
Location: East Jerusalem
Founded: 2004
Direction: Israeli-Palestinian co-direction
Mission: Promoting peace, an end to the occupation, and human rights, To be a platform for peace organizations and bringing the message of the other side to Israelis and Palestinians so they listen to each other.
Activities: Radio station broadcasting in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Combatants for Peace (
Type: Local NGO
Location: East Jerusalem
Founded: 2006
Mission: Influence the political system, providing an example of coexistence and collaboration to work towards end of occupation on them, making as many as possible of both sides working and understanding each.
Activities: Alternative events, tours of the wall, meetings to talk about life stories related to the conflict.

Palestine-Israel Journal (
Type: Local NGO
Location: East Jerusalem
Founded: 1994
Direction: Israeli-Palestinian co-direction
Mission: Fostering active dialogue and exchanges within and between Israeli and Palestinian civil societies, involving academics, public figures, journalists and other experts to take part in the on-going debate. Raising awareness, informing and promoting rapprochement and better understanding between the two peoples.
Activities: Publication of joint Israeli-Palestinian quarterly. Organization of events and workshops in Jerusalem.

Search for Common Ground (
Type: International NGO
Location: East Jerusalem
Founded: 2000
Direction: Israeli-Palestinian co-direction
Mission: Bridging the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, building up shared solutions to the conflict. Working at all levels of society to build sustainable peace through media, dialogue and creating shared spaces for divided communities.
Activities: Community work, multimedia (film-making), dialogue-based initiatives, leadership development, health projects.

Challenges to Joint Activities

The wall, embedded in a wider tale of politics, land grabbing, control over people and militarization, radicalized a situation that was already inclined toward restrictions on movement. This provocative and intimidating symbol has come to represent the “dominant assertion of a particular identity” (Gaffikin et al., 2010, p. 508) and is hindering the work of peace organizations directly, through physical constrictions and, indirectly, through psychological pressure on citizens. Its disruptive impact on Israeli and Palestinian civil society is affected through:

    1. Logistics: The barrier is a physical deterrent to joint activities. The difficulties and uncertainties that moving in and out of the West Bank entails jeopardize the realization of projects requiring cross-border mobility.
    2. Restrictions on movement: When it comes to planning a public event, the choice of location also determines the scope of attendance. Any joint activity in Jerusalem excludes many of the potential participants. Palestinians in the West Bank are frequently denied permits to move, while activities in Palestine discourage the presence of the Israeli public as Israelis are forbidden by law to enter Areas A and B.
    3. Worn social fabric: The wall contributes to the geographical fragmentation and isolation of Palestinian communities. The permanent division between Palestinian neighborhoods, divided between the West Bank and East Jerusalem, weakens the social fabric and inhibits the Palestinian disposition to trust and listen to the other side.
    4. Dehumanization: The wall is enhancing a process of dehumanization on both sides by institutionalizing ignorance of and estrangement from the other side’s reality and narratives.
    5. The anti-normalization drive: Israeli-Palestinian cooperation is felt to ignore the imbalance between the oppressors and the oppressed. Families and communities exercise what amounts to peer pressure on people who wish to participate in peace projects. The outcome is a lack of participants in many initiatives that are perceived to be normalizing the conflict. On the Israeli side as well, peace organizations are currently unpopular in public opinion and are often accused of being unpatriotic. Thus, Israeli public opinion is embracing its own kind of anti-normalization approach by turning its back on the legitimacy of any Palestinian argument and focusing instead on internal socioeconomic issues. As observed by Dajani and Baskin (2006), official statements coming from the Palestinian Authority (PA) or the Israeli government would help to place these activities in a better light. Yet no public legitimacy has been given to joint initiatives.

Strategies to Tackle the Challenges

To counter the disruptive impact of the wall, organizations have put in place the following strategies:

    1. Creation of alternative spaces: There is a range of alternative spaces and platforms for dialogue and discussion such as radio programs, joint publications and grassroots initiatives used to overcome geographical and psychological barriers. Examples are the commemoration of both Palestinian and Israeli deaths during the alternative Memorial Day held in Tel Aviv, introduced by Combatants for Peace (CFP) in 2006, and the alternative tours held in the West Bank and East Jerusalem organized by both Israeli and Palestinian NGOs aimed at integrating conflicting narratives or building a new comprehensive narrative that challenges the hegemonic one.
    2. Use of the media: Platforms such as All for Peace Radio and the Palestine- Israel Journal (PIJ) contribute to overcoming geographical boundaries by creating channels for debate and exchange on many aspects of the conflict, focusing particularly on Jerusalem. Mossi Raz, the Israeli codirector of All for Peace Radio, explained that the priority is to reach Jerusalemites: “They are on the East and West side of the same street, yet consume totally different media and listen to different news and narratives.”
    3. Flexibility: The unstable environment has led joint organizations to use flexible structures to minimize the impact of restrictions on movement. Meetings are kept to a minimum and organizations rely on computermediated communication (CMC) for coordination. This flexibility ensures continuity of their work under unpredictable circumstances. For example, CFP has adopted a flexible internal structure: This NGO is composed of approximately 150 activists who are divided into five regional bi-national groups but have no headquarters. The members meet only under specific circumstances that involve the physical presence of both Palestinians and Israelis, and the meetings take place in Area C, often in Beit Jala (30 km from Jerusalem), a location to which both sides have access.
    4. Personal stories: Joint organizations have developed strategies based on storytelling to counteract processes of dehumanization. This practice constitutes a major part of CFP’s activities. Personal stories facilitate the empathic identification of the audience with the narrator. Within this framework, the sense of belonging to the land, common to both Jews and Palestinians, ideally serves to unite rather than divide them. One pattern can be identified in the different personal stories: The speakers describe an initial state of lack of awareness or bias toward the other side followed by a significant experience of violence (direct or indirect) which led them to an epiphany regarding the need for a nonviolent struggle to end the occupation.

Participatory Mapping as a Re-appropriation of Space

This study did not encounter any effective response to the stigma of normalization attributed to joint initiatives. Arguably, the phenomenon of the anti-normalization drive expresses a collective need and, as such, it is particularly hard to counter with arguments centred on mutual understanding. Joint organizations, it is felt, do not directly address the need for self-determination of the Palestinians. Thus, the anti-normalization drive can be interpreted as the expression of the Palestinian communities’ need for the affirmation of a stronger Palestinian identity.

For the Palestinians, the wall embodies a deep violation of the sense of belonging to the land, which in itself has deep symbolic meaning. The violent uprooting that resulted from the construction of the wall represents an offense to the Palestinian spatial identity as it is felt to be a denial of their relationship with their land — a denial actualized in the loss of the land as well as the restrictions on movement. In fact, the land is conceived to be both a fundamental resource for livelihood and a symbol of identity, as agriculture has always had strong cultural, social and economic significance for Palestinians. For example, the olive tree symbolizes their connection with the land and is the object of positive associations with heritage, tradition and roots.

The concept of spatial identity refers to the bond between a specific group and the place they come from and to the moral experience of that place: The physical presence (or absence) of a group in a certain setting is an integral part of its members’ identity. Thus, boundaries and territorial divisions — such as the separation barrier — come to form part of one’s spatial identity: “They are not merely physical lines of exclusion, but symbolic, allegorical and metaphorical markers of identity” (Kaplan, 1999, p. 46). Territories are not only spaces inhabited and contended for by people but come to define the people themselves. This perspective can explain how the displacement and land grabbing following the erection of the wall could deeply affect people in the region, not only economically but culturally as well.

Arguably, the Palestinian need for a spatial identity based on a strong connection with the territory, rather than its loss, did not find expression in dialogue-based approaches. In fact, this specific need is overshadowed by the joint organizations’ efforts directed toward the creation of a common ground between the two sides. At the same time, this need has found expression in the work of other grassroots organizations that work to connect Palestinian NGO networks and Palestinian communities within and outside of Jerusalem, such as Stop the Wall and Grassroots Jerusalem. These movements flourished as a direct reaction to the wall, with the purpose of counteracting its negative impact by connecting Palestinian communities on either side of the barrier.

Grassroots Jerusalem argues that modern maps are actively perpetuating colonialist practices by not showing streets or shops in Palestinian villages. As suggested by the lack of satellite navigator indications, cartography is not untouched by political biases. Google Maps, by far the most widely used map application in the world, does not provide information on West Bank roads and routes although it provides detailed information about cites in Israel (with the exception of East Jerusalem) and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Grassroots Jerusalem created an online platform in collaboration with partners from 80 community organizations in 40 Palestinian communities around Jerusalem. The organization planned to tackle the fragmentation between Palestinian communities in the Jerusalem area by encouraging a participatory mapping process. Participatory mapping is a way for people to define their territory and, by doing so, to reaffirm their spatial identity. In other words, participatory mapping is a tool for regaining spatial control. In practice, participants are given a GPS and are asked to provide information about Palestinian street names, the amount of land that was confiscated in their neighborhood, and the places that the community would like to mark on a map, such as hotels, schools, public institutions, etc.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This assessment of whether the achievement of dialogue and common spaces is a feasible goal in the current situation, albeit limited, has demonstrated that the main obstacle to joint endeavors relates to the inability of Palestinians to move freely in and out of Palestine and Israel. In addition, findings revealed that dialogue-based initiatives do not seem to meet the needs for affirming a Palestinian spatial identity based on the sense of belonging to the land.

In conclusion, is it possible to work for peace through dialogue in a fenced region? Arguably it is, but with great limitations. Possibilities for cooperation still exist and are supported by the following strategies:

    1. Exposing individuals to both cultures and strengthening cultural awareness of the experience of the other.
    2. Encouraging open discussions as a means to address controversial issues.
    3. Counteracting the alienating impact of the wall on the population.
    4. Creating emotional connections and empathy.

However, the wall has undermined the optimal use of dialogue-based approaches by prejudicing people’s ability to freely meet in shared spaces. On the whole, the positive impacts of these initiatives are impoverished by the structural imbalance — lack of freedom of movement and unequal civil rights — of the discriminatory system in place.

Alternative spaces are destined to remain weak until the system of segregation is not at least mitigated. Consequently, spatial planning and urban design have key roles to play in achieving reconciliation. Public spaces are a critical force in determining the level of dialogue and tension within a contested place; they can provide an arena for reconciliation or for disputation. For example, in the case of urban design as a force for peace, contested spaces can be transformed into shared spaces that display the symbolic affirmation of a shared identity. The Israeli government should give priority to projects with the potential to integrate rather than segregate, in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Finally, the removal of defensive walls and barriers should be considered a long-term objective and should begin with a gradual reduction in the appearance of permanence in these structures.

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