Jerusalem-Belfast Peace Forum: Lessons learned from conflicted cities

In a small meeting hall in West Jerusalem an audience filled with Palestinians and Israelis meet to discuss Belfast. An odd occurrence, but this is all down to the work of the Jerusalem-Belfast Peace Forum. This forum is the creation of Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI), an NGO think tank that combines research with peace-building actions and advocacy across Israel and Palestine. The idea behind the forum is very simple; Jerusalem and Belfast have both been deeply affected by conflict with ethno-national, religious and territorial dimensions. Whilst the conflict is still ongoing in Jerusalem, Belfast has been transformed following the Good Friday Agreement and the forum believes that Belfast can deliver lessons on how to resolve the situation in Jerusalem. The program aims to empower activists within East and West Jerusalem, and in turn the general population of Jerusalem, bringing together the communities in East and West in unity whilst fostering mutual respect and partnership.

The group of activists met four times prior to the trip and then spent four days in Belfast. They were exposed to the conflict in Belfast and to lessons on conflict transformation. The focus was specifically on narratives, civil society and institutional reform, both politically and security based.

Their findings: what does peace look like?

Jack, a softly spoken half Palestinian, half British man began. He described the experience as intense and rich, one which left him constantly reflecting on the role of the international community in peace processes, especially in relation to transitional justice. He expressed a sense of jealousy, a frustration that the peace process in Israel-Palestine has not come anywhere through 70 years of conflict, whereas the process in Ireland began much sooner. He recognised the importance of funding as a way of bridge building and that funding from the EU and internationally had left a positive impact in Ireland. He concluded that despite not wanting the situation to be so, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is heavily dependent on the international community, and without strong international involvement there will be no resolution. In spite of this, within the frustration, the communities searching for peace still have each other.

Shira, a smartly presented and articulate Israeli woman spoke next. She said Belfast did not look like peace; the high walls still remain, there are still significant housing problems and most definitely issues with regards to political representation. She believed that the biggest issue is in relation to commemoration of the past. Without proper reconciliation the pain caused to both communities is left as a raw open wound. She believed that the murals coating the walls of Belfast simply enhance identity politics and isolate communities from one another. Regardless, she recognised culture threatens no one, but a unified identify is important in order to move forward as one community.

Aviv, a shaggy and kind-eyed Israeli activist, a field worker with the Ir Amim NGO, lacked the positivity of the previous two speakers. He acknowledged that Israeli society will not end occupation out of goodwill. There was a definite sense of hopelessness as he spoke, and his prediction for the future was dark. He similarly spoke of dislike for the murals; how can signs be public and not used for incitement? He believed that sympathy with as many sides as possible is crucial to moving forward.

photo credit: Flash90

A mural in Belfast expressing the sentiment of ‘No More’ in relation to conflict (Image from Travel with Intent)

The discussion following: can peace be achieved in the current situation?

There was a mixed response within the room as to how many parallels there are between Belfast and Jerusalem. Both may be conflicted cities, but as the Palestinians involved in the discussion noted, there is still ongoing settler colonialism and thus the two cannot be compared. Northern Ireland is stable with no continued migration of settlers, but Israeli settlements are still being built every day. Moreover, classism was and remains an issue within Belfast, whereas the racial divide here is the main problem. Furthermore, there was an established civil society in Belfast and this is less established in Jerusalem. All parties to the discussion acknowledged that they are traumatised by interim peace agreements, and this stunts the peace process moving forward. The Israelis within the room seemed to believe this was the biggest barrier to reconciliation. The lack of trust on both sides makes resolution near impossible. The Palestinians recognised the broader issue of what they described as an ongoing apartheid regime, the violence that they are consistently subjected to, and the pertinent issue of settlers and land confiscation. Trust is important, but the institutionalised violence must end first.

At one point an Israeli woman commented: ‘What happens when the peace agreements pass? Either we go to eat hummus in Nablus or it’s not worthwhile.’ In stark contrast, a Palestinian man said: ‘You are settlers. Until you acknowledge this and stop building settlements and stop the racist policies, nothing will change’. I think this perfectly illustrates the issues with discourse in relation to the peace process. Palestinians and Israelis who are advocates for peace still have such differing focuses. Without unity, established activism, actual care, what will change? Belfast can teach many in Jerusalem about moving towards peace and an established civil society, but the ongoing situation in Jerusalem is vastly different to what occurred there. Comparisons are all well and good, but a united concept of peace must be established first or nothing will change.

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