Lesson from Northern Ireland: “Involve religious leaders!”

On November 16, the Israel/Palestine Center for Regional Initiatives (IPCRI), hosted a public forum at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem to discuss the path “From Extremism to Inclusion”, inspired by the Northern Irish example. There, with the aid of mediating actors, a dialogue between politicians and militant armed groups was enabled. Reverend Gary Mason played a central role in that mediation process. As a Methodist clerical person living and working in Belfast during the 1990s, he and his colleagues from the different Christian churches opened spaces for conversations. “Politicians cannot talk to terrorists. We can.”

The involvement and the role of religious leaders was a central point in the discussion between Gary Mason and Ariel Heifetz Knobel, an American-Israeli working as a Conflict Management Practitioner specializing on Northern Ireland. To start resolving a conflict it is, according to Mason, necessary to understand its context – “why people chose terrorism”. Respecting the goals and aims of the terrorists but rejecting their methods, might be an approach. This is exactly what Mason sees as the breakthrough: when the armed groups decided to continue their struggle, but implementing it through a non-violent, political strategy.

photo credit: Flash90

Gary Mason and Ariel Heifetz Knobel discussing the Northern Irish process

While Mason mostly focused on the Northern Irish case, Dr.Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion analyst based in Tel Aviv, transferred the topic to the Israel/Palestine context. She states that the confidence building measures are becoming empty talk while there is an urgent need for “restore-respect-and-dignity-measures”. Peace processes in this context only lead to a worsening of the situation Scheindlin argues. Therefore, she proposes to prepare a peace management concept in which all groups are brought together into governing the country/region.

In her opinion, religion plays a different role in the Israeli/Palestinian context than in Northern Ireland. She argues that the major divide is not between the different religions but between the secular and the religious sections, especially in the Israeli society. “Your religious outlook completely determines your attitude in this conflict. If we want to solve the conflict we will need to delink personal religious spirituality from political platforms that probably contradict what their very religion stands for”, Scheindlin demands.

Reconnecting knowledge and opinion is the aim of Aziz Abu Sarah. He works against limited stereotypes to “un-enemy the other”. He tries to break the simplification that narratives use. An example: The only Arab that is mentioned in the exhibition at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, is the Mufti of Jerusalem who supported Hitler. Abu Sarah started research on that topic: What did all the other Arabs do? He came across hundreds of Muslims who saved Jews from being deported to the concentration camps. “We are heroes of this story!” These stories should become the mainstream, he believes, because they challenge and soften even the most extremist narratives.

photo credit: Flash90

The audience listening to the IPCRI discussion on Northern Ireland

His other strategy is bringing people together through tourism. He uses a similar tactic as Mason in Northern Ireland. Create a relatively neutral context in which meetings even between extremists are possible. “For some Palestinians it is the first time to meet an Israeli who is not a soldier” he says. This shows a point his venture might be missing: That the occupation is the dominant reality for most Palestinians and a negligible element in the daily life of most Israelis.

The general tone of the debate did not pay reference to the fact, that one major difference between the Northern Irish and the Israeli/Palestinian case is that in Northern Ireland both parties had a country behind them they were longing to belong to. Here the case is different. The real power difference between the both parties is very dominant. Israel is a much more powerful actor at the moment. It has a highly armed and structured army opposing a civil society and smaller armed groups on the other side. And another fundamental difference: Israel is based on the idea of a Jewish state. Therefore, it would be genuinely opposing the foundations of the state if there was a common governance of the region. Therefore, all comparisons are of very limited use in implementing them in the situation here.

The next issue of the PIJ will be devoted to “Lessons Israelis and Palestinians Can Learn from the Irish Peace Process”, and it will include an in-depth exploration of the issues raised at the IPCRI conference by Irish, Palestinian, Israeli and international authors.