More Relevant Than Ever: People-to-People Peacebuilding Efforts in Israel and Palestine

People-to-people peace-building efforts have always been a crucial, though insufficient, stepping stone on the way to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Yet since the year 2000 the region has suffered a series of fatal blows that have created substantial psychological barriers between the two peoples, posing major challenges to grassroots peace efforts. Most recently, new internal challenges are standing in the way of people-to-people peace-building activities. While Israeli non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are suffering from delegitimization by right-wing parties, Palestinians are being pressured not to cooperate with Israelis, even in peace-building activities. Despite these alarming phenomena, NGOs and activists continue to work on both sides to lay the groundwork for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In order for peace to come about, decisions need to be made by state officials at the highest levels. But in order for it to be digested, accepted and implemented, grassroots activities must take place before, during and after an agreement. When both governments are moving toward an agreement, working on the grassroots level can assist officials in mobilizing the people and moving toward a process of (re)conciliation. When one or both governments neglect to move toward the negotiating table, NGOs can put pressure on state officials through a variety of mechanisms such as lobbying, advocacy, media campaigns and demonstrations. Furthermore, when crises arise, a solid grassroots-based civil society can stabilize a fragile situation, thanks to its knowledge and contact with the other side. Accordingly, there exists an interaction and interdependence between the grassroots level and the top decision-making level. NGOs must adjust their behavior based on the political mindset of high-ranking officials while decision-makers are influenced by pressure put on them by civil society.

Track II Activities

In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one can find peopleto- people peace-building activities taking place in a variety of forms. First, Track II projects of dialogue between nonofficial yet influential individuals from both sides continue to exist. Participants in Track II activities are often academics, dominant non-governmental actors and individuals with close proximity to decision-makers. Track II activities usually aim to influence or be transformed into Track I diplomacy, or in other words, into formal negotiations. The Oslo process is the perfect example of a Track II initiative which was later transformed into Track I. Another, more current, example of a Track II effort is the Aix Group, a trilateral (Palestinian-Israeli-international) research group that has been publishing papers on macroeconomic issues related to a final status agreement. The publications of this group aim to provide a solid basis for officials during formal negotiations on final status issues.

Other Track II activities take a different path. They aim to influence the public, which will eventually put pressure on decision-makers. One example of such efforts is the Geneva Initiative, an open dialogue between like-minded Israelis and Palestinians that brought about a model permanent status agreement known as the Geneva Accord. The distribution of the text of the Geneva Accord to every household in Israel was an attempt to spread knowledge to the grassroots level. Through the dissemination of information and while making the public see that there is a realistic plan as well as a credible partner on both sides, the architects of the initiative hoped to change the political mindset of the people, who would then themselves pressure their government to implement the accord.

Working with Agents of Influence

Second, working with agents of influence in people-to-people activities is another way of reaching the wider public and impacting the political mindset. The unique position of agents of influence allows them to create a ripple effect and disperse information to the grassroots level, as well as to decision-makers. Joint educational programs for journalists or young leaders, for instance, are one way of reaching the masses indirectly. Once a journalist is provided with new information or is exposed to new arguments and a new perspective, he or she can present them through his or her work and have an impact on the general public.

Peace and Humanization

Third, many grassroots programs seek to show their participants that peace is possible, that the other side is just as human and that both sides seek peace and prosperity. This education for values of peace is done through, for instance, meetings between school children, joint sports matches, and joint movie and theater productions. During such meetings participants undergo processes in which they have to face their misconceptions and re-humanize the other. Another example, though a slightly different one, includes the activities of groups such as Combatants for Peace and Parents Circle-Family Forum, in which individuals who either actively participated in the conflict or lost a family member to the conflict (respectively) meet one another. These groups often also engage in joint advocacy work in order to engage the general public in their work for peace.

Dialogue between Professionals

The final type of people-to-people activity taking place between Israelis and Palestinians is dialogue between professionals. Dialogue of this sort can be divided into two. First, there is dialogue that is relevant to peace which deals with issues that touch both Israelis and Palestinians, such as environment, water, economy and religion. Secondly, there is dialogue between people of a certain occupation that does not deal directly with the conflict. An example of this kind of dialogue is a group of doctors who jointly conduct breast cancer research and other groups which deal with gastronomic, pediatric and genetic issues. Another example consists of activities aimed at capacity-building within Palestinian society, in areas such as agriculture, through cooperation with Israeli professionals. While the participants in these activities mainly discuss professional matters, they still create an environment that is conducive to changing attitudes regarding the other and to the spreading of knowledge and ideas.

While the first two types of activities described thus far can be viewed as largely cognitively oriented, the last two are more affective, aiming to make an emotional impact on participants. Nonetheless, these are not mutually exclusive, as more often than not one can lead to the other and vice versa. Furthermore, it is important to note that in all of the peace-building work described above, one cannot fully plan ahead what the impact of one's activities will have. In any joint activity, the mere interaction of Israelis and Palestinians can produce a variety of outcomes and lead participants to different applications of their cognitive and emotional learning in the future. Nonetheless, the main goal of these activities is to get both sides to understand that peace is possible, that there is a partner on the other side and that ending the occupation is a mutual interest of both sides, and in our case, that a two state solution is the only realistic and mutually beneficial solution.

Yet all of these activities, many of which began already in the '70s and '80s, have been facing serious challenges since the failure to thoroughly implement the Oslo Agreements, and due to the ramifications of the Second Intifada. The Oslo Agreements themselves cannot be considered as a failure at all. The main principles of Oslo, i.e., mutual recognition, the idea of two states for two people and the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, have been the basis of all negotiation attempts since, and are accepted by the majority within the two constituencies. Furthermore, the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and the interaction between the Israeli Defense Forces and the Palestinian security forces are all based on the Oslo agreements. Nonetheless, the fall from the height of the expectations of Oslo to the harsh reality of the Second Intifada crushed both sides.

New Challenges to People-to-People

As time went by, the escalation of violence, the reoccupation of the West Bank, the building of settlements and the rise to power of Hamas have all created major psychological barriers between Israelis and Palestinians. Two additional components, namely, the construction of the separation wall and the regime of permits, made things even worse as they significantly decreased the possibility of interaction between the two sides. Whereas in the past many Palestinians used to work or visit Israel, and many Israelis would enter Bethlehem or Ramallah without a problem, nowadays it has become nearly impossible to do so. While in the past most Palestinians had some experience in Israel, knew who Israelis were and were able to differentiate between them, the new generation has never met Israelis other than soldiers or settlers.

Thus, negative experiences and a significant decrease in interaction led to ignorance and disinterest and also to a sharp increase in fear, mistrust and skepticism among both sides. Moreover, misperceptions began to take shape which led many Israelis and Palestinians to lose faith in the motives and aspirations of the other, thus believing that they do not have a partner for peace. Unfortunately, once such misperceptions were formed it became very difficult to uproot them. It is important to be aware of the fact that these psychological aspects of the conflict affect not only the minds of the people on both sides but also those of the leaders. Furthermore, even if a deal were to be put on the table now, the public will be much less enthusiastic about it than it was almost 20 years ago. Even if one looks at the Palestinian leadership, the previous young leadership was comprised of individuals who were released from Israeli prison during the Oslo Accords and had a good sense of Israeli affairs, while the new young leadership has no such sense or other familiarity with Israelis.

The escalation of the conflict in the last couple of decades, despite its relative current latency, noticeably hindered people-to-people activities in the region. If people-to-people activities emphasize the physical interaction between people as a way to promote peace, the wall/fence and the permits regime became major challenges for NGOs to overcome. Today, groups of Israeli children, for instance, can no longer go to Tul Karm and meet with Palestinian counterparts. Any joint activity requires permits that are not always easily available. There are attempts to organize meetings in neutral places but these are quite scarce because of the wall/fence. Other attempts to get together include activities abroad, but these have their own problems, in addition to their heavy costs. Thus, it has become a lot more difficult to conduct any type of joint work.

But this is not all. In the past couple of years, new challenges are arising within Palestinian and Israeli societies, which hinder peace activities on both sides. First, a sense of fatigue is apparent among both Israelis and Palestinians. Both are tired of the conflict and prefer to focus on other issues. Many, particularly in Israel, do not feel the impact of the conflict in their everyday lives. Some have lost faith in both sides' leaders reaching a solution and are trying to make the most out of the reality in which they live, while others have just lost hope altogether. Even the donor community is in a state of fatigue and has been in it even before the global financial crisis. This mutual indifference lowers the chances for progress of any sort.

The Anti-Normalizers

Secondly, on the Palestinian side the anti-normalization movement is growing in size and scope. The notion of anti-normalization, which says that Palestinians should not talk or cooperate with Israelis until the end of the occupation, has been in existence for years. Yet, recently, together with the strengthening of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the voice of those calling for anti-normalization is getting louder. Many Palestinians have come to believe that under the current situation, peace is not possible and that the vision of two states for two people will not be achieved. As a result, anti-normalizers nowadays do not differentiate between the Israeli right and those on the left of the political map; nor do they differentiate between the Israeli government and Israeli civil society. Instead, out of a purist approach, they call for a stop to all dialogue with Israelis, including joint peace-building activities. Not only that, but they also threaten Palestinian individuals or organizations they refer to as "collaborators" and sabotage joint peace-building activities.

If the purpose of anti-normalizers is to awaken the Israeli public, then they are failing to do so. The general public in Israel, who is currently more interested in domestic socioeconomic issues and whose political attention span is filled with messages on the Iranian issue, is completely indifferent toward the Palestinian struggle, let alone aware of the anti-normalization campaign. Instead, those affected the most by it are NGOs that are working as hard as they possibly can toward ending the occupation. Whether the purpose of the anti-normalization campaign is to push toward one or two states, to pressure Israel or international actors, in reality it only creates more distance between the two societies. This distance increases psychological barriers to peace, prevents the possibility of coming up with joint creative solutions to the conflict and eventually keeps Palestinian frustration and anger inside Palestine.

Challenges from the Israeli Right

Thirdly, on the Israeli side NGOs are being de-legitimized in a variety of ways by large factions on the Israeli right. Organizations working to promote peace are being portrayed as anti-Israeli and activists working toward ending the occupation are often tagged as traitors. At the same time, acts of vandalism are being committed against activists and most recently even against the entire village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (a village jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel in order to promote equal relations between the populations). The right-wing government, in the meantime, prevents many joint activities and other forms of peace education from entering the education system.

On the material front, there is currently a bill pending in the Knesset, proposed by a Likud MK, which specifically targets peace and human rights organizations by curtailing their funding by foreign governments. According to this bill, NGOs will not be allowed to receive donations from foreign governments that are greater than ILS 20,000 (about US$5,000) because they "seek to influence the political discourse, character and policies of the State of Israel." Right-leaning NGOs in Israel usually get foreign funding from affluent individuals and thus will not be affected by such legislation. As a result, a situation arises in which the Palestinian anti-normalization camp and the Israeli anti-peace camp are indirectly joining forces to halt Israeli-Palestinian people-to-people activities.

We Can and Must Make a Difference

Looking ahead, it is clear that time works against both societies. If another intifada were to take place, extremists would exploit it. If the moderate Palestinian leadership of Salam Fayyad and Mahmoud Abbas is lost, we might end up in a situation where a conflict between two national movements turns into a religious conflict between radical Jews and radical Islamists. Even if there is no intifada, maintaining the status quo and the Israeli conflict management approach will lead us toward an apartheid state due to demographic changes between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Regional threats are also only getting worse as long as the Israel- Palestinian conflict persists.

And yet, despite all of the above, looking at the past 20 years, Israeli public opinion has changed radically, to the extent that the majority of Israelis now recognizes the need to end the occupation and achieve a solution based on two states which includes two capitals in Jerusalem. In fact, the vast majority of the people on both sides simply want peace, security and prosperity. Most people are not ideological. If an agreement were to be signed by their respective leaders, they would support it, almost no matter what the details are.

According to recent polls, 60%-70% of the public supports an agreement, but the same proportion of the public thinks it is impossible. Looking at the numbers differently, around 40% of the population supports an agreement and yet thinks it is out of reach, while 30% on each side support an agreement and believe it is possible, and another 30% does not support an agreement and does not think it is possible. Thus, it is our challenge to strengthen the latter 30% and work with the 40% in order to restore their belief in peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The former 30% will hopefully change its views if there is a peace agreement. Since restoring the belief of the 40% requires breaking down psychological barriers, peopleto- people activities are of great importance at this stage.

Nowadays, despite all of the challenges raised here, joint projects are still being implemented on the ground. Palestinian partnering organizations that are strong and that possess the right contacts inside Palestine are able to withstand the difficulties and continue to cooperate with Israeli NGOs. The nature of the cooperation has changed, though, and there tend to be fewer meetings for the sake of meetings and more meetings with clearer political messages. While often both lead to a similar outcome, one is seen as more mundane than the other and thus becomes more problematic in the face of the anti-normalization movement. This example alone, however, illustrates that even within this movement there is a gray area, something which should leave us with a reason for hope.

Seeking to avoid the continuation of the status quo which would have negative effects on the two peoples, Palestinian and Israeli NGOs must use their networks, skills and experience and insist on cooperation with one another. The best way to change mindsets and to foster ideas of self-determination, ending the occupation and peace is through dialogue, cross-border activities and physical interactions. Israeli NGOs and activists must stand strong when facing de-legitimization attempts. Palestinian NGOs and activists must know that their Israeli counterparts are the only ones that can channel their message to the Israeli public. While we do not have direct control over the actions of our leaders, we can and we must make a difference within our societies.