If we contrast the era of the Arab Spring with the continuation of the prolonged Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and a futile peace process, now more than ever, we need a civil society that is able to mobilize the political, social, economic, cultural and human potential of our societies for social change. For it is only through a truly democratic, informed and mobilized public that we can finally overcome a culture of war, human suffering and the tenacious lack among some of the main actors of a true political will for real, just and sustainable peace.

The Peace Process: High Investment, Low Returns

Seeking peace and a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been of major interest to the world for the last 65 years, backed by the highest levels of financial support. There have been loads of studies, shuttle diplomacy, United Nations resolutions, conferences … and yet, opportunities for peace are waning, and we Palestinians seem only to sink deeper into what seems like an endless, bottomless injustice, military occupation, siege, fragmentation and the denial of our most basic rights.

The most urgent and pressing question remains, especially for Palestinians, how to make a breakthrough in the existing political impasse and stop the injustice and bring about the promise of a secure, stable and more prosperous life for Israelis, Palestinians and all the people in the region.

Governments - those who are directly involved in the peace process - have proven incapable or unwilling to steer the peace process forward. The reasons are multiple and well researched, one basic problem being primacy of the power of might versus right and the paralysis of the international governance system in the face of an Israeli intransigence that aims to render a two-state solution impossible. The Israeli settlement expansion, which continues so aggressively against the will of the international community and signed agreements, stands as a stark example of how the whole world eventually acquiesced to the Israeli diktat and expansionist policies.

Under these painful and desperate political and human conditions, especially for the Palestinian people, one would think it is civil society that should and can speak up more effectively for genuine peace, justice, ethics, the rule of law and an attachment to our shared human values (which are not and cannot be only Judeo-Christian) that are the only path to peace in the region and the world.

Civil Society: Insufficient Representation and Impact

It is only right, first of all, to emphasize the great and courageous work done by some of the peace-oriented civil society organizations - Palestinian, Israeli and international - in the post-Oslo period until today, in support of peace and the two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. The growth of solidarity movements for the rights of the Palestinian people have been expanding around the world and creating important networks of advocacy and solidarity for peace.

It is also fair to say that financial investment in peace-building provided to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has been very meager compared to the huge investments in war.

However, as many studies of the sector show, the work of these NGOs remains generally fragmented and inconsistent with a common strategy. Neither this work nor the available funds extended to it include trade, student or women's unions, chambers of commerce, or syndicates and political parties that are able to mobilize a wide popular base to interact effectively with governments and parliaments and shape their decisions.

In retrospect, we need, on the Palestinian front, to revert to the earlier tactics of Palestinian civil society in the pre-Oslo period. At that time we had organized a social movement developed by the political factions and the national movement since the 1970s, which aimed to widen the popular base to face Israeli aggressions, especially those aimed at destroying Palestinian political, social, educational and economic institutions.

These popular movements then spread all over the country to realize projects and activities organized around popular sectors, women, peasants, students, labor, etc., who organized in unions and syndicates as mechanisms to help end the occupation and build steadfastness empowered by the values of social justice and equality.

I will not elaborate on the Israeli peace camp and NGOs, some of whom did and are still doing a great job of exposing human rights violations and advocacy, and at one point did succeed in organizing huge demonstrations, as during the First Lebanon War. However, it is clear that they are becoming more and more alienated from the Israeli mainstream and do not affect public opinion, which has been veering extensively toward an expansionist and colonizing agenda.

Peace Is Waning

Now, as the possibility of achieving peace based on the two-state solution is waning, it is necessary to assess past mistakes and judge actions by their impact and concrete contributions to peace.

Public opinion polls still show that about 60% of both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion want a peace agreement. This is sought by the donor community too, especially the European Union (EU), individual European countries and the United States. Their financing of the peace NGOs was quite generous. However, in retrospect, studies show the absence of a systematic integration of donor strategies in the service of the peace program on the table; nor did they succeed in sufficiently assessing the extent of the challenges the occupation of the Palestinian territories presented.

In consequence and after 20 years of so-called investment in peace, we Palestinians find ourselves in a straitjacket, stuck with an unsustainable economy, a weakened (if not destroyed, as is the case in Gaza) formal private sector, political impasse, social and physical fragmentation, increased violations of our basic rights and perpetuated human suffering, including dramatic poverty and unemployment (not to speak of a state of siege, political detentions, home demolitions, targeted assassinations, and loss of freedom and the most basic rights).

While the Palestinians are the main victims of this tragedy and also, indirectly, the rest of the Arab World, and to a certain extent even the Israeli people, it is sad to say that it is international law and the international governance system that have been sacrificed by losing credibility and the moral, legal and political weight necessary for the peace and security of the world.

Civil Society as a Political Agent of Change

* Civil society is rich in the OPTs in terms of number of organizations, unions, chambers of commerce, political factions, etc. However, these have been often compromised by competing political factions and hence are not truly as representative, democratic and dynamic as they should be. There is an increasing awareness that civil society should contribute to the building of a true democracy - able to strategize, serve the needs of people, provide services, help them toward liberation and dignity, and interact with government and the leadership to comment and improve policies and political options.
* Palestinian NGOs seem to be the most active on the civil society scene, but a good number of them have become donor-driven and hence do not service a truly national agenda but often a self-serving one within an economy that suffers high unemployment, especially among young professionals.
This active part of civil society did address issues related to fighting Israeli occupation measures and intransigence, democracy-building, nonviolent resistance, human rights and research, but their impact on the reality is unfortunately weak. For example, on the Palestinian side, the absence of an internal social and political force to bring an end to the Fateh/Hamas divide so far is truly sad and disastrous. Civil society should weigh in to ensure that democratic rights are maintained as manifested in the due presidential, legislative and local elections as a basic right that cannot be denied by anyone or any party. Equally important is to struggle more successfully alongside Israeli human rights organizations to stop the flagrant abuses and discriminatory legislation.
* Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian NGOs have made the necessary efforts to lobby government and the Knesset, or to target and shape the opinion of mainstream Israeli society, build trust and share visions for the future and the value of peace for all. This should not and does not mean that Palestinians should be unnecessarily compromising on their basic rights.
One can easily assume that, if well informed, Israeli society might not be veering so much to the right, allowing settlers to set political agendas.
* There is a lack of deep analysis and persistence in studying and following up on promising peace initiatives by civil society actors such as the Arab Peace Initiative (API), the Geneva Initiative and the Ayalon-Nusseibeh Plan.
* The balance of power hugely in Israel's favor should be countered by leveraging the moral and legal prerogatives and inviting visions for a future of peace targeting opinion makers and journalists and lobbying parliamentarians, politicians, judges and the whole political apparatus to make an impact on political decisions. Women should be at the forefront of such mobilization.
* Civil society should be clear, succinct and focused on creating dialogues and fighting distortions that help sustain the occupation and allow it to fester:
i. Distortions in abusing religious beliefs and misinterpretation of the holy books and of history, hence fostering conflict between religions and cultures;
ii. Using the accusation of anti-Semitism to forbid any criticism of the Israeli occupation and dispossession policies;
iii. Confusing legitimate resistance with terrorism; or
iv. Not judging honestly those who are the real perpetrators and parties responsible for war and those who are for peace.

* Civil society's role should include addressing the needs on the two sides of the divide and being a source of positive energy. They should act strategically in spite of the difficult circumstances, especially those working for peace, who should be working to de-legitimize military operations, to stop demonizing Palestinians and Arabs, to protect normal lives for all, including respect for everybody's security and prosperity. Discuss the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which has been successful, instead of just campaigning against it. Equally important is to discuss and develop a common understanding of history, theology and education to breach the divide.
* Not only direct political action is needed; economic action is equally necessary to empower people to end the occupation. Yet here also, success still eludes us. Civil society should be engaged in promoting and debating suitable economic policies, formulating service provisions to help create jobs through small enterprise development, new business start-ups, and all kinds of business support services, which today remain poor and not yet fully accessible or effective.

The above list is not exhaustive and worth an open, serious dialogue (and this is not normalization at all but a necessary strategic tool) on how to create an impact for change at this critical juncture.

Conclusion: Vision and Values for a New East of the Mediterranean

I believe we live in very difficult but interesting times. A new world is evolving right in front of our eyes. Palestinian and Israeli civil society working for a just peace, together with an existing and active worldwide and even Arab network, can contribute to a decent, dignified future for all the people of the region.

The parameters of this peace are known, the alternatives are alarming, and opportunities present themselves through the communication revolution, the changing balance of power, the world economic and financial crisis, the Arab revolutions and the coming to power of a new generation.

It is hoped that responsibility, ethics, rigor and organization will be the order of the new day.