On the evening of August 31st, scores of people gathered in Sderot – some from communities near Gaza, many from the center of the country and even as far north as Kibbutz Sasa near the Lebanese border. The gathering was initiated by a group called “Other Voice”, a grassroots volunteer initiative comprised of citizens from the communities bordering the Gaza Strip, together with the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum. The purpose was to discuss and understand the feelings of confusion and gloom - both on the right and left - that followed what the Israeli government labeled “Operation Protective Edge”, the Israel-Gaza War of the summer of 2014. For those on the right, the operation lacked the “victory image” that had been hoped for - a humiliating defeat of Hamas that was supposed to revive Israel’s perception of "deterrence". For those on the left, simply beginning an operation without definite political objectives, and the terrible price paid for that decision with the lives of civilians and soldiers on both sides, was bad enough, particularly when accompanied by the loss of a window of opportunity for an Israeli peace initiative with the Palestinian Authority – especially given the support of all of the moderate Arab countries that are signatories to the Arab Peace Initiative, together with the rest of the international community.
Peace NGO Forum members meet "Other Voice" members in Sderot
Opening their hearts: Exhaustion, anger and empathy
Participants at the gathering sat in circles for hours, engaging in intimate dialogue and discovering that by opening their hearts they could attempt to liberate themselves from fixed or dogmatic views. The dynamics created by the gathering were fascinating. Some of the most moving thoughts came from residents who live near Gaza. They expressed a severe crisis of confidence in the support-systems on which they had placed their trust. This was accompanied by a feeling of exhaustion and anger in light of the insufferable reality which they have experienced over the past 14 years, of constantly feeling vulnerable to attack. Some stressed their unwillingness to suffer more rounds of futile violence and asked some serious questions about their individual and collective presence in the western Negev. Others said that this was their home and they had no other home. There were also quite a few expressions of empathy for the suffering that had been inflicted on the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza, alongside disgust for the extrajudicial executions in the Gaza City square. There were differences of opinion in attitudes towards Hamas, with some expressing disgust at their position and what the organization stands for. Yet it was also acknowledged that, whether we like it or not, the organization forms a significant component of Palestinian society and therefore it must be negotiated with – be it directly or indirectly through the reconciliation government headed by Palestinian Authority (PA) President, Mahmoud Abbas. Also mentioned was the continuation of contacts between neighbors on both sides of the border, even in the midst of the fighting.
Discussion circle at the home of Nomika Zion in Sderot
New possibilities for a solution
As the discussion developed, the group finished letting off steam and the pessimistic atmosphere was replaced by an exploration of new possibilities for a solution. This was, it seemed, precisely because the most recent conflict ended in what is perceived as a tie between the two parties - the regional power armed to the teeth, and the rebellious terrorist organization as determined as ever. Gradually, a partial agreement that action of some sort needed to be taken began to emerge, one that pushed for a non-violent alternative to the periodic rounds of mutual violence. Unlike in previous rounds of violence, some of the participants said that this time there is an opening for something else, for forming a kind of temporary constellation of forces that with a combination of wisdom and the casting off of old concepts can help forge a new reality. These insights resemble the kinds of historical situations that conflict management and resolution scholar Prof. William Zartman has called, "ripe for resolution." Zartman, followed by our friend and colleague the late Dr. Ron Pundak (one of the initiators of the Oslo Peace process and documented by his book “Secret Channel: Oslo-The Full Story”), argues that ripeness for resolution occurs at the moment of an event of great importance in which the opposing sides – be it nations or leaders - are mutually ready to realize historic change. In order for the change to be realized at least some of the following conditions must be met: it must be recognized that all other options have been exhausted, and / or that there is an impending disaster, and / or that both sides have suffered heavy casualties, and / or there is the rise of a leadership that is ready to change course to find a permanent resolution for a conflict. It is easy to see, in retrospect, how far-reaching actions based upon historical “ripeness” occurred. We might recall the visit of President Sadat and the peace treaty with Egypt following the traumatic Yom Kippur War, in which the Egyptian president’s leadership, and the willingness of Menachem Begin, to implicitly recognize the new reality that had evolved and his courageous readiness to pay the price of peace in the realm of domestic politics.
Seizing the moment of ripeness
Ripeness is an elusive condition. It is liable to disappear quickly, returning the participants in the conflict to the familiar patterns of violent confrontation. It appears the Middle Eastern reality today exhibits some of the characteristics that might suggests the time is ripe for resolution: the Arab League’s Arab Peace Initiative (API) has come to the fore, emerging out of the tunnels of denial, and their appears to be an Arab readiness to cooperate with Israel, provided it puts an end to the occupation. Israel finds that its own interests are in line with those of other moderate countries in the Middle East who also feel threatened by Islamic radicalism. And the Israeli public, at least in part, is learning the limitations of military force and the ability of technology, tanks and arms to be the deciding factor in the conflict, as the price of the continued occupation and the use of force becomes unacceptable in terms of human casualties, as well as economic and social costs and in terms of Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Western world. And to all of this should be added hints from young people about emigration from Israel if the current pattern continues, thereby raising questions about the future of the country’s democratic character. Therefore, most of the conditions that Zartman identifies in his paradigm for conflict resolution appear to be in place -- all that is lacking is the readiness of the Israeli leadership to consider a change from the paradigm of conflict management to a paradigm which seeks to resolve the conflict through diplomatic initiative at this historical moment.
The historic challenge
During his visit to Israel in March, 2013, President Obama argued that, with minor exceptions, political leadership makes progress only when under pressure from its citizens, or from the bottom upwards. We now live in a brief moment when the Israeli residents living near the Gaza Strip enjoy the sense of being perceived as heroes, with a “flak jacket”, that protects them from criticism for expressing their beliefs, because of the price that they paid in the recent conflict. This “flak jacket” enables them to be the leaders of such pressure in the coming weeks, with the support of civil society organizations and political forces.
This is the historical challenge facing the Israeli peace camp today.