Individuals can resolve conflict

The need for an engagement plan

There is a clear need to go beyond government negotiation and political tradition, and to increase support for people-to-people efforts on the individual level.

by Kobi Skolnick, CG News, 20 August 2009

NEW YORK – According to a poll conducted by Dr. Colin Irwin from the Institute of Irish Studies and the One Voice movement, 74 percent of Palestinians and 78 percent of Israelis would be willing to accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, where are these people?
For decades there has been a profound lack of support for peace-building efforts aimed at the grassroots level and for strategic engagement of the public sphere in the peace process. This has led to a great discrepancy between the general desire for peace and the belief that it is possible and practical. Although the polls show willingness to accept peace, for many Israelis, a Palestinian is someone who would kill them if he had the chance. For many Palestinians, a Jewish-Israeli is either a settler with a gun or a soldier at a checkpoint.
Fears and paranoia, while grounded in real experience, have created a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies and violence. What both societies need are open dialogues, where people truly listen to each other, to counter these fears.

Repeated exposure to violence over the years, coupled with a dynamic of extreme stereotyping and skewed perspectives in both societies, has overwhelmed the voice of reason.
Meanwhile, the high-level discussions among world leaders, which seemingly signal a shift in policy and progress toward peace, demonstrate a profound separation from reality. Even when top leaders sign treaties, on the ground there remains a deep enmity among Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab world in general. For many, it is just another phase in a cycle of false hope.
Feelings of passion and hate are not easily broken. When a group of students was killed near me, coupled with the loss of friends to Palestinian violence months before, this trauma generated hatred and a desire to take revenge. This was directed against an enemy that had no face and no name. When I imagined the Palestinians I would kill, I imagined only cruel expressions and fiery eyes filled with hate toward me and my family.
I only changed my perspective when I realized that Israelis and Palestinians could relate as humans, regardless of our divergent narratives. This realization came when I met with Palestinians in a safe setting, where I could share my pain and ask the questions I had always wanted to ask.
Although I am aware that there are Palestinians who still want to kill me just because I am Jewish-Israeli, I now know Palestinian friends who went through the same transformation that I did.
There is a clear need to go beyond government negotiation and political tradition, and to increase support for people-to-people efforts on the individual level.
To be sure, this long-term conflict needs a long-term vision. The social fabric of relationships among both societies is torn apart by decades and generations of hatred. Building new perceptions cannot happen overnight. This requires careful planning to create the mechanisms by which Israelis and Palestinians can meet and work together, but it is the only effective tool for neutralizing radicalization. People need a place to express the trauma of loss and grief, and both societies need to begin to see the human on the other side. Only then can the peace process avoid manipulation by leaders at the extreme ends of the political spectrum.
I find myself fearful that this peace process will end as others have before, with a major violent incident reinforcing false assumptions, and with extremist factions celebrating the continued bloodshed. We cannot let that happen. Our generation can choose to change our ways and in turn change our future. When people meet with each other and break down preconceptions, peace becomes as palpable and real as any stone or wall, and just as lasting.
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* Kobi Skolnick, an Israeli who moved to a radical settlement in the West Bank during high school, was a member of the Kahana youth movement that promoted Jewish power and regularly encouraged its members to assault Palestinians. During his army service he became aware of the complexity of the conflict and began to open his mind to other perspectives. He is a student in New York and Associate Scholar Practitioner at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 20 August 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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