Dilemmas of a Peacemaker

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Even before the latest Israeli invasion of the Palestinian territories following the Passover suicide bombing in Netanyah two weeks ago, the work of peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians has been a Sisyphus type  task. The frustrations far outweigh the feelings of success and everyday is a new struggle to find hope to feed the motivation to continue. Many articles have been written over the past 19 months in newspapers around the world about those of us who have continued to work for peace in Israel and Palestine. Always these articles contain the question: Can they continue? (or How can they continue?).

After a brief holiday abroad for Passover I came back to face the staff of IPCRI, our colleagues and friends, many of them living under curfew, in the midst of a brutal war, their families and themselves under risks of imprisonment or even more violent fates. I too followed the news by the hour from thousands of miles away, checking my email and the internet at least four times a day, being glued to the 24 hours a day news programs on American television. One morning I woke at 7:00 am to put a video movie on the television for one of my children.  The TV was set to CNN. In the background I saw a picture from Israeli television – it was my supermarket, 100 meters from my home that had been bombed. It seemed that each morning we were greeted by more and more bad and worsening news from home.  I spent additional hours each day phoning friends and colleagues in the West Bank to find out how they were. Many friends and family members suggested to my wife and to my children that maybe we should stay in America for a while – a year or two or more.  No one apparently had the courage to offer me the same advice. I felt too far away and I was anxious to come home.

But coming home isn’t easy. What should we do now?  How can we be effective to change this awful reality.  I spoke with some Palestinian leaders and asked them for advice – how can we help, what difference can we make.  One senior Palestinian official told me that the most important thing to do is to find the way to get the Palestinian medical services functioning once again.  People are dying because of lack of functioning hospitals, doctors are under curfew, ambulances are shot at, supplies are finished, blood is running out, no electricity, no water, etc. Thinking that perhaps the Israeli Minister of Health, MK Nissim Dahan from Shas, might be willing to raise his voice, I phoned another MK from Shas, a Deputy Minister who had been involved in some of IPCRI’s back-channel talks in the past.  In the past, MK Yitzhak Cohen had even come to IPCRI’s office in Bethlehem to meet Marwan Barghouthi and other senior Tanzim officials.  I thought that if I use the Jewish term "pikuah nefesh" – for the sake of human lives, I might be able to convince him to speak with his fellow Shas MK, Minister of Health Dahan.  I called Yitzhak at home on this past Friday morning.  I was told by him that the only "pikuh nefesh" that he was concerned with were of Jewish origin.  He said to me "Do you want an IDF soldier to be killed by a terrorist hiding in an ambulance?". As ambulances have already been used for the purpose of transporting terrorists, I had little to say to him.  I suggested that they should at least let the doctors get to the hospitals and allow medicine to enter the Palestinian territories.  My requests fell on deaf ears. He told me to speak to the army. Knowing that it was a ridiculous notion, but for the sake of "pikuh nefesh", I did call the IDF, but they too seemed less than interested in helping.

In our staff meeting yesterday in IPCRI with those members of the staff who could come to our office, located on the border between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, we held a discussion for several hours trying to figure out what we should/could be doing now. From our office, we can hear the shooting in Bethlehem just one hundred meters away.  The tanks are moving in and out along the road adjacent to the entrance to our place. We have two members of our staff under siege in Bethlehem, one in a refugee camp, visible from our office, and another one further inside the city – her house had been in the middle of the fighting the night before and seven bullets penetrating their windows into their salon. We began the meeting by having each person express what they felt and thought about their own personal situation and experiences and their more general view of the situation. Most people spoke about being attacked by friends and family for continuing to work with people from the other side and continuing to believe in peace with them. Everyone also spoke with an overwhelming sense of pessimism and despair, all of them looking at me with the hope that I would provide the message of hope and a bit of optimism. Not an easy task these days.

I said that perhaps the most important thing that we could/should do during these days is to keep our own personal contacts and lines of communication open and encourage all of our colleagues and friends to do the same.  Our message must be one of solidarity with those people on both sides who still want peace. We know that there are still people on both sides who believe in peace. We must try to provide humanitarian aid wherever and however possible.  Yesterday I helped a shipment of donated food supplies to get to a refugee camp.  These small elements of help can provide some small relief from the suffering. We must also continue to help in the development of public policy options particularly at this time when public thinking has become so one dimensional. Our ability to communicate with people in positions of leadership and power on both sides is perhaps unique and essential, maybe even more than ever right now.

I believe that the possibility of a bi-lateral Israeli-Palestinian solution is further away than ever and therefore we must turn to the international community to help. We need imposed solutions that require the United States to play a much more responsible leadership role.  There are initial signs that this is beginning to happen, but it must not be too little because it is already too late. Civil society, locally, in Israel and in Palestine, and internationally must become much more aggressive and determined in making demands to end the conflict first by ending the siege of Palestine and getting the Palestinian leadership to retake control of its territory and its people. Terrorism must end, but Israel must understand that the root reasons for the terrorism must be addressed and not only the symptoms.  The occupation must end and if the leaders and people of Israel are incapable of seeing that just now because of the threats that they face, the international community, at the political level and at the civil society level must drive that point home in determined and in unambiguous language. The days of constructive ambiguity are far behind us.

The people of Israel and the Government of Israel must understand that they are waging a war that cannot be won. The occupation will end and an independent State of Palestine will be established.  The current destruction of the basis for future understanding between Israelis and Palestinians can and must be repaired by individual Israelis and Palestinians together. We must overcome the hatred, the anger, the fear and the despair.  That is the true task of peacemakers today.  At a time when our leaders have stopped thinking about tomorrow, me must provide the tomorrow. We must create the hope through our expression of human concern for each other’s welfare.  We must demand that our relations be humanized when all around us tells us to dehumanize the other.

When my Palestinian friends are under siege, when they have no water, no food, are living under curfew and risk being killed, my expression of outrage is a message of my humanity and my belief that this is not being done in my name.  When many Palestinians call me to express their outrage after a suicide bombing in Israel, I too know that this was not done in their name and their expression of outrage is a witness to their humanity.  I will not accept that there are no partners on the other side. I know that there are many as I know that there are many in Israel.

We in IPCRI have decided that we are not canceling any of our work plans.  We may have to delay them for reasons beyond our control.  We will not accept "no" as an answer from people who yesterday were willing to meet and talk and today have changed their mind.  We will continue to provide the venue and the means for people to meet and talk and plan together a better future.  We will continue to oppose the use of violence and force as a means of conflict resolution – this resolves no conflicts and can solve no problems.

We all live in great fear today. We all have no real idea what is in store for us each and every day. We have to remain firmly committed to our principles and to our visions. And if reality doesn’t fit our vision right now, we must not accept the new reality, we must reject it and we must change it. When I first became politically involved in this conflict some 27 years and I supported the two-State solution – the creation of an independent State of Palestine alongside of Israel in the 1967 borders, I was called a traitor and a self-hating Jew.  There may still be those who continue to say that, but I know that the majority of the people of Israel still recognize that that is what will emerge, if only we are wise enough to accept it. People might think that we are crazy and naïve.  I believe that I am neither.  The positions that we represent and stand by are the only sane and the most un-naive positions possible.  When the entire area has gone insane, remaining sane can sometimes seem like insanity, but there is a clear and coherent difference. Recognizing that difference is the first step in reclaiming our roles as peacemakers.

Gershon Baskin, Ph.D., is Co-Director of Israel / Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), a joint Palestinian-Israeli public policy think-tank, founded in Jerusalem in 1988.

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