Israel as the powerful party should take the first clear step towards peace

Palestinian children waving the Palestinian flag (Photo: Helga Tawil)

The pattern of bloody violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become tragically predictable. While senseless debates take place as to ‘who fired the first shot’ or ‘cast the first stone’, ordinary civilians long for peace, yet also insist on their fundamental rights.

In attempting to explain or justify the use of violence, one can easily forget that that one party is a recognised country in international law, the other aspiring for such recognition. One has a heavily fortified military with nuclear weapons capability; the other a population so oppressed and desperate, that some are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to claim casualties on the other side.

Moralistic discussions about who commits the violence, how that violence is committed and for what purpose are important from the perspective of a peace advocate concerned more about finding common ground. They are less important issues from the perspective of a human rights advocate concerned more about inequality.

Key challenges facing peace educators

In his lecture at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague this month, Gavriel Solomon of Haifa University identified key challenges facing peace educators. They are formidable challenges indeed, including conflicting understandings of history and beliefs, a belligerent environment and, interestingly enough in light of the above, inequality. Professor Solomon is a highly experienced peace advocate and a person of integrity whose words deserve to be listened to. He argues peace as an alternative to conflict, how unrealistic or challenging it may seem. However, while Solomon illustrates the great benefits of peace education, he also acknowledges that it is exceptionally difficult to engage Palestinians in such initiatives, who are frequently refused permission to travel to or through Israeli areas or to leave the country.

The importance of participation

Karma Nabulsi of Oxford University does not principally speak of the multiple challenges in realising peace initiatives, though as a highly experienced politician and academic she is very much aware of them. Instead, what Nabulsi advocates is participation in any peace initiative, in particular by those most brutally affected by the consequences of the conflict, Palestinian refugees. ‘If you want to build peace, public participation and civic involvement are the cornerstone.’

At a conference in Gent, Belgium last year, Nabulsi carefully illustrated that lack of respect that is shown for the fundamental rights of participation and representation by political leaders involved in peace processes has made it impossible for Palestinians to democratically shape their future.

Participation is the key to a just democracy and the key to peace. Creating the conditions for effective participation is therefore a joint responsibility, involving principally the Israeli government (which currently has the power to control movement into and out of the territories under its control), but also the Palestinian leadership.

Gross inequalities

Most Palestinians operate under highly restrictive circumstances, either in their countries of exile or in the territories occupied by Israeli settlers and the military. It is necessary to have a security pass to leave occupied areas and this is not granted in many cases. Israelis, on the other hand, have virtually unrestricted freedom of movement. Consequently, it is less likely for Palestinians generally, and even less so refugees, to be able to participate in peace initiatives than it is for Israelis.

A similar situation formerly existed in South Africa where Africans were unable to freely enter areas reserved for whites, though whites were able (though rarely willing) to enter areas where Africans lived. Simultaneously, most whites were concerned that their security and financial interests were protected, whereas Africans mainly demanded rights of participation, in particular the right to vote.

Different perspectives

Beyond the visible violence described above is deep-seated structural violence involving gross inequalities that provide no possibility or incentive for ‘appreciating the other’s perspective’.

In Salomon’s view, Israelis’ conditions for peace are a cessation of violence whereas Palestinians insist on independence. Israeli peace activists want to speak of a bright future while Palestinians want to speak of what has been done to them.

Such differences between Israelis who want to share a ‘bright future’ and the desires of Palestinians who want recognition of their suffering say a lot from a human rights perspective. Israelis argue the right to protect their human rights (especially the right to security), while Palestinians want to acquire them in the first place (especially the right to participate).

Perhaps not surprisingly, Israelis have become the more vocal peace advocates in the conflict, advocating a very different set of interests and desires than Palestinians. Palestinians, on the other hand, have been more vocal on human rights issues, arguing for rights that most Israelis take for granted.

Reconciling the peace and human rights perspectives

These major gaps in perspective also explain differences in opinion between peace advocates and human rights advocates: one group recognising the desire for peace, the other insisting on compliance with human rights. If, as Salomon argues, peace can only be achieved if both sides are able to not only recognise, but also give legitimacy to the other’s perspective, then enabling space for participation of all affected stakeholders seems an essential precondition.

If such perspectives are to be reconciled, this can only be on the basis of joint peace and human rights efforts as complementary initiatives and not as alternatives.

Taking the steps towards peace

As the situations in Israel and former South Africa appear similar in many significant ways, it can be helpful to recall the circumstances that led to change in South Africa and a cessation of violence.

Nelson Mandela long argued the need for participation of all persons in South Africa, without which it is hard to imagine there ever would have been peace in the country. For his part, former president De Klerk recognised that the South African government was in power, yet a policy of suppression was clearly unsustainable. He could choose to either continue suppressing the majority of South African people or to engage in peace negotiations with the ANC, a group that most western powers of the day considered a ‘terrorist’ organisation.

Without recognising inequality, peace would have been unimaginable. Without an initial acknowledgement of De Klerk that whites would lose their power in a future South Africa and subsequent unbanning of the ANC, talks about peace would not have been possible. Thankfully, history proved both leaders to have made the correct decisions.

As the powerful party, Israel could take similar steps towards peace by ending the occupation of the Palestinian territories, an unconditional dismantling of the settlements and unconditionally agreeing to resume peace talks.

The writers are human rights advocates and former anti-apartheid advocates, based in The Netherlands.

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