Inter Press Service English, English (May 26, 2011)

Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers swim against the tide

Although politicians seem to have put the peace process on ice, there are many different groups in Israel and the Palestinian territories that still believe in reconciliation. They call on the world not to believe in stereotypes. "The minute you choose sides, you become part of the conflict."

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"We're a minority, but revolutions always start with just a small group", says Shlomit Benjamin, a sociologist at Tel Aviv University. She is Jewish, but because her father is Syrian, she is a 'mizrahi', an Arab Jew. "That's why I can't see the Arabs as the enemy. They are part of my family culture."

Benjamin is one of the signatories of the manifesto "Ruh Jedida: A New Spirit for 2011", recently written by young Arab Jews to express their solidarity with the young demonstrators on the streets in the Arab world. They recognize their problems, the Arab Jews wrote: "We, too, live in a regime that tramples the economic and social rights of most of its citizens [...] and constructs racist barriers against Arab-Jews, the Arab people, and Arabic culture."


The conflict between Jews and Arabs is often aggravated by stereotypes, but the young Mizrahis don't want to choose sides. They are not the only ones. Although politicians seem to have put the peace process on ice, there are many different groups in Israel and the Palestinian territories that still believe in reconciliation between the different parties. They are eager to talk about it by phone.

"Most people I know really want peace, but most of them don't trust the other side," says Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, working on the West Bank for Rabbis for Human Rights. "Palestinians are afraid, obviously, because their land is occupied. But the Jewish fear is grounded, too. Many had their families completely wiped out in the Second World War. Their fear Hamas, when they hear them talk about the destruction of Israel. Both sides have to change and to build trust."

About 120 rabbis from different political backgrounds are connected to the organisation, which just received the prestigious American Gandhi Peace Award this month. "We want to bring the values of Torah into reality, focusing on the micro-level. For example, we accompany Palestians with the olive harvest, or we act as spokespersons for them in court cases against settlers. At the moment, I'm waiting for a group of Americans, to lead them around in East-Jerusalem."


"Either we survive together, or we perish together," says Hanna Siniora, the Palestinian co-executive director of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), a think-tank that studies practical solutions for the conflict. "Take environment, for example. We neglect our water resources because of the conflict. Sometimes aquifers are contaminated. If we don't work together, we will face a disaster."

"Of course, my people, the Palestinians, are oppressed by the occupation, and they need their own state. But after that our futures are still intertwined. We live together on a small strip of land. That's why we're paving the way for warmer relations between the two peoples."

That can be very hard, acknowledges Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund, which promotes cohesion and solidarity between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority inside the state of Israel. "We work together with both communities, and sometimes, it is difficult to gain the trust of everyone at the same time. Especially since we don't confront the government, as other advocacy groups often do. We try to work with both the communities and the government, for example when we teach Arab language and culture at the Ministry of Education, or when we assist the police to improve their service to Arab citizens. You can imagine that this is very sensitive."

Pro both

Internationally, the work is very sensitive as well, says Salim Munayer, director of Musalaha Reconciliation Ministries. "Organisations all over the world accept one side but reject the other. We are often asked to prove our loyalty to either the Palestinians or the Jews by denouncing the other side. But we can't do this if we are working towards reconciliation. We have to be advocates of the other side. We need to be pro both people. The minute you choose sides, you become part of the conflict."

Musalaha consists of Christian Palestinians and messianic Jews. "We share a common faith in Jesus, who taught us to love the enemy. But we work with people from all backgrounds. One of our activities is the Desert Encounter, for Palestinian and Israeli youth and youth leaders. During a camel trek or a hiking tour they learn to know each other."

What sense does it make to learn to know each other, when other people suffer, and the conflict is deepening? That's what Musa Subeh, accountant in the municipality of Bethlehem, sometimes thinks about. "I had the opportunity to meet Israelis who are working for peace. It was not a complete waste of time and it changed our orientations a bit, but in the end it didn't help in implementing peace. Both elected governments have become more extreme, you can see the trend. The majority are far away from peace in action and thoughts."

"The only thing I could say to people like Musa is, we need you", says Rabbi Grenimann. "My people have a real fear. We need Palestinians to meet them and to take away this fear. When people don't want to meet each other because they think the other is dangerous, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But our government is using this fear. That's why we should help people trusting each other and seeing that the other is created in God's image. Trust is self-fulfilling, too."

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