As Politicians Fail, Activists Try to Forge a Peace Between People

by | Sep 9, 2016

Gush Etzion, West Bank — Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger appears at first a small and quiet man until he stands to address an audience of journalists under an awning here in this tiny hamlet in one of the tensest areas of the West Bank. “How is it that I had lived here for three decades years and never met a Palestinian?” he thunders, taking the crowd by surprise.

Schlesinger belongs to Roots, a Jewish-Palestinian peace project based near the Gush Etzion junction, were violence between settlers, soldiers and Palestinians is common and where in 2014 three settlers were kidnapped and later killed.

As tension picks up again in Israel and the West Bank, hopes for a renewed peace process seem bleak. Politicians on both sides appear unable or unwilling to pursue an agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has continued to respond to attacks on Israelis by employing forms of collective punishment, destroying attackers’ family homes and locking down entire populations in the surrounding areas. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been hesitant to condemn the killing of innocent Israelis at the hands of Palestinians, and his Fatah Party has hailed some killers as martyrs.

In the midst of a seemingly never-ending series of attacks and reprisals, Roots represents a new form of peace advocacy taking shape in Israel and the West Bank, which is seeking to find a new way of forging peace between people and circumnavigating the politicians. These groups are attempting to change the conversation, culturally and politically, and lay the groundwork for what they argue will be a more just and therefore durable peace.

Tall and thoughtful, 44-year-old Ali Abu Awwad is the main Palestinian partner in the Roots project. As he addresses the crowd next it is clear his life story is in many ways the story of the conflict itself.

Awwad comes from a highly political Palestinian refugee family. His late mother Fatma was a prominent activist in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the umbrella body of political-military organizations fighting for a Palestinian state, and he spent four years in prison for his participation in the First Intifada. While in prison he undertook a hunger strike that won prisoners some concessions from their Israeli jailers. This experience, along with the work of non-violent activists such as Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, brought Awwad to see nonviolence as the only hope for peace in his homeland.

In 2000, Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint killed his brother, who was unarmed and did not belong to any faction. Awwad tells the crowd he was consumed with anger for Israel, but resisting the instinct to seek vengeance, he has maintained his commitment to nonviolence.

“Even though we don’t have a specific political final vision for the solution, as individuals for sure we do have our own visions for peace,” says Awwad.

Awwad stresses that his conversion to nonviolence has not changed his opposition to the occupation. He firmly believes in the need for Palestinian independence and self-determination. He has however come to renounce the idea that this can be obtained through violence, and he doubts the plausibility of Jewish settlements being evicted entirely from the West Bank. Neither people can cling to the hope that the other will leave, he says.

“Just remember one thing: none of us is going to disappear from this land,” Awwad says.

The rolling hills of the West Bank seen from between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Tola Brennan/CUNY J

The meeting takes place outdoors, in the shade of a canopy, at Merkaz Karame, or Center of Dignity in Hebrew and Arabic. Merkaz Karame is a simple house and yard, built by Awwad on family land, which now functions as a base for Roots’ activities.

Rabbi Schlesinger grew up in New York, immigrating to Israel when he was 20 and moving to a settlement near Gush Etzion. Schlesinger springs to his feet before talking, and speaking with urgency, describes his first visit to Merkaz Karame in 2013 as one of the most profound experiences of his life.

“I peered in and I saw something happening here that cannot happen. I saw 15 Palestinians and 15 Israelis talking to each other,” he remembers.

Schlesinger says that first visit led to a profound reevaluation of the conflict, which at times left him shaken and “spiritually nauseous.” While Schlesinger had been interested in peace movements for years, this was the first time he found himself radically questioning his priorities and his preconceptions.

“I came to a place where I realized I had to build an identity that made place for the truth of the other side,” he says.

Roots promotes dialogue and reconciliation through workshops, seminars, social events, community meetings, communal celebrations and aid programs. These have included training courses for new Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers to ensure they know and understand the Palestinian narrative, response teams that go to the site of attacks to support the victims no matter what their ethnicity, language courses, and inter-religious exchange.

Schlesinger says that Roots’ core group of activists numbers about 13 Israelis and 10 Palestinians, but has impacted hundreds of people on both sides. He says most of their regular ongoing programs are aimed at youth, and currently have about 40 high school kids involved.

At the moment Roots does not adopt or endorse any particular political solution to the conflict, says settler and Roots activist Shaul Judelman, in an email. He says Roots is focused on building the groundwork within civil society to support any future plan that might emerge.

Awwad, Schlesinger and Judelman believe that no peace plan can succeed if the underlying causes of conflict are not addressed. This means moving away from the idea of partition, without giving up on the idea of independence.

Graffiti on the separation wall on the edge of Aida refugee camp, a few miles outside of Bethlehem. Tola Brennan/CUNY J

“Part of our general critique is in learning from the failure of Oslo,” says Judelman, referring to the 1993 peace accords that created the Palestinian Authority and laid the groundwork for a two-state solution that has yet to materialize.

“Without a concerted investment in reconciliation between the civil societies that draws deeply upon the identities of both peoples (particularly religious), our political plans will not be able to withstand the pressures against them,” Judelman says.

Awwad — who joined the newly created Palestinian Authority in the 1990s to enforce the Oslo Peace Accords before becoming disillusioned with the process and resigning — agrees.

“We are sure if our political leadership were to sign an agreement tomorrow where the two nations are not ready, this agreement will be just a piece of paper,” he says.

“They propose two-state solution, divided. This will never happen; I promise you. Because both nations have roots to the two parts of the land, living together in one state is impossible, separated by walls is impossible,” he says. “The only solution in my opinion is to have two states, yes, but not divided.”

While Roots activists do not endorse any specific peace plans as a matter of approach, an attempt is being made by another group to develop a plan inspired by the same ideas. The plan has been proposed by a diverse coalition that includes Israeli leftists, along with some Jewish settlers and a small number of Palestinians. The plan is called Two States One Homeland.

Similar to other two-state solutions it calls for an independent Palestinian State to exist alongside Israel. But the two states would be contained within the same borders, occupying the same land with open borders between them. Israelis and Palestinians would share a common homeland, but belong to two separate, confederated states.

“There has to be somewhere in between, between the failure of the two-state paradigm and the one-state,” says Meron Rapoport, journalist, activist and project coordinator of the campaign in Israel. The movement was founded officially in 2013. It is structured autonomously in Israel and Palestine, with the intention of acting jointly for shared objectives. While small, it regularly organizes public meetings and conventions and has received significant press coverage, sparking debate on both sides of the divide.

Rapoport says that the deep connection that both Israelis and Palestinians have with all of the land that now constitutes Israel and Palestine must be recognized. He believes it is necessary to move beyond a partition mindset, and away from talk of evictions, land swaps and population transfers.

“It’s not a border issue,” says Rapoport.

The plan would allow for the settlers to remain in the West Bank, but as citizens of Israel, while Palestinian refugees could return to their areas of origin in Israel — becoming citizens of a new Palestinian state. Jerusalem would be a shared, “open” city, and citizens of both countries would vote for their own parliaments, while collaborating on security and infrastructure. Rapoport uses examples of the European Union, Northern Island and Bosnia and Herzegovina, all situations where power-sharing and open or relaxed borders were used to create peace while preserving separate states, to bolster his argument.

The plan is not without its critics.

“The ‘Two states One Homeland’ idea is not plausible at this time at all,” says Arik Segal, an international conflict management specialist and a lecturer at the Israeli Center of Negotiation, in an email. He says that in addition to the current government’s ideological opposition to such a plan, Israelis have no incentive to support it.

“The Israeli public lives in relative security and economic well being and there is no sentiment to engage in a harsh process of giving up on rights, lands, etc.,” he says.

An Israeli guard tower interrupts the rolling graffiti-covered separation wall in Bethlehem. Tola Brennan/CUNY J

Polling data would seem to support Segal’s view. A 2016 Pew Forum study found that 45 percent of Israeli Jews thought that peaceful coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian State was not possible, a position shared by 57 percent of Palestinians. In the same study 50 percent of Israeli Arabs said they thought coexistence was possible. The study also found that only 20 percent of Palestinians supported nonviolent resistance to the occupation, compared to 22 percent support for negotiations and 38 percent for armed struggle.

While the project has garnered some Palestinian support, including Fatah member Awni al-Mashni — who is group coordinator in the Palestinian Territories — it has also been criticized for working with settlers, “normalizing” their presence and the occupation itself. A June 2015 meeting in the town of Beit Jala had to be moved to Jerusalem in response to protests by some Palestinian activists. Awwad says he has encountered similar problems for his work with Roots. He recounts being accused by some fellow Palestinians of collaborating with those allegedly responsible for the theft of Palestinian land: the settlers.

Dr. Yuval Eylon, senior lecturer of philosophy at The Open University of Israel, is a critic of the plan from the left. He thinks that the plan’s wedding of citizenship to ethnicity — as opposed to land and residence — is “a terrible idea.”

“There’s a real disregard for what citizenship means and how important and significant it is in the Palestinian National Movement,” Eylon says.

Eylon says that the plan does not resolve the fundamental problem of the occupation and the theft of land, and will inevitably perpetrate inequality and lack of sovereignty in another form. While Eylon believes a two-state solution “with elements of confederacy” might be viable, he believes the issue of the settlers is not inconsequential, and that their presence in the West Bank would undercut any idea of Palestinian sovereignty.

“You can’t have sovereignty over the settlers,” he says.

President Abbas and his ruling Fatah Party advocate the two-state solution, a position that its main rival Hamas has tentatively opened up to after years of opposition. Palestinian leftist factions like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine have historically advocated a one-state solution. Under that plan, Israel ceases to be a Jewish state and all Jews and Palestinians become citizens of a single secular democratic state. Many activist groups in Europe and the US, including many groups advocating Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) strategy against Israel, share this position. Many settlers advocate their own version of the one-state solution in which Israel annexes the West Bank and makes its residents Israeli citizens.

As the stalemate continues, support for a traditional two-state solution has decreased on both sides. A 2016 survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 53 percent of Israeli Jews and 51 percent of Palestinians supported the two-state solution, a historic low. Support for a two-state solution remained highest among Israeli Arabs, at 87 percent.

Palestinian NGO BADIL Resource Center (BRC), which advocates for the right of return of refugees and other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), says that it does not support any specific peace plan, two-state or one-state. Speaking for BRC, Lubnah Shomali says the NGO supports a “rights-based solution, which in our opinion can be implemented regardless of what the political solution is.” This means “the political solution must ensure the respect and implementation of all rights regardless of the framework (one state or two states with open borders).”

Boys socialize and play just outside of the entrance to Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem. Tola Brennan/CUNY J

Shomali says this must include Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their places of origin in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

“A solution that does not incorporate the rights of Palestinian refugees and IDPs (66 percent of the Palestinian population) will fail; it will not be viable and will not create durable peace,” says Shomali, in an email.

One thing that BRC shares with Roots and 2S1H is a critical attitude towards the Oslo Accords, which it describes as a “political solution” that does not take the rights of the Palestinian people into consideration at all but is rather an agreement based on the massive imbalance of power between the two sides.”

As to the return of Palestinian refugees being accepted in exchange for Jewish settlers remaining in the West Bank, Shomali says that it is not up to governments, politicians nor activists.

“The only (people) that can determine whether or not return for settlements is acceptable are those Palestinians directly associated with specific geographic area in question.”

Rapoport concedes that the plan could be realized anytime soon, but that he insists it represents a more realistic option than anything that has emerged so far, and considers it far more plausible than any plan based on partition, as outlined in Oslo and Geneva.

Echoing Awwad, Judelman and Schlesinger, he implies that advocating a solution without separation, explaining and debating it with people of various backgrounds, and shifting the paradigm of the conversation is the sense of the proposal itself.

“I don’t know where we will get … in the end,” Rapoport says.

“But first of all we have to stop shooting, and lay the foundation for a stable solution.”

Top Photo: Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awwad lead the Roots initiative in the West Bank. They work in the West Bank trying to build trust, empathy, and mutual support between settlers and Palestinians. Gustavo Martínez Contreras/CUNY J