Can Israel and Palestine learn anything from Tunisia

This article first appeared in Haaretz Oct 16th

The Middle East looks like a graveyard for hope. Throughout the region, violence is spinning out of control and the world’s leaders seem to lack any semblance of a strategy to contain it.

It is on this backdrop that the choice for the Nobel Peace Prize last week was so wonderful and surprising. While Nobel-watchers thought his holiness the pope or German Chancellor Angela Merkel were front runners, the committee decided to grant this honor to a quartet of civil society actors in Tunisia – the National Dialogue Quartet – who helped ensure that the birthplace of the Arab Spring would continue the path to democracy.

It is worthwhile reading the entire story behind the how the labor and trade unions, human rights activists, and a professional association of lawyers came together to form an unlikely quartet to save Tunisia’s nascent democracy after political assassinations and constitutional deadlock. Yet what is important is to understand that this unusual coalition was so diverse in its constituents, so unassailable in its credibility, and so masterful in mediation that it managed to get the budding democracy to pull back from the brink and fix the fractured political situation. Tunisia remains one of the few bright spots in a region so desperate for heroes.

It is always hard to apply the lessons from one country to another, but there is wisdom in how civil society played such a key role in Tunisia when the elected officials failed. Democracy is far more than the ballot box; it is a society that takes ownership of itself.

The leaderships of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have failed. Israelis certainly don’t feel safe, and Palestinians are no closer to ending the occupation. The political echelons seem incapable of delivering their populations a bright future. Is there a role for civil society to play in this conflict, outside the ballot box?

At different times, attempts have been made to get different civilians to play a productive role in working toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the Kerry initiative, business leaders from across both camps came together to try to “Break the Impasse.” Yet despite this group comprising business leaders from a vast array of their respective economies, they could not find the way to move the ball forward.

Israel’s trade union, the Hisdatraut  and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions came together to express their hopes for peace and signed agreements to advance “fraternity and coexistence between the two peoples.”

And the human rights communities in both Israel and Palestine have long, established working relationships, trying to ensure international law is upheld both day-to-day and at times of conflict.

Yet before these branches can come together across the societies, they must first come together within each of their societies.

In Palestine, the divide between Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem is creating a fractious identity. Finding a way for civic unity for a society separated by borders and circumstance is a daunting task. It was the street on March 15, 2011 that demanded unity and kicked off the unity talks between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. With the leaders’ failure to implement an agreement, it will fall on the street again to force the issue, and build the groundwork required to hold elections on the day after President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel, as President Reuven Rivlin has diagnosed, is split into tribes – ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular Jews, and Arabs – who are struggling to find a common identity.

With Arabs making up 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, we – Jews in Israel and the Diaspora – must collectively recognize that Arab citizens are not a tolerated few, but equal citizens. We need to put an end to the perception of Israeli Arabs as a demographic threat. For when we perceive them as a threat, two things happen. First, all of our relationships with “the other” inherently become threatening. Second, we bequeath this conflict to our children and our grandchildren.

At times of increased tension and violence, civil society – both Arab and Jewish – can calm the tensions, even as elected representatives fan the flames. They can do this by sharing access to public resources, creating common civic values and finding practical partnerships between different civic and municipal groups that offer public services.

A civil society that has found a collective identity, that has achieved wins for its communities and can credibly advocate on behalf of its communities, stands a chance at creating its own quartet – one that is just as effective as the Tunisians’ and more effective than the diplomatic Middle East Quartet that currently exists.

In a region full of violence and hate, I do thank the Nobel Prize committee for honoring the unsung heroes of Tunisia – the unionists and businessmen, lawyers and human rights activists – who showed that change is possible and hope still has a place in the Middle East.

Quick thoughts on the road about the horrific situation

I have a longer piece that is currently being edited about what Israel and Palestine can learn from the nobel prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, but given the current uptick in violence across the societies I was asked by a few people why I had not put anything down in writing.

I’m currently traveling in Europe doing advocacy work, but like everyone else glued to twitter and Facebook as the violence is unfolding.

Violence is both very motivating for my work and very debilitating at the same time. I think both Jews and Arabs are missing context and in turn are screaming into the void. Arabs are sharing videos after an attack and are horrified by the response of a scared populace – Jews are refusing to acknowledge the context around the attacks themselves and thus are rightfully horrified by the violence but refuse to ask the question why is this happening. The international community have been warning, literally for years, that if the status quo continues it will fracture and lead to a mass outbreak of violence. You can’t do diplomacy under fire which is why folks were urging to do it before it broke out.

I don’t know if there is a way to put this particular hateful genie back into the bottle and it might burn it self out. This stuff really is being led by Facebook et al and there are no easy fixes. Without vision or a hope for a better future it’s very fertile ground for violence.

I think as this violent spasm continues we have to redouble our efforts within shared society and push forward for a vision (any vision!) that is not managing the status quo – given the fact that it is unmanageable.

Hope not Hate

Harry’s Place 4/13/12

Over on +972 magazine last week, Ami Kaufman did a great service to all non-Hebrew speakers by translating a Channel 10 segment on the racism and dehumanization that is infecting the youth in Israel. No one could help but be disgusted by the comments voiced by these teenagers and share with the anguish of the teachers who wonder why the educational system is flawed in civic education.

Yet along with the horror of ones response we need to examine how we can root out the hate. The people on this video are not adults, they are kids, and condemnation is not enough; boycotting teenagers in this regard will only make the situation worse.

Nothing justifies the racism that is displayed. It is important to remember however the conditions that these kids grew up in between the ages of 4-7. As young kids they lived through the 2nd Intifada, a psychologically scaring event for every civilian in the region. Though the Israeli public response was an attempt to get back to normal after every bomb as soon as possible, each terrorist attack in a civilian area left ripples and scars in society.

What words were said to these young kids at the time by terrified parents who would not allow them out by themselves? For those who did not live it, it is hard to fathom the daily stress and fear of wondering if today would be the day that the coffee shop, bus or gas station that you visited would be your last. Much has been said of the trauma that 9/11 or 7/7 did to the Americans and British respectively in terms of their psyche. The 2nd Intifada was a constant unrelenting period in the lives of Israelis for two years.

Though the image of the super human Israeli has often been cultivated, there is no super human response to this level of trauma. These experiences do not serve as a justification for the racism that we saw on Channel 10, nor the racism that one does hear causally around Israel. Yet if we are ever to move beyond it, something that needs to happen regardless of what end you are pursing, we need to move the youth of today to hope not hate.

The best remedy to hate is exposure to the other, yet it is something that is being restricted by the political leaders in Israel and civic leaders in Palestine. In Israel the government nixed the project of the Bereaved Families Forum schools projects due to the complaint that it drew equivalences between terror victims and their perpetrators.

In Palestine, the experiences of the 2nd intifada did not stop with its ending. Though the intensity and level of violence dramatically decreased, the impacts of the occupation, land confiscation and humiliation continued. Though there were many attempts since the Oslo process to foster civil bridges between the two peoples, they did nothing to help the ordinary lives of Palestinians and were used by a few to try and normalize the occupation.

With the start of the international BDS movement in 2005 the anti-normalization movement started to grow in strength through its sister BDS movement. Though one can see the appeal and internal intellectual coherence in those who propagate anti-normalization, it is ultimately destructive. Whichever end to the Status Quo one is pursing, campaigning to end all interactions between Palestinians and Israelis (barring those who already agree with a full right of return) makes any end less likely. The Israeli electorate needs to see those it is going to live among or beside, not be restricted to fleeting media glimpses. The Bereaved Families Forum project falls afoul as much the PACBIboycott lines as it does the Israeli Government regulations.

The latest polling snap shot shows how dire the situation is. 54% of Israelis are worried or very worried that they or a family member will be attacked by an Arab in their daily lives. 75% of Palestinians are worried or very worried that Israel will attack them or confiscate their land or that of a family member in their daily lives.

The response to young hate is education, dialogue and experiences to combat the fear that generated that hate. Our response cannot be restricted to just condemnation when we see such vile words leaving the mouths of the next generation. While condemnation is vital it is not enough.

Has the Third Intifada Already Started?

Huffington Post UK 28/2/12

“Time is running out for the two-state solution” is perhaps one of the most over-used phrases in the diplomatic sphere today. For the past few years the chorus of voices chanting this mantra have increased and have warned of dire consequences if this hourglass run out of sand. One of the threats they foresee on the horizon is a third Intifada (uprising) in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Not withstanding whether the two-state compromise has a sell by date, one could argue that the third intifada is already underway. Unlike its violent predecessor, the third intifada is mirroring its original as a non-hierarchal mostly non-violent protest against the occupation and its by-products.

Signs of this uprising can be seen across the events of the past few weeks. Khadar Adan’s 67 day hunger strike put a spotlight on administrative detention orders and created parallels to Bobby Sands. Adan’s protest went global, trending worldwide on Twitter and gathering media attention. His success at getting a release date has lead Hana Shalabi – another detainee – to strike, which has now been going for two weeks.

Rock throwing and protests on Temple Mount are also on the rise. These can be traced back to a forged leaflet. The Electronic Intifada picked up this leaflet and created a Twitter rumor of imminent take over. Though the rumours were quashed, last Friday there were riots at Al-Aqsa as a group of religious Jews ascended Temple Mount. Jews and tourists ascending is nothing new, but in the current climate it was seen as a fulfillment of the rumor. Thinking that they were trying to take over the site, stones were thrown and the police got involved.

This past Friday also marked the anniversary of the massacre in the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron. Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian worshippers and lead to the closing of Shuhada Street. During a demonstration to re-open it on Friday Fadi Quaran, a Palestinian-American who is a leader in the non-violent protest movement was detained. His case, like Adan’s has also gone global.

People visiting the West Bank have noted the tension in the air and the protests that are happening week in and week out, increases in rock throwing and spontaneous protests. The Israeli’s are also not deaf to this noting that the status quo is leading to violence. This awareness however has not stopped some parts of the government fanning the flames with plans for a rail network across the West Bank surfacing.

Like many of the protests around the region a big kick off event was not required. Tunisia had a single spark that grew into a conflagration and the West Bank is simmering. More important then noting its start, the real question is what will end this new intifada?

Diplomats like saying that the Middle East Peace process is like a bicycle, you must keep cycling or you fall over. To people on the ground the bicycle fell over in 2000 and despite various diplomatic efforts, has not recovered since. The first Intifada awakened Israel to the Palestinian national desires in a real way. The second Intifada killed trust between the peoples, what will the third bring?

The vacuum of vision and action at an elite level has led Palestinians to looking for new options. A leaderless, non-hierarchal movement can certainly motivate a frustrated people to protest and rise up, but the real challenge is to where.

Many in the non-violent movement focus on a rights based discourse and are ambivalent on the final political settlement. Protester’s experience will determinate their support for various positions rather then a vein hope of the establishment of a particular political goal.

Returning to the two-state compromise, this third Intifada could be the final part in the trilogy; all be it with two alternative endings. The first closes the circle that the first intifada started and manages to motivate the pieces on the map to move into the mutually acceptable two-state compromise that has the full backing of the international community and is enshrined in various UN resolutions and peace treaties.

In the other ending the third intifada implodes the two-state compromise, kicked off 20 odd years ago, with Palestinians moving away from self-determination and into uncharted territory.

The two-state compromise has not run out of time, the status quo of conflict management has. As true urgency and pressure returns alongside this new uprising, we should not see the removal of options, but the death of the status quo.