Guest author: Alicia Herrick
If anywhere needs conflict resolution and reconciliation, it’s the Middle East, right? For many Americans, the region containing Israel and Palestine is the first place that comes to mind when they think about international conflict and the need for peacemaking. Some Americans believe that this area has always been in conflict, since the “beginning of time” (as one family member told me when they learned about my interest in the area) and will continue to be in conflict for perpetuity. I was curious to visit Israel and Palestine for myself and gain a personal perspective on the events taking place there and was delighted when an opportunity arose through the Center for Peacemaking & Conflict Studies at Fresno Pacific University. As a student with CPACS, I would have a chance to travel with a group of FPU professors and students to meet with individuals directly affected by the conflict. I waited with anticipation for this chance to gain a new perspective on this area of the world so fraught with disagreement and violence.
Our group traveled throughout Israel and the West Bank for two weeks at the end of May, and during that time we met with representatives from over twenty different organizations, political parties, communities or historical sites who could provide us with insights on their work and the nature of the conflict. As a student and practitioner of Restorative Justice, I was most curious to learn about any reconciliation efforts that were taking place. I, along with several other members of our group, longed to see people from the different sides of the conflict meeting with each other to gain understanding into the mindset of the other. I soon learned, however, that while there were numerous organizations leading talking circles such as these, some believed that it was not the appropriate time for efforts such as these.
Here’s a bit of context for those who may be unfamiliar with the current situation there. In 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met with PLO leader Yasser Arafat and together with Bill Clinton they negotiated the Oslo Accords. This agreement arranged for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to transition into Palestinian control over the following few years. Although the Israeli government has since relinquished the Gaza Strip, they have maintained a significant military presence in the West Bank to this day, which leads many human rights organizations to refer to this region as occupied territory. We took a tour with one such organization, the Israeli Coalition Against Housing Demolition (ICAHD), and the tour leader showed us the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank as well as sites where the Israeli government had overseen the demolition of Palestinian-owned homes. Despite the opposition from the UN and international human rights groups, the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that Israel will never give up security control over the West Bank due to concerns about terrorist attacks.
In the midst of this situation, groups such as the Interfaith Encounter Organization, with whom we also met during our trip, work to bring together Jews, Muslims, and Christians of various ethnicities to have constructive dialogue about topics of interest and about the conflict. They hope that through these conversations, relationships and empathy will build, leading to greater understanding and a greater capacity for peace processes between the various groups in the future. As a Restorative Justice practitioner in my mediation work at VORP/CJC, I was particularly intrigued by this group and others like it. However, in our conversation with Ruth, our tour guide from ICAHD, we learned that many in the activist communities working to end the occupation are opposed to reconciliatory efforts between the two groups. This is because they believe the focus on reconciliation is misplaced; as Ruth put it, “how can we work toward relationship building when the occupation is still taking place? Any such efforts simply normalize the current situation.” Another way that she put this was “co-resist not co-exist;” Israelis and Palestinians should be working side by side to end the occupation and bring justice, instead of reconciling with each other before this justice is achieved.
I had to wrestle with this perspective, but after some thought, I began to understand it. After all, how could we talk about peace on an individual level when state-sponsored violence was still occurring on both sides? Alternatively, how can peace ever be approached if there are few significant relationships and little dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians? Many of the people that we met with informed us that there is very little interaction between these two groups, despite them living side by side in a region not much bigger than the state of New Jersey. Many cities are ethnically and religiously homogenous and even in cities that are mixed, such as Jerusalem, there is still much segregation. In the end, I concluded that there is a place for these reconciliation efforts. For peace to be achieved, there must be dedicated individuals and organizations working on all levels whether individual or institutional. But, if they only build relationship without also addressing the experiences of injustice that are taking place, perhaps they are missing a key component in moving the peace process forward. There can be no true reconciliation or peace without justice also.