Working on peace at a grassroots level

A troubled land. Photo by Tim Sisarich

A troubled land. Photo by Tim Sisarich

My first experience of Israel and Palestine was in 2001 during ‘the second intifada’ or Palestinian uprising, something I would learn was a pretty serious time to be a visitor in this heavily disputed land – the peace process had collapsed, again, and as a result, the two sides were engaged in what would become five years of ever-escalating violence. I was there for two reasons – to see for myself what was happening in this stunningly troubled place. The news outlets of the world were so polarised that I felt it was impossible to grasp the tail of the truth, let alone the truth itself. The second reason, looking back, was somewhat idealistic and fanciful – I felt compelled to do something that would show these distressed peoples in this disputed land that they weren’t forgotten and there were people in the world who believed they all deserved to raise their children in peace.

What I had initially intended as a three-month experience turned into 18 months that would change the course of my life and that continues to grip my thoughts. But as I boarded the plane that would take me from that complex land, I was pretty deflated – the more I had learnt of these two peoples and the tiny piece of dirt they were squabbling over, the more I felt and understood their hopelessness.

A troubled land. Photo by Tim Sisarich

I’d come to realise that since May 14, 1948 – the date Israel celebrates becoming a nation and the date the Palestinian people commemorate Nakba or ‘the Catastrophe’ – there have been at least a dozen Arab/Israeli peace agreements and treaties signed. Governments from around the world send in envoys with grand ideas of peace, but leave with the same results of all who have been before them. Powerhouse players like the US, Russia, the EU and the UN all had a crack at sweeping up the mess. The US wheeled in some pretty big guns too – Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama can all be seen holding their hands aloft Israeli and Palestinian leaders, claiming the miracle breakthrough.

But, at the end of the day, not one has managed to bring about any significant change to the reality of the situation for the families living in either Palestine or Israel. The wall might be stopping terrorist attacks, but it’s not stopping the conflict and it most definitely has not led to peace between these two peoples. For most of the 20 years since that time, I have been watching hopefully, but still find myself wondering if it’s time to give up on a peace-filled Israel/Palestine. If governments talking about peace isn’t working to make peace happen, what can?

Photo by Tim Sisarish.

I was discussing this issue with Tamara Kramer, who works with Abraham Infinitives, an Israeli-based organisation running projects focused on building co-existence and ‘a shared society for Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel’. She told me something quite profound, that outsiders don’t see the internal issues of Israelis and Palestinians, they only focus on the violence and the peace process.

“People within Israel are in conflict and are just trying to get by. They just don’t get the chance to connect. But there are some incredible initiatives trying to help.”

So, I started investigating and interviewing ordinary people willing to try anything at the grassroots level, in an attempt to do what the peace process has failed to do – use whatever they had to create reconciliation and peaceful coexistence that, according to Abdessalam Najjar of Oasis for Peace, is built on a mutual understanding and respect.

Oasis for Peace or ‘Wahat al-Salam’ in Arabic and ‘Neve Shalom’ in Hebrew is doing a pretty good job of living this out too. It is a small village set up by Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews with the express intention of peace building. They’re doing this through bilingual schools, where children from both sides are taught how to learn together, play together and bring their families together.

I was to discover there are actually dozens of grassroots initiatives that have sprouted up and are working extremely hard to foster positive connections between Palestinian and Jew, carving crevices of hope in the shadow of the dying political peace process.

I discovered Israeli musician David Broza, who says there are many on both sides using music and art as vehicles to speak positively into the conflict. His 2013 album, East Jerusalem / West Jerusalem, brings some of these artists together, “blending the two cultures, languages and styles into a powerful statement about collaboration and coexistence”. There are other villages like Oasis of Peace too, as well as groups like Surfing 4 Peace and Runners Without Borders. There are grass roots initiatives and community-focused businesses like the Galilee-based Sindyanna, which has built a business model that seeks to create complete equality between the two sides. They do this by attempting to empower women and actively raising the working and living standards of Palestinians.

Salim Munayer is the Palestinian Founder and Executive Director of Musalaha, meaning ‘reconciliation’ in Arabic. Drawing from almost 30 years of, in his words, “bringing Israelis and Palestinians together”, he told me the political path to peace will never work and that without grassroots peace efforts, there’ll never be no peace.

Surprisingly, this sentiment was echoed with every call and with every meeting I had. In fact, I was somewhat taken aback with how many of these community leaders intentionally steered the conversation away from the political problems. They always seemed to bring it back to the importance of opening the hearts and minds of the conflicting parties to the humanity of the other. Those, by the way, are the words of Rabbi Hana Schlesinger, the director of International Relations at the organisation Roots.

Rabbi Hana got into this whole business almost by chance. After what he calls “a radical change”, he realised that like most Israeli Jews, he’d never met his Palestinian neighbours. He had worked with them, he’d caught their taxis and he’d bought produce from their markets, but he had no friends who were Palestinian. The reality, he would tell me, was that he didn’t even see them as human beings. This is because outside of the grassroots initiatives I was starting to get introduced to, Palestinians and Jews can be total strangers to each other, viewing the other with ignorance, fear and distrust, cultivating a mindset that they don’t belong, competing in their pain and suffering.

A wall dividing Israel and Palestine. Photo by Tim Sisarich

Rabbi Hana introduced me to Ali Abu Awwad, the founder of Taghyeer, Palestine’s first national non-violence movement that challenges the Palestinian peoples’ actions and attitudes. He’d explain that it was precisely because of the pain and suffering that the impact of these grassroots initiatives seems to be working. The pain and fear is their shared experience. Under the political process to find peace, “both sides act as victims. This has caused them to fall into an endless cycle of victimhood,” he said. But, as I was learning, when two people sit across from each other in a shared experience of dialogue and genuinely communicate, they learn to see each other – the most potent example of this is hearing of Palestinian and Jewish mothers crying together over sons killed in the conflict.

Abu Awwad was adamant. “Peace is possible, but it will only come when both sides learn how to fight for each other’s good,” he said.

Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish had every excuse to dispute that sort of idealism – Israeli cannon fire accidentally ripped his home and life apart, brutally killing three of his daughters before his eyes. Yet, his experience has led him to believe, “not in endless cycles of revenge and retribution, but coexistence that is built on a desperate need to talk to each other, to listen, to act”.

The threads were starting to come together. Dr Abuelaish’s words sounded very similar to those of Musalaha’ Salim Munayer: “Community needs to be created where both sides are focused on loving and caring for the other.” And those words seemed exactly like they were the words of Surfing 4 Peace’s Arthur Rashkovan, when he talked about his organisation not existing just to get kids surfing. “It’s to get them surfing together … understanding follows and with it, peace,” he said.

But there was another piece to this puzzle starting to emerge, something that in hindsight is so incredibly obvious, something else Tamara Kramer from Abraham Initiatives mentioned, almost in passing. How can cultural bridges be built, even at a grassroots level, between Israelis and Palestinians when they can’t actually communicate – they don’t share a common language. Erez Bar, of A New Way, told me that this only reinforces the separateness between the two peoples.

According to Bar, A New Way was established with a “goal of creating deep-rooted and sustainable change in the relationships between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens, starting with school children”. The idea is that, in learning each other’s language, walls and fears are dismantled, resulting in students truly seeing and hearing each other. Reconciliation or ‘Co-Connection’, as Hand in Hand’s Lee Gordon terms it, is birthed from these kinds of interactions. Hand in Hand has set up bilingual schools all across Israel, developing and supporting social inclusion and civic equality in Israel. Gordon told me his organisation has seen first-hand the powerful impact on both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs that learning the other’s language brings, “desensitising them for good”.

Grassroots initiatives run by both Israeli and Palestinian, seeking each other, in the words of Abu Awwad, as “partners, not neighbours” may just be a key that can unlock a shared future in a land that both feel such deep belonging to.