By Kobi Skolnick
In the last few weeks, there have been many developments in the Middle East conflict. People around the world have been following the speeches of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as Hosni Mubarak’s essay in the Wall Street Journal. This high-level discussion signals a shift in policy and progress toward peace. However, some skeptics wonder if this is just another phase in a cycle of false hope. After all, it is not difficult to imagine another suicide bombing in one of Israel’s cities, or an ill-timed Israeli Defense Force operation in the Palestinian Territories, both of which would immediately make peace look like a mere fantasy.
This danger has always existed in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Even when top leaders sign treaties, on the ground there remains a deep enmity between Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab world. With this in mind, it should be clear that the situation on the ground must change in order to transform the conflict, and pressure must come from the people as well as from leaders. Yet, for years there has been a vast disinterest in supporting peace-building efforts on the grassroots level.
Changing the reality on the ground is not an easy task. As a former Israeli settler, I have spent many years working with grassroots peace initiatives, and at times I have found the obstacles overwhelming. Between Israelis and Palestinians is a dynamic of extreme stereotyping and skewed perspectives. For many Israelis, a Palestinian is seen as someone who would kill them if he had the chance. For Palestinians, a Jewish-Israeli is either a settler with a gun or a soldier at a checkpoint. This fear and paranoia have created a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies and violence, and in the last six years the two communities have become increasingly radicalized. On both sides, a new generation of young people is being raised up to espouse the belief that killing is the only way to solve differences.
I understand these feelings of passion and hate. Growing up, I experienced violent trauma when a group of students were killed near me, and this trauma left me with overwhelming hatred and the awful desire to take revenge. This desire was directed against an enemy that had no face and no name. When I imagined the Palestinians I would kill, I imagined only cruel expressions and fiery eyes filled with hate toward me and my family. Now I realize that this image was closer to that of an animal than to a human being.
Interestingly enough, it was not speeches that gave me a new perspective. Although great speeches are important, it requires planning to create the mechanisms by which Israelis and Palestinians can meet and work together. For me, I only changed my perspective when I realized that Israelis and Palestinians could relate as humans, regardless of our divergent narratives. This realization came when I met with Palestinians in a safe setting, where I could share my pain and ask the questions I had always wanted to ask. Even in my work, I have found these meetings are the single-most effective tool for neutralizing radicalization. People need a place to express the trauma of loss and grief, in a forum where they can share the injustices they have suffered. Through this process, old perceptions erode and it becomes possible to see the human on the other side.
Because I have been involved in many projects like this, I have learned how to break down the image of Palestinians as a homogeneous enemy entity. I am aware that there are Palestinians who still want to kill me just because I am Jewish-Israeli, but I also know there are many more with whom I can share my thoughts, ideas, and dreams. Today I have many dear Palestinian friends who I feel delighted to share moments in life with, and for me this makes the prospect for peace more palpable.
As the Israelis and Palestinians seem poised on the edge of entering peace talks yet again, I find myself fearful that the talks will end as they have before, with a major violence incident reinforcing false assumptions, and with extremist factions celebrating the continued bloodshed. We cannot let that happen. Our generation can choose to change our ways and in turn change our future. We need to go beyond government negotiation and political tradition, and increase our support for people-to-people efforts on the grassroots level.
In response to current events, people sometimes ask me “Is peace really possible?” The unspoken question is “Is peace practical? Isn’t it just chasing after the wind?” Although years ago I might have answered differently, today I can truly say yes, peace is possible. It is not magic, and it is not an empty fantasy. When people meet with each other and break down preconceptions, peace becomes as palpable and real as any stone or wall, and just as lasting.© Marc Gopin