Making room to speak of peace

Local groups work to restore human connection in Israel, Palestine conflict

Every truce in the month-long battle between Israel and Gaza hangs on a slender, fragile thread, so the bigger question is whether Israelis and Palestinians can ever begin to rebuild the tenuous relationship they had been working on before the fighting began.

“This war has added to the dehumanization and passionate racism on both sides,” says Paula Green of Leverett, who has worked on and off over the past 20 years to bring Arabs and Jews together as founder of the Amherst-based Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and as director of the Conflict Transformation Across Cultures program at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt.

Even if the current truce, begun on Tuesday, holds, she says, the bigger question is how to build trust between the Israeli and Palestinian people themselves to support the work of reconciliation and true peacebuilding.

Everyday relations between Palestinian and Israeli people themselves, said Green, have “slid all the way back” to what they were 10 years or more ago, when it became illegal for the two groups to cross back and forth between Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. As the recent conflict escalated, she said, “The younger (Israeli) population has never interacted with Palestinians other than as soldiers, and they’ve never visited Palestine, even though they live close by.”

Yet a group of former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian militants have turned their backs on violence and toward one another, as one of the only remaining organizations able to bridge what appears a growing divide.

Combatants for Peace, which Green has worked with through Karuna Center to do nonviolence training, strategic planning and organization building, continues trying to bring about dialogue despite loud opposition of extreme voices on both sides.

“It’s very hard time for them,” said Green, who remains in regular communication with Israeli and Palestinian leaders of the group, with which she worked last year and again this year and has plans to work with again this fall. “They’re seeing so much violence, such separation, such dehumanization. But they’re holding together. It’s remarkable, and it’s very important, and it’s symbolic of what can be done.”

Combatants for Peace, which was formed in 2005 as the only bi-national activist peace organization working on the Israel-Palestine conflict, has organized protests in recent weeks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to call for an end of the violence that has so far resulted in the deaths of more than 1,800 Palestinians and nearly 75 Israelis.

Because they themselves have been part of the violent struggle on either side of the divide, these peace activists have an added credibility and authority when they say, again and again, that violence cannot be a solution in their conflict.

“These men and women, they’ve made that turn; they’ve seen it,” said Green.

“In the last two rallies we were concerned about violence, about gangs of hooligans,” said Itamar Feigenbaum, a 42-year-old Israeli who joined CFP two years ago after working to set up a bi-cultural kindergarten in his community between Haifa and Nazareth. The Tel Aviv rally it organized with another organization, attended by more than 6,000 people, had police protection and a police barricade with a large perimeter, he said, but there was “a lot of tension, with violent outbursts of yelling and screaming.”

The organization, which has another rally planned for this weekend and which is also continuing projects such as a protest of a new planned Israeli settlement he said would completely cut off the West Bank, uses a variety of nonviolent actions — where possible, with Palestinians and Israelis together — to bring work for peace. They range from street theater “to holding a mirror up” to reflect relationships between the two nations, to arranging mixed-group soccer games to actively demonstrating cooperation, even in the face of soldiers’ rubber bullets or stone-throwing from the crowd.

“You need to hold a picture of the ‘other’ as a human being,” Feigenbaum said. “You can only achieve that when you meet, when you see the person in the flesh.”

Feigenbaum said the motivation to join the organization of several hundred members — not all of them active — was that even though there is a Bedouin village near where he lives with some commercial activity between the two, “there is no contact. It’s like an island.”

Green said, “Hamas is not the face of all Palestinians any more than (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu is the face of all Israelis or that U.S. Congress is face of all Americans. The face of all Palestinians and Israelis is nuanced and complex, and in the knowing of each other, you discover common bonds and common ground. It’s in the not knowing that stereotypes can flourish.”

All of the bi-national work that has been done between the two Intifadas and the Oslo Peace Accord, she said, “was for express purpose of building consensus, trust, empathy, so common problems can be solved together. That’s all shattered now, and the young people have had no experience of that. They’re the ones who are running the government making decisions, and they’re making those decisions in the absence of any relationships across the divide.”

Yet Feigenbaum said, “One of the biggest question marks for today is we don’t know how bad the divide has gotten,” and he said that the work of Combatants for Peace, four of whose members came to this area to speak last fall, will continue.

“I feel Combatants for Peace is actually a model for the partnership Israelis and Palestinians to work together to change the reality,” he said. “This is the energy and hope of us working together.”

On the Web: www.cfpeace.org

www.karunacenter.org You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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