Combatants in Pursuit of Peace

June 24, 2006

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    Landrum Bolling, Mercy Corps director at large Photo:

JERUSALEM -- The political climate in this tense capital of the divided so-called Holy Land, as I have known it over the past 40 years, has never been worse than it is today.
The Israelis are suspicious, hostile, hate-filled toward the Palestinians -- and contemptuously self-righteous. "Everything that has gone wrong is the fault of the Palestinians. We can't make peace because the Palestinians don't want peace; they only want to drive the Jews into the sea." So say many angry, cynical Israelis.

The Palestinians are bitter, angry, hate-filled toward the Israelis -- and contemptuously self-righteous. "Everything that has gone wrong is the fault of the Israelis. They don't want peace with us. They don't even want to talk with us or negotiate. They only want to keep us imprisoned under a harsh military occupation that makes our daily lives more unbearably miserable than they have ever been since the State of Israel was created." So say many despairing, cynical Palestinians.

Such deep-seated feelings, nourished and passionately held by many people on both sides, make it difficult to get any serious discussion of peacemaking under way these days. Each side can put forth strong arguments for their pessimism -- and for fixing blame on their adversaries.

The Israelis point to the horrors of suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed more than a thousand Israelis, including many women and children, over the past five years. The Palestinians point to the Israeli artillery shelling and helicopter gunship attacks that, during the same period, have killed more than three times as many Palestinians, including many women and children.

Each side justifies its murderous actions as proper, necessary and morally appropriate retaliation for the murderous actions committed the day before, or a week ago, by the other side. This cycle of tit-for-tat reprisals has no ending. Each side can go on forever claiming that it is only acting in "self-defense." Each side can insist, as they like to do, that "force, violence, is the only language they understand."

Yet in the midst of this seemingly hopeless madness, there are courageous, independent-thinking individuals: Palestinians and Israelis, who are saying "Enough of this craziness. There is another way."
In the last few days I have met with representatives of three different joint Israeli-Palestinian groups that are trying to make a difference in the relationships of their two peoples.

One group calls itself IPNP (Israeli-Palestinian Negotiating Partners). They have been holding joint seminars on the processes of conflict analysis and negotiation for about five years. Somewhat academic in nature, these meetings have brought together young technicians, from the fields of diplomacy, politics, security services, and business to discuss the various ways of dealing with disputes. Specialists developed under the Harvard Negotiation Program at Harvard Law School have guided these training seminars. But now IPNP members are organizing their own training programs. A new objective they have just set for themselves: to do "scenario planning" on practical options for dealing with the big unresolved issues in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, such as refugees, settlements, boundaries, the future of Jerusalem.

A second group is the Israeli-Palestinian Circle of Bereaved Families: parents of children who have been killed by the weapons used by the other side. Their principal activity is to go in joint teams to Israeli and Palestinian high schools and make speeches and stimulate discussion about dialogue and understanding between the two sides and to create hope for reconciliation. They say their visits stir up a lot of emotion, but clearly "open up the hearts, open up the minds."

The third group calls itself Combatants for Peace. These are young ex-fighters, both Palestinians and Israelis, mostly in their 20s, who have engaged in violence against the other side and have become convinced that "warfare is not the way." Some of them had become horrified at what they had done and are now searching in partnership with their presumed enemies to find the path to accommodation and peace.

Will any of these groups succeed? Only time can tell. Already, their very existence is a hopeful sign that changes at the grass roots can come in individual lives, even in the midst of a time of violence.

Editor's Note: Mercy Corps' Conflict Management Group, based in Cambridge, Mass., has provided process assistance to the Israeli-Palestinian Negotiating Partners since 2001. This article originally appeared in the Richmond Palladium-Item.