Reconciliation with Separation: Is it Possible in the Palestinian-Israeli Case?

Monday 30 May 2005, by Dr. Bernard SABELLA

For some time now I have been pondering this question. As the Arab-Israeli conflict is coming to a new phase characterized principally by the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, on the one hand and by the construction of the separation wall in the West Bank, on the other the rationale behind reconciliation work, as principally attempted in encounter groups, is in need of some serious examination.

First, some encounter groups are motivated by the wistful thinking that changing hearts, primarily Arab Palestinian hearts, would lead to peace and eventual reconciliation. This assumes that Israeli Jewish hearts have already been changed and won. This changing of Arab Palestinian hearts would accordingly enhance the security of the state of Israel, in the long run. Thus winning Arab Palestinian hearts is an important premise for carrying encounters, exchanges, dialogues and all sorts of activities that would encourage or directly lead into reconciliation.

Second, some encounter groups are motivated by a genuinely common utilitarian concern such as the environment or school children living in a situation of conflict. While these groups are directing their attention to practical subjects and issues, the fact of the coming separation would render their work less feasible particularly if there is a need for regular ongoing face to face encounters.

Third, there are encounter groups of the "peace, dialogue and coming-together industry". These are often supported by rich and powerful donors often states or confederation of states. While these groups have mushroomed after the Oslo accords of 1993, they mostly rely for their "success" on meetings outside the country and on the generosity of the Israeli authorities in granting permits to Palestinians in order to participate in meetings and encounters inside Israel. With separation, the raison d’être behind such groups becomes less convincing especially so since Israel is planning that by 2008 no Palestinian would be allowed to enter its territory freely.

Fourth, there are encounter groups that are basically interest driven. Here you find the economists, the go-betweens in a variety of areas and some professional groups. While separation would not altogether stop the work of these groups, it would drastically transform their relationship as the practical and the mutual interests would become more and more governed by the reality of separation. But since some of these groups survive strictly on mutual interests and gains, they will find formal channels to conduct their activities. Hence, one can characterize these groups as elitists and profit-driven.

Fifth, the international encounter groups that are committed to an agenda of ending occupation and assisting Arabs and Israelis to reconcile would themselves need to examine their role given the reality of separation. No longer could groups originating in Europe or North America or elsewhere offer their services for the cause of reconciliation in Israel and Palestine treating the two as one geographic entity. This would have implications for their work and methods of intervention.

Sixth, separation will not be complete since large chunks of the Northern West Bank, East Jerusalem and Hebron areas would be annexed to Israel through the illegal settlements that have been implanted there. This would pause a particular challenge to all those who work for a lasting and just peace. In particular, these illegal Israeli settlements would interfere with the physical and geographical contiguity of the hoped for Palestinian state to the extent of questioning its viability.

Seventh, the separation wall and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip are causing and will continue to cause serious infractions on the Human Rights of Palestinians. Encounter groups, if serious about their work, should redirect all their energies and good will towards exposing these infractions rather than to dwell, as some of them insist, on the importance of changing attitudes. Attitudes will change only when the Israeli practices on the ground respect international law and guarantee the basic rights of our Palestinian people.

Eighth, reconciliation does not go with separation since reconciliation requires face to face encounter. I would ask anyone who had attempted reconciliation from behind separation walls and checkpoints to inform us of the success of such attempts. I am not being harsh or cynical but I am suggesting that most of the work for Israeli peace groups should be focused on the Israeli scene. Likewise, for international groups, the work required is to expose how the separation policy of the state of Israel is impacting, among other things, the human rights of Palestinians negatively.

Ninth, I feel that the immediate and most important agenda for us Palestinians is our own society and its building. We are in need of reconstruction not simply in terms of institutionalization of forms of governance but also in all areas of life. These challenges are at the top of our national priority as Palestinians. The disadvantages and inequities that will continue to be with us because of Israeli separation and continued occupation practices need to be addressed as we try and rebuild our society. The support and solidarity of Israeli, international and all peace loving groups will continue to be important in sustaining us as we struggle to build a democratic and a free Palestinian state.

Executive Secretary, Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees, Middle East Council of Churches, Jerusalem, and Associate Professor of Sociology, Bethlehem University, Bethlehem, Palestine.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

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