A series of articles written over a one year period from the perspective of a practising conflict professional.
Updated Feb 25, 2014
Israel-Palestine Hard Conversations #1
1. Why is it so difficult to talk about Israel-Palestine and so easy to look the other way?
2. Why are people who criticize Israeli policies called anti-Semitic or “self-hating Jews”?
3. Why is the tragic situation in Israel-Palestine “too complicated” for the average person to understand?
These are a few of the questions that arose when Michael and I began our study of Middle East politics post 9/11. In an effort to understand that tragic event in New York, we decided to learn about tensions in the Middle East. Our research led us to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to US involvement as a primary source of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. We focused our attention on understanding that particular struggle.
This is the first of a series of articles I am writing in an effort to share what we are learning, to raise questions, and hopefully to engage others in dialogue. There is an international movement working to bring about a peaceful ending to this struggle (which has lasted nearly a century). As humans, we need to involve ourselves; the bitter and enduring conflict in this region diminishes us all.
And now for possible answers to these 3 questions:
1. Talking about this issue pushes many buttons. It brings to mind the Holocaust and the terrible atrocities perpetuated then. It raises guilt. It is fraught with danger. It is too confusing, too complicated, too discouraging, too far away, too intractable, too “irrelevant”.
2. People critique other governments’ policies and practices all the time. It helps us chart our own evolving course, and to define what we mean by democracy, equality and human rights. What are acceptable standards for how humans treat one another? In the case of Israel, accusations of anti-Semitism are a way to shut down criticism of policies which discriminate against its Muslim and Christian populations.
3. This is another way to silence criticism of the state’s policies. The average person can indeed understand what is going on. As a working mediator since 1985, I want to offer my assessment and analysis of this struggle. I will try to break the problem down into manageable parts, and to hold up an honest mirror to this tragic conflict. I will then offer ways to support the work toward peace.
First, my biases, beliefs and assumptions:
a) People should live in equality.
b) Everyone makes mistakes, even when intentions are honourable. The challenge is to own up and do the right thing.
c) Church and State should be kept separate.
d) Democracies involve one person, one vote.
e) Both Israelis and Palestinians:
· have taken fear-based, retaliatory actions that jeopardize their interests in peace and security
· are afraid that “the other” is seeking to deny their right to exist (“delegitimization”)
· have had leadership whose actions harm their own people’s interests
· love the land and do not intend to leave.
f) Zionism is the idea and the political process that led to the current situation.
Israel-Palestine Hard Conversations #2
Zionism: what is it?
Zionism began as a movement to create a homeland for the Jewish people. The late 19th century was a time when many peoples in central and eastern Europe were exploring ideas of national identity. Shared homeland, language and ethnic identity were the core values of these movements. It was also a time of rampant and ugly anti-Semitism. The “father” of Zionism is a man named Theodor Herzl who, in 1897, created the Zionist Organization, whose purpose was to promote Jewish nationalism. That was also the year of the first Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland.
According to one of Israel’s New Historians, Shlomo Sand, “Zionism was part of the last wave of nationalist awakening in Europe, and coincided with the rise of other identity-shaping ideologies on the continent.”  Zionists wanted a separate state for the Jews, and several countries were considered as possible homes, including Uganda, Madagascar and Palestine.
Early Zionism was a non-religious nationalistic movement; Orthodox Jews at the time did not want religious values replaced with nationalist ones. “Most rabbis… regarded mass return to the homeland before the arrival of the messiah as a rebellion against God.”
Nonetheless, the Bible was turned by secular Zionists “from scripture to national epic,” and the idea of “returning to the homeland” gained momentum. When two rabbis were sent to Palestine (then part of the Ottoman empire) to explore that possibility in 1897, they cabled back: “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man”. 
Lobbying European powers and Britain, in particular, led to the Balfour Declaration in 1914, and the promise of a Jewish homeland. At the post-WWI peace negotiations in Paris, 1919, the Ottoman Empire was divvied up, Palestine came under the British Mandate and the “promise” came closer to a reality. The Palestinian people were not consulted. 
In the 1920’s, enter Ze’ev Zabotinsky, an émigré from Russia, who introduced the more militant Revisionist Zionism, whose aim was to secure the whole of Palestine for the Jews. (Today in Israel, the current right-wing government of Netanyahu and the Likud Party are the direct descendants of Zabotinsky, whose influence was enormous.)
Fast forward to WWII, the Holocaust, and the 1947 UN Plan to partition Palestine into two states. Rejected as a matter of principle by the Palestinians, and accepted only in part by Jewish leaders, it led to fighting, the expulsion/flight of over 750,000 Palestinians and Israel’s Declaration of Independence in May, 1948. Israeli Independence Day is known to Palestinians as the “Nakba” (the “Catastrophe”). The site chosen for realization of the Zionist dream was the home of others who wanted to keep their land.
A further complication is that practice of the Jewish religion gradually became identified with Zionism. As one American Rabbi recently said: “Zionism has become the religion of American Jews. Even the Reform movement, the most liberal of the Jewish movements with a proud commitment to social justice and which prior to 1948 was opposed to Zionism, has made Zionism a core tenet of Judaism.” Zionism also holds huge sway with evangelical Christians in the US and Canada, who see a “return to Jerusalem” by the Jews as a necessary precursor to the Rapture.
Jewish people living outside of Israel are caught in a very difficult situation. Many feel deep loyalty to Israel, a loyalty inseparable from their religious beliefs. Despite the disagreement many have with Israeli policies, criticism is considered disloyal.
Zionism as an idea made sense back in the late 19th century. But is it possible for a state based solely on ethnicity and religion to be fully democratic? To be non-racist? And is it possible for people on both sides of such a system to remain free of hate?
Israel-Palestine Hard Conversations #3
Myths about Israel-Palestine
In last month’s article, I misspelled the name of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, who introduced “Revisionist Zionism” in Israel. Jabotinsky’s belief that nations arise from racial groups contributed to the continuing position that Israel must remain a “Jewish State”. He adopted a “Whole Land” approach to Eretz Israel (The Land of Israel), and also declared a Jewish right to political sovereignty over the whole area. 
It seems to me much current confusion around Israel-Palestine concerns how the story of Israel’s founding has been told. Until Ben Gurion’s personal diaries and Israeli military archives were declassified (early 80’s), the story was clouded by myths which were taught in schools and widely circulated throughout the diaspora. Here are a few such myths, together with what we now know happened:
“A Land without People for a People without Land.”
This slogan had broad reach among early Zionists, suggesting that Palestine was “empty” and unclaimed. In fact, post WWI, the British occupied Palestine, and their 1922 census showed: 78% Muslim, 11% Jewish, 9.6% Christian; total population 757,182. (They probably missed a few as well.) From 1924-1928, 67,000 Zionists immigrated to Palestine, raising Jewish population to 16%. Jewish people owned 4% of the land. 
In 1923, Jabotinsky wrote two important articles entitled The Iron Wall. He explained why a voluntary agreement with the Palestinians was impossible: “Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. This is how the Arabs will behave … as long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent ‘Palestine’ from becoming the Land of Israel.”  His solution: create an “iron wall” of Jewish military force rather than, as he said, hypocritically proclaim a willingness to negotiate with Palestinians. Jabotinsky took this approach to revise Jewish-Palestinian relations, with the expectation there would eventually be peaceful co-existence in a Jewish-led country. Many decades later, however, right-wing politicians have seen the iron wall “as an instrument for keeping the Palestinians in a permanent state of subservience to Israel”. 
“Palestinian people left their homes “voluntarily” in 1948 to make way for invading Arab armies bent on destroying the fledgling state of Israel.”
UN Resolution 181 (partition of Palestine into two states: 55 % Israel, 45% Palestine) was adopted November 29, 1947. While some Palestinians did leave to avoid the anticipated violence, the vast majority remained in their towns and villages. They did not have a military. Most who “left” were expelled from their homes and villages by the Jewish military, according to a blueprint called Plan Dalet, (“Plan D” ). It called for the “systematic and total expulsion [of Palestinians] from their homeland”.  Execution of Plan D was based upon detailed mapping of Palestinian villages, resources and leadership, known as the Village Files, compiled by Zionists in the 30’s. Israeli Ilan Pappe argues compellingly that we cannot understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today until we fully accept what actually happened in 1948.
Once Plan D was put into operation, it took a mere 6 months to uproot 700,000-750,000 Palestinians, destroy 531 villages and rid 11 city neighbourhoods of their inhabitants. Most of these villages were bulldozed and covered over by recreational parks and Jewish settlements. Yet scholars have unearthed and published maps and records of Palestinian life – including statistics on businesses, banks, and cultivated land all seized by the military and new immigrants. Oral histories add more. Miko Peled (whose grandfather signed Israel’s Declaration of Independence) tells how his mother refused a home in Jerusalem post-1948, knowing how many Palestinian owners had been forced out, their homes “ all seized by the Israeli army and given to Israeli families… the contents…which belonged to well-to-do families,…taken by looters”. To this day, there has been no compensation made on any level for what was taken.
Israel/Palestine Hard Conversations #4
How & Why a Mediator “took the blow” in 1948
“The peacemaker gets two-thirds of the blows.” This proverb was the title of a panel I was on many years ago at a Dispute Resolution conference. Each of us spoke of a time when, as mediators, the fury of a conflict became in some way directed at us, or we internalized the toxicity and suffered a “wound” because of it. Our stories ranged from serious teeth grinding to being attacked verbally.
In the story I am about to tell, the mediator was murdered. His name was Folke Bernadotte and he was head of the Swedish Red Cross during WWII, when he negotiated the release of approximately 31,000 prisoners from the Nazi death camps.
When the British, having set the stage for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, transferred their “Palestine Mandate” to the UN, Bernadotte was appointed as the very first UN Mediator (May 13,1948).
Though they had agreed to Bernadotte’s appointment, the Jewish Agency (Israelis’ de facto government) had concerns. The American section of the Jewish Agency executive cabled leader David Ben-Gurion that they feared the appointment of a mediator might “becloud the legality” of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, set for May 15, 1948. The date was actually moved a day forward, to May 14, so the Declaration would be a fait accompli before the mediator’s work began! 
The day after the Declaration, the Arab armies invaded. They had mixed motives. King Abdallah and the Arab Legion (British-trained) wanted to get for Jordan the areas the UN Partition Plan had allocated to Palestinians. The hobbled-together forces of Egyptians, Syrians and Iraqis knew they couldn’t defeat the highly-organized, well-equipped Israelis, but didn’t want Abdallah to realize his plans for his very own Hashemite kingdom. Palestinians had no military. According to Flapan, the 1948 War consisted of 6-7 weeks of heavy fighting, with several truces in between. 
These ‘truces’ were negotiated by Bernadotte. He “had arrived in Palestine on 20 May and stayed there until Jewish terrorists murdered him in September for having ‘dared’ to put forward a proposal to re-divide the country in half [as in the UN Plan], and to demand the unconditional return of all the refugees.” Ironically, the areas of Bernadotte’s proposal disputed by Israelis were boundaries, Palestinian right of return, and Jerusalem – the same areas of disagreement today, 64 years later.
Bernadotte and his American aide, Ralph Bunche, were both targeted for assassination by the Jewish Zionist group, LEHI (aka “Stern Gang”) who first used terror against the British in Palestine. Bunche wasn’t in the car when Bernadotte was killed. Instead, French UN observer Col.Andre Serot was sitting next to Bernadotte that fateful September 18. He had 18 bullets pumped into his body. Bernadotte was killed with a mere 6. LEHI (one of whose leaders was future Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir) was disbanded by Ben-Gurion, who spoke out strongly against the killings. Yet no one was ever charged or tried, and the assassin, Yehoshua Cohen, later became Ben-Gurion’s personal bodyguard.
The old saying, “All’s fair in love and war” offers temptation to minimize an event such as this, but not all old sayings are wise. The tragedy here is that a window of opportunity was closed at a time when resolution might have been negotiated. Not easily though. It’s now known that LEHI feared Bernadotte’s proposals would be accepted, but Israeli leaders had already decided to take the military option and continue fighting for territory. The US, Britain and the UN were behind the mediator. The Arab armies were defeated and wanted peace. Momentum was there.
Bunche won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping broker the 1949 Armistice. Had there been sustained pressure and support from the world community for a fair and just peace plan rather than a mere armistice, what might Israel-Palestine be today?
Israel-Palestine Hard Conversations #5
How a Mediator Frames Issues
Mediators are assumed to be nonbiased and neutral. Perhaps this explains why several people have asked me why my articles seem to show a “slant” in favour of the Palestinian people. How can I, as a mediator, show such bias? This isn’t surprising to me, as mainstream media have so long been pro-Israel that any recognition or raising of Palestinian interests or viewpoints risks being labeled anti-Semitic, let alone biased. This keeps criticism of Israeli policies to a minimum (see article #1, Sept., 2012).
When I took training to become a mediator in 1985, it dawned on me fairly early that we mediators of course are not always neutral, and as humans, we naturally have biases. Concern about neutrality and bias makes sense. They render a mediator unlikely to be equally fair to all involved. In self-assessing my appropriateness to act as mediator, I ask:
am I biased in this matter? And if so, am I capable of remaining objective and fair in my dealings with everyone involved? If not, it’s my ethical duty to step aside. (With even a perception of bias, I need to raise it and perhaps refer the matter to another mediator.)
American leaders acting as mediators during past Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” exemplify this problem; they were neither non-biased nor neutral, yet Palestinians generally have been blamed for the failure of these talks.
For me, another aspect of serving all disputants is the mediator task of stating the issues at stake in a way that fairly names the struggle the parties are grappling with. Trying to do this in an honest and concise way is a humbling task! When I am able to name what is at the heart of a dispute with clarity and kindness, the parties feel recognized, not blamed, tensions lessen, and they are more able to find their way forward.
With Israel-Palestine, one might name the struggle as: “how do these 2 peoples find a way to end the violence, ensure their own security, and negotiate a two-state solution?” One dilemma this statement presents is its built-in solution, one that the disputants themselves may not choose, and indeed, one that many say is now impossible due to Israel’s ongoing settlement building in the West Bank. It also fails to recognize the hugely disproportionate power held by Israelis over Palestinians. The statement suggests a negotiation between equals, and infers that all they have to do is “get back to the table” and talk it out reasonably.
It ignores the complex history between these conflicted peoples – the Balfour Declaration, the 1948 UN Partition Plan, the Nakba, the 1967 War, 2008’s “Operation Cast Lead”, etc. It ignores the very real oppression occurring now, where all Palestinians – whether forgotten inside Israel, being attacked by settlers in the West Bank, or locked inside the 6 x 26 mile “open-air prison” that is Gaza, – are denied basic rights enjoyed by Jewish Israelis, and equality under the law. It ignores the denial of access to water, the vast Separation Wall, the hundreds of checkpoints, the home and school demolitions, the land and sea blockade of Gaza, the Israeli-only road system through the West Bank, and the multitude of other indignities Palestinians endure daily.
From my mediator lens, such a situation is not amenable to a mediated/negotiated solution. The more appropriate frame is that of “victim-offender”, and in this case, the entity crying most loudly of its victimhood (Israel) is in fact the aggressor/offender.
In the Restorative Justice paradigm which I believe applies here, the aggressor is unlikely to take responsibility for its part in causing harm until held accountable by its community (the world of nations). Only then, and with much support, clarity and compassion, can those involved begin to restore and repair relationship. This is a big, but achievable task. It needs our voices and our involvement!
Israel-Palestine Hard Conversations #6
What exactly are the “Occupied Territories” (OPT) anyway?
These are the lands seized by Israel in the six day 1967 War; they include the West Bank (Palestinian land which had been under Jordanian control since the 1948 War), East/Arab Jerusalem (Palestinian), the Sinai (since returned to Egypt) and the Gaza Strip (controlled by Egypt after the 1948 War). Israel also occupies the Syrian Golan Heights. The Gaza Strip is mainly populated with refugees fleeing the Israelis in the 1948 War.
Sometimes the mainstream press simply refers to the OPT as “the territories”, kind of like the Northwest Territories, or the Yukon Territory. Military occupation is not so benign.
Israel rules the 4.5M Palestinians who live in the OPT, none of whom has a vote.
In the years post 1967 War, Israel arbitrarily “annexed” East/Arab Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (1981). These land takeovers are not recognized by the international community of nations. There is now a growing movement within Israel’s government to “annex” the PalestinianWest Bank, which is already referred to in Israeli maps as “Judea and Samaria”. As mediators well know, language shapes thinking.
The OPT amount to 22% of the total land of I-P. (The 1947 UN Partition Plan allocated 45% of the total land to Palestinians.)  OPT are of course, the very lands that would make up Palestine in a two state “solution”.
Since the 1967 War, Jewish settlers, officially unauthorized, have moved into these areas to establish permanent “facts on the ground”. This is illegal under International Law. Many of today’s settlers however, are ultra-Orthodox Zionists focused on gaining “redemption” through land acquisition; the only law they follow is Torah. As the “chosen people”, they believe God wants them to have all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Others have responded to massive subsidies from Israeli governments, growing the settlement population in the OPT from a scant few in 1967 to about 1/2 million today. Settlers have a vote in Israeli politics, their own roads, infrastructure, preferential access to Palestinian water, and the “protection” of the massive 400 km. apartheid wall snaking through the OPT.
Yet settlers in the OPT are not peaceably living their own lives amidst their Palestinian neighbours. Every single day, there are eyewitness reports of settler violence, ranging from spitting on little girls en route to school, to destruction of homes and olive trees by the thousands, to brutal assaults, arson and murder. These events, rarely reported in mainstream press, are invariably distorted by Israeli press as “defensive response to Palestinian provocation”. Israeli police tend to ignore the violence, protect the settlers, and arrest or tear gas those who protest. And this is in addition to daily assaults from the IDF.
The West Bank village of Bil’in has been the site of non-violent weekly protests for many years. (See Academy award-nominated movie, “Five Broken Cameras” to learn firsthand.) Palestinians say they will continue to resist until their voices are heard.
As for Gaza, it’s surrounded by towers manned by IDF snipers. For 1.5M Palestinians, all exits are controlled by Israelis. People spend hours, days, weeks, trying to exit for medical care, studies, family matters and work.  There’s a 1-2km. “buffer zone” inside Gaza, where IDF use live fire against “trespassers”. Many young children have been killed playing in or near that area, as well as in their own school playgrounds, and walking to and from school. There are currently 4,606 political prisoners in Israeli prisons, 194 of whom are children.
As a friend recently said, “We all feel so bad about the way the Jews were treated by the Nazis, we seem to collectively have turned a blind eye to the atrocities they have been committing in their own backyard”. Israelis naturally want to live in security. They cannot do that without making peace with Palestinians.
Israel-Palestine Hard Conversations #7
A Jewish Democratic State: Myth or Reality?
In discussions about Israel-Palestine, several friends have said to me, “But Israel is the Middle East’s only democracy!” My unasked question was, “What if you are not Jewish? Does democracy extend to you?” It seems that the concept of a Jewish state arose from European nationalist movements of the late 19th century and the ugly anti-Semitism practiced by so many for so long. Others held onto a literal interpretation of the Torah’s story of the “Promised Land”. Many Jews believed they needed a country that was Jewish to sustain their culture and religion. These were foundations of Zionism. Declaring the existence of the “Jewish State of Israel” in 1948 set the framework.
Israel considers itself “Jewish and democratic”. In the early days, the leading Zionists were not particularly religious. They wanted a secular state that was predominantly Jewish, from a social and cultural perspective. Many hoped the Palestinians would move to Arab countries. (Some thought that the Palestinians would welcome the Jews “as bearers of all the benefits of Western civilization”. ) But can a state that decides from the beginning to privilege one group of people over another be democratic? Is it possible to have a democracy when laws, institutions, land allocations – basically the whole structure of the country – are set up to preserve the special nature of one group?
As I see it, a few key principles of democracy are equality before the law, equal protection under the law, the right to vote, and separation of religion and state.
Some say that Israel can be Jewish or it can be a democracy for all its people, but it can’t be both. If it decides that Jewishness is the most important aspect of the state, what losses of democracy is it willing to accept to preserve its Jewishness? If it decides that democracy is the more important value, what losses to the primacy of Jewish culture and religion would occur? Would Jewish culture, religion and identity, as many fear, be wiped out?
As it stands now, there is a solid Jewish majority in Israel proper, with a 1.5 million Palestinian (Muslim and Christian) minority. If Israel were to annex the West Bank, as many in the leadership of Israel are now calling for, that majority would be substantially gone. Would the Palestinian population have the right to vote? Would Israel grant all its people equality under the law or would non-Jews remain the underclass? What would be the price for democracy and what is democracy worth? What would be the price to maintain Jewish privilege? Does separation of church and state mean the loss of religion?
Mediators often look for objective criteria to help people solve their problems. We ask: “What do other people do in similar circumstances? What “best practices” of others might help inform your decision-making?” In this case, one might ask: how do other countries protect minority rights? What has to happen for all inhabitants of a place to be free to practice their religions, preserve their cultures and live in relative peace with one another? If co-existence happened in the past, what prevents it from happening now?
A recent NYT Op-Ed concluded, “There is an unavoidable conflict between being a Jewish State and a democratic state…it’s time the question was discussed openly on its merits”.
Israel-Palestine Hard Conversations #8
The General’s Son, by Miko Peled
“The Answers Have Changed” – so said Einstein to his assistant when asked why he was giving his students the exact same test he had given them before. Miko Peled borrows this phrase to state his case as to why the “two state solution” is no longer the path to peace in Israel-Palestine. He doesn’t begin there though, and his journey to this viewpoint is a fascinating one.
His viewpoint of Israel-Palestine’s turbulent history makes for a gripping book, in which he details life as the son of famous Zionist General Matti Peled.
This book will intrigue anyone interested in Israel-Palestine and the ongoing struggle in that land. Miko was born in Jerusalem in 1961, into a well-known Zionist family. His grandfather signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence. His father, Matti Peled, was an officer in the 1948 war and a leading general in the 1967 war. He was an unapologetic “hawk”, whose son says “his insistence that Israel act decisively against Egypt in 1967 and his call for a preemptive strike (italics mine) were part of his legacy, and his harsh words to the hesitant prime minister in the meeting just prior to the war were never forgotten”.
Once Israel had conquered the West Bank, Golan Heights, Gaza and the Sinai, General Peled pushed hard for Israel to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people. He said that if this didn’t happen, the Israeli army would become an occupying army and would resort to brutal means to enforce the occupation. When the recognition he hoped for did not happen, he worked for peace until he died, arranging meetings with Israeli leaders and the PLO. He advocated a two-state solution while it was possible.
The book tells of two men’s awakening and deepening of purpose. Through a child’s eyes we see both families and top leaders struggling to find the way forward. The book travels back and forth in time, filled with stories of Miko’s grandparents and parents in the early days after Israeli independence was declared. Most moving was the tale of his mother’s refusal to accept a house belonging to Jerusalem Palestinians. “That I should take the home of a family that may be living in a refugee camp? The home of another mother?… I refused, and we all stayed living with Savta Sima (her mother), which was not easy for any of us. And to see the Israelis driving away with loot, beautiful rugs and furniture. I was ashamed for them.”
Miko’s dad was dedicated to Israel and the promise of a Jewish state. What changed Matti Peled from warrior to peacemaker? The dramatic story is detailed near the book’s end, but the shift occurred when Matti was Military Governor of Gaza. He left the military but used his connections to work for peace. Miko remembers his father’s mysterious travels to meet with Arab leaders to envision a two-state solution. General Peled was also a scholar, became fluent in Arabic, and taught Arabic literature in Israel. The book delivers a true insider’s perspective, describing the leaders, Israeli and Palestinian, who, in 1995, attended Matti’s funeral and sat Shiv’a with the family.
In the meantime, Miko the son earned a sixth-degree black belt in Karate, and carefully avoided political activism until his 13 year-old niece, Smadar, was killed by Palestinian suicide bombers in 1997. This family tragedy might well have hardened the hearts of the Peled family; instead, it led them all into peacemaking. Smadar’s mother, Nurit, is a well-known teacher and peace-activist. Her father Rami is active in the Bereaved Families Forum. Miko still has his Karate studio and close family in California, but is often in Israel-Palestine, working to build bridges with Palestinian allies, writing and speaking against the Occupation. The General would be proud of them.
A highly recommended read.
Israel-Palestine Hard Conversations #9
“Facts” Playwright comes to Hornby Island
Mediators work in contexts where opposing parties frequently differ strongly about “the facts” underlying their dispute. When debate about whose “facts” are correct becomes stalled, disputants reach impasse, the conflict bleeds and the “wound” deepens. Mediators understand that people can reach agreement and settle disputes without ever actually agreeing on what the “facts” are. Face is saved, closure is found and people are able to get on with their lives.
Arthur Milner dances with the ambiguities among what we want to believe, what really happened, and the “Facts”, in his play of the same name, set in the West Bank. Inspired by the true story of an unsolved murder of an American archeologist, he draws us in to a fictional relationship between two cops -Israeli and Palestinian- both interrogating an Israeli settler who is their prime suspect in the murder. One narrative running through this play has to do with the field of Biblical Archaeology and the dearth of evidence, of “facts”, to substantiate much of Old Testament/Tanakh writings – events such as the exodus, and the existence of the Kingdom of David. Who was responsible for the murder of this archaeologist? Who might’ve wanted him dead?
In Arthur’s play, the two detectives are searching for answers to these questions. They also represent two supposed “enemies” working together in a relationship of mutual respect and genuine affection for one another. That they are doing this at all invites
a strong response from audiences, who reportedly have been very intrigued by the many questions this play raises. The play, translated into Arabic and performed by Palestinians, completed a 9 city West Bank and Israel tour last September. That tour was followed by a month long, sold-out run in London, performed by a British cast.
We didn’t get the play to Hornby (not yet), but we had the playwright visit on April 30, as part of a tour co-sponsored by Canada Council and Playwrights Guild of Canada. Hornby’s own HITS joined in the sponsorship of the Hornby segment. Thank you HITS!
Arthur gave a reading at noon, a 2 hour interview with Michael McNamara on Scott Sweeney’s CHFR “Soapbox Radio”, and a fascinating talk and slide show about the play’s tour to about 50 people in the evening.
The son of a “right-wing Zionist” (Arthur’s language) whom Menachem Begin came to visit in Montreal, where he grew up, Arthur’s been exploring Israeli-Palestinian issues since he was 17. He’s traveled in the area a number of times. His slides about the play and commentary on the deprivation of Palestinians’ basic human rights and essential freedoms can be very unsettling for people not aware of day-to-day existence there. Arthur’s view is that resolution will only come about by individuals, organizations and countries “convincing/sanctioning/boycotting/forcing Israel back to its pre-67 borders.” Like me, he does not believe mediation or negotiation will work until Israel is truly in the process of withdrawal.
At the same time, he shows theatre’s power to build bridges, to raise important questions, and to help us imagine. He envisions, through his play, the possibility of civil and respectful relations between the two peoples. He uses the vehicle of theatre to spark engagement, especially from a public weary of hearing of this conflict and often feeling it’s insoluble.
One of the few things a mediator can actually bring to others’ conflict is the idea of hope, hope that it can be solved and willingness to work with the parties and their allies to solve it. Surprisingly, it is this attitude that often turns the parties toward understanding each other’s perspectives and seeking solutions.
Ongoing conflict takes a heavy toll on everyone involved. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was created by humans and can be solved by humans. Can we offer our hope, support for equality and commitment to a just peace?
Israel-Palestine Hard Conversations #10
Breaking the Silence: Israeli Soldiers talk about
the Occupied Territories
Breaking the Silence is an NGO based in West Jerusalem, founded in 2004 by a group of soldiers who served in Hebron,West Bank. They wanted to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. They found that returning to civilian life they would “discover the gap between the reality they encountered in the Territories, and the silence about this reality they encounter at home”. As of June, 2013, over 900 veterans have testified on Breaking the Silence, bearing powerful, painful witness to the daily suffering of Palestinians under the occupation, and their role in it as soldiers.
Occupation is hard, not only on the people occupied. It is soul-destroying for the occupiers. The degree of control necessary to preserve a system of subjugation affects the hearts and minds of everyone involved, including the larger society. Although hard to hear, these stories are not about horrific war crimes. Instead, they detail the day-to-day, ordinary humiliations inflicted upon Palestinians, all in the course of a round of duty. Small things like dumping a truck of garbage on a woman’s garden, remembering the anguished mother of an arrested child, withholding water at checkpoints, house incursions in the middle of the night “because we were bored”. I think it’s the routine nature of it all, the normalizing of punishing, that makes these testimonies so heart-rending.
Most of these vets are, in their words, “totally ignorant” when they join the IDF. They’re part of a system that sends them to do the dirty work; they pay for their loss of humanity long after completing service. One man describes how soldiers’ feel “this rage, this enormous anger, directed at anything, and despair and frustration” that “stays with you all the time”.  Viewing these testimonies shakes a person awake to the price we all pay when we ask anyone to set aside their humanity. These young people show their struggle to come to terms with what they did while following orders, how they became mechanical and detached. Therapists know the immense task of healing required after this kind of psychic dissociation.
In their words:
Gil Hillel, (Military Police Patrol, Hebron): “ I personally paid a very heavy price….I want us to look as a country, as a society, to examine the reality we live in. This is what it looks like.…I came to the field from a humane place…. And I turned into a monster (italics mine) and I can’t look myself in the eye…. And I’m not alone. There is no way out of becoming that violent aggressive creature which I have become.”
Yael Lotan, (Monitoring Unit, Gaza): “People need to know what’s happening here. It’s not the Israel defense forces defending us against horrible terrorists who are out to destroy the Jewish nation. It’s people who live here and who lived here, even when we weren’t here.”
Yitzchack Ben Mucha, (Paratrooper, Special Forces): “What hit me mainly is the extent to which the occupation creates the hatred. The little things occurring within the population. Soldiers entering your home, ruining things while conducting a search…. You create a new hatred.”
If you visit the website, prepare to be deeply moved by the honesty and courage of these veterans. And we, the bystanders, need to remember this has been ongoing since 1948. We too have a role to play in influencing a peaceful solution, even though we may not know what peace will look like. Just as in our interpersonal relationships, avoidance of “difficult conversations” does not make the problem go away. We need to continue to discuss these issues as a community, to learn from sources such as Breaking the Silence, whose stated goal is to raise awareness by discussing the truth of what is happening under the occupation. Breaking our own silence.
Israel-Palestine Hard Conversations #11
A Few Closing Thoughts
This is the last in the series I began last September, written in an attempt to share what Michael and I’ve been learning in our long-term study of this conflict, to raise questions, and to invite dialogue. I appreciate the critical voices that have surfaced; they challenge us all to re-examine our thinking. A few closing thoughts.
Many millions of people have a very tight connection to Israel and carry it closely in their hearts. It has huge religious and cultural significance for all the Abrahamic religions. Israel became a symbol of hope to many oppressed Jews who needed a home. Sadly, from its hopeful beginnings, as a “light unto nations”, Israel now has one of the lowest approval ratings of any country world-wide.
We need to ask why this is so, especially as Israel is a progressive country, calls itself a democracy, is supported in many ways by Canada, and is heavily backed by the U.S. Yet there are troubling contradictions to deal with – in democracies, all citizens are considered equal. One person, one vote. How can you have a democracy when 1/2 the population has no voice?
Israel does and will continue to exist as a nation. It’s fruitless to debate over Israel’s “right to exist”. And it’s important to remember that criticism of Israeli policies does not equal criticism of Jewish people, nor of Judaism. The dream and story of Israel have become so embedded in Judaism and in the hearts and minds of Jewish people generally, that it must be very hard not to personalize. Still, just as in working with challenging inter-personal conflicts, we need to focus on behaviours, not identities. Otherwise we can’t talk about serious issues. Being too sensitive to hear the down-side of our actions can serve as a smokescreen to block necessary discussion between individuals, within organizations, and among the community of nations.
Perhaps what Israel wants and cannot have, in the long run, is to continue as a Jewish state. Right now, for Jewish Israelis, there’s little incentive to shift gears from that idea. There’s still a hope that the Palestinians will somehow go away, or through intimidation, passively accept their loss of land and rights. That is not likely to happen.
How can Israelis and Palestinians find a way to accommodate everyone, including those who have made it their home during the last century, and those who have lived on the land for many centuries?
I don’t claim to have more credibility for what I am saying because I am a mediator. Thanks to my work though, I have been deeply immersed in the study and analysis of conflict since 1985. I have to examine conflicts from “the third side”. I’ve taught conflict resolution on many levels across Canada since 1990. As Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor/foreign policy guru, recently said, “And the fact of the matter is, there’s no more difficult issue in the world” [than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict].  So we need whatever resources we can muster to try to understand what has happened and why it has not settled. My work in mediation teaches me to be an “empathic agent of reality” and I’ve tried to bring that perspective here.
How to participate productively? We can let go of denial. We can face the ongoing human rights crisis occupation has created. We can listen to Palestinian and Jewish voices in Israel and beyond who are working toward peace in holistic ways. We need to talk with one another, with openness. We can maintain hope and reject fear-based arguments for keeping the status quo. As Leonard Cohen so perfectly puts it: “From bitter searching of the heart, we rise to play a greater part…. Men shall know commonwealth again”.
Thanks for reading,
 Sand, Shlomo, The Invention of the Jewish People, Verso, London: 2009, p.252.
 Gorenberg, Gershon, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, Times Books, New York: 2006, p.19
 ibid, at p.16
 Shlaim, Avi, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Norton, New York: 2001, p. 3.
 Macmillan, Margaret, Paris, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, Random House, London: 2003.
 Walt, Rabbi Brian, lecture given in Boston, May, 2012, for American Jews for a Just Peace, in honour of the late Hilda Silverman.
 Shlaim, Avi, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Norton, New York: 2001, p.12.
 Pappe, Ilan, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld Publications Ltd., London: 2006, p. 283.
 Shlaim, at p.13.
 Shlaim, at p.599.
 Pappe, p.28.
 Peled, Miko, The General’s Son, Journey of an Israeli in Palestine, Charlottesville, Virginia, Justworld Publishing: 2012, p.35.
 Montenegrin proverb, quoted in David.W.Augsburger, Conflict Mediation Across Cultures: Patterns and Pathways. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992, 187.
 Flapan, Simha, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, New York:Pantheon Books, 1987, 185-186
 Pappe, Ilan, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2006, 156.
 Wikipedia, Folke Bernadotte, quoting Amitzur Ilan, Bernadotte in Palestine, MacMillan, 1989.
 Gorenberg, Gershom, The Accidental Empire, Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, Henry Holt Books, New York: 2006.
 Flapan, Simha, The Birth of Israel, Myths and Realities, Pantheon Books, New York:1987.
 Pappe, Ilan, The Forgotten Palestinians, A History of the Palestinians in Israel, Yale University Press, New Haven: 2011.
 Gorenberg, Gershom, The Unmaking of Israel, HarperCollins, New York:2011.
 Sacco, Joe, Notes from Gaza, Henry Holt and Company, New York:2009, and Pearlman,Wendy, Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York: 2003.
 Pappe, Ilan, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, One World Publications Ltd., Oxford:2006, pp. 30-32.
 Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 49, para.6
 Gorenberg, Gershom, The Unmaking of Israel, Harper Collins, New York: 2011, p.109.
 Israeli Defense Forces, the Army
 El-Hadda, Leila, Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything in Between, Just World Books, Charlottesvillle,Va:2010.
 Report on Israeli Enforcement of Buffer Zone Area, Global Network for Rights and Development, Wikipedia
 If Americans Knew.org
 Shlaim, Avi, The Iron Wall, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 2001, at 4.
 Levine, Joseph, Professor of Philosophy, Amherst, On Questioning the Jewish State, New York Times Opinionator, March 9, 2013.
 Peled, Miko, The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine, Just World Books, Charlottesville, Virginia: 2012, at 203.
 Ibid.,at 36.
 Testimony Catalog #51176, Lieutenant, Education Officer, Gaza, 2003.
 BBC International poll of global approval ratings May 23, 2013.
 William Ury, The Third Side: Why we Fight and How we can Stop, Penguin Books, New York:1999.
 Cohen, Leonard, Villanelle for our Time, from the album Dear Heather,2004, Sony Music Entertainment.