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Israel Hamas WarFeatureIsrael

Hope for civil society efforts to restore Israeli-Palestinian trust

In a major boost, last month’s G7 summit embraced the importance of grassroots links in enabling future diplomatic efforts.
Ben Lynfield
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Hands reaching out to each other, with bird above

Illustration: TJI

Published: 9 July 2024

Last updated: 8 July 2024

What may be looked back upon one day as a step towards de-escalating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict passed under the news radar last month.

G7 leaders meeting in Italy two weeks ago gave a boost to civil society organisations trying to keep alive hopes of a two-state peace compromise solution between the warring peoples.

These bodies, promoting people-to-people contacts, have for the most part, survived October 7 and the Gaza war, though they are deeply challenged by the tragedies and bloodshed around them.

Some Israeli NGO directors say they see their roles now as more essential than ever. Perhaps more of their sense of purpose is needed in the burnt out and cynical environment prevailing today in Israel.

The NGO directors deserve credit at least for imagining a future of peace when the far right is in power, civilian casualties in Gaza continue to spiral and soldiers are killed on most days. Even ostensibly left-wing politicians such as Yair Golan, new leader of Democrats, the reborn Labour-Meretz party, refuse to use the word peace. The prevalent thinking is that it is a bad brand.

Meanwhile, Palestinian opinion polls show overwhelming support for Hamas’s brutal terrorist assault on Israeli border communities and growing backing for Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank, despite the disaster it triggered for Palestinian people.

The continued ordeal of the Israeli hostages in Gaza and the possibility of war with Hezbollah is maintaining a wide sense of trauma, anger and fear in Israel. West Bank residents are worried, too, over becoming the next Gaza and fearing even to drive between cities because of a spike in violence by fundamentalist settlers.

Because of this, it might seem an inauspicious time for promoting grass-roots ties between the peoples.

But Israel’s small minority of peace advocates make a convincing argument that the catastrophic war situation also demonstrates the need for a people-to-people push and develop new avenues to engineer change.

They face a major challenge, however, in persuading Palestinians to accept the idea of coexistence programs and ensuring that they can be equal partners despite being under occupation in the West Bank and bombardment in Gaza.

The G7, which comprises France, Britain, Italy, Germany, Canada, the US and Japan, has officially embraced the idea that a grass roots, bottom up, people-to-people approach can play a crucial role in enabling future diplomatic efforts.

“We affirm our commitment to working together-and with other international partners to closely coordinate and institutionalise our support for civil society peacebuilding efforts, ensuring that such efforts are part of a larger strategy to build the foundation necessary for a negotiated and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace,” the G7 closing communique said.

“The G7 statement is critical. Civil society has ideas and proposals for how to change the reality on the ground.

Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East

This sounds like a positive, even hopeful move. But the significance of this statement — the first time the grouping has given such a push to civil society peacebuilding between the warring nations — is very much in the eye of the beholder. And the matter of whether it will remain empty rhetoric, just like the G7 call for a halt to “legalisation” of Israeli wildcat settlements, remains to be seen.

Israel “legalised” five settlement outposts on the land needed for a Palestinian state days after the declaration — with no meaningful response from the G7. Its establishment three years ago of one of them, Evyatar, near the Palestinian town of Beita, was termed “institutionalised land theft” by Dror Etkes, head of the Kerem Navot settlement watchdog organisation. This activity is proceeding at a dizzying pace.

The US, which funds people to people efforts to the tune of $50 million a year and is bent on continuing this commitment, also sponsors Israel while it effectively annexes the territory of the would-be Palestinian state. Promoting NGOs can help, but for real progress the US and G7 need to act decisively to stop this. There is no sign of this happening

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli who has devoted much of his professional life to non-governmental peacemaking efforts with Palestinians, welcomed the G7 statement and said more civil society efforts are necessary precisely because of the absence of leaders on either side willing or able to bring positive change.

“It might have to start with courageous leaders in civil society on both sides standing up and laying the cornerstones of what an agreement would look like.”

The G7 declaration also comes amid renewed, though tentative, signs of life in Israeli left-wing civil society as thousands gathered in Tel Aviv on July 1 to call for a Gaza ceasefire and a move to peace negotiations. Ayman Odeh, Israel’s most important Arab MK, was a main speaker and the NGOs ranged from the shrunken but still significant Peace Now to the relatively new Jewish-Arab Standing Together group.

John Lyndon, director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), an umbrella grouping for Israeli and Palestinian peace-oriented NGOs, who was in Tel Aviv and Ramallah last week, has a clear view of how the G7 can help.

“We want to see more resources, we want to see the creation of an institution for engaging and building Israeli and Palestinian civil society and we want to see integration into a real peace process to solve the conflict by diplomacy.”

We need to end the war, then have a political process that ends the occupation.

PLO executive committee member Wasel Abu Yusuf.

But the weak links amid all the good intentions are a shortage of interest and participants from the West Bank and that the war and its horrors in Gaza are preoccupying and further radicalising the Palestinians. Even before the war, Palestinian civil society peace efforts had all but vanished over the years because of the absence of a peace process.

“There is no grass roots peace activism or movement now,” said Ghassan Khatib, a West Bank academic who was a Palestinian Authority Planning Minister and spokesman for the moderate government of PA prime minister Salaam Fayyad. Khatib termed the G7 statement “meaningless”.

“It doesn’t help or have significance,” he added. “This doesn’t reflect seriousness on the part of these great nations. They should focus on ending the war and on humanitarian aid before talking about grass roots.”

PLO executive committee member Wasel Abu Yusuf termed the G7 approach “inappropriate”.

“We need to end the war, then have a political process that ends the occupation,” he said.

But Israeli civil society leaders believe the NGO activity could prove essential to rekindling the much-needed political process.

“The G7 statement is critical,” says Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East.  “Civil society has ideas and proposals for how to change the reality on the ground. We want G7 leaders to fully engage to make ideas they think are good happen through diplomacy.”

Quite a few programs are now back to full scale activity.

John Lyndon, director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace

October 7 and the war have greatly challenged the relationships inside all NGOs that have both Arab and Israeli staffers. EcoPeace, which also has offices in Ramallah and Amman, was no exception. “We lost a few staff in all our offices, people who felt things are too painful. Some people moved elsewhere because they could not see any future in the region. But that’s the exception.” Bromberg said.

“We saw real frustrations on all sides and that’s why we invested in trauma experts in each office and a mindfulness expert from Sri Lanka,” he added.

But the NGO has proven durable. Its educational programs are oversubscribed, he said. It also has ideas about building desalination plants in Israel and Gaza that would provide water to Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians and could be part of the “day after” the Gaza war.

Lyndon said of the US funded efforts that October 7 and the war had caused delays in implementation of plans and difficulties for Palestinian and Israeli staffers to meet each other. There were victims of October 7 and the war in some of the alliance’s member organisations, he said.

While things were shut down in October and November, “quite a few programs are now back to full scale activity,” Lyndon said.

The significance of the G7s move remains to be seen, Lyndon cautions. But he makes a strong and succinct case for the countries to take action. “There’s an appetite to do such work. We need to push back against dehumanisation and hopefully help to address core issues.”


WATCH: After spending decades transporting Palestinians to Israeli hospitals, his mission did not stop after October 7 (CNN)
For nearly two decades, the Israeli nonprofit Road to Recovery has transported sick Palestinians roundtrip from checkpoints in Gaza and the West Bank to Israel for medical treatment.

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.


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