Book review: This Side of Peace

April 6, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was excited to read This Side of Peace, by Hanan Ashrawi, because I have not read (or even come across) many books by either women or non-Westerners about peace. Ashrawi is a high-ranking woman in the Palestinian movement and served as a spokesperson for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this book she discusses her involvement in the events leading up to the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

I found This Side of Peace at times quite interesting and at other times quite boring. I was most interested in the parts where Ashrawi discussed her background and personal experiences, thought, and feelings. However, there was not as much of this as I expected in the book – a great part of the book was a fairly detailed account of all the negotiations Ashrawi participated in. I was not particularly interested in all the back and forth details of these negotiations and found myself even skimming a little bit at certain points.

There is no question that this book casts Israel in a negative light, but this was not unexpected since it is written by a Palestinian. I have read some critiques of the book that criticize how one-sided her perspective is – how she mentions the harmful things Israel has done to Palestinians but not vice versa. However, I don’t think Ashrawi would deny that the book is one-sided – she wrote it to give us her and the Palestinian’s perspective on the issues, not to present an unbiased look at all perspectives in the Middle East. I believe it is important to hear the Palestinian perspective from a Palestinian, not filtered through what the American media would like us to hear.

This Side of Peace also casts the United States in a negative light – from Ashrawi’s perspective, the United States negotiators who were involved in the peace process were clearly biased towards Israel rather than truely uninvolved third parties. I found this aspect and Ashrawi’s description of the negotiation process quite troubling. Of course Ashrawi’s perspective is filtered through her own desires and beliefs, but I have no doubt that negotiations do in fact follow a process similar to what she described: each side has its position, and does its best to hold firm to that position, demanding that the other side do X, Y, or Z before they will sign any agreement. Reading descriptions of these processes strengthened my belief that true peace cannot be reached through such negotiations. We need to at a minimum move away from position-based negotiation and towards interest-based mediation. As long as the parties stick firmly to their positions the best that can happen is a compromise that neither side is happy with. The “peace” that results is unlikely to be long-lasting, as we have in fact seen in the years since the famous 1993 handshake. The parties involved deserve a truly unbiased third-party intermediary guiding them through the process, rather than people working for a government that has a clear interest in one side.

I felt that the personal aspects of This Side of Peace were most effective in evoking compassion from the reader and allowing the reader to view the Palestinian people as human beings rather than simply the “other.” Ashrawi describes air raids and the complexities they had to go through simply to have adequate schooling for the children in their community. This sort of story needs to be told and heard by people on both sides if we truly want to achieve peace. Ashrawi is clearly a compassionate human being who cares deeply about her family and her people. Scattered through-out the more tedious negotiation descriptions, she had insightful comments into human rights and personal motivations. I was most touched by this passage from the first chapter:

My life has been taking shape as a Palestinian, as a woman – as mother, daughter, wife – as a Christian and a humanist, as a radical and a peace activist, as an academic and a political being. And as a composite of all these constituents, I am hopeful that one day I shall attain the only identity and name worth seeking – that of human being.

Although I was not as captivated by This Side of Peace as I hoped to be, I am glad that I read it and have therefore broadened my perspective a bit more.

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thoughts on Palestine/Israel

April 24, 2009

I recently read City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor. It was an interesting book, that made a mostly successful attempt to humanize the conflict in Palestine/Israel by presenting the 20th-century history of Jaffa through a focus on the stories of several Jewish and Arab families. You can read my full review here, at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany; here I want to discuss some thoughts the book triggered.

I was reminded of how the conflict stems from not only from the direct interactions in the Palestine/Israel region, but from the centuries-old histories of each group. Jews lived in diaspora for hundreds of years and have frequently been persecuted, with the Holocaust the worst of it. This cultural history informs how they behave and what they believe today. In order to understand the conflict in the region it is important to understand this history as well. This goes well beyond what was presented in City of Oranges, but he does manage to convey this point to some extent, at least with regards to more recent persecutions: he relates the stories of individual Jews who came to live in Jaffa from Europe during the 1930s, when the Nazis were beginning to persecute them.

I knew generally speaking that there has been almost constant conflict in Palestine/Israel in the 20th century, but City of Oranges really made this clear. I feel more strongly than ever that they are stuck in a cycle of violence that must be broken out of. Each side continues to take actions that antagonize the other side, and continues to refuse to address the painful history. City of Oranges humanizes the conflict, and humanizing is the only way that peace will eventually be reached. Each needs to come to terms with their painful histories and learn to see the other side as human. They need to aknowledge the harms they have caused, in a way that allows the other side to reach a sense of closure. Peace is not going to be reached through continued violence, nor through negotiations and concessions that do not address the many-faceted and painful historical factors informing the conflict.

I did not realize the extent to which the British caused problems in the Middle East. Their power-hungry era of colonization is to a great extent responsible for destroying the (somewhat precarious) balances of relationships between multiple cultures in the region. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Jews and Arabs did live in relative peace in Palestine before the British Mandate. Unfortunately, there is no way to turn back history. Instead, we must work to heal the past and build a future in which once again Jews and Arabs can live together in peace.

The history of Jaffa and the individuals that LeBor interviewed demonstrate that it is possible for people of different religions and cultures to live together in a community. Peace will not happen by ignoring or shunning “the other”; it will happen only when people from different cultures can see each other as human.


Working towards Israel-Palestine peace

February 8, 2009

Perhaps some of the ideas I proposed in my post “Violence is not the solution” are not so far off. I was inspired to read an article in my local newspaper this morning about a couple who lived in Israel and Palestine for many years and now do peace work in the region:

The couple, who moved from Israel to the Foothills west of Boulder in 1994, are planning a three- to four-week trip to Israel next month to present their conflict resolution training to peace workers at Neve Shalom, an Arab and Jewish cooperative community outside Jerusalem.

I looked up Neve Shalom and it sounds like an incredible community doing important work. The name means “Oasis of Peace” and their homepage defines them as:

A village, jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, that is engaged in educational work for peace, equality and understanding between the two peoples.

They have many wonderful projects, and one that caught my attention is The School for Peace, which has programs for adults:

Our goal is to develop participants’ awareness of the conflict and their role in it, and enable them to probe and construct their identity through interaction with the other; our orientation is shaped by the quest for a truly humane, egalitarian and just society.

Their staff facilitates encounters that stress dialogue in a safe environment. Reading about this program, I feel that this is the sort of work I would like to do: facilitating dialogues and deep, meaningful interactions between people. Some people from the program have written a book about their approach, Israeli and Palestinian Identities in Dialogue: The School for Peace Approach, by Rabah Halabi and Deb Reich. I definitely want to read it!


Violence is not the solution

January 9, 2009

Last night I got into a discussion about Gaza, and, as is typical for me in a verbal discussion, I was not able to defend my arguments against violence very well. I was accused of “feeling” that violence is wrong, but not providing any rational argument against it or suggestion for an alternative in this particular situation. I think this is a valid point; I do “feel” that violence is wrong, but not everyone does, so in order to convince people to try something different it is important to show why violence is not just wrong, but ineffective, and to provide ideas for what to do instead.

I therefore would like to attempt to set feelings aside and argue that rationally-speaking violence is not an effective long-term solution to the conflict in Gaza, as well as propose some alternatives. I welcome thoughtful discussion; please feel free to leave a comment.

Why violence is not the solution

An argument in favor of Israel’s actions usually starts out with the point that Israel has a right – and perhaps even a moral obligation to its citizens – to defend itself. The word defend automatically brings up the image of force, but force is not necessarily the best defense. If what Israel really wants to do is ensure its security; that is, to protect itself and its citizens, then we need to stop thinking of violence as the only option.

Using force against one’s attackers will not ensure long-term security for one significant reason: violence breeds more violence. When people feel threatened and attacked, they naturally feel anger towards and fear of their attackers. They are not going to suddenly decide that they love the people doing the killing and want to make peace with them. No, they are going to continue to hate them and want to do violence in retaliation. Thus, Israel’s current actions are not surprising: Israel felt threatened and attacked by the rockets and decided to retaliate. However, the problem is that their retaliation will only increase Hamas’s hatred, anger, and desire to retaliate in return. Violence is a vicious, escalating cycle.

At this point one might argue that the vicious cycle does not apply in this situation because Israel’s military is so much stronger than Hamas’s. Israel can very likely “win” this particular battle, achieving through force their immediate goal of stopping the rocket attacks. They can perhaps even take down the terrorist-led government by killing many of the key people in it, leaving behind a seemingly subdued group of people. In the short-term, therefore, Israel may feel as if they have greater security after they have succeeded in this battle. However, their sense of security will be an illusion. The hatred will not have magically disappeared. No matter how many of the key militants they kill, there will be someone left behind in which hatred is brewing, someone who will become a new leader. Eventually the Palestinians will acquire more rockets or other weapons, and once again attack Israel. The violence, the battle that Israel appeared to have won, only ensured a short-term peace. There is no doubt that the conflict will spring up again, and another cycle of violence will begin. We do not need to only theorize about the future to be convinced; taking a look at the immediate past of the region shows clearly the cycles of violence and “peace.” Violence has been tried many times before and clearly does not work. Why should we continue trying to use an approach that will get us nowhere except to more violence?

In short, violence is not a solution because all it can do is lead to more violence and hatred. Violence cannot breed peaceful coexistence, because the use of violence requires an us versus them mentality that turns a group of people into the “other” and excludes mutual acceptance.

As I mentioned above, Israel’s actions are not at all unexpected given the situation. In the context of a society where we condone the use of violence as a solution to conflict, it does not make sense to condemn Israel’s actions. I condemn them in a larger context, one that says violence will not lead to long-term peace, as evidenced by history, sociology, and psychology, and therefore we should look for a different solution. I challenge Israel to take the high road, to break themselves out of the cycle of violence and try something different.

Alternatives to violence

Let me preface this section by pointing out that if I had all the answers, I would be over there helping them resolve their conflict, not sitting here writing a blog post. I am not an expert on the details of the situation and I have not studied the history of the region in depth. I do not presume to be able to solve a centuries-old conflict in one short examination of it. However, I have a few ideas of things they could try. Some of them may seem a bit out-there, unlikely to ever happen, but this is the type of problem that requires creative brainstorming of solutions. You never know until you try.

At the root of all conflicts are needs and feelings. Every human being has needs, and when those needs are not being met, conflict (and violence) often results. Every human being also has feelings, and when those feelings are not acknowledged and accepted, conflict (and violence) often results. (Note that accepting a feeling is NOT the same thing as accepting an action based on that feeling. It is possible to accept that Palestinians feel anger towards Israel without accepting their actions of shooting rockets at Israel). So one place to start with the conflict in Gaza is to do active listening with the key individuals involved. This means individual meetings where the person in the role of “counselor” listens to the other person talk about their perspective on the conflict. In order for it to be effective, the counselor needs to probe for the root needs and feelings (the person is most likely not aware of what these are; a good counselor can draw them out) and reflect back to the individual what they hear, thus acknowledging the person’s needs and feelings and making the person feel accepted.

I am aware that this may sound a bit too touchy-feely to many of you. Most of us are extremely uncomfortable thinking about our own or anyone else’s needs and feelings, let alone talking about them, because our society has taught us to repress them. This does not mean they are not important, however. In fact, I maintain that addressing each individual’s underlying needs and feelings is absolutely necessary to reaching permanent resolution of a conflict. As long as there are feelings going unacknowledged and needs going unaddressed, the conflict will not be resolved; people will continue to harbor resentments and bitter thoughts.

We cannot stop there, however. After individual meetings with the leaders as I described above, I would propose bringing the leaders together for mediation. I realize that negotiation has been tried and not succeeded numerous times. Perhaps true mediation has also been tried, but I do not know. By true mediation, I again mean something that includes needs and feelings. Negotiation by itself is not sufficient because it jumps right to the last step, of trying to come up with a compromise. True mediation starts by getting each party to truly hear what the other party is saying. They take turns explaining their position, and the other party is required to reflect back what they hear. The act of doing this results in each party gaining a better understanding of the other position. Only at this point will they be able to make progress together towards a solution. Furthermore, they should be seeking a win-win solution, one that meets ALL of their stated (true, root) needs, not a compromise with which neither side is completely satisfied.

It would be very difficult for Israel and Hamas to initiate these actions all by themselves. This is where the third side comes in. The rest of the world needs to put serious pressure on both Israel and Hamas to stop their censeless fighting and try something else. Some uninvolved third-party needs to step forward and lead the steps I proposed above. Someone needs to initiate individual meetings with each leader and work through their needs and feelings with them. Someone needs to lead the mediation (or most likely series of mediations) between Israel and Hamas. We cannot expect the involved parties to take these steps by themselves; the rest of the world must take action to help them work towards a non-violent solution.

However, perhaps none of this will work. Perhaps the Hamas leadership is simply too irrational, and there is little hope of doing enough individual counseling work with them to really reach to the root of the conflict. We of course cannot know this unless we give it the best try we can, but assuming that we do encounter failure, do we just give up and go back to violence? No, we should not go back to violence. There are other things to try.

I suggest to you that the majority of the people living in Gaza do not in fact harbor such virulent hatred against Israel. Yes, they elected a terrorist as their leader. However, I have read suggestions that this was because this same terrorist promised them social services programs, something the previous leader, being corrupt, did not provide. I do not know how accurate this evaluation is, but I don’t doubt that there is some truth to it. The people who elected Hamas likely made a very rational decision: when you are struggling for your survival on a daily basis, you are probably going to vote for the person who promises you the most hope of a better life, regardless of what other policies and beliefs that person might have. So instead of looking at the needs of the leaders, who may be beyond hope, let’s instead look at the needs of the people.

I can perceive a few needs from my perspective, although to really find out we could of course have to talk to the actual people living in Gaza and Israel. The needs that I see include the needs of those living in Gaza for sufficient food, water, power, health care, and education, and the needs of those living in Israel for assurance that they and their loved ones will not be hit by a rocket. I want to focus on the basic survival needs of those living in Gaza, because they are the ones who elected a terrorist. I suspect that if these people’s needs were met, they would be much more likely to elect a leader who is not a terrorist. Such a leader may be more rational, and thus more willing and able to enter into mediation with Israel. Furthermore, the people would not need to use Israel as a scapegoat for their problems (which they may or may not be doing now, and Israel may or may not actually have caused some of their problems – the point is that when people are struggling to survive they will look for someone to hate, someone to blame their struggles on). Essentially, meeting people’s basic needs for survival is a prerequisite to reaching peaceful coexistence. Thus, what can Israel and the rest of the world do to work towards a solution to the conflict? Ensure that everyone’s basic survival needs are being met.

However, meeting the general population’s basic needs is probably not enough. It is important to recognize that the mutual hatred and distrust between Arabs and Jews is centuries old. Many Arabs and Jews grow up with little exposure to each other, and they are taught – not necessarily explicitly (although that may be the case), but through their society and culture – to hate and more significantly to fear the other. Removing the centuries-deep layers of distrust and fear is neither an easy nor a fast process, but it is a necessary one.

Meaningful exposure and interaction is critical to removing fear and distrust. It is not as easy to fear a group of people as the “other” when you have a human connection with someone from that group. To bring this out of theory and back to the current situation in Gaza, I propose activities that bring Palestinians and Israeli Jews together in activities where they must cooperate to solve a problem. How about forming many small mixed groups and having them work together to tear down the barriers along the border of Gaza (if there are physical barriers)? Or having them work together half the day rebuilding a destroyed Israeli structure and half the day rebuilding a destroyed Gaza structure? Or perhaps building a community center together that sits right on top of the border, and then having them work together to come up with programs and activities that the community center could host. Some other ideas are an exchange program where a young college-age Palestinian spends a week living with an Israeli family and vice-versa, or bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to live in a Kibbutz-like setting for a month. Forming connections between children is also critical. How about a mixed Arab/Jew elementary school or after-school program that emphasizes cooperative interaction between the children, where they have to work together to solve some problem? Some of these ideas may sound impossible, but the point is that we have to be creative. We have to think of ways we can bring people together to build bonds and trust with one another. If we come up with enough ideas, we are bound to come up with something that is possible.

Building mutual acceptance, trust, and peaceful coexistence between two groups of people that have hated each other for a long time is anything but easy. It requires creativity and hard work, thinking of solutions and things to try that go beyond the easy, instinctual reaction of using force and violence. Violence may appear to solve conflicts in the short-term, but it is an illusion. As long as the two groups are using violence on one another, they will continue to fear and hate each other. Long-term security can only be guaranteed by breaking the cycle of violence and reaching beyond it for human connection and the gradual return of trust.


WILPF statement on Gaza

January 3, 2009

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has released a statement on Gaza which expresses much more eloquently what I was trying to say in my post:

We join with millions around the world in protests and call for an immediate cease fire.

While we recognize the incredible military advantage of Israel, we also recognize the need for Hamas to cease firing rockets into Israel, as this threatens the lives of Israelis civilians and is used as a pretext to continue bombing.

We urge all parties to come to the peace table to negotiate an agreement that would restore a just peace, address injustices, and build long-term economic prosperity that would benefit all people living in the region.

They end with a quote from the Israeli Women’s Coalition for Peace, which sums everything up:

The dance of death and destruction must come to an end. We demand that war no longer be an option, nor violence as strategy, nor killing an alternative. The society we want is one in which every individual can lead a life of security – personal, economic, and social.


A role for the third side?

January 1, 2009

Well, after a two and a half week hiatus, you get two posts from me in one day! I guess I am in the mood to write today.

The situation is Gaza is awful. Just awful. I read the news and all I can think about is how much senseless killing is going on. I am not in favor of either side; I am simply against all the violence. You could say I am on the third side.

It seems like an intractable conflict. How will the violence ever end? On one side we have terrorists willing to do suicide missions and on the other side we have a powerful military. Does each side really think they are going to “win” if they keep on bombing each other? Currently Israel is refusing to hold a cease-fire, although they claim they are pursuing diplomacy at the same time. I do not think this is possible. How can they hope to come to some sort of diplomatic resolution while they continue to kill each other? Clearly these two sides see only “the other”, an enemy, when they look at each other. Until they can really see who the other side is and what that entity’s legitimate needs are, there is little hope for a permanent resolution. How does one bring about this sort of transformation? I only wish I knew the answer to that question.

I know little about the history of this region, but it seems clear to me from my outsider’s perspective that violence and force is not an effective way to resolve the differences between Israel and Hamas. Israel, Palestine, and now Hamas have been trying violence for a long time and it hasn’t gotten them anywhere. They are still in conflict. I do not understand how the leaders can continue to believe that there is any point in using yet more violence. What exactly does it gain them? They are just so locked into one way of thinking.

This is where I think the third side should step in. The rest of the world needs to let both Israel and Hamas know that their use of violence is unacceptable. That we do not support their continued attacks on one another. Perhaps with enough outside pressure, these two entities will come to their sense and see that what they are doing is pointless. I thus call on Obama when he takes office to condemn the attacks on either side and to halt U.S. support of Israel until they reach a cease-fire. I do not know how one should progress from there, but little is going to change except more people dying as long as the bombings continue.