Monday, January 03, 2011

Conflict Transformation in Israel Palestine

The New Year suggests the need for new thinking. The Israeli Palestinian conflict seems so entrenched, so hopeless, that it might be well to step back and consider what peace-builders with experience in other “intractable” conflicts can teach us.

John Paul Lederach, a professor in the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University and a trainer and consultant for peace-builders in many conflict-ridden countries, tells us that the most significant challenges in peace-building are the result of three critical factors: first, who talks to whom in behind-the-scenes dialogue; second, how deeply the issues of structural injustice are considered in the peace negotiations; and third, how long the process of conflict transformation is carried on after “peace accords” are finally set in place. Each of these factors is important to consider as we search for ways for Quakers to get involved in a lasting peace-building process.

1. Who talks to whom? Most conflict resolution work involves bringing people together across enemy lines for negotiation, dialogue and/or mediation. But most of the time, people meet others of relatively equal status: top-level politicians and military leaders meet their counterparts; mid-level religious leaders, academics, and heads of NGOs meet others like themselves; and community people meet other community folks as they hear each each other's concerns and hopes, enjoy meals together, and “refuse to be enemies.” The trouble is that political leaders don’t have the benefit of personal dialogue with ordinary people; NGO heads don’t get to discuss their concerns with the military; community people aren’t invited to academic conferences, and so on. Building these kinds of vertical relationships of respect and understanding are critical, especially in efforts to end protracted, violent conflict. Dialogue must go on at all levels, both within equal status groups and between them. Peace-building is an organic system that requires attention to all its channels of communication, not just among people whose interests and points of view are similar. In Northern Ireland, Quakers conducted dialogues with and between politicians in confidential settings that were critical to the emerging peace process.

2. How to address the “justice gap”? Lederach points out that people take up direct, physical violence when they are trying to address perceived injustice at economic, social, cultural, and/or political levels. As the conflict escalates, the direct violence eventually reaches a saturation point. People get fed up with killing each other when they realize that the physical violence has made them worse off than they were before. At this point, peace negotiations begin. However, these talks, and the “peace accords” that eventually follow, rarely address the structural issues that started the conflict in the first place. In the case of the Palestinians, the obvious structural injustice is land, or the right of return, but it also includes the economic gap between Palestinians and Israelis, and the discriminatory attitudes of many Israelis toward their Palestinian neighbors. Even if land claims are one day settled, the income disparities and the racism that so often justifies them must be squarely addressed.

3. How can relationships be transformed after “peace breaks out”? Former combatants too often see peace accords as an “end-game,” without paying sufficient attention to long-term community building and reconciliation. The term, “conflict transformation” suggests that the relationships between groups must be fundamentally reconfigured for peace to be lasting. Relationship-building means that people on both sides must be adaptable, vigilant, and willing to change. Conflict transformation requires support infrastructure that enhances people’s capacity to respond to relational needs, rather than being limited by static events and legal agreements. Regardless of whether the Israelis and the Palestinians settle for a two-state or a one-state solution, they will need to develop relationships that respect and value each other as neighbors and/or fellow citizens. It can’t be done? Just look at Europe -- at each other's throats in two world wars, and before that, centuries of violent conflict. Now we have the European Union.

What roles do Lederach’s insights suggest for Quakers? In our efforts to help resolve the IP conflict, we should not dwell solely on ending the Occupation, pressing for an end to settlement construction, or using the power of nonviolence to force both sides to the bargaining table. While these efforts are important and necessary, they leave out the three crucial areas of conflict resolution and transformation described above. Can Quakers find ways to address the relationship-building necessary in the region, and the political and economic power imbalance at the global level that so often leaves “free” people struggling with poverty, despair, and interpersonal violence?

Work for peace -- with justice, dialogue, and respect,
Helen Fox
Convener, Palestine Israel Action Group
Ann Arbor Friends Meeting

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