The Common Good
January 2011

Planning for Peace

by Ryan Rodrick Beiler | January 2011

In the Middle East, people step in where governments fail.

Even before last fall's reboot of the peace process, Israeli and Palestinian headlines recycled variations on the theme, "What will happen when the talks fail?" Official spokespersons dutifully countered with optimistic clichés. But as the process drags along, on-the-ground skepticism remains.

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West Bank Christian Daher Nasser expresses a widespread grassroots opinion: Governments don’t make peace, people do. Though surrounding Israeli settlements threaten to confiscate his family's land, he has invited Orthodox Jews from those same settlements for tea and sponsored soccer games between Palestinian and Israeli children. A stone at the farm’s entrance bears the painted slogan, "We refuse to be enemies," even though Israelis have bulldozed hundreds of his olive trees. His response? Plant hundreds more.

But can isolated acts of nonviolence create lasting peace? After an East Jerusalem screening of the documentary film Budrus, one of the producers, Rula Salameh, acknowledged that localized successes of Palestinian nonviolence have yet to coalesce into a comprehensive, disciplined movement. Though demonstrations have been successful at altering the path of the Israeli "separation barrier," sometimes organizers cannot prevent youths from throwing stones. Salameh and others confirm that many older Palestinians who've "paid the price" for participating in past violence admit that such methods harmed all sides, and that nonviolence is a better way.

But Palestinians committed to nonviolence are also paying a price. Jamal Juma, head of activist group Stop the Wall, has spent weeks in Israeli detention. Despite international support from people such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, West Bank activist Abdullah Abu Rahma recently received a year-long sentence for "incitement" and "organizing illegal demonstrations."

Such leaders help answer the question, "Where are the Palestinian Mandelas?" Answer: in Israeli jails. But an equally important question is, "Where are their Israeli counterparts?" Budrus' documentary footage makes disturbingly clear that Israeli soldiers use more violence against Palestinians than they do against Israelis -- making the small but growing Israeli activist presence on the front lines especially important, whether as physical buffers or as raised voices.

When Israeli actors refused to perform in West Bank settlements, more than 100 international actors and artists, led by Jewish Voice for Peace, signed petitions of support. Likewise, the Israeli group Gush Shalom advocates a boycott of all settlement products, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions supports a broader campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to oppose the occupation.

When Israelis themselves target actions specifically against settlements -- which are considered illegitimate by virtually the entire international community, including the U.S. government -- it is much harder for critics of BDS to accuse it of undermining Israel's legitimate right to exist, and the debate refocuses on the wisdom of various tactics. For example, Rabbis for Human Rights practices nonviolent resistance against the occupation, but considers the BDS strategy counterproductive.

Yet despite the growth of nonviolence, the cycle of violence grinds on with lopsided force, killing 1,100 Israelis and 6,400 Palestinians in the last decade. Walls and settlements continue to claim Palestinian lands. Israelis fear makeshift rockets fired by militants in Gaza, which struggles under both Hamas rule and Israel's blockade and ongoing airstrikes.

In such a climate, justice appears incompatible with the compromises necessary for peace, and the politicians responsible for crafting the requisite diplomatic masterpiece seem to lack adequate inspiration. And so, our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers pray for peace -- and for strength to endure its absence.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler, who works in East Jerusalem for Mennonite Central Committee, blogs at mccpalestine.wordpress.com. Stop the Wall, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and Rabbis for Human Rights are MCC partner organizations.

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