Last week a group of 250 Israelis, Palestinians and internationals, met in Jericho at the Palestinian Israeli Peace NGO Forum's annual conference. Minutes before the beginning of the conference, news was received regarding the assassination of Ahmed Al-Jabari.
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Minutes after the conference ended, sirens went off in Tel Aviv for the first time in decades. And still, in the midst of such violence, the representatives of over 90 local peace nongovernmental organizations, including Peace Now, Friends of the Earth Middle East, IPCRI and Panorama issued a strong voice for peace.
As the tactical struggle between Israel and Hamas led to another round of violence, the conference's title, "Palestinian State: No More Time to Waste," seemed more urgent a goal than ever. Getting Israelis and Palestinians together with bombs over Gaza and rockets over Israel was far from obvious. Palestinians, on top of that, had to face, courageously, anti-normalization forces – who protested outside the conference’s venue - pressuring for the boycott of dialogue with Israelis in general and of this event specifically. The mere fact that, despite all of this, NGO representatives sat together and examined different aspects of how to create a viable Palestinian state is a clear display of the strength of the relationships between the two sides.
Our conference hall in Jericho was a pocket of hope, full of people working towards the two-state solution and knowing that it is possible. On the official, governmental, front, the conference illustrated clearly that President Abbas is a partner for peace. The conference was held under his auspices and the keynote speech, delivered by Abbas's Chief of Staff, Hussein Al-Araj, sent a clear message of peace, continuing the momentum of the President's interview to Israeli Channel 2 last month.
Nonetheless, since significant progress towards a negotiated agreement is highly unlikely in the short-term due to the current Israeli government's lack of response to Abbas, the 'other front' - the two civil societies – takes on even more importance. Without official talks, local peace NGOs bear the responsibility of preserving the surviving channels of communications between Palestinians and Israelis. The continued work of local NGOs that aim to influence both societies – separately and together – through research, media, lobbying, education, dialogue, or interfaith encounters, is one of the few positive signs for the future. While civil society alone will not solve our long-lasting conflict, it does play a crucial role both in pressuring our governments and in mobilizing our peoples, as well as being the groups who will be the best-equipped to assist with the implementation of a future peace agreement.
Our conference ended with a joint statement calling for restraint to replace escalation, and for a strategic long-term solution to replace short-termist tactical conflict management efforts. What is necessary now, the statement stressed, are negotiations aimed at ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This in the only way in which we, Palestinians and Israelis, can live together side-by-side in peace and security, and this is why we support President Abbas' UN bid.
Last week an official from the Israeli Foreign Ministry was quoted in Haaretz saying that "almost any step we take in response to the initiative in the United Nations will also harm the Palestinian populace and also harm Israel's interests." Unfortunately, this important statement, that recognizes that the future of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is interdependent, went unnoticed in Israel. The same could be said about Abbas' clear call for negotiations immediately after the acceptance of Palestine as a non-member state at the UN. We, the representatives of over 90 peace NGOs in Palestine and Israel, base our work on the understanding of our interdependence. Our experience shows us that, despite the current reality, there is another way, and it is definitely within reach.
The moderate voice of our Palestinian partners, including that of President Abbas, needs to be heard loud and clear. But, instead, our government seems only to listen to the sounds of rockets landing in our territories. What message does Israel send by talking to those who use violence against us while ignoring those walking the nonviolent path and calling for dialogue? Perhaps we can see the answer to this question in the most recent clashes in the West Bank over the last couple of days: perhaps some West Bank Palestinians have taken notice of the 'effectiveness' of the conflict in Gaza.
The Palestinian issue, prior to this round of violence, was completely ignored by the Israeli discourse. Now that it’s back on the table, what we get is a purely militaristic discussion. The Palestinian issue must not leave our discourse if or as soon as we reach a ceasefire with Hamas. It is time for us to listen to the voice of peace and to make it a priority, and – for Israelis - to act in its interests as we approach the ballot box early next year.
Anat Ben Nun is the Israeli Coordinator of the Palestinian Israeli Peace NGO Forum and holds a Master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University.