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Can we talk? The Middle East "peace industry"
Faris Giacaman, The Electronic Intifada, August 20, 2009
Upon finding out that I am Palestinian, many people I meet at college in the United States are eager to inform me of various activities that they have participated in that promote "coexistence" and "dialogue" between both sides of the "conflict," no doubt expecting me to give a nod of approval. However, these efforts are harmful and undermine the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel -- the only way of pressuring Israel to cease its violations of Palestinians' rights.
When I was a high school student in Ramallah, one of the better known "people-to-people" initiatives, Seeds of Peace, often visited my school, asking students to join their program. Almost every year, they would send a few of my classmates to a summer camp in the US with a similar group of Israeli students. According to the Seeds of Peace website, at the camp they are taught "to develop empathy, respect, and confidence as well as leadership, communication and negotiation skills -- all critical components that will facilitate peaceful coexistence for the next generation." They paint quite a rosy picture, and most people in college are very surprised to hear that I think such activities are misguided at best, and immoral, at worst. Why on earth would I be against "coexistence," they invariably ask?
During the last few years, there have been growing calls to bring to an end Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people through an international movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). One of the commonly-held objections to the boycott is that it is counter-productive, and that "dialogue" and "fostering coexistence" is much more constructive than boycotts.
With the beginning of the Oslo accords in 1993, there has been an entire industry that works toward bringing Israelis and Palestinians together in these "dialogue" groups. The stated purpose of such groups is the creating of understanding between "both sides of the conflict," in order to "build bridges" and "overcome barriers." However, the assumption that such activities will help facilitate peace is not only incorrect, but is actually morally lacking.
The presumption that dialogue is needed in order to achieve peace completely ignores the historical context of the situation in Palestine. It assumes that both sides have committed, more or less, an equal amount of atrocities against one another, and are equally culpable for the wrongs that have been done. It is assumed that not one side is either completely right or completely wrong, but that both sides have legitimate claims that should be addressed, and certain blind spots that must be overcome. Therefore, both sides must listen to the "other" point of view, in order to foster understanding and communication, which would presumably lead to "coexistence" or "reconciliation."
Such an approach is deemed "balanced" or "moderate," as if that is a good thing. However, the reality on the ground is vastly different than the "moderate" view of this so-called "conflict." Even the word "conflict" is misleading, because it implies a dispute between two symmetric parties. The reality is not so; it is not a case of simple misunderstanding or mutual hatred which stands in the way of peace. The context of the situation in Israel/Palestine is that of colonialism, apartheid and racism, a situation in which there is an oppressor and an oppressed, a colonizer and a colonized.
In cases of colonialism and apartheid, history shows that colonial regimes do not relinquish power without popular struggle and resistance, or direct international pressure. It is a particularly naive view to assume that persuasion and "talking" will convince an oppressive system to give up its power.
The apartheid regime in South Africa, for instance, was ended after years of struggle with the vital aid of an international campaign of sanctions, divestments and boycotts. If one had suggested to the oppressed South Africans living in bantustans to try and understand the other point of view (i.e. the point of view of South African white supremacists), people would have laughed at such a ridiculous notion. Similarly, during the Indian struggle for emancipation from British colonial rule, Mahatma Gandhi would not have been venerated as a fighter for justice had he renounced satyagraha -- "holding firmly to the truth," his term for his nonviolent resistance movement -- and instead advocated for dialogue with the occupying British colonialists in order to understand their side of the story.
Now, it is true that some white South Africans stood in solidarity with the oppressed black South Africans, and participated in the struggle against apartheid. And there were, to be sure, some British dissenters to their government's colonial policies. But those supporters explicitly stood alongside the oppressed with the clear objective of ending oppression, of fighting the injustices perpetrated by their governments and representatives. Any joint gathering of both parties, therefore, can only be morally sound when the citizens of the oppressive state stand in solidarity with the members of the oppressed group, not under the banner of "dialogue" for the purpose of "understanding the other side of the story." Dialogue is only acceptable when done for the purpose of further understanding the plight of the oppressed, not under the framework of having "both sides heard."
It has been argued, however, by the Palestinian proponents of these dialogue groups, that such activities may be used as a tool -- not to promote so-called "understanding," -- but to actually win over Israelis to the Palestinian struggle for justice, by persuading them or "having them recognize our humanity."
However, this assumption is also naive. Unfortunately, most Israelis have fallen victim to the propaganda that the Zionist establishment and its many outlets feed them from a young age. Moreover, it will require a huge, concerted effort to counter this propaganda through persuasion. For example, most Israelis will not be convinced that their government has reached a level of criminality that warrants a call for boycott. Even if they are logically convinced of the brutalities of Israeli oppression, it will most likely not be enough to rouse them into any form of action against it. This has been proven to be true time and again, evident in the abject failure of such dialogue groups to form any comprehensive anti-occupation movement ever since their inception with the Oslo process. In reality, nothing short of sustained pressure -- not persuasion -- will make Israelis realize that Palestinian rights have to be rectified. That is the logic of the BDS movement, which is entirely opposed to the false logic of dialogue.
Based on an unpublished 2002 report by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last October that "between 1993 and 2000 [alone], Western governments and foundations spent between $20 million and $25 million on the dialogue groups." A subsequent wide-scale survey of Palestinians who participated in the dialogue groups revealed that this great expenditure failed to produce "a single peace activist on either side." This affirms the belief among Palestinians that the entire enterprise is a waste of time and money.
The survey also revealed that the Palestinian participants were not fully representative of their society. Many participants tended to be "children or friends of high-ranking Palestinian officials or economic elites. Only seven percent of participants were refugee camp residents, even though they make up 16 percent of the Palestinian population." The survey also found that 91 percent of Palestinian participants no longer maintained ties with Israelis they met. In addition, 93 percent were not approached with follow-up camp activity, and only five percent agreed the whole ordeal helped "promote peace culture and dialogue between participants."
Despite the resounding failure of these dialogue projects, money continues to be invested in them. As Omar Barghouti, one of the founding members of the BDS movement in Palestine, explained in The Electronic Intifada, "there have been so many attempts at dialogue since 1993 ... it became an industry -- we call it the peace industry."
This may be partly attributed to two factors. The dominant factor is the useful role such projects play in public relations. For example, the Seeds of Peace website boosts its legitimacy by featuring an impressive array of endorsements by popular politicians and authorities, such as Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, Shimon Peres, George Bush, Colin Powell and Tony Blair, amongst others. The second factor is the need of certain Israeli "leftists" and "liberals" to feel as if they are doing something admirable to "question themselves," while in reality they take no substantive stand against the crimes that their government commits in their name. The politicians and Western governments continue to fund such projects, thereby bolstering their images as supporters of "coexistence," and the "liberal" Israeli participants can exonerate themselves of any guilt by participating in the noble act of "fostering peace." A symbiotic relationship, of sorts.
The lack of results from such initiatives is not surprising, as the stated objectives of dialogue and "coexistence" groups do not include convincing Israelis to help Palestinians gain the respect of their inalienable rights. The minimum requirement of recognizing Israel's inherently oppressive nature is absent in these dialogue groups. Rather, these organizations operate under the dubious assumption that the "conflict" is very complex and multifaceted, where there are "two sides to every story," and each narrative has certain valid claims as well as biases.
As the authoritative call by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel makes plain, any joint Palestinian-Israeli activities -- whether they be film screenings or summer camps -- can only be acceptable when their stated objective is to end, protest, and/or raise awareness of the oppression of the Palestinians.
Any Israeli seeking to interact with Palestinians, with the clear objective of solidarity and helping them to end oppression, will be welcomed with open arms. Caution must be raised, however, when invitations are made to participate in a dialogue between "both sides" of the so-called "conflict." Any call for a "balanced" discourse on this issue -- where the motto "there are two sides to every story" is revered almost religiously -- is intellectually and morally dishonest, and ignores the fact that, when it comes to cases of colonialism, apartheid, and oppression, there is no such thing as "balance." The oppressor society, by and large, will not give up its privileges without pressure. This is why the BDS campaign is such an important instrument of change.
Faris Giacaman is a Palestinian student from the West Bank, attending his second year of college in the United States.