contributor perspectives

Keeping Israeli-Palestinian Relations on Track Two

Anisa Mehdi
Board of Contributors
10 MINS READDec 12, 2017 | 21:19 GMT
The gilded Dome of the Rock mosque gleams in the sunlight shining on Jerusalem's skyline.

A picture shows the skyline of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock mosque, at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the city?s old city, where thousands of Muslim pilgrims crowded for the first Friday noon prayer of Ramadan on September 5, 2008. Israel beefed up its police deployments in Jerusalem as tens of thousands of Muslim faithful were expected to attend the first Friday prayers of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City. AFP PHOTO/MARCO LONGARI (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)


U.S. President Donald Trump's recent announcement that his administration would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel caused quite a stir. No sooner had the news broken than prophecies of cataclysmic violence began swirling in the international media. But despite the calls for a day of rage in the Palestinian territories and the State Department's warnings to U.S. diplomats and travelers in the region, the quest to peacefully resolve the decadeslong conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is alive and well. 

After the White House's announcement, I immediately reached out to my colleagues on the ground in the city, as well as in Ramallah and Hebron. "When Jerusalem finds harmony, the world will find peace," suggests Suleiman Khatib, co-founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-nominated nongovernmental organization Combatants for Peace. "Unilateral moves on controversial issues are not constructive." Huda Abu Arquob, regional director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), reframed the moment by thanking U.S. President Donald Trump "for uniting the world over Jerusalem. Jerusalem now is a cause again, after it was lost. Jerusalem's identity includes all people: Jews, Christians, Muslims and non-believers. Your decision will not change its true, authentic identity!" And Yoav Peck, director of Sulha Peace Project, contested the president's statement that the United States would not take a position on final status issues. "Of course he has taken a position on final status issues! Otherwise, wouldn't he have mentioned the Palestinian claim on East Jerusalem, which will be the capital of the Palestinian state? What did he expect the Palestinians' response to be?"

It has been, as many expected it would be, a reaction of anger and rage.

Waiving the Banner

Trump's declaration Dec. 6 was not U.S. policy news. In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act. The bill, aimed at providing "for the relocation of the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem" declared that the city had "(s)ince 1950 ... been the capital of the State of Israel." But no American president had ever recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital out loud — in spite of or perhaps because of his regard for Israel's security. For that reason, the Jerusalem Embassy Act includes a presidential waiver to suspend the embassy's relocation "for a period of six months if (the president) determines and reports to Congress ... that such suspension is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States." Each president since October 1998 has faithfully invoked the waiver every six months, continually postponing the move. Even Trump signed the document mere moments after announcing his administration's decision on Jerusalem — a fact that most reports in the news media buried.

His signature on the waiver didn't allay protesters' concerns, however. Fear and furor stirred in the Palestinian territories and around the world. Hundreds of Palestinians have been injured in demonstrations, though most gatherings were reported to be peaceful. Protesters also assembled outside the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, home to a large Palestinian population.

A Partnership for Peace

Nevertheless, my sources assure me Trump's decision will not stop the efforts of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis alike to seek peace through citizen diplomacy. Nor will it deter the many "track two" organizations committed to connecting people and telling shared stories of longing, loss, pain and partnership.

This fall, I spent a week with Khatib, Peck and Abu Arquob at a conference hosted by Track Two: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. "When I was young, I believed Israel was evil and Israelis were nothing more than soldiers with guns," explained Khatib, a Ramallah resident, in a room overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His dark eyes sparkle. His black hair is a mass of curls. He smokes cigarettes with a relish that rings of a coping mechanism. "I was arrested at 14 years old," he told us, "and studied nonviolent resistance in Israeli jails for 10 years. When I got out I was different." Khatib's journey from stone-throwing intifada participant to co-founder of Combatants for Peace unfolds in the film "Disturbing the Peace," which made it onto the long list of documentaries up for consideration at the 2016 Academy Awards. In it, Khatib outlines the cultural, historical and ideological ties between Israelis and Palestinians:

"Both our peoples carry thousands of years of connection to this land. We both love the olive trees and za'atar. It is part of our souls and hearts and will never go away. Both our peoples have the right to live in peace, freedom and dignity, not only for ourselves, but also as an example for the good of the world."

Among the innovations Combatants for Peace has introduced is a joint Memorial Day ceremony held each year for the past 11 consecutive years. On the eve of Israel's Memorial Day, which commemorates those who died to create the state and those who die protecting it, the organization partners with the Parents Circle-Families Forum for the ceremony, broadcast live around the world. The event, according to the Combatants for Peace website, is meant as a reminder that "war is not an act of fate but one of human choice," and to "acknowledge the pain and the aspirations of those living on the other side of the fence."

Their experiences aren't so different, as Peck can attest. As director of the Sulha Peace Project, Peck — a former member of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) whose daughter just completed her own mandatory military service — sits in on meetings in which young Israelis and Palestinians ponder their future. There's the likely scenario: that someday they may face one another at a roadblock, at a checkpoint or in battle. But they also share visions of alternative and preferable futures. As Peck described, "We pray and sing together, we enjoy a meal and quiet informal time, and we work in listening circles, creating a quality of awareness and attention to the other sorely lacking in our respective societies." In his monthly blogs, Peck ruminates on how the complexity of Israeli society factors into the search for a resolution to the decadeslong conflict with Palestinians:

"Still today, fully half of all Israelis know that a peaceful future rests on the creation of an independent home for the Palestinians, painful as our concessions may have to be. Half of us do not accept this. We must engage each other around this central issue. We will argue, we will be upset. This is how we express our unity, by facing each other decently and having it out. Without raising our hands against each other."

He withstands criticism from hard-liners for outstretching his hand to the people he sees as the best partners for creating peace: the Palestinians. 

Abu Arquob echoed the importance of cooperation during a speech last year to a crowd of thousands. "I'm here to tell you that, yes: you have a partner," she said, as cheers filled the open-air park where Women Wage Peace staged a rally in Jerusalem. Her speech rang with the hope of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. "We are not enemies and we refuse to be enemies. We will stand strong together against all kinds of oppression," she told another crowd standing in the shadow of the Separation Wall at Bethlehem.

Abu Arquob describes ALLMEP as a "trade association for the Peace and Reconciliation movement in Israel and Palestine." Founded in 2003, the alliance responded to the need to raise funds for idealistic civil society projects that otherwise would have to compete with one another for financial sustenance. ALLMEP got its first grant, for $9 million, from the U.S. Agency for International Development Conflict Management and Mitigation Program. Congress, which re-evaluates these grants annually, increased the sum to $10 million in 2016, making ALLMEP the recipient of the largest share of the total $26 million that Washington reserved that year for conflicts abroad. Today, the alliance represents over 100 distinct organizations focusing on education, arts, sports, health and cultural exchange. Its members include the Jerusalem International YMCA, Seeds of Peace, Women Wage Peace, the Sulha Peace Project and Combatants for Peace. By sharing resources, these organizations afford themselves some breathing room. "We know our needs are mutual and cannot be served on the expense of others," writes Abu Arquob on the ALLMEP website. "Our humanity is tested every day on this land. Let's not lose our humanity."

Weathering the Fallout

The breadth of the fallout from Trump's recent statement is not yet known. Even members of the administration, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have expressed concern that the decision over Jerusalem's status would stoke anti-U.S. sentiment overseas. In the wake of the announcement, the State Department has issued warnings to "U.S. citizens against all travel to the Gaza Strip and urge(d) those present to depart." It has also restricted travel for U.S. government employees in Jerusalem and the West Bank. For citizen diplomats in Hebron, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other Palestinian and Israeli communities, meanwhile, the effort to build "the trust necessary to live in peace and security" in "societies that protect ... human and civil rights," as ALLMEP puts it, will continue.

"Seven U.S. presidents understood that non-interference in the delineation of Jerusalem's status was crucial in order to keep alive the hope for a comprehensive peace," Peck told me, referring to the 1995 legislation. "While repeated attempts to reach such agreement failed, one unwritten rule was consistently upheld: Jerusalem's borders and status would be determined as part of the eventual peace agreement." Reaffirming his commitment to nonviolence, Khatib wrote to me in an email, "Now more than ever I see the need for the non-violent struggle for justice, freedom, and dignity for our people's (sic) — both Israeli and Palestinian — and for humanity as one big family."

To say the struggle will not be an easy undertaking is an understatement. Palestinian activists like Khatib face continual accusations that they are "normalizers," a term with a variety of definitions that often distill into a euphemism for "traitor": one who is willing to deal with Israelis as if life under their governance were normal and acceptable. These nonviolent resisters fully oppose Israeli control of their traditional homeland. But Abu Arquob, who lives in Hebron, lamented that "even if you're working with Israelis that keep their kids out of the IDF and go to jail instead, or with leaders in culture — theater, the arts, and academia — the anti-normalization people will go after you." Still, she understands that they, too, have a role to play. They fight the Israeli administration "from behind their keyboards. They are not in touch with us on the ground."

And on the ground, the beat goes on. On Dec. 15, Combatants for Peace is co-hosting a gathering for the nonviolent resistance movement at the Tunnels Checkpoint just outside Jerusalem. "You get no credit for loving those that love you," Khatib notes wryly. "But you get lots of credit for loving those that harm you."

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