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MIS-perceptions: Obstacles to Creating a Lasting Peace…

May 13, 2009

 One of the main barriers to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is the lack of interaction between the two groups on a ‘people-to-people’ basis.  In addition to that, nationalistic leaders on both sides tend to exploit the misconceptions that each side has of the other in order to polarize the two groups. 

 If both sides are committed to resolving the conflict and creating peace, they have to interact with each other.  That way, they can find out what they have in common instead of focusing on the negative stereotypes they hear about the other—from opposite sides of the wall. 

 When there is no contact between everyday Israelis and everyday Palestinians (instead of in a military/militant capacity), it is easy for each side to believe the worst about the other.  These interactions alone do not promote peace, or a solution to this conflict.  It only polarizes the two sides even more.

 In order to promote casual interactions between the two groups, there have been many organized events where Israelis and Palestinians are invited to meet with each other.  The point of these meetings is for each side to learn about the other, and to realize the similarities between them. 

 However, there are several obstacles to the success of these meetings. 

* The idea of ‘victimhood’ by each side

* Ignorance about the ‘other’ in terms of culture, commitment and religion

* Lack of ‘equal status’ at the meetings

 When each group believes that they are the ‘legitimate victim’ of the conflict, it contributes to a lack of empathy towards the other side—each group is preoccupied with their own sufferings.  This has negative effects on group relations, because neither is willing to listen to the opinions of the other. 

 In the Palestinian interviews, it was clear that they thought Israeli violence towards them outweighed their violence towards Israelis. When asked if they thought the violence was equal on both sides, this was one response:

 “No.  They’re bombing us with F-16s and we’re throwing stones, and making basic explosives.  It’s like if you punched someone in the face and he bombed you with an RPG.”

 These feelings can be manipulated by nationalistic leaders to enhance their audience’s sense of victimhood.  In this way, the listener’s identity is preoccupied with themes of revenge and the ongoing conflict.  This increases the group’s commitment to the nationalistic political agenda of the leader.

 When this feeling of victimization is combined with the high ‘commitment’ of each group to their cause, the effects on dialogue between the two very negative.

 In terms of the contact between everyday Israelis and everyday Palestinians, there is almost none.  Because of restrictions on movement, the majority of Palestinians do not interact with everyday Israelis—they only interact with the Israeli military.  When asked how often they have contact with everyday Israelis, this is what some West Bank Palestinians responded:

“Not often, not very much.  Once a week, maybe.  Soldiers all the time, at checkpoints and in the roads.”

 “Never—they fear us, it’s a concept built on fear and terror.  I don’t know why.”

 “[Before the Second Intifada] when it was open, we could go to Tel Aviv, go to Israeli shops, buy from them and talk with them.  But now they are afraid of us, and think of us as lower.”

 Israelis do not travel to the West Bank or Gaza Strip, for the most part, unless they are there in a military capacity.  This does not promote a better understanding between the two groups, as most interactions between the two are in violent or fear-inducing situations. 

 Palestinians fear, and subsequently begin to hate, Israeli soldiers because they feel the soldiers are intruding in their lives and causing them suffering.  Israeli soldiers fear, and subsequently begin to hate, Palestinians because the situations in which they meet Palestinians are thought of as ‘threatening’ to the soldiers. 

 When both sides are able to come together, in a casual and informal setting, they can begin to see their similarities rather than their differences.  One main similarity the groups share is the depth of commitment each side has to the same land.  This commitment is based in their personal experience as well as their religious heritages.  In this way, there is an “ideological balance of power”—both sides should recognize that the other is here, and that neither wants to leave.

 Another way that the two groups can find similarities is through religion.  In most cases, religion acts as an escalating influence in many of the most violent international or inter-ethnic conflicts around the world.  According to a study by Chaim Lavi, it is the more religious people among the two groups that have the most negative attitudes against the other group. 

 Because of this, using religion as the subject of the inter group dialogue can be useful in several ways.  First of all, inter group dialogues should focus on the similarities of structure and practice between Islam and Judaism.  Negative attitudes between the groups will be more likely to change once they realize that the other group has attitudes and beliefs that are similar to their own.

 Another way religion can be useful as a topic of discussion is that it puts both groups on an equal level—as equal representatives of their respective religious traditions and heritages.  One of the biggest complaints Palestinians have about the inter group meetings is the fact that they feel they are not ‘equal status’ participants.  This unequal status is mostly based on politics, the Israelis have a country of their own and the Palestinians do not.  When I asked the Palestinian group what it would take the break down the barriers between them and the Israelis, they responded, “politics, no discussions about politics.”

 When the dialogue is focused on religion instead of politics, both sides can have ‘equal status’ in the meeting—which will contribute to a more successful discussion where the groups can find commonalities instead of focusing on differences. 

 They can begin to see each other as human beings instead of the ‘other’—complete with all the stereotypes, which has been created in their minds because of the lack of interaction.

 The two groups need to be able to meet in a casual setting, with equal status for each, and then they can begin to explore the similarities and break through the cultural, religious, and political barriers between the two.

 Organizations Committed to Increasing Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue:

 The Peres Center for Peace: http://www.peres-center.org/

 Palestinian Israeli Peace NGO: http://www.peacengo.org/

 All for Peace Radio: http://www.allforpeace.org/

 Bat Shalom: http://www.batshalom.org/

 Bringing Peace Together: http://www.bringingpeacetogether.org/

 Combatants for Peace: http://www.combatantsforpeace.org/

 Commitment to Peace and Social Justice: http://www.commitment.org.il/

 Friends of the Earth: Middle East: http://www.foeme.org/

 Geneva Initiative: http://www.geneva-accord.org/

 Hewar Center for Peace and Development: http://www.hewar-4peace.org/

 Interfaith Encounter Association: http://www.interfaith-encounter.org/

Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IRCRI): http://www.ipcri.org/

 Jerusalem Center for Women: http://www.j-c-w.org/

 Jerusalem Peace Makers: http://www.jerusalempeacemakers.org/

 Just Vision: http://www.justvision.org/

 Middle East Peace: http://www.mepeace.org/

 Middleway: http://www.middleway.org/

 Mifgash (Encounter) for Conflict Transformation: http://mifgash.org.il/

 Neve Shalom- Wahat Al Salam Village: http://www.nswas.org/

 One Voice: http://www.onevoicemovement.org/

 Palestine-Israel Journal: http://www.pij.org

 Parent’s Circle- Families Forum: http://www.theparentscircle.org/

 Sulha Peace Project: http://www.sulha.com/

 Arik Institute for Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Peace: http://arikpeace.org/

 Windows for Peace Channels of Communication: http://win-peace.org/

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