"Putting Money into Israeli-Palestinian Peace Projects Now?
You Must Be Crazy?"

A note to friends from Gershon Baskin, Israeli Co-Director of IPCRI

 

September 1, 2001 -- It does seem somewhat insane to "invest" money now into projects supporting Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Most outside observers probably feel "let the Jews and the Arabs kill each other - it's their own choice - maybe someday they'll change their minds and get back to peace making? In the meantime, there are other parts of the world where my efforts might have a bigger impact".

We have heard this argument quite a lot recently. Quite honestly, at face value, there is a lot of sense to this line of thinking. One year ago the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority were deeply engaged in very advanced stages of peacemaking. For the past 11 months they have been engaged in killing each other and at the same time erasing all of the progress that was made during the past seven years of peacemaking and peace building activities. It is true that the political peacemaking process will probably take years before getting back on track and even more time until constructive agreements can produce real peace on the ground.

Until then is the proper thing to do to let the Jews and the Arabs drown in their self-made pools of blood? Or are there some things that can and should still be done that could actually make some difference and have some kind of impact? Most cooperative activities between Israelis and Palestinians have ceased over the past eleven months. The actual prospects for bringing Israelis and Palestinians together are very slim and implementing joint programs now are very complex and very difficult.

First one must cope with the lack of enthusiasm of participants on both sides. Both Israelis and Palestinians go to sleep with great anxiety and wake up to the reality of war every morning. The early morning news conveys to us how many people were killed during the past evening. Each side hears dramatic reports about the brutality of the other side. We are constantly being informed of the public solidarity of the sides with the policies of their governments.

Then we have to confront the limitations on movement - Israelis can no longer enter the Palestinian controlled areas - it is illegal to do so by Israeli law and dangerous to do so because of the high probability of being killed by Palestinian gunmen. Palestinians cannot enter into Israel without a permit from the Israeli Defense Forces and it is increasingly difficult (almost impossible) to get such permits today.

One of the few places where meetings can be held is Tantur -a Vatican Ecumenical College on the border of Jerusalem-Bethlehem that has access from both the Bethlehem (Palestinian) and the Jerusalem (Israeli) controlled areas. Since March 2001, IPCRI has been renting temporary office space at Tantur (this make IPCRI the only non-Christian outside institution to ever function within the Tantur compound). But even arriving to Tantur for many is difficult or impossible. At one of our last meetings of Israeli and Palestinian teachers, Palestinian teachers from Jenin left their homes at 4:00 am to arrive at Tantur at 10:00 because of the many Israeli check points along the way (in the same time they could have flown to London!). But they arrived!!! Many Israelis know that Tantur is located in Gilo, which has come under fire from Beit Jalla, and are initially too frightened to come, yet most do arrive in the end only to find an atmosphere of peace and tranquility in this "protected" enclosure.

Once we are successful in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, the chances that some tragic event will be taking place while the meeting is going on are quite high. Sometimes this means that the meeting cannot continue as planned. Sometimes the tragic events happen just before the scheduled meeting is to take place and then the participants are too afraid, too angry or too despairing to attend.

Many people who make the decision to participate in joint activities find themselves under peer and family pressure to cease these activities. Many question the impact and importance of such activities during these times. There seems to be little public support for such attempts at reaching out to the other side. More and more, the need to "remove" participants from their violent surroundings is becoming the mode of operation as we have found a successful venue in nearby countries such as Turkey and Cyprus allowing us to temporarily isolate people from the tragic events of day-to-day life in Israel and Palestine.

Difficult But Not Impossible

Despite the appearance of an almost total breakdown in relations, one can also find, between the lines in public opinion polls conducted on both sides, that most Israelis and most Palestinians still want a peace agreement along the lines of the basic formulas that were worked out in negotiations between the sides in Taba about nine months ago.

Small, but increasing numbers of Israelis and Palestinians are beginning to question the wisdom of the policies being carried out by their own leaders. Small, but increasing numbers of Israelis and Palestinians are searching for ways to restart the dialogue between them and to convey messages of a desire to find a way out of the current insanity.

IPCRI Since the Beginning of the Intifada

During this past summer IPCRI successfully held three Israeli-Palestinian teacher training workshops involving about 100 Israeli and Palestinian teachers. These meetings were held in Turkey. We were also successful in convening a training workshop for the JEMS - Joint Environment Mediation Service program of IPCRI involving 28 Israeli and Palestinian environmentalists. IPCRI is also presently working on the mediation of two environmental disputes. We have completed a study of the refugee issue including a public opinion poll amongst Palestinian refugees. In the past two months, we have published two joint studies, one on increasing environmental awareness and one on issues concerning Palestinian currency. Other activities that we are not able to openly speak about have also been convened. Additional meetings will be held in the coming period of Israeli and Palestinian economists - officials and non-officials; Israelis and Palestinians responsible for dealing with water issues, Israeli and Palestinian security experts, and more.

IPCRI's credibility with Israelis and Palestinians, established over the past 12+ years of intensive work, places us in a unique position to serve the mutual interests of both parties in any remaining desire to seek peace solutions to the conflict. IPCRI has received formal requests from Israeli and Palestinian official bodies and ministries to convene Israeli-Palestinian meetings involving both officials and non-officials on issues such as security, economic relations, water sharing, and agriculture cooperation. IPCRI has been approached by the highest levels of Israeli and Palestinian political bodies to try to convene Track II meetings searching for exit strategies for both sides.

Then and Now

A year ago we were involved in the process of developing model peace agreements and detailed plans for the sharing of water and the sharing of Jerusalem. Today our work is quite different but no less important. We are not in the position to work on the detailed plans of final status agreements - the parties are much too far apart for that to make any real sense. The events of the past year have brought the region to become a violent "sea of insanity". There appears to be an extreme movement away from rational strategic thinking on both sides of the conflict. The violence is sweeping away many of those who in the past considered themselves to be part of the "peace camp" on both sides.

IPCRI's primary function seems to have become the creation of "islands of sanity" for calm, rational discourse and searching for understandings between people on both sides. While it is difficult to systematically measure the impact of this work, there is no doubt significant importance in guaranteeing it ability to continue and grow. Yet at this point in the beginning of September 2001 IPCRI's fundraising efforts have produced about 60% less results in income from where we were at this time last year.

IPCRI has survived and been able to continue its work, we believe, due to the dedication of the staff and the participants in IPCRI's activities over the years; due to IPCRI's credibility and integrity; due to the true Israeli-Palestinian partnership and mutual sense of joint "ownership" of IPCRI by Israelis and Palestinians. IPCRI was created before there was an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and IPCRI will survive the demise of the Oslo Peace Process.

We fear that the many donors that have come to appreciate and support our work will desert us. Many donors are undergoing processes of evaluation of their support in the region. The need for evaluation is understandable and desirable, however should the conclusion of these evaluations be a determination to cease the support of the few peace related activities that have survived, the donors themselves will be adding to the despair and the loss of hope.

The irony is that when the funds are most needed they are the hardest to come by. There is a need to increase donor support to peacemaking now between Israelis and Palestinians. Currently there are not enough funds to meet the needs. Funds made available beyond the needs will help to increase the possibilities for more projects that are worthy of support. We appeal to potential donors, those who have contributed to this work in the past as well as to those who have not: Don't allow the violent sea of insanity to overtake us. Help us to create more islands of sanity and sane discourse between Israelis and Palestinians. Let's not allow the entire infrastructure of civil society peacemaking that has been so laboriously created to completely wither away.