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The Day After

What are the prospects for peacebuilding in Israel and Palestine?

These are dark days in Israel and Palestine. Rarely has an end to the decades-old conflict seemed more distant. And yet there remains hope: there are still people who are committed to dialogue, non-violence and to building a shared future in peace. We have asked forumZFD partners and colleagues for their thoughts.
The day after header
© Combatants for Peace

Since October 7 and the unprecedented atrocities committed by Hamas, violence has not stopped raging for a day. As these lines are being written, hundreds of thousands of people in Israel are still being evacuated from their homes. Relatives are still fearing for the lives of the hostages. An estimated 1.7 million people are still fleeing within Gaza, but where can they go? There is no safe place in this "living hell", as the director of the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has put it. According to the Hamas-led Ministry of Health, over 26,000 people have already been killed in the Gaza Strip.

forumZFD and more than 800 other humanitarian and civilian organizations worldwide are calling for a ceasefire. But despite all appeals to humanity, the war continues. How is it possible to maintain hope for a more peaceful future in this situation?

Noa Ben-Shalom, project manager at forumZFD in Jerusalem, has to think about this question for a moment. "I mean, what choice do we have?" she finally says. "What's the alternative, like to give up? We just have to continue." Continue, that means: not abandoning the local partners. Keeping the projects running wherever possible. Constantly adapting to new needs that arise. Strengthening the voices for peace – even if that is anything but easy these days.

forumZFD has been working in the region since 1999. Israel and Palestine were among the very first destinations where experts of the Civil Peace Service were deployed. Over the years, the team in Jerusalem has built up close contacts with local partner organizations and groups on both sides that are committed to dialogue, reconciliation, social cohesion and an end to the conflict. forumZFD does not implement any projects in Gaza, but it does in the West Bank. And this is where another drama is currently unfolding, in the shadow of the war and away from the major media attention.

Violence is escalating in the West Bank

"The world calls it the Gaza-Israel war, but in reality, it affects the whole Palestinian territories," says Jalaa Abuarab, editor-in-chief of the media platform "Dooz". The 29-year-old is calling from the office in Nablus. The city with its rich cultural heritage, its university and a population of round-about 157,000 is located in the north of the West Bank in Area A, where the Palestinian Authority has sovereignty over civil and security matters. However, there are also at least 30 illegal Israeli settlements and outposts in the area surrounding the city.

Even before October 7, 2023 had already been declared as the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the UN began recording casualties in 2005. "The war is also happening here," emphasizes Abuarab, who lives in Nablus herself. Every day there is violence, such as shootings at checkpoints, attacks by radical settlers or operations by the Israeli military. Abuarab can list all these incidents off the top of her head, because as a journalist, it is her job to fact-check the information. She has only just hung up the phone, she shares. She was speaking to an eyewitness who had seen a Palestinian being shot at a checkpoint. According to the Israeli military, it was in self-defense. The eyewitness, however, stated that the driver had mixed up the gas pedal and the brakes in his panic. His wife, who was sitting in the passenger seat, was also killed.

Nablus is located in the northern part of the West Bank. In the vicinity, there are at least 30 illegal Israeli settlements and outposts.

The journalist takes a deep breath. "I watch all kinds of videos every day to decide what to publish and what not. I've never seen such scenes of violence. Every day I wake up and my eyes are big and red, and I ask myself – why do I even do this? But then I remember: it’s my job."

She has been working at Dooz for ten years and thus has been with the organization almost since it was founded in 2013. The name can be translated from Arabic as "straightforward" or "truthful". The editorial team has adopted a strict code of conduct and reports critically and independently. This is worth noting, as the Palestinian media landscape is highly polarized and reporting often has a political bias. Dooz, on the other hand, describes itself as "colorless", explains Abuarab, meaning that it cannot be assigned to any political party. "We can detect propaganda a mile away. And we do in-depth journalism. Being fast is important, but being accurate is more important to us." With a hint of pride in her voice, the editor-in-chief adds: "People say about us: 'If Dooz did not publish that, it did not happen.'"

Over a million people follow Dooz on social media and the website generates hundreds of thousands of clicks. The reporting focuses on topics that concern people in their everyday lives, such as information on checkpoints, the water supply or local politics. According to Abuarab, this is the only level at which democracy is still functioning in the West Bank. Dooz has set itself the task of holding politicians accountable and restoring trust in democratic processes – and also reporting in a way that does not fuel conflicts.

forumZFD supports peace journalism 

forumZFD has been partnering with Dooz for around three years to train young media professionals. In a training on peace journalism, they learn to recognize underlying causes of conflict and to report on them in a sensitive manner. "For example, the words we use have a big impact on our readers," says Abuarab. "Words can spread hatred. We want to report in a way that it will not increase the conflict."

Constructive and solution-oriented reporting is badly needed, especially in view of the heated atmosphere – on both sides. Emotions are also boiling over in Israel. In response to the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7, calls for revenge have been vocalized in public. Members of the far-right government under Benjamin Netanyahu have also made such statements. Some even called for Gaza to be wiped off the ground.

The young journalists of the media platform 'Dooz' are a strong team. Pictured in the back left: Editor-in-Chief Jalaa Abuarab.

Voices that advocate an end to the violence and recognize the pain on both sides are having a hard time. Partners of forumZFD, such as the Jewish-Palestinian movement "Standing Together", which publicly calls for a ceasefire, are being attacked and intimidated. Activists who put up posters with slogans such as "No to violence" and "We'll get through this together" – in Hebrew and Arabic – were detained. Others were beaten up by right-wing hooligans during similar actions. Demonstrations by Palestinians and Israelis who wanted to draw attention to the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza were blocked. It seems that in face of their own pain, there is hardly any room in Israeli society to acknowledge the suffering of 'the others'.

The fear of each other is huge

One place where seemingly impossible encounters become possible is the Arab Jewish cultural center Beit Ha'Gefen, which forumZFD has been working with for many years. It is located in Haifa. The port city in the north of Israel is one of the so-called mixed cities. Over ten percent of its 284,000 inhabitants have Arab roots. Jewish and Palestinian Israelis meet here every day: at school, in the supermarket, at the bus stop, at work. Living together has always been complex, but since October 7, mutual mistrust has multiplied.

The Jewish-Palestinian movement "Standing Together" publicly demands an end to the war - for this, the activists are being harassed and intimidated.

"We live in this city together, but that doesn't mean that we know each other," says Hasan Haj. As a Palestinian citizen of Israel, he experiences the prejudices first-hand. "Many people tell me that I don't look like an Arab guy – I don't know if that's a compliment or not. But when I speak Arabic in public now, for example at the gym, I always feel a certain tension."

A place for complexity

Haj facilitates workshops at Beit Ha'Gefen, for example with school classes, students or staff. His team partner Sarki Golani, herself a Jewish Israeli, is head of the cultural center's education department. She explains: "Even for people who have been working together for many years, it is currently difficult to contain complexity." Many are looking for simple answers and seek confirmation that it is okay not to listen to the other side and to feel only their own pain. Beit Ha'Gefen, on the other hand, creates a space for nuances and diverse perspectives: "Although our participants meet in everyday life, for example in school classes or at university, for many it is the first time that they have talked to each other about the situation. This helps to build trust, which is an emergency need right now."

Since October 7, many of Beit Ha'Gefen's activities have not been able to take place as planned. Workshops had to be canceled and the interreligious "Festival of Festivals", normally a highlight of the year, could only take place on a smaller and more subdued scale. However, new needs quickly emerged. Employers of mixed teams approached Beit Ha'Gefen, seeking to rebuild trust between their staff members.

Here seemingly impossible encounters become possible: the Jewish-Arab cultural center Beit Ha'Gefen in Haifa.

And so the cultural center now engages with groups of social workers, municipal employees, medical staff and teachers, to name just a few. Schools in particular face major challenges these days: How are teachers supposed to do math or history when they have children and young people sitting in front of them who are afraid of each other? The different content that Jewish and Palestinian students are exposed to on social media only adds to the tensions in the classroom.

"I first have to work on myself"

Thanks to its many years of experience in the field of education, Beit Ha'Gefen has the tools to address precisely such challenges. But it was and still is not an easy time for the team itself. The shock still sits deep. Sarki Golani remembers a meeting with all the colleagues shortly after October 7. "It was very difficult to talk about it. We stuttered a lot and kept silent many times. But we also hugged each other."

The methods they apply with their groups have also benefited themselves, adds Hasan Haj: "Before I work with others, I first need to work with myself. I have to be honest with myself and face my fears: Am I ready to hear what they really have to say?" The facilitators often start by working separately with the Jewish and Palestinian participants. Only when they have managed to establish a safe atmosphere they bring the groups together.

At the events of Beit Ha'Gefen, Jewish and Palestinian Israelis encounter each other.

Haj remembers: "We had one student who got nervous when I said my name. There was this new Arab guy standing in front of her who she couldn't quite figure out." But during the workshop, the participant relaxed and at the end she wrote in the feedback form that she felt appreciated. "I hope that some of our groups will feel less fear of 'the others' after the workshops," comments Haj. "I often say: we can't change the big world, but if we put ourselves in each other's shoes, we can change each other’s worlds and enrich them with our stories."

Preparing the "day after"

For Noa Ben-Shalom, forumZFD's project manager responsible for the cooperation with Beit Ha'Gefen, it is projects like this that prepare the ground for the time after the war. "I think our role is to prepare for 'the day after'. At the moment, everyone is focused on the present and the focus of many organizations is on emergency humanitarian aid. But one day – hopefully soon – the war will end and places like Beit Ha'Gefen will show people that it is possible to live together. For me, these are places that hold hope."

According to the project manager, countering mutual dehumanization is an important step towards achieving sustainable peace. Many Palestinians would only see the other side as soldiers or militant settlers, while Jewish Israelis would be quick to label their counterparts as Hamas terrorists. "People just don’t look at each other as human beings anymore. This is a big challenge for us: creating spaces where they can meet as individuals. We have to see each other as humans, not monsters. This is the first step towards being able to live together."

Participants in a demonstration organized by forumZFD's partner organization Combatants for Peace.

However, this will not be easy. So much has been destroyed by the violence of recent months. For the few groups that are still active across borders in Israel and Palestine or that bridge cultural and religious differences, this makes their work even more difficult and dangerous, says forumZFD country director G. Monique Van Thiel. "We observe that these groups are being ostracized and even treated like traitors in their respective communities. Their voices are diminishing and they need our support in order to be heard throughout the increasing polarization, and to be able to continue their work. But we also need to think about how we can reach other parts of the societies. We need a holistic approach, because the events of the last few months are only breeding more violence and extremism. For us, it is therefore very clear that we need to strengthen the voices for peace."

United in grief: Can the joint memorial event of the "Combatants for Peace" also take place in 2024?

One of these voices are the "Combatants for Peace". This partner organization of forumZFD unites former fighters from both sides who have put down their weapons and are now campaigning with non-violent means for dialogue and an end to the occupation. Every year, they organize a large memorial ceremony to commemorate the victims of both sides – an alternative to the official, state Memorial Day Yom haZikaron, on which Israel only honors its own dead. Around 15,000 people attended the alternative memorial last year, and thousands more participated online. Creating a space for collective mourning is more important than ever in light of the many victims that the new wave of violence has already claimed. But will the event be able to take place in 2024? The "Combatants for Peace" are already facing criticism. But they have announced that they will not be discouraged. United in grief, they want to set an example: for a common future in peace.

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