As the violence continues, there are grassroots organisations in Israel and Palestine are working to build peace. One such example is Parents Circle-Families Forum. The organisation has bought together more than 600 Palestinian and Israeli families, all of whom have lost an immediate family member to the conflict, to call for peace and reconciliation.
By Vanessa Thevathasan
The third major military confrontation in Gaza in six years is taking place, with the death toll amongst civilians rising each hour. The latest escalation of violence after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenage boys and Israel’s counter-assault through Operation Protective Edge in Gaza has garnered further undercurrents of hatred and fear towards their adversaries. As it now stands, the peace process is stalled for the near future and any hopes of bringing the necessary political heads back to the negotiation table appears distant at best and irrevocably broken at worst. Out of war and the human tragedy it inevitably entails, the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF) is working to bring families together to amplify the call for the immediate cessation to the conflict. Divided by decades of war, but united their determination for peace, PCFF is helping to pave the way for peaceful recognition and association between these communities by the very people who have lost the most to this war. In writing this, it is my hope that more people are encouraged by the impact of community-based reconciliation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and are motivated to reverberate their efforts by collectively breaking the divide and building for peace.
Conflict, by its nature, heightens perceptions of the ‘Other,’ conveniently splitting communities across artificially constructed binaries of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ disassociation. This develops into a legitimising tool for the revenge, hostility, prejudice and discrimination of a particular group. This is no less the case for communities in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In confronting these attitudes directly, PCFF aims to promote a permanent shift in psychosocial thinking that it is conducive to social conflict transformation. As a grassroots organisation, it is exceptional for bringing together more than 600 Palestinian and Israeli families, all of whom have lost an immediate family member to the conflict. It utilises the techniques of peace narration to stimulate greater connectedness and recognition amongst each other. This shared compassion and solidarity through exchanging each other’s experiences and personal loss has enabled them to reach out into their respective communities to initiate wider attitudinal change for peaceful co-existence.
By encouraging cross-group communication, genuine space has been opened for challenging stereotypical identities on both sides. It helps ensure that misinformation and misunderstanding often generated through fear of the ‘Other’ can be confronted, debunked and replaced with a more humanizing tale of the consequences and brutality of war. In times of conflict, narrative imbalance and asymmetry of power divides communities across entrenched and hardened ethno-nationalistic identities. PCFF promotes dialogue exchange, so that when communities meet their advertisers with the central motivation for peace and reconciliation, this can effectively deconstruct these group-based identities and nationalistic narratives aimed at intensifying fragmented social structures. PCFF works to align common identities divided by psychological and physical borders, and in so doing transcend the categories and labels that causally misrepresent and simplify opposite sides of the human story in conflict.
The unraveling of personal stories opens up to an alternative worldview that can be understood, respected and legitimated. For example, in ‘The Narrative Project,’ groups are brought together, including university students, young political leaders, the elderly, so that they can share their stories. Out of the project, PCFF produced a documentary film ‘Two Sided Story’ (2012), which was created and inspired by their personal journey and has become a powerful educational tool which continues to be screened in Israel, the West Bank and internationally. Further, in PCFF’s Women’s Group, ‘The Neighbors Project’ joins together fifty bereaved Israeli and Palestinian women to encourage greater understanding of the positive impact and role women play in conflict resolution. Through this project, women are motivated to exchange narratives as means to strengthen the reconciliation process. The Group launched the ‘Presence of the Void Photography Exhibit’ (2013) that vividly portrays their intimate and harrowing journey in dealing with their loss.
These projects have been encouraging for there ability to reach out to more groups from Palestinian and Israeli communities to include their different narratives into the conversation. PCFF’s new Reconciliation Center helps to provide a secure space for people to gather and converse with each other in the hope that this will facilitate conversations with their political representatives to pave the way for affirmative conflict transformation. These projects provide the essential elements for the reconfiguration of the ‘Other’ on a level more familiar, trustful and empathetic.
“There are people like you on the other side, who love their sons and wish to see them grow and prosper, not buried in the ground.”Empathy is one of the most important tools for long-term sustainable peace. PCFF reports that 70% of all participants had increased trust and empathy. Promisingly, PCFF found 84% were motivated to participate in peacebuilding activities in their communities. Empathy breaks through both the physical and psychological wall of separation to dislodge propaganda mythification and provide an environment that is inclusive for its commonality amongst both Israeli’s and Palestinians. Hanan Lubadeh, a Palestinian PCFF member, expressed such sentiments in her letter of bereavement, which accompanied many similar letters from Israeli women, published in the Israeli Yedioth Aharanot on July 18th 2014:
I’ve known Israeli bereaved mothers for many years. The mothers’ pain is similar, no matter if they are Israeli or Palestinian. We must not give in to blind fury. We must understand that revenge will lead to more revenge and it is our responsibility to stop the cycle of violence.
I know the “other” and invite you to reach out and work for a different reality. There are people like you on the other side, who love their sons and wish to see them grow and prosper, not buried in the ground.
Hanan’s words also reverberates the necessity of taking positive steps towards inter-generational conflict transformation. Through their shared grief these parents are paving the way for a new generation to be brought together on a common cause to embrace the ‘Other’. Teaching Palestinian and Israeli youth the importance of empathic listening generates the necessary tools to break down the socially constructed barriers that cause the fear, suspicion and mistrust that lead to conflict. PCFF helps to build new friendships and culminates in a protective bonding for each other’s personal safety and security by the fact that families in Palestine become part of the concern and reality for families in Israel. In understanding the Palestinian need for freedom and justice and the Israeli pursuit of security, they recognise the importance of continuing to communicate productively through the discord when all other political groups have fractured.
While the scars that families are left with are irreparable, adopting a reconciliatory perspective is creating a new thinking around how to move forward together. As Operation Protective Edge continues, the relentless bombing has put Gaza’s future on hold. It is at this vital point in the crisis that the work PCFF continues. Its latest video “We Don’t Want You Here’’ protests the ongoing escalation in violence with the tragic inevitability that more families will be joining “dreaded club of the bereaved”. A Tent of Reconciliation has been set up in Tel Aviv where members share their stories, facilitate dialogue and screen films in line with PCFF shared vision for breaking the cycle of violence. More groups, such as ‘Combatants for Peace’ and ‘One Voice’ are joining forces to amplify PCFF’s voice for the cessation and resolution to the conflict.
Throughout the latest outbreak in violence, PCFF has continued to engender hope for the future. The humanization of the tragedy faced by Palestinian and Israeli families has initiated greater acceptance and motivation for creating a more viable and sustainable peace. Ultimately, the success of the peace process will rely on generating political change from both sides of the conflict, which means matching community-based peacebuilding activities, including the work of PCFF, with top-down political agreements. Until that time but through their shared grief, small but significant steps have paved the way for this final chapter in the conflict to be realised.
Vanessa Thevathasan is a freelance researcher and writer. She currently works as a blog writer for International Women’s Initiative, a community interest company working towards the promotion of women’s rights and gender equality. She also writes for the Centre for Armed Violence Reduction. She writes about the impact of conflict on women and children and focuses on raising awareness about the many challenges women and girls face in daily life, including health, sexual based violence and economic security.
This article was originally published on Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here.