Amid the current political impasse between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, civil society organizations (CSOs) are among the few players on the ground still able to maintain open channels of communication and opportunities for meaningful cooperation between the two sides. They play a crucial role in engaging with their communities to transform perceptions and policies, as well as structural and sociopolitical relationships between and within their communities, to contribute to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Can these groups help keep hope of a solution alive?
During his regular briefing to the United Nations Security Council on 21 July 2020, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process painted a bleak picture of the situation between Israel and Palestine.
“I brief you today as Palestinians and Israelis are grappling with a complex and potentially destabilizing three-pronged crisis,” said Nickolay Mladenov. “An escalating health crisis as both struggle to contain the rapid spike of COVID-19 cases. A spiraling economic crisis as businesses close, unemployment soars, protests increase, and the economy suffers the financial impact of months of lockdowns and restrictions. And finally, a mounting political confrontation, driven by the threat of Israeli annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, and the steps taken in response by the Palestinian leadership.”
Mladenov said these developments were not happening in a vacuum and that the unfolding dynamics “shed a stark light on the daily reality of the conflict and the imperative to resolve it through negotiations between the parties.”
But negotiations have been dormant for years, which has allowed both parties to move further apart, he said.
Stalled peace talks do not mean that all communication between Israelis and Palestinians has stopped, however. In February 2020, Mladenov’s office, UNSCO, launched a groundbreaking project aimed at deepening its engagement with Palestinian and Israeli CSOs focused on peacebuilding work. The project stems from the understanding that grassroots initiatives are crucial to attempts to revive negotiations towards a two-State solution, based on international law, UN resolutions, and bilateral agreements. The project seeks to understand the work and challenges CSOs in Israel and Palestine face today, explore links between their initiatives and UNSCO’s own efforts and find ways to support CSOs in maximizing their impact and achievements.
The project also grew out of the recognition that these organizations are operating within an increasingly challenging political environment, in which those who seek to reach out to the other side may risk harsh criticism from some in their communities. CSOs also face a difficult financial environment, as donors have reduced or stopped their contributions amid global economic uncertainty, political polarization and increasing skepticism about the prospects for peace. These challenges have grown exponentially in recent months owing to the COVID-19 crisis, Israel’s potential annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank and the subsequent halt to coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Mladenov told Politically Speaking that even in this challenging environment, the groups have redoubled efforts towards a peaceful resolution, demonstrating remarkable resilience, commitment and creativity in the process.
On 13 July, Mladenov and the UNSCO team hosted an online discussion with representatives of 14 Israeli and Palestinian CSOs engaged in peacebuilding work across a wide variety of sectors, including the environment, youth, “women, peace and security”, reconciliation, public policy and interfaith dialogue. The event focused on their strategies for the near future, and possible synergies that will enhance UN and CSO efforts toward peace. It sought, as well, to provide a forum for fruitful discussion and information sharing amongst the organizations.
CSO representatives, Israeli and Palestinian, expressed concern over the damaging, potentially irreversible consequences that a possible annexation would have on the prospects for peace and on their own peacebuilding work. They also warned against focusing exclusively on this threat and allowing ”the unsustainable and unacceptable status quo” to continue. They emphasized the need to work towards changing the current reality, urging UNSCO to mobilize efforts to resume meaningful talks and underscoring that the peacebuilding community is an important partner in this effort. Finally, they highlighted how UN recognition and support empowers them, with one Palestinian participant saying, “Our peacebuilding work can be directly advanced through the public support of the UN…[which] will help the public in Israel and Palestine understand how meaningful and important the work that we are doing is.” An Israeli participant commented on the cooperative spirit of the discussion, saying, “Usually in the field we criticize each other, [but] now in this gathering we are discussing how we can complement each other.”
Mladenov said the open, wide-ranging discussion “showcase[d] this wonderful community of peace activists and peacemakers.” He also underscored how, in cooperation with the UN, the CSOs can help shape a new narrative that can demonstrate how peace and security are possible for both Palestinians and Israelis, and not a zero-sum game.
The discussion was the first in a series of workshops and an important milestone in the process of increasing cooperation and information flow between the UNSCO political team and civil society actors on both sides of the divide as they work to advance the goal of peace. Future workshops will delve more deeply into specific themes, seek to build the capacities of the organizations and connect them with Member States to ensure that their activities remain both viable and prioritized.
“We know from experience that peace processes stand a much greater chance of success if they have the buy-in of the grassroots communities on either side of a conflict,” Mladenov said. “Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilding organizations are doing the difficult, essential work of building a foundation for a meaningful political process that addresses the needs, aspirations and experiences of Palestinians and Israelis.”
Title picture: A bird’s eye view of Jerusalem. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas