[News] Can we talk? The Middle East "peace industry"

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Aug 21 11:04:14 EDT 2009

Can we talk? The Middle East "peace industry"

Faris Giacaman, The Electronic Intifada, 20 August 2009

Upon finding out that I am Palestinian, many people I meet at college 
in the United States are eager to inform me of various activities 
that they have participated in that promote "coexistence" and 
"dialogue" between both sides of the "conflict," no doubt expecting 
me to give a nod of approval. However, these efforts are harmful and 
undermine the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment 
and sanctions of Israel -- the only way of pressuring Israel to cease 
its violations of Palestinians' rights.

When I was a high school student in Ramallah, one of the better known 
"people-to-people" initiatives, Seeds of Peace, often visited my 
school, asking students to join their program. Almost every year, 
they would send a few of my classmates to a summer camp in the US 
with a similar group of Israeli students. According to the Seeds of 
Peace website, at the camp they are taught "to develop empathy, 
respect, and confidence as well as leadership, communication and 
negotiation skills -- all critical components that will facilitate 
peaceful coexistence for the next generation." They paint quite a 
rosy picture, and most people in college are very surprised to hear 
that I think such activities are misguided at best, and immoral, at 
worst. Why on earth would I be against "coexistence," they invariably ask?

During the last few years, there have been growing calls to bring to 
an end Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people through an 
international movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). 
One of the commonly-held objections to the boycott is that it is 
counter-productive, and that "dialogue" and "fostering coexistence" 
is much more constructive than boycotts.

With the beginning of the Oslo accords in 1993, there has been an 
entire industry that works toward bringing Israelis and Palestinians 
together in these "dialogue" groups. The stated purpose of such 
groups is the creating of understanding between "both sides of the 
conflict," in order to "build bridges" and "overcome barriers." 
However, the assumption that such activities will help facilitate 
peace is not only incorrect, but is actually morally lacking.

The presumption that dialogue is needed in order to achieve peace 
completely ignores the historical context of the situation in 
Palestine. It assumes that both sides have committed, more or less, 
an equal amount of atrocities against one another, and are equally 
culpable for the wrongs that have been done. It is assumed that not 
one side is either completely right or completely wrong, but that 
both sides have legitimate claims that should be addressed, and 
certain blind spots that must be overcome. Therefore, both sides must 
listen to the "other" point of view, in order to foster understanding 
and communication, which would presumably lead to "coexistence" or 

Such an approach is deemed "balanced" or "moderate," as if that is a 
good thing. However, the reality on the ground is vastly different 
than the "moderate" view of this so-called "conflict." Even the word 
"conflict" is misleading, because it implies a dispute between two 
symmetric parties. The reality is not so; it is not a case of simple 
misunderstanding or mutual hatred which stands in the way of peace. 
The context of the situation in Israel/Palestine is that of 
colonialism, apartheid and racism, a situation in which there is an 
oppressor and an oppressed, a colonizer and a colonized.

In cases of colonialism and apartheid, history shows that colonial 
regimes do not relinquish power without popular struggle and 
resistance, or direct international pressure. It is a particularly 
naive view to assume that persuasion and "talking" will convince an 
oppressive system to give up its power.

The apartheid regime in South Africa, for instance, was ended after 
years of struggle with the vital aid of an international campaign of 
sanctions, divestments and boycotts. If one had suggested to the 
oppressed South Africans living in bantustans to try and understand 
the other point of view (i.e. the point of view of South African 
white supremacists), people would have laughed at such a ridiculous 
notion. Similarly, during the Indian struggle for emancipation from 
British colonial rule, Mahatma Gandhi would not have been venerated 
as a fighter for justice had he renounced satyagraha -- "holding 
firmly to the truth," his term for his nonviolent resistance movement 
-- and instead advocated for dialogue with the occupying British 
colonialists in order to understand their side of the story.

Now, it is true that some white South Africans stood in solidarity 
with the oppressed black South Africans, and participated in the 
struggle against apartheid. And there were, to be sure, some British 
dissenters to their government's colonial policies. But those 
supporters explicitly stood alongside the oppressed with the clear 
objective of ending oppression, of fighting the injustices 
perpetrated by their governments and representatives. Any joint 
gathering of both parties, therefore, can only be morally sound when 
the citizens of the oppressive state stand in solidarity with the 
members of the oppressed group, not under the banner of "dialogue" 
for the purpose of "understanding the other side of the story." 
Dialogue is only acceptable when done for the purpose of further 
understanding the plight of the oppressed, not under the framework of 
having "both sides heard."

It has been argued, however, by the Palestinian proponents of these 
dialogue groups, that such activities may be used as a tool -- not to 
promote so-called "understanding," -- but to actually win over 
Israelis to the Palestinian struggle for justice, by persuading them 
or "having them recognize our humanity."

However, this assumption is also naive. Unfortunately, most Israelis 
have fallen victim to the propaganda that the Zionist establishment 
and its many outlets feed them from a young age. Moreover, it will 
require a huge, concerted effort to counter this propaganda through 
persuasion. For example, most Israelis will not be convinced that 
their government has reached a level of criminality that warrants a 
call for boycott. Even if they are logically convinced of the 
brutalities of Israeli oppression, it will most likely not be enough 
to rouse them into any form of action against it. This has been 
proven to be true time and again, evident in the abject failure of 
such dialogue groups to form any comprehensive anti-occupation 
movement ever since their inception with the Oslo process. In 
reality, nothing short of sustained pressure -- not persuasion -- 
will make Israelis realize that Palestinian rights have to be 
rectified. That is the logic of the BDS movement, which is entirely 
opposed to the false logic of dialogue.

Based on an unpublished 2002 report by the Israel/Palestine Center 
for Research and Information, the San Francisco Chronicle reported 
last October that "between 1993 and 2000 [alone], Western governments 
and foundations spent between $20 million and $25 million on the 
dialogue groups." A subsequent wide-scale survey of Palestinians who 
participated in the dialogue groups revealed that this great 
expenditure failed to produce "a single peace activist on either 
side." This affirms the belief among Palestinians that the entire 
enterprise is a waste of time and money.

The survey also revealed that the Palestinian participants were not 
fully representative of their society. Many participants tended to be 
"children or friends of high-ranking Palestinian officials or 
economic elites. Only seven percent of participants were refugee camp 
residents, even though they make up 16 percent of the Palestinian 
population." The survey also found that 91 percent of Palestinian 
participants no longer maintained ties with Israelis they met. In 
addition, 93 percent were not approached with follow-up camp 
activity, and only five percent agreed the whole ordeal helped 
"promote peace culture and dialogue between participants."

Despite the resounding failure of these dialogue projects, money 
continues to be invested in them. As Omar Barghouti, one of the 
founding members of the BDS movement in Palestine, explained in The 
Electronic Intifada, 
<http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10562.shtml>"there have been 
so many attempts at dialogue since 1993 ... it became an industry -- 
we call it the peace industry."

This may be partly attributed to two factors. The dominant factor is 
the useful role such projects play in public relations. For example, 
the Seeds of Peace website boosts its legitimacy by featuring an 
impressive array of endorsements by popular politicians and 
authorities, such as Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, 
Shimon Peres, George Bush, Colin Powell and Tony Blair, amongst 
others. The second factor is the need of certain Israeli "leftists" 
and "liberals" to feel as if they are doing something admirable to 
"question themselves," while in reality they take no substantive 
stand against the crimes that their government commits in their name. 
The politicians and Western governments continue to fund such 
projects, thereby bolstering their images as supporters of 
"coexistence," and the "liberal" Israeli participants can exonerate 
themselves of any guilt by participating in the noble act of 
"fostering peace." A symbiotic relationship, of sorts.

The lack of results from such initiatives is not surprising, as the 
stated objectives of dialogue and "coexistence" groups do not include 
convincing Israelis to help Palestinians gain the respect of their 
inalienable rights. The minimum requirement of recognizing Israel's 
inherently oppressive nature is absent in these dialogue groups. 
Rather, these organizations operate under the dubious assumption that 
the "conflict" is very complex and multifaceted, where there are "two 
sides to every story," and each narrative has certain valid claims as 
well as biases.

As the authoritative call by the Palestinian Campaign for the 
Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel makes plain, any joint 
Palestinian-Israeli activities -- whether they be film screenings or 
summer camps -- can only be acceptable when their stated objective is 
to end, protest, and/or raise awareness of the oppression of the Palestinians.

Any Israeli seeking to interact with Palestinians, with the clear 
objective of solidarity and helping them to end oppression, will be 
welcomed with open arms. Caution must be raised, however, when 
invitations are made to participate in a dialogue between "both 
sides" of the so-called "conflict." Any call for a "balanced" 
discourse on this issue -- where the motto "there are two sides to 
every story" is revered almost religiously -- is intellectually and 
morally dishonest, and ignores the fact that, when it comes to cases 
of colonialism, apartheid, and oppression, there is no such thing as 
"balance." The oppressor society, by and large, will not give up its 
privileges without pressure. This is why the BDS campaign is such an 
important instrument of change.

Faris Giacaman is a Palestinian student from the West Bank, attending 
his second year of college in the United States.

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