Israeli participants in the Geneva Initiative’s Young Leaders Reconciliation Program are frustrated. Every week, I receive at least three text messages asking me when the group meeting will take place in Ramallah. “The situation is very sensitive,” I reply, echoing the words of my Palestinian colleagues. The participants roll their eyes. When is the situation not sensitive?
And yet, after the horrific murder of five Israelis in Bnei Brak on Tuesday, the latest in a series of attacks across Israel, there is a shift in mentality as the “situation” – a common Hebrew euphemism for conflict – switch to climbing mode. The tension on the Israeli side is palpable and growing. There is also a degree of bewilderment and an ever-present need to make sense of the attacks: why now? Which Arabs commit which attack? What’s going on?
It doesn’t fit in a text message, but the context behind my default refrain “the situation is sensitive” to project participants goes something like this: Israeli police threw a stun grenade that shattered Nawar Burkan’s jaw , an eleven-year-old deaf man. -Old Palestinian girl at Damascus Gate in February. Nineteen-year-old Amar Shafiq Abu Afifa was shot dead for running away from a soldier while hiking in early March. Seventy-eight-year-old Omar Assad died of a heart attack while being held, bound and blindfolded at a checkpoint in January. Most Israelis have heard of Sheikh Jarrah, but not of Masafer Yatta, a community near Hebron under constant threat of demolition. This is far from an exhaustive list of deaths, injuries and detentions of Palestinians by Israelis in recent months, and it is certainly not an attempt to justify terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. The first would be too long, and the second contemptible. It does, however, provide insight into what Palestinians saw in their media feeds in 2022; these stories have become data points in the recent growing conviction of my Palestinian colleagues that the still fragile relationship between Arabs and Jews in this region is on the verge of a new violent escalation.
After yesterday’s attack, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called a security meeting. He will try to take a firm line against terrorism. This will likely involve some level of collective punishment. There will certainly be an increase in IDF checkpoints and presence in areas of the West Bank with large Palestinian populations. Policies will aim at containment and intimidation. There will be no acknowledgment that the “management” of the conflict continues to lead to the death of innocent people; there will be no attempt to build bridges, to increase mutual understanding, to tackle the root issues that fuel hatred and injustice. Politicians on all sides will speak of their concern and solidarity with the victims of the conflict and will continue to do nothing to end it.
Civil society has become solely responsible for all peacebuilding work between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli government is not just inactive in these efforts; official policies complicate dialogue. It has never been so difficult for civil society organizations to obtain permits. There are a few dozen Israeli organizations and institutions that work with the Civil Administration to bring Palestinians to Israel for peace and reconciliation activities, from university programs to dialogue seminars (“Civil Administration” is the Orwellian title of the unelected body in the West Bank bureaucratic aspects of the daily life of Palestinians who answer directly to the IDF). Palestinian applications for permits to engage in peace programs in Israel are frequently rejected due to an arbitrary quota, or simply not being answered in time. Israeli requests for permits to enter Area A are also increasingly denied, with the central command citing the security situation in their denials. Israeli authorities hand over responsibility for peace education to NGOs, then make any form of face-to-face dialogue extremely difficult to organize.
During the joint Israeli-Palestinian seminar that we managed to organize last week, we asked the participants to propose initiatives promoting reconciliation between our peoples. One group got bogged down in a fundamental misunderstanding of needs and perspective; the Israeli participants produced idea after idea of how to make the checkpoint experience more bearable, and the Palestinian participants eagerly slaughtered them all. The problem with checkpoints in the West Bank is not the quality of IDF customer service; it is the restriction of movement, the constant and humiliating reminder that you are under the total control of another nation.
If you don’t talk to the other side, it’s easy to fall into complacent mistakes about “conflict reduction” policies that make the Israeli presence in the West Bank more palatable (at least to Israelis). Increasing the number of work permits and reducing waiting times at checkpoints are band-aids on a bleeding wound. The most powerful army in the world cannot prevent the conflict from escalating into violence again and again and again; in the interest of our two peoples, it is time to try another way.
Tehila Wenger is deputy director of the Geneva Initiative.