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Trying to comment on any conflict as an outsider can be difficult – on the one hand, you can find yourself trying to make sense of a situation which will always have elements you can barely comprehend without having been there. On the other, being at a distance can offer objectivity which must be tested when caught in the middle of a crisis. This conundrum felt all too vivid following the brutal response of the Israeli army to Palestinian protests on the day of the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, after the protests had become complicated by Hamas’ threats. It seemed that in the rawness of emotion that followed, comments could quickly become misconstrued not simply as criticism of actions, but of the entire group and all they stand for. Finding that balance between sufficient sensitivity and maintaining open dialogues is a challenge. But when I’ve persisted in discussions, carefully, I’ve always been glad I did, because whilst perhaps nobody’s mind was changed, perspectives were certainly shared.
The experience underlined just how crucial perspective sharing is, even when – or especially when – that sharing is stalling at the national level. When done well, dialogues can overcome blind spots, foster understanding, and even build empathy for one’s enemy – not agreement, maybe not even forgiveness, but understanding and the ability to stand in their shoes. I’m particularly thinking of efforts by people like Mohammed Dajani, a Palestinian lecturer who took his students on a trip to Auschwitz, to seek to encourage a sense of empathy about what both groups have suffered. Yet upon returning home, so vehement was the response that he was forced to resign his job and ultimately flee to the United States. Or Avner Gvaryahu, a former Israeli soldier who’s seeking to pass on his learning from his role to encourage a more peaceful approach, and received death threats for doing so.
Such stifling of debate and dialogue risks muting serious attempts to reconcile. It’s by listening that we understand where things have gone wrong, and how they can be put right. Pain and injustice needs to be acknowledged; opportunities for change need to be grasped. The work of partnership and international organisations to build bridges are laying the foundations for that yearned for peace in the region. The number of peace initiatives and dialogues bringing Israelis and Palestinians together is heartening. From Musalaha, running reconciliation and bridge-building projects, to The Parents Circle Families Forum, to Comedy for Peace, and to the Valley of Peace initiative, encouraging joint projects across the Jordanian border. At the heart of this is that opportunity to bring together people who overwhelmingly never wanted to be fighting in the first place, as well as potentially providing the leaders of the future.
Whilst none of these initiatives by themselves can bring peace or end injustice, they effectively build the framework for peace such that, when the use of violence ceases, some of the foundations for a reconciled society will already be in place – work we can continue to build upon even when a conflict is at its height, helping to share perspectives at crucial points.