The lessons from Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement of the 1998 form the background to a remarkable new report about the Israeli-Palestine conflict, issued this week by Bicom.
Written by Professor Ned Lazarus of George Washington University, an expert on peacebuilding in Israel and the West Bank, the report highlights the importance of financial support for peace. It notes that an International Fund for Ireland was in place 12 years before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and that it continues its work today, 32 years later.
The Bicom report urges support for the launch of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace,and says that Britain should not only join it but donate “significantly”.
Professor Lazarus’s report looks at a number of successful peacebuilding projects and he concludes that, as in Northern Ireland, “peacebuilding works” — but it needs the guarantee of an international fund to ensure that the projects continue.
The report notes: “Peacebuilding changes attitudes. Peacebuilding programmes significantly improve Israeli and Palestinian participants’ attitudes to one other. Ninety per cent of participants in a project run by the Near East Foundation said that they trusted the other community more after being in the programme”.
One Palestinian participant in a dialogue programme, UMIDEAST, reported: “One of the weird things was that I clicked instantly with the Israeli teachers. And the (non-Palestinian) Arabs in the programme were mad at us — they wanted to be for the Palestinians, with the Palestinians, and yet we were working with the Israelis and doing projects together.
“So I realised that one of the things that I need to work on is that the other is not a monster, and is not necessarily going after me, and I can build relationships with them that will change their lives and change my life at the same time.”
She recalled the summer of 2002, after taking part in the programme: “Then we were hit by a wave of violence, assassinations, suicide bombings, and every time I would run to the phone, checking on the internet after these teachers from Israel, making sure they were not on the bus, them or their children. And they were doing the same [for us]. And every time I saw the names of [Palestinian] martyrs or of Israelis killed, on the television, I felt the pain … I didn’t want to see their names”.
Another key finding is that “peacebuilding projects change policy. For example Eco-Peace, an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental NGO, has helped Israel double its water supply to the Palestinian Authority”. The report also cites the work of the Hand-in-Hand schools network, which teaches both Jews and Arabs together and is now oversubscribed. Even right-wing ministers have been impressed by the work of some of the peace building projects, the report notes.
Professor Lazarus makes a very important declaration in the report: “To mobilise the “silent majority” in Israel, peace must not be the trademark of a demographically identifable “peace camp,” but a cross- cutting agenda championed by a coalition of “peace camps,” rooted in multiple constituencies.
In other words, if peace is seen only as a project of the Left in Israel, it will not work. Peacebuilding has to cross political and demographic boundaries, Professor Lazarus says, and gives several instances of political and religious leaders who are perceived to be from the Right yet who have successfully embraced humanitarian and civil rights initiatives — President Reuven Rivlin being the most notable figure.
Jonathan Powell, chief British negotiator during the Northern Ireland peace process, who wrote the preface for the report, said: “This invaluable report suggests a practical course of action for governments and civil society. While every conflict has different causes and solutions, we know from Northern Ireland that long-term grassroots peacebuilding between the contending parties is always essential to achieving peace.”
Bicom’s chief executive, James Sorene, said: “This report establishes the clear evidence base that investment in peacebuilding projects changes attitudes and recruits the peace activists of the future. Both are the vital missing ingredients for a successful negotiated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and public support for its implementation. The evidence is compelling and the need is clear. This report is a wakeup call for the UK government and its partners around the world to increase their investments in dialogue and peace building projects in Israel and the West Bank”.