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Israel and Palestine: conflict and coexistence

by Giorgio Gomel

by Giorgio Gomel. Economist and member of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), board member of J-Call Europe (www.jcall.eu) and of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP, (www.allmep.org).

Amos Oz, the great Israeli writer, argued in a commentary a few years ago that, to put an end to the conflict gripping Israelis and Palestinians, a political agreement that would resolve the key issues—such as borders between the two states, Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, the status of Jerusalem and refugees—should precede the process of human, cultural, anthropological reconciliation between the parties. Indeed, the political solution was a necessary condition.

The dilemma remains unsolved, which signals a still-heavy conflict. For a number of reasons, from the peace treaty signed in Oslo in 1993 to the subsequent negotiations in 2000 at Camp David, the 2001 Taba Summit, the Conference in Annapolis in 2007, up to the last attempt at diplomatic mediation conducted by the Obama administration in 2014,  the peace process has been constantly interrupted by repeated outbreaks of terrorist violence and war (that virtuous mechanism that should have led in the first place to a formal peace agreement). Ultimately, all attempts at solid and lasting coexistence has failed.


 Against the skepticism of many resigned to an irreducible conflict between enemies who appear intractably opposed—and intensified and dominated by nationalist hysteria and the rejection of the other’s claims—the commitment of associations dedicated to coexistence remains strong. 

Among these, 150 Israeli and Palestinian NGOs confederated under the aegis of Alliance for Middle East Peace—of which I chair the European section—and participated in a several-day meeting in Jerusalem. About 400 people listened to speeches by active members of those NGOs, as well as academics, diplomats and experts in the field. The activities were spread over several sessions devoted to the younger generations, the condition of women in conflict,  tools of education for peace, and forms of non-violent action. The gathering confirmed the persistent, under-the-surface, often-ignored work of civil society movements that join forces for the purpose of peace education and coexistence in a number of important areas: health, environment, economics, education, defense of human rights, and interreligious dialogue. Here are just a few: Parents’ Circle (a forum of families of victims of war and terrorism), Combatants for Peace, the Peres Center for Peace, Givat Haviva, Hand in Hand (Arabic-Jewish bilingual schools), Kids4Peace, Ecopeace Middle East, Sikkuy, Physicians for Human Rights, Rabbis for Human Rights, Standing Together, Abraham Initiatives, and Road to Recovery. One activity, called “people-to-people,” aimed at overcoming psychological obstacles to reconciliation and peace that reside in the “dehumanizing” perception of the other, often portrayed in media and political rhetoric as an ungrateful and irreducible enemy. Support from the rest of the world is crucial in this area. 

The United States has approved an important bill, the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), which allocates $250 million USD over a 5-year horizon, dedicated in part to the economic development of the Palestinian private sector and in part to “people-to-people” initiatives. The first funds have already been granted to some NGOs. Alliance for Middle East Peace works to transform the mechanism into an authentic Israeli-Palestinian International Peace Fund, modeled on the Fund for Peace in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, with the financial contribution of other countries. Great Britain, Canada, France, Holland, Italy and other countries in Asia and the Middle East have expressed interest in the project, which is intended to give rise to a fully multilateral mechanism.

A common denominator that inspired the meeting in Jerusalem, over twelve different sessions, in such an ominous context marked even recently period by episodes of brutal violence between Israelis and Palestinians, is that a political agreement cannot be translated into reality on the ground if there is no underlying process of reconciliation between the two peoples. 

For the Palestinians, in particular, as various members of grassroots movements such as Zimam, Taghyeer, and Holy Land Trust have said, the problem is, on the one hand, to strengthen civil society institutions given the weakness and the danger of dissolution of the Palestinian Authority itself, and on the other hand, to resist the pressure and threats of those who oppose any form of cooperation with Israel, including with NGOs. Finally, resources are needed to be able to transform the actual living conditions of Palestinians under occupation through non-violent action: water resources, the availability of houses, and peaceful resistance to land confiscation and expulsions by Israel. 

For Israelis, the urgency is both the defense of a still unfinished  democracy within Israel, and the opposition to anti-Arab racism not only by the settlers living in the settlements but also in the mixed cities of Israel where Jews and Arabs live together. According to a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, 60% of Jews in Israel support a physical separation in material life between Jews and Arabs (only 20% of the latter consider it a desirable option). Nearly 40% believe that Arabs should acquire housing land only in Arab municipalities, nearly 70% are reluctant to physically enter Arab cities in the country. These results are much worse than those of about a year ago before the outbreak of the near civil war between Jews and Arabs in May 2021; such attitudes are more pronounced among young people.


On the political level, if an agreement is not reached on the borders, the settlements and the status of Jerusalem, the very notion of “two states for two peoples” risks evaporating into the dream world of myth. The expansion of Israeli settlements and settlers into the territories (450,000 in the West Bank and over 200,000 in East Jerusalem), the confiscation of land owned by Palestinian private entities, and the demolition of houses and structures make a Palestinian state with contiguity and effective sovereignty even more difficult to achieve. The explosion of violence in Jerusalem in 2021, which repeated itself (albeit in a less acute form in recent months) was triggered by a long-term rift involving the expropriation of houses inhabited by Arabs, owned by Jews before 1948 and which now movements of the Israeli Rightwing are claiming and which courts threaten to enforce, demonstrates the fragility of a status quo without peace. 

The most worrying fact of those days was the eruption of tribal violence within Israel between Arab  and Jewish citizens, unfolding in an unusual way since 1948: attacks, desecration of places of worship, fires set on houses and things in many cities  of the country. This is a serious threat to democracy and coexistence. 

The Arab minority in Israel (about 20% of the population) suffers from inequalities and discrimination on the labor market, in the provision of education and infrastructure, but is actively integrating into some sectors of society (health, universities) and aspires to influence the political course of the country, as evidenced by the presence of an Arab party for the first time in the government.

These are important novelties. Are they permanent? It is difficult to say, given the fragility of the coalition in power, and the preponderant weight of the religious-political Rightwing in the country.

Ph. © Dariusz-Kanclerz

 Giorgio Gomel

Giorgio Gomel

Economist and member of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), board member of J-Call Europe (www.jcall.eu) and of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP, (www.allmep.org)

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