Friday, May 11, 2012

ICSR Seminar: Peace from the Bottom Up: Ideas and Approaches from the Middle East

Yossi Mekelberg, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House
Dr Edith Schlaffer, Women Without Borders

The Next Century Foundation attended an ICSR event at King’s College on May 10 which discussed the role of civil society in conflict resolution strategies, highlighting personal cases in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two speakers, Yossi Mekelberg of Chatham House and Webster University, and Dr Edith Schlaffer of Women Without Borders, gave accounts of their experiences and involvement in the grassroots of conflict resolution.

Dr Edith Schlaffer noted how Women Without Borders targets Palestinian and Israeli women to drive the peace process from the grassroots level ‘through, intimacy and honesty’. Projects such as SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) and Mothers For Change, work to involve Palestinian and Israeli mothers to share their grievances with each other. Work by SAVE and Mothers For Change has included creating dialogue between mothers and victims of suicide bombers from Palestine and Israel.

SAVE looks for credible civil society groups and those women already challenging the extremist ideologies and works with them to de radicalise the youth. Quoting a case study, Dr Schlaffer noted how SAVE interviewed 40 Palestinian women; not one wanted their son to be a martyr. The role of women in peace processes, she said, was ruefully lacking, especially considering that they have the potential to be the driving force in civil society. Women’s closeness to both the family and the community, Dr Schlaffer explained, could be pivotal in grassroots peace strategies.

Yossi Mekelberg argued that civil society is central to a democratic country as it provides an important check for the State. He was rueful of the current political situation in Israel following the announcement of the new coalition, which he felt left little room for a legitimate and strong opposition in the Knesset and that the role of civil society would therefore become pivotal. He intimated that civil society in Israel has historically been strong, retelling a story of when he was serving in the Israeli army during the Lebanese War in 1982 whilst protesting against the war when not on duty.

However, the current situation in Israel presents a civil society that is lacking of a Leftist influence, Mekelberg said. He argued that 70% of the Israeli population support a two-state solution but do not see a viable opposition on the Palestinian side to engage with in negotiations. Therefore, there need to be strong civil society groups in Israel to engage people in the peace process. There are examples of cross national organisations that exist, such as the Physicians for Humans Rights (made up of Arab and Israeli physicians), but for Mekelberg more needs to be done.

Yossi Mekelberg has been involved in the Blood Relations Project, a symbolic act where grieving Palestinians and Israelis come together to donate blood – to be shared by Israeli hospitals through the Israeli Blood Bank, Magen David Adom and by the Al-Makassed Islamic Charitable Society Hospital for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

The role of a strong civil society is evidently crucial to drive a peace process forward. The Arab Spring has highlighted the importance and strength of civil societies in mobilising and safeguarding change. Equally, grassroots peace movement ideas should be examined in policy making processes in a region that has been blighted by failed conventional methods.