I’ve lived my whole life in Gaza … and witnessed … [numerous] violations of human rights …. Operation Pillar of Cloud … was very close to my house…. The Israeli navy shelled from the sea, the F-16 warplanes, Apache helicopters and drones from the sky, and the tanks from the ground … our house shook like an earthquake, windows … shattered everywhere, not to mention our utter fear and horror…. Nowhere was safe in Gaza … On the way to the hospital … I witnessed blood in the street, people running everywhere, ambulances … total chaos… At the morgue I saw burned bodies and body parts of children, women and elderly… I will never get this scene out of my mind…. Thank God, no one from my family was injured, but my nephews and nieces are suffering from major trauma. During the assault they were screaming a lot and it was very difficult to calm them down… there is no military solution for this conflict … Israel has proved it can’t win, and Palestinians have proved we can’t lose; so where do we go from here? … Palestinians and Israelis must speak out for the madness to stop: the IDF attacks and the Palestinian missiles … all Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in peace… We must … call upon our leaders … to stop playing with our lives!
–From a message written by Soul,[i] a Palestinian from Gaza, for an Israeli peace event held in December 2012
I was awakened this morning by several large explosions when rockets fell not far from our village… and the Iron Dome intercepted one of them… last week I hosted a group of Swiss members of parliament, trying to convince them, and myself, that there is a small light at the end of the tunnel. As we stood on the overlook to Gaza, there was a rocket alert and we dashed behind the wall. I didn’t intend to demonstrate the constant tension with which we live. I am now sending a request to the Israeli army, to allow you… to cross through Israel in order to travel abroad via Jordan [for a peace conference]. I explain that the light will only get stronger if we allow freedom of travel, freedom of expression, freedom for people to live in safety [and] thrive …. One of my grandsons asked his mum, between tears and fear: “I don’t understand how come they are sending rockets? Grandma talked to them and told them to stop.” My heart cries out for all those peace loving people on both sides of the border: STOP THE VIOLENCE! WE WANT TO LIVE AND LET LIVE!
–A Letter to a friend in Gaza (written by a member of Other Voice, Roni, following rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and IDF military strikes in October 2013)
Soul and Roni live on opposite sides of the border, in a region characterized by separation, siege, wars, fear, hatred, and demonization of the other. However, as opposed to most Israelis and Palestinians, these women have committed themselves to peace, even during times of intense escalation in the violence. Most Israelis and Palestinians believe that their group is the victim of the other group’s belligerence (e.g. Bar-Tal, Chernyak-Hai, Schori and Gundar, 2009), tending to see the conflict in black and white terms. The years of the conflict have led to a multitude of physical and psychological suffering and losses (Chaitin, 2011), which have touched four generations. In such a reality, it is not surprising that relatively few individuals engage in peace work.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, there are people who refuse to accept that there is no way out of this darkness. We believe that peace-building is the only sane path that Israelis and Palestinians can take. What can help account for such work and beliefs, when most people in our societies tell us that we are, at best, naïve, or at worst, traitors, for engaging with the other and for speaking out against injustices committed by ‘our side’? What encourages peace activism, in populations that experience ongoing trauma, and what obstructs such peace work?
The following quote, attributed to Irene Butter, a Holocaust survivor, captures the essence of my work and the belief of many peace activists: “Enemies are people whose story you haven’t heard, or whose face you haven’t seen.” Since the mid 1990s, I have been researching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mainly through elicitation and interpretation of autobiographies of Israelis and Palestinians in the context of the conflict (e.g. Chaitin 2008, 2011). My activism began beforehand, in the mid 1980s. For the last five years, I have dedicated much of my time to Other Voice – a group that works for peace between Israelis in the Sderot-Gaza region – and in Friendship across Borders (FAB) – a German-Israeli-Palestinian peace education NGO that stresses personal and social transformation.
Most of the personal stories that I have heard have opened up avenues to new knowledge and understandings concerning the impacts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on both peoples. I learned the Palestinian narrative of history, which differs greatly from the Israeli narrative (Adwan and Bar-On 2006), and also what everyday life is like for the Palestinians who live under Occupation or siege, and for Israelis who have lost loved ones in terror attacks or in wars. Additionally, I have felt how such personal stories elicit empathy and give the conflict a very human face – one that cannot be ignored, even by the most heart-hardened.
Not every story leads listeners to see the autobiographer in positive terms; there are storytellers who are so traumatized that they remain unable/unwilling to listen to the stories of the ‘enemy,’ to exploring alternative ways of seeing the conflict, or to considering new understandings of these experiences that support commitment to peace-building. With this, hearing and reflecting on personal testimonies leads to deeper understandings into the psycho-social effects of being a victim of Occupation and conflict, and of the depths and longevity of negative feelings (e.g., fear, hatred, despair and humiliation).
Being victimized leaves intergenerational “footprints;” descendants of direct victims often remain traumatized by their elders’ past, especially when they are exposed to stories of suffering on a regular basis. As a result, Israelis and Palestinians often find it nearly impossible to become empathetic toward the pain of the ‘enemy’ (Chaitin and Steinberg 2008). Being a victim of (state or other) terrorism, losing family, loved ones, home and community, rarely causes people to develop sensitivity to the plight of others. Instead, these experiences usually encourage development of intense feelings of distrust of others and to perceiving life as a constant struggle for survival.
Being able to talk about one’s suffering at the hands of others produces two opposite effects. On the one hand, when people share these experiences with a caring audience, they often feel a reconnection to humankind. Additionally, when Israelis and Palestinians hear what the ‘other’ has experienced, this makes it possible for listeners to see these others not as monsters, but as human beings whose lives have been terribly harmed by the violence (Chaitin 2003). However, on the other hand, when people share memories, but do not reflect on these harsh experiences in an inter-group dialogue group, talking about the pain often erects barriers to peace-building. Therefore, in order for peace activism to be encouraged, horrific memories need to be shared with others in a “safe space” (Chaitin 2003). This context helps people move beyond feelings of victimhood and the belief that the ‘enemy’ must be punished for the harm they caused. When safe spaces are lacking, sharing experiences of loss often re-cement the ‘logic’ of the inevitable and intractable conflict.
A second understanding that I have reached is that when people embroiled in a violent and ongoing conflict, such as in the Israeli-Palestinian case, engage with partners in honest dialogue, and joint action, especially during times of conflict escalation, this brings hope—a strong antidote to the despair that characterizes our region. I have found many people, on both sides of the border, who hold different – even opposite – political beliefs, open to investing in peace activism, because they found hope in such encounters. In an almost paradoxical manner, then, as things on the ground become worse, peace activists often become more dedicated to their work, as they realize that there are partners for peace.
One concluding story: In October 2013 I participated in a peace seminar organized by FAB. One of the participants came from Gaza. When he told his personal story, I could not stop crying. When I told mine, he wept. After the session, he came over to me and said: “You know, we are the only ones here who really understand our situation. We are both suffering from the same violence and it is you and I who understand why it is crucial that it end.”
[i] The writer has asked not to be identified by name in order not to put herself in danger from the Hamas for working with Israelis on peace-building.