When Dialogue Stands in the Way of Peace

“Justice”—grafitti on the Israeli West Bank barrier wall. All pictures © Mike Merryman-Lotze unless indicated


My engagement with Israelis and Palestinians began when I took part in the Earlham College Great Lakes Jerusalem Program in 1996. That program emphasized listening and interaction with both Palestinians and Israelis. We took classes with Israeli and Palestinian professors, lived with Palestinian and Israeli families, and traveled back and forth between the two communities. I met young Palestinians and Israelis who had participated in programs that brought them together, like Seeds of Peace, and I was inspired by their stories of overcoming their own prejudices. I came away from these encounters convinced of the importance of listening to competing narratives and bringing people together to build understanding, despite their differences.

The focus of the Earlham program on building understanding across borders and between communities is consistent with the approach taken by Quakers to peacebuilding in Palestine and Israel over the decades. Quaker involvement with Palestinians and Israelis has always been grounded in a commitment to remaining connected to both peoples and to listening to all concerns.

When American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) agreed to provide assistance for refugees in Gaza in 1948, it conditioned its acceptance with the requirement that it also should be allowed to provide assistance to those displaced in what became Israel. Its humanitarian relief work in Gaza was complemented by humanitarian work in the Haifa region. During the 1970s and 1980s, Quakers played a key role in facilitating backchannel communication between Palestinian and Israeli leaders when such communication was illegal. For decades Quakers have worked to open conversations where they are not happening.

When I first heard arguments against dialogue, my natural reaction was to push back by saying that dialogue is a vital part of peacebuilding and should never be rejected.

But in recent years, Palestinian peace activists have increasingly rejected dialogue and people-to-people programs, arguing that such programs normalize ongoing injustice. When I first heard arguments against dialogue, my natural reaction was to push back by saying that dialogue is a vital part of peacebuilding and should never be rejected. From my interactions with Quakers over the years, I know that many Quakers have also struggled to understand how they should respond to these concerns, given Quaker commitments to listening and building understanding across divides. But understanding why Palestinians have rejected people-to-people and dialogue programs is incredibly important, particularly as Quakers consider how they support and engage in peacebuilding work.

The general push against people-to-people and dialogue programs is most often framed as being a push against what have become known as “normalization” initiatives. Within Palestine, normalization is generally defined as any project; initiative; or activity in Palestine, Israel, or internationally that aims to bring together Palestinians and Israelis without addressing structural and power inequalities and/or without having its goal be opposition and resistance to the Israeli occupation.

To understand the concerns that exist regarding normalization initiatives, it is important to understand the post-Oslo history of these initiatives.

I spent the months leading up to the start of the Second Palestinian Intifada interviewing Palestinians and Israelis engaged in human rights education and peacebuilding work, including people-to-people and dialogue projects. I conducted my interviews as part of a listening process designed to ensure that learning from past peacebuilding work was integrated into curricular materials on human rights education, then being developed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Listening to Palestinians and Israelis talk about people-to-people and dialogue projects brought into clear focus the stark divide that existed between those communities. While many Israelis engaged in these projects remained positive about this area of work, there was near universal antipathy toward dialogue and people-to-people programs within Palestinian circles. What I heard from Palestinians at that time wasn’t simply a rejection of these programs because they didn’t think the programs were useful. Rather, people spoke about these programs as harmful, with some going so far as to say they felt abused when they participated in people-to-people initiatives.

That sense of harm is what led to the Conditions for Cooperation with Israeli Organizations issued by the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) in October 2000. Those conditions called for both a halt to all joint programs between Palestinian and Israeli organizations and a halt to people-to-people programs. Exceptions were made for solidarity actions carried out within a framework that recognized Palestinian human rights, and for cooperation between human rights organizations. The PNGO decision was a key turning point in the ongoing Palestinian push against normalization.

Palestinian rejection of these initiatives came after years of engagement in them. Following the signing of the Oslo Accords, there was a flood of funding given by international donors to promote dialogue and other forms of people-to-people exchange. It is estimated that between September 1993 and October 2000 between $20 and $30 million was given to fund more than 500 people-to-people projects run by over 100 organizations.

Within a context of expected political change and an agreement designed to move toward an end to the occupation, these people-to-people programs initially made sense. However, as these encounters were taking place, rather than moves toward an end of the occupation and equality, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory deepened.

Home demolitions, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and other grave human rights abuses all continued despite political agreements.

After the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the confiscation of Palestinian land and the expansion of settlements moved forward at an accelerated pace. Shortly after my first trip to Israel and Palestine in 1996, Israel broke ground on the Har Homa Settlement. That settlement, built on land owned by communities in the Bethlehem district, is now home to over 25,000 settlers and effectively cuts off Jerusalem from the south of the West Bank.

As a result of the Oslo process, the West Bank and Gaza Strip were also divided into cantons separated from each other by Israeli-controlled territory. More than 100 checkpoints and roadblocks were set up throughout the West Bank and Gaza, limiting and controlling the movement of Palestinians. When I was conducting my interviews for UNRWA in 2000, I was living in the village of Birzeit north of Ramallah. Israeli checkpoints were regularly set up between Ramallah and Birzeit, and traveling between the two towns, I often saw Palestinians detained, harassed, and abused.

Jerusalem also remained isolated from other areas of the occupied Palestinian territory. Home demolitions, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and other grave human rights abuses all continued despite political agreements. For Palestinians, the Oslo Peace Process never brought significant positive change.

It should be understood that the push against normalization is not about closing off communication because of issues of identity.

The entrenchment of the occupation during this period undermined the logic of people-to-people and dialogue programs that focused on building interpersonal understanding but that purposefully didn’t address political issues. Rather than building understanding that is needed to accompany positive political changes, these initiatives more often promoted normal relations in a context of deepening inequality and occupation. They created an illusion of normalcy in relationship between occupied people and their occupiers in a situation where Palestinians’ rights continued to be systematically denied.

Often, political issues and discussion of the occupation were explicitly banned as topics of conversation in people-to-people programs because they were viewed as divisive. The result of this was programs that focused on interpersonal interaction and surface level relationship building but that masked the deepening occupation and growing inequality. “Normalization” developed as a term to describe these types of initiatives that focused on building interpersonal understanding without ever challenging, and often purposefully dismissing, the legal, political, economic, and structural underpinnings of occupation.

It should be understood that the push against normalization is not about closing off communication because of issues of identity. Rather it is about identifying the principles and processes through which discussion and communication occur so as to not reify power imbalances or do harm to those who are already vulnerable or abused. It is about ensuring that when people come together, the focus is co-resistance to the structures that oppress people, and not coexistence within oppressive systems.

And people-to-people programs that don’t address deeper structural issues, or don’t push people to the point of addressing political issues, do cause harm. Youth-focused programs run by international organizations are particularly problematic. Such programs bring young adults together and hint at similarities. Relationships open as youth find that they like similar music, enjoy the same movies, play the same sports, or otherwise share interests. Youth under 18 (particularly in joint settings) can’t be pushed to examine and own the political, legal, and structural inequalities that exist between them, and years of societally imposed understandings are not undone by days or weeks of individual interaction.

Palestinian friends who participated in these programs have spoken to me about their deep sense of betrayal, anger, and hurt as Israeli friends that they’d met at camps joined the military and took up positions enforcing Israel’s occupation.

While there are examples of individual youth radicalized and transformed by their experience in people-to-people programs, most youth in these programs slip back into their regular lives after joint sessions end. Young Palestinians return to a reality of unchanged occupation. Young Israelis return to their schools, and later complete military service. Palestinian friends who participated in these programs have spoken to me about their deep sense of betrayal, anger, and hurt as Israeli friends that they’d met at camps joined the military and took up positions enforcing Israel’s occupation. Rather than building relationship, trust was broken and people were pushed apart.

This is some of the harm that the push against normalization initiatives seeks to end.

But in noting the problems inherent in many of these initiatives, it is also important to understand that the push against normalization has never been a push against all initiatives that bring together Palestinians and Israelis. Those working within an anti-normalization framework are clear that efforts to counter normalization are aimed at resisting oppression and are not aimed at severing all contact between people. Working relationships and coordination across borders is welcomed so long as there is a shared understanding of basic human rights principles and a shared commitment to resisting the ongoing occupation and inequality. This means that it is not considered normalization when efforts/groups like the Sumud Freedom Camp, Ta’ayush, Yesh Din, the Bilin and Nabi Saleh Protest Movements, and Ibala purposefully bring together Palestinians and Israelis as part of an effort to challenge and change the status quo in Israel and Palestine.

The normalization discussion is about addressing power imbalances and injustice…

So as Quakers committed to peace and engagement with all people, what should we take from this conversation?

First, we should recognize that Palestinians and Israelis are getting together and cooperating but on their own terms. One of the key problems with many past people-to-people programs is that they were initiated and led by outside actors who imposed their own goals and terms on interactions. The normalization framework pushed forward by Palestinians is a reassertion of ownership of the terms of interaction by those most impacted by the systematic injustice of Israel’s occupation and inequality. Normalization principles transform interactions, moving them from coexistence-focused dialogue sessions to action-based interaction with the goal of transformation through co-resistance against injustice. If you are thinking about supporting dialogue or people-to-people programs, it is important to consider who “owns” the process and how it resists structures of injustice.

Second, we should understand that dialogue is not an end in and of itself and that dialogue can be harmful. Particularly in situations of ongoing injustice, attempts to bring people together can’t simply focus on building understanding if there is no corresponding effort by all involved to end the injustice and inequality that stands between people. While dialogue and exchange can be important parts of transformation, they can also be tools used to block change; reinforce existing imbalances of power; and erase legal, institutional, and structural injustices. Whether we are setting up panel discussions or working to pull people together, we always need to understand issues of power. Dialogue is not a neutral process, and we must carefully consider how dialogue pushes toward action for change.

Third, it is important to understand that the normalization discussion is largely not about us. Normalization concerns do not place blocks on Quakers listening to, interacting with, or dialoguing with any party. Challenging normalization initiatives is not aimed at silencing select viewpoints or limiting who is able to speak. Indeed, listening to and engaging with those with whom we disagree is an important part of building understanding as we push for change. The normalization discussion is about addressing power imbalances and injustice in relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, not shutting off all dialogue or ending conversations that build understanding.

Finally, the normalization conversation points to the fact that dialogue and listening are not enough. To achieve peace and justice there must be political change that ends the system of inequality and oppression that exists between Palestinians and Israelis, as well as U.S. complicity in that injustice. To address this, Quakers must then move beyond positions that express concern for both parties and that encourage dialogue and listening but that don’t lead to direct action. Quakers should support direct action to end injustice, such as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS) and AFSC-led No Way to Treat a Child Campaign. We can support discussions, but we must back up our support for talk with support for action.

It is political change and an end to injustice that will lead to dialogue and understanding, and it is political action that is needed to this bring change.

Mike Merryman-Lotze

Mike Merryman-Lotze is AFSC’s Middle East Program director, helping to coordinate its Israel-Palestine advocacy and policy work. From 2000 through 2003, Mike worked with the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq in Ramallah, and from 2007 through 2010, he worked with Save the Children, managing child rights programming in Palestine.