The protraction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led many to abandon the Manichean lens opposing ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ in favour of another, contrasting warmongers and peacebuilders. Simultaneously, a growing need and demand for peace has propelled NGOs, already integrated into every stratum of life in the region, to the forefront of conflict transformation processes.
Out of their many approaches and models, those facilitating encounters between Jews and Palestinians has proven particularly promising (Maoz 2011). The first model aimed for participants to humanise the other, by emphasising interpersonal ties through social, cultural, and linguistic similarities. Cynically dubbed the ‘hummus and falafel model,’ this approach did not address the conflict nor its structural issues, which led to Palestinians criticising its role in perpetuating power asymmetry and the Jewish ignorance of such imbalance (ibid.). As a response, a new approach was created: the confrontational model. This type of encounter focused on group identities and power relations between the groups (ibid.: 119). While, offering positive results by addressing the elephant(s) in the room, these encounters made Jewish participants feel alienated and attacked, as the confrontations could turn to aggressions. The last-born model, centred around narratives, aims the take the best from both worlds by combining the first model’s interpersonal interaction with the second’s group identity interaction, effectively allowing for the development of individual ties while still discussing the conflict and its systemic aspects (ibid.: 120).
Goodson and Gill (2011: 74) explain that the essence of narratives encounters lies in their “transformative potential”. Drawing on Gadamer’s (1976) insights, the authors show that when engaging with outgroup members’ stories, they encounter new meanings, and it becomes “impossible to stick blindly to their own fore-meaning or prefigured ideas of the meaning of the thing that they, the listener, want to understand” (Goodson and Gill 2011: 75). Encounters open new worlds to participants by putting them in front of their own mental constructions, fragilizing certitudes and offering new insights which hold the power to disrupt their beliefs, identities, and objectives (ibid.). Maoz (2011: 121) gives the example of 1948, the ‘Nakba’ (Catastrophe) for Palestinians, and the ‘War of Independence’ for Israeli Jews, which opposes parallel stories of genocide and bravery. As such, narrative encounters enable participants to experience outgroup suffering by listening to members’ feelings and side of the story, in a process where emotions are channelled through storytelling and questioning. The ensuing re-humanisation of the other and the discovery of the complexity of the conflict creates intergroup trust and compassion (Maoz 2011: 120). Goodson and Gill (2011:79) explain that this process allows both narratives to merge, “a fusion of horizons”, for them to create a different, new narratives: “a third voice – confirming a transformation of one’s selfhood”. As these processes are mediated and guided by peacebuilding NGOs, previous conflict narratives metamorphose into conflict transformation narratives: stories with authoritative and coherent internal logics which seek to instrumentalise conflict in order to move from violence and retribution to peace and justice, both structurally and in everyday interactions, through the power of dialogue (Lederach 2003). Those seeking peace through such narratives aim to achieve conflict transformation above conflict resolution. The difference is crucial; as explained by Atallah and Masud (2021), the latter aims to simply reform a situation which needs to be abolished, while the former calls for the abolition of the status quo and envisions its possible futures. Conflict transformation narratives are radical and revolutionary, while conflict resolution narratives protect the status quo and often simply aim at ending physical violence.
As such, academia has thoroughly investigated these encounters, both from a theoretical and empirical standpoint (Maoz 2011; Pilecki and Hammack 2014; Ross 2014). Nonetheless, research has almost always focused on detailing the processes and efficiency of the model, instead of investigating the nature of the transformed peace-seeking narratives (Kriesberg 2011: 68). The scholarly field thus addresses these peacebuilding NGOs as a coherent whole, failing to provide an explanation as to how pro-settlements and anti-occupation Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding NGOs can perform the same work; alongside each other. It is however critical to understand what conflict and conflict transformation narratives are promoted by peacebuilding NGOs creating narrative encounters between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Indeed, these NGOs have a central role in stirring the debate towards what they consider to be a successful narrative transformation.
This article examines the narratives of three relevant peacebuilding NGOs: The Parents Circle Family Forum (PCFF), Roots/Shorashim/Judur, and The School for Peace (SFP), using Riessman’s (2007) thematic narrative analysis, which allows to discover the structures behind narratives. While doing a similar work for similar purposes, these three NGOs offer a broad and varied overview of possible narratives. The PCFF is one of the most well-known narrative encounter organisation in the region and started as a forum for bereaved family members to exchange on their experience of grief. The NGO grew to focus on younger audiences, now also organising interventions in Israeli schools and the intergroup narrative programs centred around memories of the Holocaust and the Nakba. Roots is a settler organisation and one of the few peacebuilding NGOs operating in the West Bank, with its headquarters located in the Gush Etzion settlement between Bethlehem and Hebron. Roots organises lectures and interventions, summer camps for teenagers, women’s groups, and interfaith dialogues. Along with the PCFF, they are a part of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), an organisation representing a coalition of around 170 people-to-people peacebuilding organisations which advocates for the funding of its members by the international community based on the example of the International Fund for Ireland (ALLMEP 2023). Lastly, the SFP is an educational institution which pioneered narrative encounters between Jews and Palestinians and is a part of Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam (NSWAS), a bi-national village established in 1970 on monastic no-man’s land. Interestingly, the SFP refuses to join ALLMEP due to the presence of settler organisations.
The goal of this analysis is to nuance the academic research surrounding narrative encounters in Israel and Palestine, but also globally. Determining whether peacebuilding NGOs practising seemingly similar activities believe in interchangeable or opposite narratives will allow a greater understanding of the field, but most importantly of its effects on the conflict. As these NGOs work towards the transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its actors, it is necessary to acknowledge their particularities, as even the slightest differences, for example between Palestine, West Bank, Judea and Samaria, or the Occupied Territories, can provide valuable information to discern the nature and goal of these NGOs’ transformations. More than simply ideological, variations in conflict and conflict transformation narratives indicate the multiple ways NGOs are paving out of this conflict, all leading towards different types of peace and political futures, but most importantly, different types of lives for Israelis and Palestinians.
While all three NGOs implement their conflict transformation narratives via similar means and along shared principles, the changes they seek to create in their participants and society are diametrically distinct – if not opposed. These differences are explained by the NGO’s conflict transformations narrative’s dependence on conflict narratives. As each organisation views the conflict through its own prism, the transformations they pursue address these unique conceptions. The PCFF’s belief in a symmetry of pain caused by parallel narratives of violence leads them to equally recognise the suffering of Jews and Palestinians. As such, they wish to transcend national discourses and unite both populations against the perpetration of these narratives. Conversely, Roots believes that violence is caused by both sides’ inability to recognise the other’s legitimate claim to the land. The transformation they thus aim to create is the Jewish recognition of Palestinian indigeneity, and Palestinians’ recognition that Jewish presence in the West Ba.nk rights a historical wrong. However, this endeavour contradicts the SFP’s belief that the conflict is rooted in the oppression and occupation suffered by Palestinians. This view leads them to pursue a transformation which places at its centre the creation of a Palestinian independent and settlement-free state which protects its citizens’ right to self-determination and dignity.
These differences undoubtably impact the transformations NGOs aim to inspire in their participants and society at large. The PCFF seek to restore a sense of humanity which transcends group belonging and show that all are united by their shared experience of pain. The SFP work to make Israelis aware of the plight of Palestinians and try to instil a sense of responsibility and urgency to create positive change. Roots wants to make its participants accept the truth behind the other’s narrative and sees the conflict ending by making both groups accept conflicting yet empirically coexisting truths. While attendance to all three narrative encounter is likely to invigorate participants with a newfound desire for peace, the specific vision they will pursue highly depends on the transformative agenda of the NGO which mediated the encounter they attended. NGOs are aware of the tremendous power they possess in directing transformative philosophies and initiatives, and their ‘theory of change’ needs to be analysed and considered as influential political programs.
In summary, the analysis finds that NGOs, despite conducting the same work – narrative encounters – for the same (apparent) purpose – conflict transformation and peace – have different and sometimes even opposite narratives. While they still share many similarities, such as the belief that belligerent narratives fuelled by ignorance plague and perpetuate the conflict, and that the best way to bring a necessary transformation is by building people-to-people peace under the form of narrative encounters, these show an appropriation of the logics and mechanisms of narrative encounters rather than a unity across narratives. Indeed, the entire goal of narrative encounters is the ability to bring transformation to protracted intergroup conflicts by creating new narratives, which as seen previously can only come about through the humanisation of the other and the understanding of their point of view (Goodson and Gill 2011; Maoz 2011). In reality, each one paves a different way out of the conflict by implementing the transformations necessary to the realisation of their distinct visions of peace. These differences are not only ideological, but (will) have a deep societal impact on the next generations of peacebuilders. As such, they must be understood and studied, in a bid to one day “unite the field” (ALLMEP 2023).
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