The fostering of social cohesion, mutual respect and shared understanding between cultures and peoples – as opposed to animosity, discord and resentment – is essential to any serious attempt at ending violence and building peace.
In light of the contentious opening of the new American embassy in Jerusalem yesterday and on the day of the 20th annual Nakba Day commemorations: we must interrogate how the ‘War-for-Peace’ narrative has been allowed to facilitate the consolidation of a rigid power dynamic throughout the Middle East. Stemming from the belief that in order to maintain peace and security within its borders, Israel must employ means and acts of war in-and-around its territory; this narrative sees the lives and rights of one culture and people defended at the expense another.
The narrative of ‘War-for-Peace’, which frames force as a legitimate means of advancing ‘peace’ in the Middle East, is by no means unique to the current string of protests in Gaza, but has long been invoked as a justification for state-sanctioned violence. However, the notion of ‘fighting for peace’ is today both old-fashioned and outdated, as it is based upon an antiquated world order where armies clashed along borders and when arsenals were comparatively small.
Currently, Israel insists that its actions are in compliance with International Humanitarian Law, but it will not reveal the rules of engagement that seem to have given the Israeli Defence Force [IDF] carte blanch to fire freely at unarmed civilians in the occupied territories. Additionally, Israel has gone as far as to claim that human rights law does not apply in Gaza as the March of Return protests constitute an ‘Act of War’.
Moreover, the prevailing tone of most mainstream discourse surrounding Israel’s use of force against protesters in (and around) Gaza in recent weeks demonstrates a pervasive misunderstanding of the ‘War-for-Peace’ narrative as understood in this context. Moulded by a shared history of large-scale army-on-army conflict, we typically assume that if Israel should feel the need to forcibly defend itself, then it must be facing an existential threat. In other words: if Israel feels the need to employ live ammunition, then it must be at war.
Although this is clearly not the situation for those on the ground; it is interesting to see how we as observers have created our own rationales to fill in the narrative gaps left open by the selective silence of the Israeli State which has made little effort to explain the hostility it has faced/delivered throughout the ‘Great March of Return’ so far. Indeed, some domestic news outlets are reporting that the separation fence has been damaged and that improvised explosive devices have been used against the IDF. Whilst most of the international press is concurrently contending that the majority of Palestinian protestation has amounted to little more than stone throwing and tyre burning. Consequently, whether by unfortunate coincidence or political design, the narrative surrounding the ‘Great March of Return’ has become muddied to say the least.
In order to reconcile this lack of clarity with its use of force, it has been necessary for Israel to invoke Hamas, terrorism and political game-playing to justify its acts of violence. This allows for a widespread misunderstanding of what is happening on the ground in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel itself, and stems from the ultimate assumption of what Israel means by ‘peace’ (namely: the cessation of conflict). But Israel is not equating peace to the absence of violence, but rather to the continuation of the current ethnic, social and religious hierarchy born out of an age-old narrative that ‘Israelis and Palestinians are mutually exclusive’, and propagated upon the basis of the cynical belief that one cannot exist alongside the other.
Although this argument has lost traction in recent years, the state-imposed segregation of Israeli citizens from their Palestinian neighbours is as rigid as it ever has been, and serves only to exacerbate tensions by keeping the two communities divided and perpetually ignorant of one another’s humanity. It is in this context that the ‘War-for-Peace’ narrative has been able to survive; yesterday, 59 people were killed because of it.
As members of an international peacebuilding organisation, we see peacebuilders the world over working day in, day out to bring people together and solve conflicts without resorting to violence. Much greater differences than those seen in the Middle East today have been overcome in the past in order for people to live peacefully side by side. History shows us that Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in this way long before politics took precedence over people. Moves are being made in both Palestine and Israel to bridge the communications gap between Arab and Israeli citizens, but these are not yet enough to overpower the other interests at play. Only once we begin to work together and towards a truly locally-led move in the direction of dialogue will sustainable peace in Israel-Palestine be achievable.