Yola Verbruggen, IBA Multimedia Journalist
Thursday 23 November 2017
In 2014, the IBA and the CEELI Institute began exploring opportunities for change in the Israel–Palestine conflict for which, one hundred years after the Balfour Declaration was signed, a sustainable solution has yet to be found.
When a group of young Palestinian and Israeli lawyers sat down together for the first time just over two years ago, some of them had never met with anyone from ‘the other side’. At least, not with anyone who wasn’t wearing army fatigues. Some of them feared there would be arguments and, in coffee breaks, silence. Yet, quickly, the young men and women realised how much they had in common.
The lawyers were brought together under a joint programme of the International Bar Association and the Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (CEELI) Institute in Prague, entitled 'The voice of the next generation: the imperative of change in Israel and Palestine', to explore opportunities for conversation about the seemingly intractable conflict.
The project was started under the auspices of David W Rivkin, then President of the IBA, Mark Ellis, Executive Director of the IBA, and Homer Moyer, founder of the CEELI Institute and the main drive behind the implementation of the project.
“ It is a reassurance that a lot of things can be solved by meeting people from the other side
Yotam Blaushild, Israeli lawyer
Crucial to the programme as well were Eytan Epstein and Essam Al Tamimi, an Israeli and a Palestinian lawyer whose unlikely friendship inspired the project. ‘In the past, the IBA has engaged in the region through training and technical assistance. I wanted to do something completely different. A more personal and intimate format focusing on individuals in the same way that I saw a friendship emerge between Eytan and Essam,’ says Ellis.
Restricted freedom of movement and the lack of a common ground to meet on means Palestinians and Israelis hardly ever meet, says Efrat Shalev, one of the Israeli participants. At the same time, accounts of life on the other side do not very often make it into news reports in either Israel or Palestine. Conversations about daily life kindled trust and understanding between the lawyers. ‘We have so much in common. It’s hard to describe. They’re different from you but they’re not. Everybody has the same goals,’ says Shalev.
“ Every boundary that I break through comes with the responsibility to help others break through those as well
Yasmin Monsour, lawyer, Palestinian citizen of Israel
Yara Karram, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, says the project has opened her eyes. ‘It is fascinating. You learn that on a personal level, when you know about each other’s daily lives, you can achieve so much more. You come to understand that a true dialogue can do wonders,’ she says.
The conversations that led the young lawyers to find common ground already during that first meeting in August 2015 were led by an Israeli and a Palestinian therapist through a method often used in couples' therapy. This Imago-based communologue, as the method is called, fosters a dialogue focused on conscious listening and respect by repeating and reflecting on what others have said.
The participating lawyers say that this technique was essential to making the meetings a success, and Moyer agrees. ‘The project demonstrates that even in a region in which the conflict, enmities and separation are greater, longer-standing and more deeply culturally embedded than just about anywhere else, it is still possible to bring a group like this together and develop relationships and have an honest, candid, constructive dialogue. That is quite an extraordinary lesson,’ says Moyer.
Listening to each other’s stories, the participants soon became aware that all of them had been affected by the conflict in one way or another. Yotam Blaushild, an Israeli lawyer who says he hardly ever interacted with Palestinians before joining the programme, is proud of what the group managed to achieve. ‘It is a reassurance that a lot of things can be solved by meeting people from the other side. You find out that these are people you can both speak with about professional issues, but also laugh with and talk to about hobbies, friends and family,’ he says.
“ We are not going to change the world, but we hope to create momentum. We are throwing a pebble in a pond and letting the ripples move forward
Mark Ellis, IBA Executive Director
Rivkin, who wanted to ‘use the power of the IBA’ to address the Israel–Palestine issue, was amazed by how quickly and easily the young women and men got along. ‘They did not know before what life was like on the other side of the wall. There was crying, there was hugging,’ he recalls.
Various participants expressed frustration at the enduring conflict and the unwillingness or incapability of their leaders to reach an agreement. Epstein, who, like some of the participants, worries about the impact the conflict has on his children, is not confident that peace is possible under the current leaderships. ‘Solutions exist for all the issues that are on the agenda. These agreements have been written, they’re there. That’s not the issue. I believe they also have the support of the vast majority of the population on both sides. It is about personalities, ambitions, courage and political agendas,’ he says.
Personal relationships are an essential part of a two-pronged strategy consisting of a transactional approach, which will change realities on the ground, and a transformational approach that is about changing attitudes and perceptions, says Aaron Miller, Vice-President at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, formerly an advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations to six US secretaries of state and a guest speaker at the IBA–CEELI project.
‘Governments can’t legislate or make peace, only people can do that. Personal interactions are critically important to the transformation of attitudes. The IBA programme deals with young adults who, if they can engage successfully, can become force multipliers. They are in a position now to affect others through their own work and social relationships. That in my view is the importance and value of the IBA programme,’ says Miller.
Meeting the group has not been easy for everyone, as both sides often do not accept interaction with ‘the other’. Palestinian anti-normalisation regulations, as one Palestinian lawyer explained, prohibit a ‘connection with the occupier’. The Palestinian lawyer explained that, before joining the programme, he had interacted with Israelis only as soldiers at check-points. But now, he says, ‘I can see the other side of the story’.
The participants expressed a strong desire to continue with the project, to ensure that others in their communities could benefit from it as well. Yasmin Mansour, who grew up as a Palestinian in Israel, explains that the marginalisation she faces as a woman and a Palestinian has contributed to her resolve to contribute to a solution to the conflict. ‘Every boundary that I break through comes with the responsibility to help others break through those as well,’ she says.
Acknowledging the sensitivity regarding personal repercussions for those involved in the project, discussions are now held about how to build on the project’s success, says Ellis. ‘We are not likely to change the world, but we hope to create momentum. We are throwing a pebble in a pond and letting the ripples move forward.’