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Representing Israelis and Palestinians

FEW believe that peace will break out in Gaza anytime soon, with Israel and Hamas adding demands to their hostage exchange negotiations. In the meantime, the dominant discourse on Israel in Malaysia is still that the Jews and the West are out to disempower and even destroy Islam and Muslims.

But exactly what sorts of efforts are being made by peace activists in Israel and Palestine? What will it take to bring peace to the region? To explore this, The Nut Graph engaged in an exclusive e-mail interview with Darya Shaikh, executive director of the US chapter of the OneVoice Movement.

The OneVoice Movement is an international mainstream grassroots movement with over 640,000 signatories in roughly equal numbers in both Israel and Palestine, and 1,800 trained youth leaders. It has offices in Israel, Palestine, the UK and North America.

TNG: What does the OneVoice Movement do?

Darya Shaikh: We aim to amplify the voice of the overwhelming but heretofore silent majority of moderates who wish for peace and prosperity. They need to be empowered to demand accountability from elected representatives and work towards a two-state solution. They also need the guarantee of an end to occupation and violence, and a viable, independent Palestinian state at peace with Israel.

Our work is not just dialogue or revealing the humanity of the other side — it is about enlightened self-interest. In other words, conflict resolution is not about getting Israelis and Palestinians to like one another. It is about recognising that an end to the conflict is mutually beneficial for the Israeli and Palestinian people. 

What inspired you to work with OneVoice?

I have been involved with OneVoice since January 2004. The movement was conceived and established by a social entrepreneur named Daniel Lubetzky in late 2002, in conjunction with a council of experts from across the globe. Lubetzky began his work in 1994 fostering economic cooperation between Arabs and Israelis through his company, PeaceWorks LLC.

After the breakdown of the second Camp David accords, Lubetzky found himself paralysed and depressed. He travelled to find out what had happened to his moderate Palestinian trading partners. Lubetzky soon realised that they were similarly dismayed by their assumed lack of Israeli moderate support for conflict resolution. However, the two sides were unable to see one another as a result of media distortion and the disproportionate power of the extremist minorities.

Lubetzky began to research creative ways to amplify the voice of moderates in the Middle East. On 11 June 2002, the PeaceWorks Foundation and its OneVoice Movement were officially launched.

I was drawn to OneVoice because of how it tapped into my personal belief that a just and viable peace between Palestine and Israel can only come through an engaged civil society.

(Pic courtesy of Darya Shaikh; source: Friendster)

As a Muslim American woman, do you get harassed or questioned for working with Israelis? Do you travel to Israel-Palestine a lot?

One of the things that you realise very quickly working in this conflict is that no matter who you are, where you come from, or what your background is, you are often perceived a certain way. One side or the other will see you as fitting into certain discrete, mutually exclusive categories based on your identity, or what they perceive is your identity.

I am in an interesting position because of my background. I am a first-generation American, a New Yorker, and the daughter of an Israeli-Jewish mother and a Pakistani-Muslim father. 

With Jewish Israeli relatives on one side, and Muslim Pakistani relatives on the other, I am a part of both communities, and neither exclusively. This can be a very powerful thing. People might assume that I am one thing or another because my mother is Israeli, or because my father is Pakistani. But those assumptions are often confounded when they hear the other half of the story. This is very much a part of me — who I am, and why I do what I do.

Is there strong sentiment on the ground in Palestine that this is a Jewish versus Muslim war?

I think it depends on who you ask. There are certainly those who perceive the conflict as a fundamentally religious one of Jews and Muslims at war for part of their religious homeland.

But I think most people see it in many dimensions at once. There are intersecting and overlapping religious, ethnic, national, territorial, political, and historical elements at work.

Protest to end the war in Gaza; Washington, DC, Jan 10 2009 (Pic by Sarah Lindsey; source: Flickr)

How has the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza affected your work?

At a basic level, we have staff in Gaza whose lives, livelihoods, and families came under direct threat. We were obviously scared and concerned for them more than anything else, and ultimately [we] had to work to evacuate them.

At a larger programmatic level, any time that there is intense violence, the two communities obviously become quite polarised. It then becomes harder than ever to find common ground, and more than that a common will to work towards a resolution. This can be difficult since OneVoice represents both sides within the same movement.

What kind of impact has OneVoice had, both in Israel-Palestine and outside?

From the inception of OneVoice until 2006, we recruited a quarter million members to the movement. Less than one year later, membership more than doubled. We now aim to recruit one million voices to end the conflict. We have over 3,100 highly trained Youth Leaders to date, acting as the human engine of OneVoice. 

However, the popularity of a one-state approach is growing rapidly, and so is the increase of foreign extremists seeking to turn this territorial conflict into an eternal ideological battleground. So the window of opportunity for resolution of the conflict is closing quickly. We at OneVoice recognise the ambitious nature of our goal — a two-state solution — but frankly, we do not see any alternative.

OneVoice Movement aims to recruit one million members to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In January 2007, 1,000 Israeli and Palestinian youth leaders conducted simultaneous demonstrations that were broadcast live at the World Economic Forum in Davos. On stage to answer the demands of the people were Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Professor Klaus Schwab. This demonstrated the power of the people to bring leaders to the table, and this event has emboldened our OneVoice to further test that power.

A number of our youth leaders have chosen to leave violent absolutist entities in order to join OneVoice. One example is that of Ahmad Salami, a Palestinian former Hamas militant who was jailed for four months by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). While in jail, Ahmad became disillusioned by the path of violence in ending the occupation and joined OneVoice upon his release. Ahmad is now one of OneVoice’s most active Youth Leaders.

Furthermore, our graduates are now entering positions of power within their governments. Yoel Hasson, a former aide to Ariel Sharon, is now a member of the Israeli Knesset for the Kadima Party. Leena Shtayeh was elected in the 2006 Palestinian Municipal Elections — not only was she the youngest person elected, but she had the highest number of votes in her municipality. These young people will bring a new kind of leadership to their peoples and are helping to push for an end to the conflict and a negotiated two state solution. 

Do you think there is a future for Israeli-Palestinian peace activists in the region? Why, and how?

Yes, there is one, and there must be one so long as the conflict and occupation continues. Negotiations at the top level of political leadership must be mirrored on the ground with individuals, communities, cities, and villages, mobilised for the sake of making peace.

There have to be people on the ground working to convince their communities and their leaders that resolving the conflict with a two-state solution is a worthwhile and necessary pursuit. People have to believe in it.

A negotiated agreement that does not meet with mainstream, grassroots approval will ultimately fail in the implementation. Leaders need courageous activists as much as activists need courageous leaders.

Watch the introductory video for OneVoice Movement at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 2007

What do you think is the best way for the global community to contribute to peace in Israel-Palestine?

Ultimately, it is not so different from what is necessary in Israel-Palestine. What is needed on all sides is a connection between popular will and political will. In other words, the grassroots’ desire to see a resolution to the conflict and an end to the occupation must connect with the leaders’ desire to continue negotiating.

International politicians, states, and diplomats have a real role to play in that process — but it comes at a cost. They have to dedicate their time, their power, their political capital to a process that may or may not bear tangible fruit in the near future. It is risky for them, and it is frankly easier in the short term for them to neglect their role in it.

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One Response to “Representing Israelis and Palestinians”

  1. David Anthony says:

    I commend OneVoice for their noble effort and wish them success. I ask, should not the first step be to reconcile the Palestinians in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank? So long as they are pursuing a bitter rivalry how can we even envisage a two-state solution? The Arab states cannot be depended upon to come to the aid of the Palestinians. The Palestinians themselves will have to sit down and talk. Will OneVoice be instrumental in this process?

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