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Ronit Avni

Ronit Avni

Posted: January 15, 2009 04:18 PM

*This post originally appeared in Eboo Patel's blog, On Faith.

"What is the difference between bravery and courage?"

I Googled this question recently.

Yahoo Answers replied, "The difference between bravery and stupidity can be very narrow. Not the case with courage."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is filled with narrow spaces. Narrow strips of land like Gaza, or the Israeli corridor between Tel Aviv and the West Bank. Narrow misses when civilians make it home from school or work without getting struck by bullets, rockets, or aerial bombs. Narrow minds that believe they can pummel the other side into political submission and that somehow the aftermath of violence will be moderation. Narrow windows within which to locate the dead, provide humanitarian assistance, or try to advance diplomacy between the two peoples.

What is lacking most in the Holy Land is not bravery, but courage. In the short-term, courage means simply getting out of bed after losing loved ones. Or fetching water to drink under threat of attack, or refusing orders that contravene the 4th Geneva Convention, or speaking out against anti-Semitic placards at anti-war rallies, or protecting a family in a combat zone. To live in Gaza or southern Israel as a civilian is to summon great courage.

But in the weeks and years to come, we will need a different kind of courage. One that is mixed with vision, and an understanding that militancy and militarism will not lead to a long-term, secure and dignified peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

There are thousands of people on both sides who have already learned this lesson -- many the hard way: bereaved families who have lost loved ones but who nevertheless strive to end the cycle of bloodshed; former combatants who spent years in prison or in the army, fighting one another in a conflict they now believe can only be resolved at the negotiating table, not on a battlefield; Popular Committee leaders in the West Bank who have waged unarmed struggles to save their lands. One such individual, Ayed Marrar, who succeeded in bringing Fatah and Hamas together non-violently to save his village from the Separation Barrier's path recently stated that, "if we find hope that we can achieve our freedom, our independence through non-violence, nobody will go to fight by military means."

Since the collapse of Oslo, environmental scientists in the region have sought to share scarce resources like water. Social entrepreneurs have launched ventures to provide Palestinians with much-needed employment while investing in the two economies. Religious leaders have studied one another's faiths. At Just Vision, we have spent five years researching and documenting their efforts and bringing their stories to Israeli, Palestinian, Arab and American publics. Audiences are largely incredulous that such people on both sides exist. No wonder - at times like these, their voices for diplomacy, bridge building and co-existence are silenced. As violence in Gaza increases, these everyday heroes are losing ground in Ramallah and Tel Aviv.

Skeptics point out that this is an existential conflict for zero-sum survival. Yet many of the 475 Palestinian and Israeli peace builders from different backgrounds, locations and degrees of religious observance that we have interviewed over the years believe that the structural and ideological divides that separate Israelis and Palestinians are still - although perhaps barely - bridgeable, and that we have not exhausted all of our non-violent options. But we're in a race against time.

We can begin by encouraging the incoming Obama administration to take into account the needs of both peoples - not just one side - in the interest of long-term peace; we can demand that they exhaust all diplomatic channels to end this conflict. We can call on the Israeli government to negotiate a halt to settlement expansion so that Palestinians feel the dividends of diplomacy. We can continue to condemn the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in southern Israel by Hamas so that people like my colleague, Anat, can stop spending time in bomb shelters with their children. We can demand a ceasefire in Gaza that, in JStreet's words, "ends all military operations, stops the rockets aimed at Israel, institutes an effective mechanism to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza, and lifts the blockade," so that Gazans like Alaa Hajjaj, after days huddled with his 40-member extended family in a home with no water or electricity, can once again see daylight. We can invite journalists to feature the voices of bridge-builders on an ongoing basis so that their calls don't get drowned out by extremists. We can discourage our fellow Americans from becoming settlers or from buying settlement properties. To curb incitement, instead of using sticks, we can reintroduce carrots into the negotiation process. We can support only those leaders that see no good way forward but peace.

Clearly, numerous choices remain.

Perhaps the most critical element needed to revive the prospects for peace is true courage: courage to withstand public criticism and to press for a just resolution; courage to reign in extremists on our own side, whichever one that may be; courage to act in the interest of long-term goals despite short-term political calculations; courage to take responsibility for our own wrongdoings, to learn from them and to change.

I am afraid that otherwise, if the current situation continues, we may find ourselves burying the peace makers.

It may be that the only bridges to build in this time of crisis are narrow ones. Yet as peace builder and non-violence advocate Ali Abu-Awwad stated on the eve of the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, "It takes only a few people to build a bridge," but, perhaps - with courage - "millions can cross it..."