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Voices of Reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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The third major military confrontation in Gaza in six years has taken place. An extremely fragile ceasefire has commenced. The latest escalation of violence after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenage boys and Israel's counterassault through Operation Protective Edge in Gaza has garnered further undercurrents of hatred and fear toward their adversaries. As it now stands, the peace process is stalled for the near future, and any hopes of bringing the necessary political heads back to the negotiation table appear distant at best, and irrevocably broken at worst. Out of war and the human tragedy it inevitably entails, the Parents Circle-Families Forum (PCFF) is working to bring families together to amplify the call for the immediate cessation of the conflict. Divided by decades of war but united in their determination for peace, PCFF is helping pave the way for peaceful recognition and association between these communities by the very people who have lost the most to this war. In writing this, it is my hope that more people are encouraged by the impact of community-based reconciliation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and are motivated to reverberate their efforts by collectively breaking the divide and building for peace.

Conflict, by its nature, heightens perceptions of the "other," conveniently splitting communities across artificially constructed binaries of "us" and "them" disassociation. This develops into a legitimizing tool for the revenge, hostility, prejudice and discrimination of a particular group. This is no less the case for communities in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In confronting these attitudes directly, PCFF aims to promote a permanent shift in psychosocial thinking that it is conducive to social conflict transformation. As a grassroots organization, it is exceptional for bringing together more than 600 Palestinian and Israeli families, all of whom have lost an immediate family member to the conflict. It utilizes the techniques of peace narration to stimulate greater connectedness and recognition amongst each other. This shared compassion and solidarity through exchanging each other's experiences and personal loss has enabled them to reach out into their respective communities to initiate wider attitudinal change for peaceful coexistence.

By encouraging cross-group communication, genuine space has been opened for challenging stereotypical identities on both sides. It helps ensure that misinformation and misunderstanding often generated through fear of the "other" can be confronted, debunked and replaced with a more humanizing tale of the consequences and brutality of war. In times of conflict, narrative imbalance and asymmetry of power divides communities across entrenched and hardened ethno-nationalistic identities. PCFF promotes dialogue exchange so that when communities meet their adversaries with the central motivation for peace and reconciliation, this can effectively deconstruct these group-based identities and nationalistic narratives aimed at intensifying fragmented social structures. PCFF works to align common identities divided by psychological and physical borders and, in so doing, transcend the categories and labels that causally misrepresent and simplify opposite sides of the human story in conflict.

The unraveling of personal stories opens up to an alternative worldview that can be understood, respected and legitimated. For example, in The Narrative Project, groups are brought together, including university students, young political leaders, the elderly, so that they can share their stories. Out of this project, PCFF produced a documentary film, Two-Sided Story (2012), which was created and inspired by their personal journey and has become a powerful educational tool that continues to be screened in Israel, the West Bank and internationally. Further, in PCFF's Women's Group, The Neighbors Project joins together 50 bereaved Israeli and Palestinian women to encourage greater understanding of the positive impact and role that women play in conflict resolution. Through this project, women are motivated to exchange narratives as means to strengthen the reconciliation process. The Neighbors Project launched the Presence of the Void photography exhibit (2013), which vividly portrays their intimate and harrowing journey in dealing with their loss.

These projects have been encouraging for there ability to reach out to more groups from Palestinian and Israeli communities to include their different narratives in the conversation. PCFF's new Reconciliation Center helps provide a secure space for people to gather and converse with each other in the hope that this will facilitate conversations with their political representatives to pave the way for affirmative conflict transformation. These projects provide the essential elements for the reconfiguration of the "other" on a level more familiar, trustful and empathetic.

Empathy is one of the most important tools for long-term sustainable peace. PCFF reports that 70 percent of all participants had increased trust and empathy. Promisingly, PCFF found that 84 percent were more motivated to participate in peace-building activities in their communities. Empathy breaks through both the physical and psychological wall of separation to dislodge propaganda mythification and provide an environment that is inclusive for its commonality amongst both Israeli's and Palestinians. Hanan Lubadeh, a Palestinian PCFF member, expressed such sentiments in her letter of bereavement, which accompanied many similar letters from Israeli women, published in the Israeli Yedioth Ahoranot on July 18, 2014:

I've known Israeli bereaved mothers for many years. The mothers' pain is similar, no matter if they are Israeli or Palestinian. We must not give in to blind fury. We must understand that revenge will lead to more revenge and it is our responsibility to stop the cycle of violence.

I know the "other" and invite you to reach out and work for a different reality. There are people like you on the other side, who love their sons and wish to see them grow and prosper, not buried in the ground.

Hanan's words also reverberates the necessity of taking positive steps toward intergenerational conflict transformation. Through their shared grief these parents are paving the way for a new generation to be brought together on a common cause to embrace the "other." Teaching Palestinian and Israeli youth the importance of empathic listening generates the necessary tools to break down the socially constructed barriers that cause the fear, suspicion and mistrust that lead to conflict. PCFF helps to build new friendships and culminates in a protective bonding for each other's personal safety and security by the fact that families in Palestine become part of the concern and reality for families in Israel. In understanding the Palestinian need for freedom and justice and the Israeli pursuit of security, they recognize the importance of continuing to communicate productively through the discord when all other political groups have fractured.

While the scars that families are left with are irreparable, adopting a reconciliatory perspective is creating a new thinking around how to move forward together. As the ceasefire holds, it is at this vital point in the crisis that the work of PCFF continues. Its latest video, "We Don't Want You Here,'' protests the ongoing escalation in violence with the tragic inevitability that more families will be joining the "dreaded club of the bereaved." A Tent of Reconciliation has been set up in Tel Aviv, where members share their stories, facilitate dialogue and screen films in line with PCFF's shared vision of breaking the cycle of violence. More groups, such as Combatants for Peace and One Voice, are joining forces to amplify PCFF's voice for the cessation and resolution of the conflict.

Throughout the latest outbreak of violence, PCFF has continued to engender hope for the future. The humanization of the tragedy faced by Palestinian and Israeli families has initiated greater acceptance and motivation for creating a more viable and sustainable peace. Ultimately, the success of the peace process will rely on generating political change from both sides of the conflict, which means matching community-based peace-building activities, including the work of PCFF, with top-down political agreements. Until that time but through their shared grief, small but significant steps have paved the way for this final chapter of the conflict to be realized.

This blog post first appeared on Insight on Conflict.

To follow PCFF please go theparentscircle.com.