The Day Before Peace

By Danielle Cumpton and Tareq Mansour

Read the original article (Hebrew) in Zman Israel: 

The day before the peace agreement was signed, nobody imagined that an end to the conflict would ever be possible.


Imagine a conflict: bloody and ongoing, the two sides are brutally torn apart for decades (some would say, centuries). A small stretch of land is imprisoned in a self-feeding, never-ending spiral of attacks and retaliations powered by national aspirations which run along religious lines, pursuit of justice and demands for security. Hate and terror rule the streets, and deep segregation scars the cities and land. Humans live on either side of ‘security’ walls. Children are killed on both sides and youth are called to bear arms.

Not a single day on the calendar can be found that is not a memorial for someone lost to the violence. 

Sound familiar?

Now, imagine that both sides, communities and leaders alike, realize that there are no winners in this conflict. It is clear to all that neither side can overpower and eliminate the other by sheer force. A long and difficult process of negotiations begins.

One week before the peace agreement is signed, people on both sides are asked if they believe that they will ever live to see the end of their conflict. The vast majority say no.

One week later, the agreement is signed. 

This happened almost 25 years ago: The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. 

Last month we, Tareq (Palestinian) and Danielle (Israeli), had the privilege of attending a seminar in Belfast, where we learned about the Northern Ireland conflict, historic narratives, and peace process. We met with activists, politicians, academics, victims, and ex-prisoners from both sides. Our aim was to examine the structure of the Northern Irish conflict and its peace process in order to see if we might be able to draw any conclusions for the sake of our own conflict back home. We came back with hope, having experienced a peaceful, functional society that once believed, as ours do today, that peace is not a possibility. 

Now, many might rightfully point out that the Northern Ireland conflict is nothing like our own. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also an occupation; the balance of power and force is not nearly as equal as it was between the nationalists and loyalists in Northern Ireland; loyalists and nationalists share the same language, while Israelis and Palestinians must often resort to a third language in order to communicate; and our conflict runs along ethnic lines. The differences go on and on, and all are worth discussing. 

And yet, even though each conflict is unique, all resolutions are the same. Any solution must include recognition of injustices and past wounds, address the demands of both sides, and provide an end to the violence. 

In Northern Ireland, neither ideology could overcome the other. It became clear that the only way to reach an agreement was to recognize the legitimacy of both sides and find a way to incorporate both into the newly established political sphere. 

Today, former enemies are building shared communities, leading lives of security and freedom. And of course, peace comes with a nice bonus: an economic boom and tourism development. 

How did they get here? The Good Friday agreement was the product of an effort to conceptualize a win-win situation, where the gains of one side are not seen as losses to the other. At the end of the long negotiations process, the leaders from both sides could present the agreement to their community as a win to their side. 

This has led to previously unimaginable mindset shifts: A young man, born the same year the agreement was signed, told us: “I feel both British and Irish.” A mere 25 years ago, this sentence would have sounded completely insane, if not downright traitorous. But the Good Friday Agreement established that any citizen of the state from now on has the freedom to decide which nationality they wished to have: British, Irish, or both. Today, this young man is free to carry this new identity with confidence and pride. He grew up in a time that allowed not only the coexistence of both narratives and identities, but the merging of the two together. 

The peace in Northern Ireland is not perfect. Far from it. The long reconciliation process is slow and riddled with setbacks: there are signs of ongoing resentment and divisions in the walls between neighborhoods, the murals on the street, and in our conversations with ex-combatants. And yet, although criticism of the peace process is abundant, not a single person whom we spoke to said they wished to go back to the violent days of pre-Good Friday Agreement.

The question of justice often came up in our conversations with local Irish people; was the Good Friday agreement the manifestation of the utmost justice? How did people accept the release of all prisoners from both sides, many of whom have blood on their hands, for the sake of this agreement? 

“The injustice of the prisoners’ release was dwarfed in the face of the greater justice of securing peace for the next generations”, they answered. 

There is no such thing as complete justice. The dead from both sides will never return to life and the human pain and suffering will never be undone. The only justice that we can ensure today is the justice of the future; the promise that no person will ever have to lose his or her life over this conflict ever again. This is exactly what the Irish people voted for in 1998, and this is what we hope to reach in Israel and Palestine in the not too distant future.

Unfortunately, the events of recent months have not contributed to any sense of hope for an end of the violence in our small land, to say the least. Killing of Palestinians by IDF soldiers has become an almost daily occurrence, while IDF soldiers have been targeted and killed by Palestinian militants. Settler violence against IDF soldiers, Palestinians and left-wing activists is surging, and administrative detention without trial is claiming the freedom of yet more Paelstinians, including underage minors like 16-year-old Shadi Khoury.

On top of this, the political scene in Israel and the results of the recent elections seem to underline the atmosphere and despair and hate, with brutally polarizing campaigns not only completely neglecting the question of solving the conflict, but also seeming to mainly wage psychological warfare on their own people. 

Meanwhile, most Palestinians feel that neither of the two main political parties, Fatah and Hamas, represent or work for them. It has been nearly fifteen years since they had an opportunity to vote in an election. 

It is tempting to give in to the hopelessness which feeds the continuation of this grim reality. The painful history of loss and injustice keeps re-enacting itself in the streets of our cities. It seems like we will forever watch our loved ones die for the sake of the dream of freedom, justice or security.

But none of these will ever be achieved unless we learn to accept the plurality of the lived experiences within this land, the legitimate elements of both narratives, and find a way to facilitate the basic needs of all humans living between the river and the sea. This requires a new story. One that we are capable of writing. 

And it will happen. No wars last forever. The only question is what are we willing to do in order to make it happen sooner rather than later. 

We, Tareq and Danielle, have a dream: that one day our children or grandchildren will have the option to say: “I feel both Israeli and Palestinian.”

We continue to work, together and in our own societies, towards that day.

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