The power of face-to-face encounters between Israelis and Palestinians
By Yonatan Gur
05 July 2011
Tel Aviv – One of the most significant events of my life took place in March 2005 in Anata, a Palestinian village north of Jerusalem. It was the first time I participated in a meeting organised by Combatants for Peace, a movement of Israelis and Palestinians leading a non-violent struggle against the Occupation.
What was so significant to me about that meeting was the fact that it was the first time I had experienced a face-to-face encounter with Palestinians who today are my friends and comrades in a cause.
I had met Palestinians prior to this, for example, during my army service in the Occupied Territories (I later refused to serve there) or when I volunteered to help during an olive harvest that had been disrupted by settlers or the Israeli security forces. But these earlier encounters did not feel like a meeting between equals. By contrast, in Anata over six years ago, I experienced an unmediated encounter with Palestinians who were my equals, people who I had previously thought of as suspicious and different. The experience has become my model for the kind of encounter that breaks down stereotypes and promotes dialogue.
Since then I have felt a need to make it possible for other Israelis and Palestinians to experience such encounters. The face-to-face experience between equals is, I deeply believe, the foundation for peace and reconciliation between our peoples.
Since the Arab Spring there has been lots of talk about the opportunities offered by new technologies as a means to encourage the forging of relationships across boundaries – the kind that will transcend a culture of incitement of hatred. But does the Internet really enable such encounters?
A few years ago I was wasting some time playing an online game. My opponent was a person from Sweden, and while playing we communicated through chat. He asked me where I was from, and when I replied “Israel”, he wrote: “How many Palestinians have you killed?” He then quickly disconnected, not giving me the opportunity to tell him that I was a peace activist, that I have never been part of such violence and that I had refused to serve in the Occupied Territories.
One of the explanations for road rage is that drivers cannot see the face of the driver next to them, and there are no means for communicating, verbally or otherwise. The Internet carries a similar risk. My Swedish opponent probably wouldn’t dream of speaking thus in a face-to-face situation. The Internet encourages short, simple and, at times, aggressive exchanges, as evidenced in the harsh and verbally violent sphere of “talkbacks”.
I don’t mean to be discouraging. I am anything but reactionary and I believe that the Internet and social networks are nothing less than wonderful. The way in which the new technology enables the spreading of information and the spinning of fine filaments of encounters that become a web of strong associations, is changing our world and the way we think. But to use these new tools in a constructive way, to harness them into positive tools of change, we need to understand the challenges they pose.
Action on the web in general and social networks specifically can be meaningful. We witness the impressive activities of Avaaz.org or MoveOn.org that bring together thousands and millions of web surfers into a meaningful political force. We also see how surfers from around the world can provide spiritual and moral support for brave actions in other countries, such as the Women2Drive initiative in Saudi Arabia.
The Internet effectively overcomes one of the drawbacks of mass media, in that it offers people who thirst for knowledge and have a critical mind an almost limitless democratic sphere to develop a more complex understanding of reality.
Thus the Internet is an optimal place for someone who wants to discover the reality beyond the superficial image of Islam or Judaism as it is often represented in the established media outlets, and they can use the web to research the fascinating and often more moderate aspects of these religions. The Internet is the perfect space to link people together, to brainstorm innovative ways to change reality.
But, as we witnessed in each and every one of the mass events that have been taking place in the recent months – from Manama to Madrid – what really matters is what happens beyond Facebook – on the street. The real test of the movement for change that is bubbling throughout the web is whether each and every one of us then switches off the computer and marches to the town square. When we finally meet face-to-face and raise our voices together to chant, that’s when change will happen.
* Yonatan Gur is a member of Combatants for Peace, a journalist, and is currently in training to become a teacher. This article is part of a series on globalisation and religious pluralism written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).