Israeli, Palestinian activists take new peace steps

This week an important new development for a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis emerged from a meeting in Jordan of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The negotiators, led by former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin and former Palestinian Authority minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, met to map out a new agreement dubbed the “Geneva Accords” to compel Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the U.S. to return to negotiations.

The 50-page document reportedly addresses some of the most difficult sticking points in previous negotiations, including the issues of

Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements.

The Israeli government of Ariel Sharon immediately denounced the draft agreement as the product of a “secret and illegitimate relationship with the enemy” and pledged to ignore it. U.S. officials argued that the road map is the only avenue for peace.

In recent weeks, the deadly escalation by Israel with its so-called preemptive air strike into Syria, its continued building of the “separation wall,” which is eating up more Palestinian land, and the killing of several Palestinians including children in the last week, has sent shock waves through the United Nations, every Arab capital and the halls of the U.S. Congress.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat greeted the initiative: “Our policy is not to undercut any attempt to reach the peace of the brave.” Rabbo, responding to questions from the press, said, “The Palestinian Authority supports our [Geneva] Accords.” He added that the new plan “completes negotiations that were conducted at Taba after the eruption of the Intifada, and also fills gaps left by the road map plan, which talks about a Palestinian state in 2005, without giving full details about terms of its establishment, and its components.”

The initiative has underscored the potential for a settlement through negotiations.

Roughly coinciding with the announcement was the U.S. tour of two leaders of Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, and Ghazi Brigieth, a Palestinian. They spoke to the World while on a Fellowship of Reconciliation-initiated national speaking tour in which they encouraged people to press the U.S. government to support an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands and bring about a negotiated peace.

Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, established in 1995, is a group of hundreds of families who have lost children and other relatives in the spiral of violence in Israel and Palestine. Elhanan and Brigieth speak about their personal journey from the loss of children and brothers to becoming ardent advocates for peace and a negotiated settlement allowing two states to peacefully co-exist. Elhanan said, “We, together, are here creating a dialogue of peace.”

In 1997, Elhanan lost his 14-year-old daughter in a terrorist bombing in Jerusalem. “We only have two choices after such a loss. One is anger, hate, retaliation and revenge. Or a more difficult one: every day to ask why and how to prevent it from ever happening again to anyone.” Brigieth, whose 14-year-old and 31-year-old brothers were killed by the Israeli army on the way to school and work in one month in 2000, told a Stanford University audience, “When the suicide bomb went off in Haifa [Israel], our blood was mixed together. The blood we shed is the same, our futures are the same.”

Brigieth, an electrician for the Beit Ummar municipality on the West Bank, told the World, “The majority of Americans are good, kind and intelligent, but they are missing the real situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and in Israel and Palestine. But I don’t blame them because the [U.S.] media is controlled by the wealthy and the government.”

Elhanan, a graphic designer in Jerusalem, told the World, “People’s ideas can be changed in a short period of time, if we convey a sense of humanity.”

Both spoke of the urgency to move public opinion to change the U.S. policy in their region. Brigieth told the World, “Unfortunately, the only power in the world to hold the key to end the conflict is the United States.” Elhanan told the Stanford audience, “U.S. tax money is funding the wall and Israeli security budget.” He urged the crowd to understand that the U.S. policy is critical to the solution to the crisis. He said, “A grassroots movement changed U.S. foreign policy before, on Vietnam, and it can happen again.”

In the last two years Bereaved Families have made 14,000 lectures at high schools, put up billboards for peace, and have launched a phone service called “Hello Peace” or “Hello Shalom” in which Israelis and Palestinians can talk to one another.

The author can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org