By Raphael Nabholz
Anyone who reflects on the many conflicts around the world, can easily come to the conclusion that partnership is all well and good but remains pie in the sky. Power and greed for resources too often prevent people from meeting as equals. The greed seems to be too great, and the focus on one's own interests obscures any perception of what is really important, of fundamental values and rights.
Almost nowhere is this more evident than in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, one of the most intractable and longest-running conflicts of our time. During my time as a professional peace worker, I observed on a daily basis how high the walls can be between people – and how foreign the concept of ‘partnership’ can be for so many people. There are two societies: one of them still working through the collective trauma of the Shoah; and the other not only living under the shadow of an occupation which has now lasted more than 60 years, but also lacking the respect of their counterpart. Both societies have experienced so much suffering, violence, and injustice that they can often only see their counterpart as a threat. "There is no partner for us on the other side." This sentence can be heard again and again on both sides.
And indeed – rockets, checkpoints, walls, attacks, and other acts of violence do not make it easy to contemplate partnership. But it is possible. This is demonstrated by a sector of civil society which is small, but all the more active because of that, and which takes partnership seriously. In my partner organisation, Combatants for Peace, this much is clear: Former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian resistance fighters, people who for many years were enemies on opposing sides of the battle, are now working together and trying to convey to people in their own society that it is altogether possible to work together and that this not only enriches life but also makes it safer.
I am a trained social worker. During my studies, I learned that, in order to solve conflicts, one thing is needed more than anything else: empathy. And violence is only a symptom. The causes of conflict usually lie deeper. Lack of trust, prejudice, and deep-seated fear lead to egocentricity and growing injustice. This is where Combatants for Peace started from and they begin every encounter by telling their own stories – a Palestinian who attacked two Israelis with a knife, and an Israeli who ordered the bombing of entire blocks of houses in the Gaza Strip, for example. These conversations are shocking. They generate anger, sadness, and speechlessness.
But something special happens during these encounters. People meet each other on the same level as equals. They take each other seriously. And they recognise each other as human beings. The activists from both societies share the same experience: that violence doesn’t achieve anything, doesn’t give them any satisfaction, and that life isn’t any better as a result. On the other hand, when you cooperate, work together towards a common goal, and share daily life together, you find that trust develops. And you discover the feeling that you are not alone and this helps you to feel secure.
When I was 18, I did my civilian service in Israel. I wanted to know more about this small country, which, because of our past, is so connected to my country in an almost paradoxical way. The things I only knew about from history books and photographs at memorial sites became real through numerous encounters in Israel. I will never forget the encounter with a woman who had survived the Shoah: The sight of the number tattooed on her is ingrained in my memory.
A few years later, when I was studying social work, I moved the focus of my studies to the other side, to the Palestinian West Bank. And once again, what I had only read about in newspapers or heard about during my time in Israel became real to me: day after day, seemingly arbitrary arrests of Palestinians, sometimes even children; military checkpoints, tear gas, attacks, torture, and poverty.
For a long time, I couldn't work out why I was so preoccupied with all this, and why I, a German who was born in West Germany in the 1980s, who had never had to experience war or poverty, could not forget about this region. I now put this down to a desire for partnership and reconciliation.
"It must never happen again; War is a tool of the devil,” is what the elderly lady, who had survived the genocide perpetrated by the Germans against the Jews, had told me. And she said to me, a citizen of the country which wanted to destroy her and her family, "Thanks for being here. We need you young people!" And then it became clear to me that Israel, Palestine, and Germany all belong together in our thinking. Each country can only be understood in conjunction with and through the other two.
So five years ago, when I received a request from Combatants for Peace (via AGIAMONDO, which still went by the name of AGEH at that time) to work with and for them as a professional peace worker, I didn’t hesitate for one moment. I spent the first few months of my work mostly just listening: getting to know people, learning to understand the social context of their lives, realising that it makes a lot of difference whether you simply listen to politicians' speeches and interviews or are in direct contact with them – with people who give a face not only to violence and injustice, but to hope and confidence as well.
As a professional in the Civil Peace Service (CPS), I was able to enjoy the privilege of becoming part of the community. It is often unclear where the boundaries lie between one’s private and professional life. And it is often the encounters outside the actual project work which define this unique partnership in development service. “You served as an interpreter for us; Through you, we were able to understand the other side,” was the best compliment given to me by the Combatants for Peace at the end of my term of service in CPS.
At the same time, I myself also learned a lot from my partners: Christians, Jews, and Muslims; men and women. I now see our German society through different eyes and am able to discover ways in which we can begin to overcome our problems, such as racism and antisemitism. And I see the global picture too: We tend to forget that colonialism is not just a thing of the past.
Look at things from all sides – German, Israeli, and Palestinian. This has become my basic philosophy. Each of us – with our personal history, our background, and our treasure-trove of experiences – contributes to a better understanding of our interpersonal relationships and to efforts to make people stop fighting each other and instead work together for a world in which everyone can live together as equals – people who are equal in dignity and rights. In partnerships between equals, which may develop between colleagues, for example, we turn our attention towards those who would otherwise be left behind – at the interpersonal level, where individuals encounter each other, right up to the global level of international affairs.