Can a grassroots approach succeed where international negotiation efforts have failed? Victims of violence on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are taking peace into their own hands.
"If every Israeli or Palestinian who wants to smoke had to buy cigarettes from the other side, there'd be peace in a day," jokes Palestinian activist Ali Abu Awwad in the documentary film "Encounter Point." The film, released in 2006 by the non-profit organization Just Vision, is giving a platform to people on both sides of the conflict—like Ali—who are advocating non-violence. After Ali's brother was killed by an Israeli soldier in 2001, Ali joined the Bereaved Families Forum where he now works alongside Israelis to advocate reconciliation and non-violence. And while he jokes about cigarettes bringing peace to the region, he is very serious about the message of non-violence that he is trying to spread throughout the Palestinian occupied territories and across the world.
Ali's story is one of several depicted in "Encounter Point," which includes stories of both Palestinians and Israelis at the forefront of the conflict. The film was directed by Canadian-Israeli Ronit Avni, 30, founder of Just Vision, the non-profit organization behind the documentary. Just Vision is not a peace organization in any conventional sense: instead of propagating its own agenda, it seeks to publicize joint efforts by Palestinian and Israeli civilians to resolve the conflict through non-violent means. By publicizing the grassroots efforts that are already in progress, Avni hopes it will encourage more people to take peace into their own hands and eventually put an end the longstanding violence in the region.
Avni's education about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in Montreal, where she grew up and attended Jewish school for most of her childhood. After high school, she opted to study theatre at Montreal's Dawson College before she was accepted to the prestigious Vassar College, in New York. While at Vassar, Avni took a Middle-Eastern studies course, which she says opened her eyes to new ways of thinking about the conflict. "After 12 years of Jewish education in Montreal, I took it [the course] kicking and screaming," Avni jokes. "But it was really incredibly taught, really interesting, with perspectives I hadn't been exposed to."
After that one class, Avni was hooked. She promptly moved into political science, but knew she somehow wanted to combine the arts and the political. She got an internship with one of the largest human rights organizations in Israel at which point she got hold of a video camera, and started looking at the impact of the Oslo process on Palestinian human rights.
By 2000, Avni had landed a job at the New York-based human rights organization called Witness, founded by musician Peter Gabriel shortly after the Rodney King beatings. Witness equips human rights groups around the world with video cameras and trains them to document human rights violations, for use as evidence in court or tribunals, and for raising awareness. Despite the fact that the Rodney King video didn't actually lead to a conviction, the idea behind Witness was that human rights violations were less likely to occur if they were caught on video, or there could be some remedy if you did catch them on camera.
"For me, the biggest lesson was that even under the most difficult circumstances people could transform their realities in some way."
While at Witness, Avni worked with human rights groups in Brazil, Gambia, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and even anti-police brutality groups in the U.S. She also worked with Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations. But one of her most memorable projects was working on getting hidden cameras to a women's group in Afghanistan (before September 11) in order to document their conditions under the Taliban. Through her work with this group, Avni started to get more concrete ideas about the way grassroots leadership works. "It was amazing to work with these women. For me, the biggest lesson was that even under the most difficult circumstances people could transform their realities in some way."
By this time, even though she wasn't working exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Avni was steeped in it. She would spend her free time flipping between The New York Times, Al Jazeera and Haaretz—and remembers that at times, she'd find herself so disheartened by the situation that she'd break down and cry. But while she had been working within human rights for several years by this point, she had a hard time applying traditional human rights wisdom to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "The human rights model says that one side is the victim and one is the violator. And you basically have to shame the violator into compliance," explains Avni. "This might work when you're dealing with a specific issue, like torture—it's much harder when you're trying to deal with conflict resolution."
So instead, Avni wanted to shake up the model. Instead of looking at victims and violators, she wanted to look at people trying to resolve the conflict on the ground. "In a way it's almost like a hope-based model, but it's really focusing on civic leadership," says Avni. "What can and are ordinary people doing in order to resolve the conflict? What can we learn from them? What mistakes have they made, and what lessons have they learned? ...How do we get out of this mentality where only the prime minister of Israel and the Palestinian authority president are the relevant actors?"
Avni left her job at Witness in 2003 and with start-up funds that she was awarded from The Joshua Venture—an organization that gives funds to young Jewish social entrepreneurs—founded Just Vision that same year. Just Vision has seven staff members of diverse backgrounds, and deliberately so. They have one Israeli, two Palestinians, a Brazilian, a Hungarian, an American and Avni herself (who is Canadian-Israeli and now also American).
The film "Encounter Point," co-directed by Julia Bacha, portrays people on both sides who are the forefront of the conflict: an Israeli mother who lost her son, a former settler, a Palestinian who had been in jail. And this, according to Avni, was intentional. "We wanted some subjects who are not naïve to the consequences of the conflict. Because often when you hear the word peace, here at least, there's this connotation of hippie, naïve, someone who is detached from reality. We wanted people who had done their time, who had lost loved ones, who had been in jail for a decade, etc."
And the point of this, Avni explains, is to show that if these people can work towards peace having suffered as they have, then others in the region can too. "I definitely think we're saying something about the nature of peace requiring everyone's participation," says Avni.
So while the world is waiting for the leaders to strike a deal, Avni believes that real peace and reconciliation must come from the people themselves. While some observers might scoff at this outlook as being simplistic, Avni challenges people to look at the history of civic participation in the region. "Every single entity that's a power force right now [in the Middle East]—the Zionist movement which translates into the Israeli government; the settler movement; Hamas, which was at one point the majority of the Palestinian authority; Hezbollah from Lebanon; even the Iranian regime—they all started as civilian movements that were marginal, that had no traction, that everybody ignored. It took them decades to build infrastructure, to create institutions, to gain a kind of momentum. Now all of them are the political players in the region—so civilians have played a massive role in the region."
The film initially opened to a sold out theatre at the Tribeca film festival and received a standing ovation for the film subjects. Since then, it has screened in about 50 cities worldwide. The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, but they've had criticism of the film from both sides. "Often we have Israeli and/or Jewish audience members feeling that the Palestinian characters are more charismatic, are stronger, they feel that the music is all Arabic (which it is not). Then we have Arab and Palestinian audiences that say the Israeli characters are more articulate and more dignified, so they prefer them, they say the music is more sympathetic to the Israeli characters (which it is not)."
But Avni says that instigating discussion is what the organization is all about. She recounts a film screening they had in Jerusalem to a diverse audience, which unfortunately coincided with the day the war broke out between Hezbollah and the Israeli army. "We had one woman get up and say this was totally pro-Israeli, and one guy get up and say that it was totally pro-Palestinian. But it got a standing ovation for the film subjects—and in the end everyone went outside for a cigarette, because everybody smokes there, and they talked for an hour and a half. And this was an audience that included settlers and Palestinians from the West Bank!"
Avni thinks that "Encounter Point" is now starting to get the traction they'd been hoping for. The former head of Israeli intelligence saw it and is interested in using it as an education tool; they've shown it to leadership within the Palestinian Fatah movement who are interested in showing it in villages and cities to start conversations about non-violence and peace building. King Abdullah of Jordan has been personally handed a copy of it. In the U.S., the head of the subcommittee on the Middle East in congress saw it.
"I started to no longer associate 'victim' with 'righteous,' which I think is a very big danger in this issue. I'm seeing a lot more shades of grey."
But "Encounter Point" is only part of the plan. On its website, Just Vision has education materials, like interviews with Israeli and Palestinian peace builders from different sectors, religious denominations and ages; they also have a timeline of the conflict through the eyes of civic leaders in the region. They've put together a screening guide for educators to use when they show the film to their students. They are also in the process of creating a short film series about the various strategies that civilians are using to work towards ending the conflict.
Avni admits that her perspective on the conflict has changed from when she first started. "I started to no longer associate 'victim' with 'righteous,' which I think is a very big danger in this issue. You can have a very unrighteous victim who is still a victim and doesn't deserve to be a victim. I'm just seeing a lot more shades of grey…I have a lot more empathy for the two societies."
And while she acknowledges that there are days when she still gets disheartened, she believes that there is still hope—and perhaps that is what keeps her motivated. "In Iraq, for instance, I feel like it's so chaotic that I don't even know where one would begin," Avni notes. "I don't feel that that's the case with this conflict. I feel like there are very concrete things that still haven't been tried that can be done."
Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
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