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Sat. February 04, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Mohammed Abu Nimer and Saji Prelis
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International Affairs Forum: You teach the class “Peace building in divided societies: the case of Israel and Palestine.” What kinds of peace activist movements exist nowadays in Israel and Palestine? Prof. Abu Nimer: There are a number of them. Some of them work in relation with advocacy and human rights issues, others on relief and development, or education and research. However, with the war in Gaza, many pacifist activities have been either suspended or cancelled. So the majority of the organizations are working separately, each of them on their own. IA-Forum: Among the pacifist movements in Israel and Palestine, is interfaith and intercultural dialogue one of their primary focuses? Prof. Nimer: Not necessarily. There are two areas actually. In Israel, there are organizations that work on relations between Arabs and Jews within the state of Israel. In addition to that, some organizations try to work on relations between the Palestinians and Israeli citizens in the West Bank and Gaza. Many in Israel work on intercultural dialogue and peace, but also the cultural stereotypes. There are fewer in Gaza and the West Bank, and few of them deal with dialogue. And those who do are unfortunately not active right now, because of the devastation that takes place in Gaza. IA-Forum: What actions can be done nowadays in terms of intercultural dialogue in this area to improve prospects for peace and relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel and Palestine? Prof. Nimer: These are two different areas. Inside Israel, there are activities right now that work on issues of solidarity, providing medical relief and humanitarian aid to Gaza, but also for people who have been displaced from home. They are students, or academics, and they organize campaigns to help these people. Another area that we can look at is the issue of advocacy and human rights. Many are trying to speak of the situation in Gaza, in terms of massive bombings of civilians and indiscriminate killings of Palestinian innocents, of children and women, throughout the Israeli military campaign. Emphasizing these human rights issues is important. Also, there is the issue of charging war criminals: there are actions [that could be] taken to try and hold [responsible] the Israeli commanders and politicians who are responsible for the war. Petitions are now signed to pressure the European Union, the United States, and more globally the international community to stand against these crimes. A fourth initiative, also, in the United States and outside, is the intent to boycott Israeli institutions, especially academic, that have silenced what has happened in Gaza as it was done with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Another campaign is the boycott of Israeli products coming from the West Bank, from the settlements. IA-Forum: Do you think there is rising concern among Israeli public opinion for the need for help? Prof. Nimer: Yes. Two weeks after the massive attacks on Gaza, there were more voices of dissent in the Israeli public, including articles in newspapers. People are talking about the difficulties of dealing with what happened in Gaza. I have seen several testimonies from Israeli soldiers describing how they have conducted their fight in Gaza. Some descriptions are pretty horrible of the events there. On the other side, according to the polls, the right wing in Israel, especially Benyamin Netanyahu, is gaining more popularity and support than before. IA-Forum: How do you see the prospects for peace in the future in Gaza? Prof. Nimer: What we see through all these conflicts is that violence will not improve chances for peace and allow negotiations to take place. On the contrary, the more violence we use, the more alienated, the more dehumanized the Israelis and Palestinians will be from each other. As a result, even further negotiation might be impossible. The second point is that the window for the two-state solution is closing very rapidly. If the Israeli government, backed by the U.S. government, won’t engage sincerely in negotiations, this might not be viable anymore a few years from now. Third, the war in Gaza has proved again that, without a Palestinian national unified government between Fatah and Hamas, it will be very difficult to move the peace process forwards. The Fatah leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas has lost a great deal of credibility on the ground because of its attitude during the war. On the other hand, Hamas has won tremendous support and solidarity from people, because of their position during the war. As a result, there must be some way to negotiate with Hamas, directly or indirectly. I hope the United States will realize that. The European Union, for instance Javier Solana, the high representative for common foreign and security policy, has already declared that they would be willing to support peace negotiations with Hamas as a part of the Palestinian government. The U.S. has to put some pressure, and also accept some possibilities, for negotiations. IA-Forum: What do we know nowadays about Arab Israelis inside Israel? Prof. Nimer: There is a clear polarization between Arabs and Jews inside Israel. Ninety percent of the Jewish political and public leadership supported the war on Gaza, while 90% of the Palestinians inside Israel opposed it. Israeli politics and leaders are going further right in their treatment of Arabs and Israelis, disqualifying Arab political forces running for elections in February 10th, while the Supreme Court reinstituted the right for them to compete for elections. The minister Lieberman, for instance, has made several statements for preventing the Arabs from voting, or depriving them of certain rights. The gap between Arabs and Israelis is wider now, due also to the war in Gaza. IA-Forum: Do we know of any pacifist activist organizations led by Arab Israelis within Israel? Prof. Nimer: Many NGOs in Israel talk with Arabs, and some of them deal with issues of dialogue, peace, and non-violence. But many organizations stand for giving the Arabs basic rights by the Israeli government. Unfortunately, movements led by Arabs in Israel that deal with peace and conflict resolution are marginalized. IA-Forum: How do you explain the major humanitarian crisis that occurred within Gaza? Why were NGOs apparently prevented from effectively helping the population there? Prof. Nimer: What has happened is that Israel has opened and blocked on a daily basis the access of international NGOs to the affected areas in Gaza. Hamas attacked an Israeli convoy, which led Israel to close entries into Gaza, and pursue aerial bombings. More than 190 trucks did not go in to help people. Israel prevented medical and humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. I am not sure of the things NGOs could do to break the blockade from Israel. Moreover, a blockade was imposed in May 2006 against the Gazans, and it still goes on. IA-Forum: You have also studied deep conflicts such as in Northern Ireland or Southern Africa. Do you see some similarities between the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and these ones? Prof. Nimer: Many compare the Israeli occupation in Gaza to the apartheid struggle in South Africa in the late eighties, to fight for an existence. And I think that it is similar to what is going on in Gaza right now. They are really struggling. I agree with that, I see the similarities. I don’t think, on the other hand, that we are like Northern Ireland, as they decided to live together within a shared region, a shared society. IA-Forum: Do you know of some organizations within the United States that call for Israeli-Palestinian peace, or that can have an effect on the U.S. government? Prof. Nimer: Not many, with a persuasive effect. We know the ADC, the Arab Anti Discrimination Committee; there are Jews for Peace also. But these organizations continue in the U.S. to be marginalized in comparison to the powerful and influential pro-Israeli lobby in the Congress. IA-Forum: When was the PDI created? Saji Prelis: In 2000. But it took about a year and a half to have it installed - we had a lot of people helping for that. IA-Forum: What was the initial purpose of this institute? Mr. Prelis: We were looking at this whole emerging field of peace building and community development. We realized there was a huge gap between these two areas. The work that these fields do impacts each other. We wanted to establish an institute that exposes the middle ground between these two fields. We would do that in a training, academic perspective - bringing people from different communities together to interact with each other. IA-Forum: Since 2000, how has the institute evolved? What actions have been implemented? Mr. Prelis: It has strengthened a lot. In three or four years, we have become ranked the third or fourth best training institute in the world. Participants, at the beginning around 50, came progressively from about 27 different countries. The primary countries are in development transition or affected by conflicts. The first summer, many people came from the U.S. and some from Israel-Palestine. But now, one of the unique characteristics of the institute is that it attracts a strong diversity of students - there are participants who come from U.N. agencies and from U.S. government agencies as well. We also have people coming from the private sector. We host military people, religious leaders, and also some local community-based organizations. They all sit next to students at American University. It is a mixture: a mixture of theory with practice, of ages with ideology, cultures and experiences as well. Talking, and challenging people’s concepts helps growth - this diversity is unique. Besides, we have also grown in a number of other ways. After the Asian Tsunami in 2004, we did a lot of conferences here. Through that, we realized that local agencies and organizations had a lot of expertise in the fields. However, we have seen a lot of gaps and disparities between areas. So we started the humanitarian training program at the Institute. This is our second year for this training program, for humanitarian aid agencies to come to us, to learn about how to function in fragile environments. We invite students to participate also, even if the focus is on the practitioners. Having them all together is really positive for students as well: they get the chance to interact with professionals. We have also done a lot of other programs. We realized it was difficult for some people to come in the United States for training programs: the cost is really high, and nor is it the most accessible country in the world, especially if you come from a conflict or development area. In regards to that, we established an institute in Southeast Asia and we launched a regional training institute. We are in the process of thinking about establishing an institute in the Middle East or in Southeast Africa as well. IA-Forum: Do you think the Peacebuilding and Development Institute has allowed for greater prospects for peace building and development studies at AU? Mr. Prelis: Yes, because we bring students and practitioners together through our training programs. It is one of the only opportunities they have to take a course with practitioners in the class. That enhances the students’ knowledge and capacity, being in a class with a diverse group of people. Secondly, courses are not only based on theory, they are very much more practice-based. Learning is much more about conversations, and getting to know each other. It is very much connected with practice. However, we focus a lot on the outside of the university; we could always do a better job in connecting it more to the university. But there are always opportunities to work with conflict resolution and community development departments and to learn from each other. IA-Forum: Could you talk a little about the humanitarian training programs and other programs that you are doing abroad also, or during the summer? Mr. Prelis: In the summer, we have one professional training program. Those are courses offered here in Washington, DC. The humanitarian program is going on right now. This is a two day long courses program for practitioners. We have a program in the regional institute in Sri Lanka. It attracts people from South and Southeast Asia. What is unique in this program is that the practitioners experience the field. For instance, some of them went after two courses to a conflict area to put in practice what they had learned in class. IA-Forum: Does the institute offer some internships or collaborations abroad for AU students, such as at NGOS? Mr. Prelis: It is in the process of establishing a program to place some AU students overseas, preferably in the summer. But what we do is not only offering these opportunities, but preparing students to face some of the challenges they can have to face in the field, and also understand peoples’ needs in the fields and who they are going to work with. We want to focus on that, really prepare students to work in the field. We want to make sure the students get to know the agency before they go. Students are going to be able to learn a lot from being in the field, and be able to make a contribution. They also understand security issues. Mohammed Abu Nimer is a professor at the department of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University and director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute. Saji Prelis is associate director of the Peacebuilding and Development Institute.

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