Unsustainable Peacebuilding

August 14, 2015

Ceasefires are a common phenomenon in Israel/Palestine. Whenever there is an operation in Gaza, moderates and leftists on both sides call for an end to all violence, to restore the “calm” or “quiet” (for a lack of a better word in English; it’s definitely not full “peace” that they’re asking for). I agree, of course.  When there’s an operation, the immediate goal is to stop it. But all-too-many of my peers in the Israeli left fall asleep after the “quiet” is restored. There simply isn’t enough of a motivation for them to get up and make sure that the next war doesn’t happen, because, for now, it’s quiet. It’s safe.

The Israeli-Palestinian situation is an extreme example, but I think that in general, it’s dangerous to be shortsighted as a development practitioner and as a peacebuilder of any kind. Take, for example, the situation in Yemen, which I am currently engulfed in as part of my “challenge question”. There are immediate humanitarian needs that must be addressed as soon as possible. Roads have been blocked, the price of fuel is inflated, and (therefore) children are malnourished. This is an immediate, short term concern that should be addressed first. But there is the risk that both local and international actors will become too concerned with those short term solutions. Shortsightedness is dangerous.

In Israel/Palestine, there are plenty of international organizations working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (although not as much in Gaza anymore). They are doing invaluable work. UNRWA, for example, provides immediate relief, health care, social services and education to many of the refugees in the occupied territories. But that will not prevent the next war. If I learned one thing in  this program, is that whatever I do, even if I end up working at UNRWA, my immediate concern will be to make sure that any action I make contributes to a sustainable, long-term solution to the conflict (and I am sure there are many at UNRWA that do just that).



The status quo is beneficial for the Israeli right, allowing it to continue an expansionist policy at the expense of 4.5 million Palestinians in the occupied territories. “We’re negotiating; don’t worry”. I worry. The status quo may seem convenient for the Israeli right wing today, but ultimately, they are shaking a can of soda that can burst at any moment. That’s my nightmare. It seems that the field has yet to develop the proper theoretical tools to deal with such an asymmetrical, static, ongoing conflict.

Because of this, and based on my deepening understanding of the relationship between peacebuilding and development at the Summer Peacebuilding Program, I think that any peacebuilding efforts in Israel/Palestine must focus on destroying the source of all structural forms of oppression and violence in the region: the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Any successful peacebuilding missions in the region – whether by means of advocacy, international pressure, domestic politics, or a grassroots campaign – must place this as their first priority.

New Crusaders?

August 12, 2015

I’m sure many of the program’s participants are familiar with the “New Atheists”: public figures like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris, that are working to actively promote atheism globally. A couple of weeks ago, I had an argument with a friend about them that made quite an impact on me. He argued that the New Atheists are doing good work; that they are not afraid to tell the truth, to hold religious figures accountable for their beliefs, especially when those beliefs contribute to perpetuating violence.

I was reminded of this argument today, in Dr. Joseph Bock’s lecture on the role of religion in the peacebuilding enterprise. To secular, progressive activists, the New Atheists’ arguments are appealing. All kinds of violence are perpetuated and promoted by all of the major world religions, in the name of religion. And indeed, when Dr. Bock asked us to think about cases in which religion was used for peace rather than violence, we all had a hard time coming up with examples. It is very easy to think, on the other hand, of examples of religiously-fueled violence.

The New Atheists are on a crusade against religion. Personally, I don’t disagree that religion is most often a conservative force, and that it is more often than not used as an oppressive tool. Even inside a religious community, for example, religion can lead to structural violence. In Tayibe, my home town, there are no homosexuals, and all women seem to be devout believers, always wearing the hijab.

This, of course, is just a sign of religious coercion. Although I am sure that a very large chunk of the people in Tayibe are genuine believers, many of them also “act religious” in public to avoid being ostracized in such a closed community. This is just one example of the structural violence that organized religion can lead to, not to mention the kinds of violence inflicted by one religious group upon another, “in the name of God”.

Despite all of this, I strongly believe that religion can be used as a catalyst for social change, especially in areas of conflict. Religion, as Dr. Bock illustrated, is a gasoline tank, which can be used to light something on fire, or to do useful work. Although the examples are not as plentiful, there are incredible cases where religion was used to mobilize masses of people, nonviolently, for a common cause. Now, conservatism and fundamentalism are certainly problematic for progressive activists, but as we discussed today, we will never get anywhere by antagonizing the core beliefs of the communities that we try to impact. If we want to mobilize people in Tayibe, or in Jerusalem, in Israel/Palestine or even in the US, we must work with religious leaders, not against them.

Although I may agree with some of the New Atheists’ end goals – to create a tolerant, informed society that is free from all forms of oppression – I think that their strategy is deeply flawed. First we must create a tolerant and safe base in a community – a fertile ground. This can only be done by reaching out to religious communities and their leaders, especially (but not only) in conflict areas, not just because of the incredible leverage they possess but also out of respect for the people whose conditions we’re trying to affect.


Love, Hate and Anger

August 3, 2015

In his 1989 movie “Do the Right Thing”, Spike Lee explored the Kingian tension between love and hate, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. Lee paints a dark picture of the state of civil society in the USA in a post-civil rights era, a reality charged with lasting racial tensions and emphasized differences.

For those of you that didn’t watch “Do the Right Thing” yet, I highly recommend it. It’s a must-watch for anyone interested in revolutionary philosophy, American history, gentrification, police brutality, and… hip hop. It’s a seriously good movie.

I was reminded of this film several times during Kazu Haga’s talk this evening, about the “militant power” of Kingian nonviolence. Spike Lee obviously did his research for the film. Haga’s presentation tied quite directly with some of the issues that Lee raises in the movie, in ways that I didn’t think about before. Take a look at this clip, for example:

(and, by the way, both clips I’m linking to have some strong language, so watch out if you’re not into that)



Radio Raheem’s monologue alludes to the differences between MLK’s strategy and Malcolm X’s, a topic which created and continues to create tensions within the Black community in the United States, and rightly so.

What strategy should we use, as oppressed peoples? In Palestine, the issue of nonviolent vs violent resistance comes up quite a lot. Palestinians became pros in nonviolent resistance. In the West Bank, weekly demonstrations have been held for years in villages like Bil’in, Ni’lin, and others, all of which have a strong nonviolent emphasis. Protesters march down the road to the separation wall, singing songs and waiving flags, nonviolently, until they’re forcefully dispersed by the Israeli military and the demonstration is over. In the U.S, MLK led the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement, calling for full equality for all American citizens in any and every context, using the same kinds of strategies.

Having experienced Israeli retaliation at it’s harshest during the Second Intifada, many Palestinians quickly realized that violent resistance is not worth it, even when it’s legitimate and justified. I know a lot less about the history of nonviolent resistance in the US, so I will not try to explain where it originated, but I am sure the reasons are similar. Turning the other cheek, as Haga explained, is an act of defiance when facing a stronger adversary. Do it. It’s easy to hit me with the back of your hand; now try with the palm.

Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” is about the relationship between interpersonal and structural violence in American cities. It’s about poverty and accountability. Who should I blame, as a poor Latino in Queens? Who should I blame as a young Black man, for being beaten down on my own block for no good reason? The movie explores every possible answer – the members of the community are to blame for their own immobility, the police are to blame, privileged White America is to blame, the rich are to blame, hell, maybe it’s because it’s too damn hot in here.


Distributive justice and development

August 2, 2015

“Peacebuilding” is a strange concept. It’s loose. As I mentioned in my first post, it seems that our program’s focus on this loose concept is deliberate, and rightly so – in conflict-ridden, violence-struck areas, the only way for policymakers to achieve true long-lasting peace is to think holistically; to balance the different conditions that each “branch” of peacemaking requires. On the ground and on the policy-level, environmental, economic, legal and political aspects must be incorporated into the peacebuilding process. In other words, all kinds of violence must be eliminated for any peacebuilding process to be considered successful.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, though, I would say that in certain cases, a particular form of violence needs to be addressed first; that sometimes certain kinds of violence urgently need our attention as peacebuilders, practitioners, policymakers, etc. To me, this week highlighted the harsh structural violence inflicted upon disenfranchised communities by the neoliberal state.

As we discussed in Dr. Arrocha’s session on Wednesday, the state is primarily concerned with protecting private property rights in a neoliberal world. Marxist thinker David Harvey defines the role of the state in a neoliberal economy quite nicely: “[The state must] set up those military, defence, police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets”.



Throughout our visit to the Salinas Police Department, Chief Kelly McMillin was preemptively defending the Police against accusations of excessive violence, racism, and militarization. I think I can speak for everyone in the group and say that Chief McMillin made a great impression on us. He seemed perfectly competent, knowledgeable, responsible, and friendly. The perfect policeman. But the problem is not the police. The real violence is inflicted by the system they represent, by the laws that protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the disenfranchised. As discussed in Dr. Arrocha’s class, Salinas’ residents are not poor by accident, and they’re not arrested by accident. They are arrested because they have no public space to protest on, because they are denied access to proper banking, because they can not keep up with a system that demands from them more than what they have.




This theme was not confined to our Salinas P.D visit. Globally and locally, the need for development is a direct consequence of the neoliberal free market economy, which is a reality – not merely an ideology – in the vast majority of countries. Poverty is a global reality not because of a lack of free market economies.

Once more, I don’t think that the structural violence that is carried out in the name of neoliberalism should be our sole focus. There are other motivations for both personal and structural violence, of course. But, from a purely utilitarian perspective, the enormous scale of structural violence brought about by the neoliberal state ought to tell us something, as possible future policymakers. Where power is concentrated and kept at the hands of the few, we should also expect to find systematic violence. We must reconsider development if we wish to make a real, sustainable impact because, surprise surprise, “free market + democracy” is not a good enough recipe.

7-year-old Peacebuilders

July 27, 2015

The Summer Peacebuilding Program started off by throwing us into the water, heads first, tackling some of the most challenging questions regarding the nature of peace, violence, and the peacebuilding process. One thing that became clear quickly, above anything else, is that we don’t all talk about the same thing when we talk about peace, and that we’re not all here for the same reasons.

The first day started with an ice-breaking session with Dr. Peter Shaw. Actually, maybe “ice-breaking session” is an inadequate term to describe our first activity, because Peter tricked us. Under the guise of a standard ice-breaking session, he got us to express what really matters to us – what we’re truly passionate about and the reasons for our attending this program.

Dr. Shaw first asked us to talk about what was our favorite thing to do when we were seven years old. Interesting. I think that what we remember loving the most when we were seven says a lot about what we our passionate about today and the way we like to present ourselves. Brilliant! I used to work with kids in the Tel Aviv Sea-Scouts, and this game blew anything I thought I knew about introducing members of a group to each other, out of the water. We also played a board game based on the experiences that we hold most important to us in developing our passions for social justice and peacebuilding in general. I liked that game, since it gave us an opportunity to present ourselves to the group as we wanted to – no trickery! It was pretty straightforward, and each person got to tell their own story as they see it.

The greatest game, though, revolved around a fictional short story of a woman named Abigail. The exact details of the story don’t really matter but, in short, it involves five different people who all seem to act selfishly/malevolently in one way or another. The exercise itself involved ranking on a scale of one to five who behaved “best”, in the most morally acceptable way, and who was the “worst”, acting in the most morally questionable way. The story was deliberately lacking in specific details, and short. The groups were then asked to come to an agreement, democratically, on one ranking for the five characters of the story.

The beauty of that last game is that, not only does it shock you in that not everyone comes to the same conclusions (in fact, there wasn’t even a minor trend in the ranking of the characters inside the group; the rankings were radically different from person to person), but it also puts everyone’s systems of values and moral priorities right there on the table for all to see. In the end, the point was not to discuss the details of the story and try to “discover” a truth regarding who was right and who was wrong. We did not try to “look” for the right answer. What this game did is pit each of our most basic, intimate sets of values that we gathered in our lifetimes against each other, shaking the foundations of our moral thinking and at the same time fortifying them.

It became apparent in the second session, led by Professor Iyer, that the very definition of “peace” depends on who you are, and what you decide to talk about when you talk about peace; that even in the field there is no one, holy working definition that all must use when they talk about peace. Each of us is here to understand his own “peace”, and to build his own “peace” in the places that we each care about the most. This doesn’t make any of our personal “peace”s any less true – I don’t think the lesson to be learned is that peace is relativistic – it just shows that “peace” is like a pretty big cake, and we each choose our own slice.