Few conflicts today seem as difficult to resolve as the one between Israel and Palestine – a conflict concerning territory, religion and historical claims reaching back a thousand years. The recent violence between Israel and Hamas, the infected question of Jerusalem’s status and an increasing separation between the populations make the journey towards peace seem particularly long.
Lisa Strömbom is a peace and conflict researcher driven by the very complexity of the conflict. For close to 20 years, she has conducted research on Israel and Palestine, an interest that was already aroused while she was writing her doctoral thesis which investigated Israeli identity and how recognition of the other party’s history can contribute to peace.
“I want to understand how ordinary people in the region look at the conflict. What does peace mean to them? Peace processes are not only about what happens at the elite level, where politicians operate, but also about how groups in society work to get closer to one another”, says Strömbom, who works at the Department of Political Science at Lund University and is active in a strategic research area, the Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies.
Conflict resolution with disagreement
In her current research, she is investigating a completely new area of peace and conflict research – agonistic peace – for which she has been awarded a major research grant. It is a perspective that challenges traditional ideas in peace and conflict theory on how best to end an armed conflict. Instead of striving to create harmony, in which both parties share a common picture of the course of events, agonistic peace focuses on building frameworks to enable discussion between the parties, even after a peace agreement has been signed.
“In a conflict such as that between Israel and Palestine, which has gone on for so long with so much violence and loss on both sides, I believe it is better to try to create the conditions for coexistence and respect, rather than aiming to get both parties to share a common picture of the situation.”
At the grassroots level, there are good examples of what such coexistence could look like. For example in the Yafo/Jaffa neighbourhood, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, there are guided tours in which Israelis and Palestinians guide tourists together. The Palestinians recount their view of historical events, which may concern how many Palestinians were driven from their homes in Jaffa at the time of the 1948 war, whereas the Israeli guides choose to highlight the importance of the harbour where the first boats carrying Holocaust-survivors arrived after World War II. Other examples involve producing teaching materials for elementary schools in which both Israeli and Palestinian history are represented, to generate understandings for the world views of the different parties.
“This type of initiative shows that there are two sides to history. They are good examples of agonistic peace efforts. Neither party is trying to convince the other that they are right. It becomes a way of creating a more complex picture of the conflict, which could contribute to a more realistic view of what future coexistence could be like.”
A need for political initiatives
But for the peace work to gain traction, more than good relations and grassroots initiatives are needed. There also needs to be a stronger pressure from the international community to to get the parties to the negotiating table. The recent violence in the region, with hundreds of casualities, including many children in Gaza, makes the journey to peace seem particularly long says Lisa Strömbom. The conflict is also very unqual, a factor which tends to make peace more difficult to achieve. Israel currently has more military power than Hamas and the authority on the West Bank and is also blocking the Gaza strip from both the sea and land sides. At the same time, decisions on the political level must be supported by both the Israeli and Palestinian communities, unlike the historical 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine.
“The Oslo Accords was an elite-oriented agreement which was not supported by the respective populations. It also left many difficult questions unresolved: what was to be done with Jerusalem, which has symbolic significance for both Israelis and Palestinians? What was to happen to the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories? A future peace agreement, if there is to be one, must address these issues, despite them raising very difficult questions.”
“A new peace agreement must also be more inclusive. Here, we have good examples from peace agreements that were signed in Northern Ireland in 1998 and in Colombia in 2016, even though the current Colombian president has violated certain parts of that agreement. Both those agreements strove to include previously armed factions and to be more transparent than the Oslo Accords.”
What further complicates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the much stronger separation between Israelis and Palestinians that followed the Palestinian uprising in 2001, when violence between the parties increased, explains Strömbom. Before the barrier between the West Bank and Israel was built, there were also greater opportunities for contact with individuals from the other side.
“Previously, Israelis would perhaps travel to Ramallah, the Palestinian authorities’ administrative capital on the West Bank, to get their car repaired or to buy vegetables, and many Palestinians worked in Israel and had Israeli colleagues. Now that is impossible. It has become more difficult for Palestinians to get to work or to get healthcare in Israel with all the border check-points that have been set up. The distance between the population groups has increased, both physically and mentally. This is a side-effect of Israel striving to create a safer society while still not giving up the settlements on Palestinian lands.”
Community support generates peace
What, then, prevents Lisa Strömbom from becoming discouraged or losing her academic curiosity in a conflict that seems so impossible to resolve at the moment? She answers immediately.
“Investigating peace processes at the grassroots and societal level is very important. If we can prove that there are initiatives to enable coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, and we can contribute new perspectives on how to understand and work with peace, we can create better foundations for future peace agreements. If there is no community support, the conditions for long-lasting peace are also absent.”
“Another aspect is that anything can happen, in spite of recent developments! If there is anything we know to be unpredictable, it is conflicts. That is another thing that motivates me. Suddenly everything changes, then I want to be there and continue my research”, she concludes.