This is an exceptional synopsis of a few of today's meetings between extraordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizen-leaders.
     It says why civil society is the key to hope in the Mideast.
     Canadian Shira Herzog ( tells us how "a handful of citizens and civil society activists on both sides is lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness."
     She crystallizes why past and present government efforts have failed for lack of an authentic public peace process.
     Shira gives some of many examples of how more and more Jewish and Palestinian citizens are deciding "rise to the occasion."
     Together.  Side by side.  Inventing the future.   -- L&L

Published in The Globe and Mail  -- Toronto, Canada  --  August 17,2002

Light in a Middle East tunnel
By Shira Herzog

     Some in the Middle East say that the light at the end of the tunnel has been put out to save on power costs.  Others say that they can't even find the tunnel.
     But after two years of bloody conflict, as suicide bombs explode in Israel and tanks roll into West Bank towns, a handful of citizens and civil society activists on both sides is lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness.  They are acting against a backdrop of widespread frustration with political leaders who seem incapable of breaking the region's reactive, vicious cycle of revenge; they are searching for creative ways out of the prison of hatred, demonization and incitement.
     These are not naive people.  They are committed to finding a different future for their respective communities, because the long-term alternatives are too horrible to consider.  They deserve the active support and encouragement of governments, international institutions and funders.  Most importantly, they deserve our attention.
     During the Oslo years, as Israeli-Palestinian negotiations unfolded and then faltered, little attention was paid to what should have been a critical plank in the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic: civil society co-operation.  It may seem self-evident, yet it is often neglected (or at best peripheral) in the emphasis on traditional diplomacy and negotiations among elites.
     The political players involved in negotiations were unaware -or disinclined to consider -the vital importance that such bottom-up processes play.  Consequently, while many formal declarations included references to the need for the sides "to live together in peace," there was no strategic thinking about inclusive, mobilizing, peace-building activities that could create a space for people to understand their conflict, express past pain, and envision a different future.  Those projects that were conceived happened in spite of the blind spot at the top.
     Today, the few Palestinians and Israelis who still work together in a narrow twilight zone are often dismissed by the majority as quixotic at best, or disloyal at worst.  But they describe their motivation as stemming from a profound commitment to the survival and self-interest of their own communities, rather than from any altruism.  These people agonize over the internal cost of the continuing violence for their societies in economic, social and moral terms.  And like many who act bravely, they state simply that they have no choice.
     A meeting last week of prominent Israeli and Palestinian academic, corporate and public figures was just the most recent such initiative.  Led by former Israeli and Palestinian cabinet members Shlomo Ben-Ami and Ziad Abu Zayyad, the group plans a larger gathering to challenge the current political deadlock.  Over the past several months, former Israeli security chief Ami Ayalon and Palestinian academic and activist Sari Nusseibeh have launched the "People Vote" movement, to gather what they hope will be hundreds of thousands of citizens' signatures on a joint accord to establish the principles for their future relationship.  And six weeks ago, 1,000 Palestinians signed a petition rejecting violence and calling for the resumption of talks.
     Smaller, but no less significant initiatives are under way in the NGO community.  Some examples: Last month, 20 Israeli and Palestinian human-rights organizations attended a joint seminar at the Peacebuilding and Development Institute at American University in Washington.
     Under the auspices of the Peres Centre for Peace, Israeli and Palestinian social workers from East and West Jerusalem met in Germany to develop activities that would promote co-operation between the residents of both parts of the city.  And earlier in the summer, 160 underprivileged children from both parts of Jerusalem attended a joint summer camp at Hebrew University led by Israeli and Palestinian counselors.
     In France, the University of Aix-Marseille hosted a meeting of senior Israeli and Palestinian economists dedicated to a reappraisal of both economies and the potential for economic co-operation.
     In their new publication "The Virus Doesn't Stop at the Checkpost," Tamara Barnea (, director of the Middle East program at Israel's JDC-Brookdale Institute, and Rafik Husseini, director of the Palestine Welfare Association, lament the breakdown of most co-operative projects since September, 2000.  But they point to "islands of sanity" where co-operation continues among non-profits in the health-care field -joint action among physicians on genetic birth defects; joint support groups for breast cancer patients; and the "Cherish" project, to help Israeli and Palestinian families damaged by the intifada.
     In Talita Kumi outside East Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian teachers are developing a textbook on milestones in the conflict from the perspective of both narratives.  Their facilitators, professors Dan Baron ( and Sami Adwan (, have spent years developing a methodology of "shared histories" as a means of enhancing understanding in conflict situations.  Especially moving is the Bereaved Families' Circle ( ) -- several hundred Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children in the conflict, and whose mission is to prevent further bloodshed through public education.
     Last year, the Kahanoff Foundation joined Sesame Workshop and a consortium of international funders to underwrite Sesame Stories, an educational television production involving Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians in an educational television production.  A recent Globe and Mail report focused on the joint production problems.  But the real story is the fact that the project continues to exist, and that creative teams from all three communities are committed to its success.
     When approached by Sesame Workshop, we knew full well that the road to success was paved with risks, obstacles and naysayers.  As investors in "venture philanthropy," we were prepared to back entrepreneurs who were inventing tools for tolerance.  So far, we have not been disappointed.  Even in its preproduction stage, the development process is viewed internationally as a valuable case study in conflict resolution.
     At the moment, Israeli and Palestinian public opinion is something of a paradox.  More than 60 per cent of Israelis support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strong hand within the West Bank and Gaza.  Yet the same people support far-reaching concessions that could lead to a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.
     Among the Palestinians, the situation is similar.  More than 60 per cent support continued violence against Israelis -but accept the principle of a Palestinian state alongside Israel based on withdrawal to the 1967 lines.
     This duality stems from the total breakdown of trust between the two societies, and the inability of political leaders to offer any horizon for their peoples' willingness to face the future pragmatically.
     At such moments of crisis, citizens sometimes rise to the occasion.  The people I've met are fighting against impossible odds for their own survival in a better future.  I don't know if their candles will succeed in lighting a way through the dark tunnel.  But as long as they flicker, I have a glimmer of hope. 

Shira Herzog is executive vice-president of the Kahanoff Foundation and a writer on Israeli affairs.  She splits her time between Toronto and Tel Aviv.

Shira receives e-mail at  The Kahanoff Foundation is on the Web at .