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Citizens councils as instrument for peace in Israel

24.09.2002 - Yeshayahu Ben-Aharon

ICS's starting point in establishing the necessary foundation for a general civil, spiritual-cultural infrastructure for the third social sector across Israel is what it terms the "Citizens' Councils."

These councils are intended to serve as a kind of social "backbone" for the effort to establish an autonomous cultural-spiritual sector in Israel. The third sector will require independent civil (spiritual-cultural) institutions that will plan, organize, manage and deliver free education, health care, media, environment, research and development, culture and the arts, to name but some areas.

One the foremost tasks of the citizen's councils, especially in the mixed population Galilee region, is to deal with the ever deepening Israeli-Arab split among the citizens of the state.

The first public gathering of the Galilee citizens' council will take place in November 2002. Until then, ICS is preparing the event by gathering and consolidating a small steering committee, that will serve as the first, motivating core of the citizens’ council.

Such preparation is being undertaken in the form of conversations and consultations, including person-to-person meetings, group consultations and exchanges with ordinary citizens, NGO activists, teachers, economic, religious and cultural leaders in the northern regions of Israel.

In order to understand the conditions under which this initiative is proceeding in present-day Israel, let us observe the following example. In October 2000 thousands of Israeli-Arab citizens took to the street, some very violently, some quietly, to demonstrate their identification with the so-called second, or El Akza, Intifada (insurrection) in the Occupied Territories. They were also expressing their accumulated frustration caused by the feeling of being second-rate citizens in Israel.

Banks and petrol stations in Arab and mixed towns were set on fire by demonstrators. Main roads were blocked. Jewish settlements in the Galilee were attacked. For the first time, violent demonstrations broke out also in otherwise peaceful mixed cities, including Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa and Acer.

The Israeli police answered with overwhelming force, using live fire and snipers, killing 13 Arab-Israeli citizens and wounding hundreds. The anger and anguish in the Arab community increased. And many Israeli Jews boycotted Arab business and kept away from Arab villages and towns.

The last two years since October 2000 have shown no signs of healing. Things have remained outwardly “quiet”, but this has not been able to mask the inner, unresolved and escalating tensions and frustrations.

Recently, while both communities were preparing to commemorate the second anniversary of these tragic events, the Israeli security forces announced that eight members of a well-known Arab-Israeli family were arrested as suspects in helping, hiding, and guiding, the suicide bomber who last August blew up a bus in Meron, near Zefad, in Upper Galilee, in which 10 mostly young people from local Galilee areas were killed and dozens severely wounded.

The shock waves in Israel, on both sides, are obviously very intense.

Understandably, also the smaller circles of Israeli activists working for peace and cooperation – Jews and Arabs – are alarmed. They have to face the fact that secular, educated and economically prosperous, members of an Israeli Arab family, could have actively participated in this atrocity that brought about the detonation of a bus crammed with people in which, as they knew all too well, sons and daughters of their Jewish neighbours also travelled each day.

How, then, does ICS’s work meet such alarming developments? This is now its most important question. Is it to join the efforts undertaken by the various NGOs to bridge, reconcile and bring Arabs and Jews together yet again? Is this ICS’s task, or does it divert its focus from ICS’s central social goal?

Such questions have become very urgent lately, as ICS is intending to launch its first public activity in Galilee in November. Its consultations so far have led it to consider the following conclusion.

Alarming as these tragic events are, according to ICS’s understanding the really fruitful work in the Galilee citizens’ council cannot succeed if it starts with a one-sided concentration on any single issue, including the Jewish-Arab split.

Obviously the council, once it has been established, will have various departments dedicated to specific social issues. One of them will of course be dedicated to dealing with the critical Jewish-Arab situation in Galilee. However, our practical social experience has taught us that we must stick to ICS’s original intention, and not be swayed by events from our long term course.

Recent events have therefore strengthened our understanding that ICS’s contribution lies precisely in its holistic approach, in its realization that no single-issue solution to any specific problem can be found in current social life for as long we have not transformed some of the most basic approaches and structures in this field.

After all, the Arab-Jewish crisis has the same basic causes as all other social crisis in which we find ourselves. Therefore we strive to engage the citizens of the Galilee, Arabs and Jews, in developing a new social conception and practice, strategy, and consciousness by entering a learning process about what social life as a whole is and should be, why and how the third sector should be separated from the political and economic sectors, and how these changes meet the local social challenges of the region, one of which is the above described Arab-Jewish crisis.

In this regard, the Galilee citizens’ council, once established, will for the first time in the history of the state of Israel bring together Israeli Arab and Jewish citizens outside government institutions or task-specific NGOs to undertake together joint consultations and develop together a common social strategy concerning their common fate.

If this ICS goal can be even modestly achieved – and it can only ever be modest – this will represent a qualitatively meaningful social step forward for the state of Israel as a whole.