How do you find common ground when words like “ceasefire” or “peace” have become loaded terms?
Even peace activists are struggling to find a way forward in the midst of Israel’s continuing bombardment of Gaza and the worsening humanitarian catastrophe. On this episode of What’s Unsaid, Palestinian peace activist Nivine Sandouka explains why this is a critical moment for peace activists – and explores how to begin building trust.
“You have two people with two collective traumas. And both sides fear one another,” said Sandouka, who works with the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a collective of Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilding groups. “There is a huge amount of fear, and from fear comes this aggression.”
What’s Unsaid is the new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable conversations that surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, hosted by The New Humanitarian’s Irwin Loy and Ali Latifi.
Guest: Nivine Sandouka, Palestinian peace activist with the Alliance for Middle East Peace.
Have a question or feedback? Maybe you have ideas for What’s Unsaid topics – from your own conversations or ones you’ve overheard? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #WhatsUnsaid
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Transcript | Peace in Gaza
Today on What’s Unsaid: Peace in Gaza
As a Palestinian, when you work in peace, your community looks at you and calls you a normaliser. If you are an Israeli and you work in peace, your community looks at you and calls you a lefty. Or a traitor in some cases.
How do you find common ground, when even words like “ceasefire”, or “peace” have become loaded terms?
Hamas militants killed 1,400 people in Israel in their October 7 attacks, according to Israeli authorities. Israel’s siege of Gaza has struck hospitals… schools… entire neighbourhoods… and claimed the lives of 10,000 people and counting, according to the Palestinian health ministry in Gaza. A humanitarian catastrophe… is worsening.
One peace activist says Palestinians and Israelis are both grieving… but in what feels like vastly different conversations.
Both communities see the violence through the lens of their collective trauma: For Israelis, the October 7 attacks evoke memories of the Holocaust. For Palestinians, violent mass displacement in Gaza feels like another Nakba, or catastrophe, when 700,000 people were expelled from their land in 1948.
How do you bridge this divide; how do you start to talk about peace again – when the bombs are still falling?
This is What’s Unsaid. A bi-weekly podcast by The New Humanitarian where we explore open secrets and uncomfortable conversations around the world’s conflicts and disasters. My name is Irwin Loy, staff editor at The New Humanitarian.
On today’s episode: Peace in Gaza.
Joining us today is Nivine Sandouka. She lives in East Jerusalem and works with the Alliance for Middle East Peace, a coalition of 170 organisations trying to build cooperation among Israelis and Palestinians.
Nivine, this is a really difficult time for everyone – including peace activists. How would you describe the atmosphere right now?
So basically, it wasn't the best period for peacebuilding, even before the seventh of October, because the field itself, if you look at it, it's mostly underfunded. We faced also challenges from our own communities. As a Palestinian, when you work in peace, your community looks at you and calls you a normaliser. If you are an Israeli and you work in peace, your community looks at you and calls you a lefty. Or a traitor in some cases. So you can only imagine what it means right now after the seventh of October for the peacebuilding camp. And we are seeing that our members are stepping up. And they understand that right now they need to do work with our own communities. We need to be holding our communities together. In Palestine, for example, the Palestinian members are stepping up to do humanitarian assistance. The Israeli members and shared society members are coming together to basically also offer assistance. Each one of those organisations are going back to their communities. But we do understand this is also a critical moment. Now, we feel that our work is mostly needed. We feel that we need to review our approaches. And I have to tell you the best approach that has so far proven to be a little bit easier for members to come together, are those organisations who have actually spoken a lot about identity issues, who have spoken a lot about the narratives. So for example, for an Israeli who spoke and understands the narrative of a Palestinian, they will understand what Nakba is, the catastrophe for the Palestinians in 1948. For a Palestinian who understood the Jewish-Israeli narrative, they will understand the seventh of October event brings back the memory of the Holocaust. So there's the first level of understanding, and from there you can build on future work as well.
Now, you talked about how difficult it was to work on peace, even before the seventh of October. And now we're seeing a really challenging situation. Do you think that advocating for peace is becoming a taboo subject?
When you mentioned the word peace, sometimes in your community, it comes with such a disappointment. Because people link it in their heads with the peace process that already happened in Oslo in the 90s, and that did not lead to actual peace. It did not lead to an independent state for the Palestinians or for security for the Israelis. So they kind of were like really sceptical when you mentioned the word peace. For the younger generation, they didn't even witness an Oslo moment. So for them, they grew up already in a very hostile situation, with a separation wall running between the two communities. With checkpoints, with increasing fear of one another, with decreasing opportunities to meet with one another. And so when you talk to the younger generation the word “peace”, they're gonna look at you and they wouldn't understand what it means. But as I always say, the devil is in the details. When you start talking a little bit more about what the word “peace” actually means – it is security, it is acknowledgment, it is the acknowledgment of each other's narratives, the right to exist, human rights – people start to kind of feel, “Yes, we relate to that. We want it for ourselves, but also we want it for the other.” We need to understand what the word “peace” is. And right now, today, the word “peace” starts with a ceasefire.
I just want to get a sense of the different viewpoints coming in here. It seems like people are living in two separate bubbles when it comes to viewing even all the events since the seventh of October. There are different echo chambers that affect how people view what's happening. Can you talk a little bit about the differences in what Israelis might hear in their media versus what Palestinians are getting about the same violence?
Media is a tool that can be easily used by your government to trap you or to control what you think and what you feel towards the other. So when I asked my Israeli Jewish friends, what are they watching? What are they seeing on their media channels? And they were like, “We are watching the local media channels, the mainstream talk shows, news, of course,” they have like an emergency broadcasting happening. I see those as well. First of all, there's not a single Palestinian voice in these talk shows. Not even a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship that is hosted to speak. None. Are the Israeli public aware of what's happening in Gaza? And the answer is no. The mainstream media seems to be controlling its people into reliving the moment of the seventh of October. Which, I understand from an Israeli perspective, it brings back the trauma of the Holocaust. It's a collective trauma. And the reaction is expected. But to use it as a method of control of your people to achieve your aims, that is something different. If you look at the Palestinians, and if you look at the Arab world, we are seeing other videos on social media, when they had [internet] connection. People from Gaza started to broadcast their videos of what was going on. Another media channel is Al Jazeera, that has live broadcasting 24/7 from Gaza City. So that the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world are seeing something totally different from what the Israelis are seeing. And at the same time, we are hearing in the news constantly reports and the leaked documents recently about displacement of the Palestinians. And this brings us back to the time of our own Nakba and our own 1948 catastrophe. So we also have this collective trauma all of a sudden, that, “Oh my God, it's Nakba all over again.” And we're stuck in that moment. So you have two people, with two collective traumas, both sides are being controlled. And both sides are fearing one another, there is a huge amount of fear. And from fear comes this aggression, comes this: “You cannot talk, you cannot criticise, you cannot say anything.” It's just a total disconnect simply because each people are seeing something else.
I'm struck by your recognising of the collective trauma of two communities. I think that takes a great deal of empathy, to recognise the collective trauma in both communities. So branching off from that, I'm wondering, when you think about your Israeli friends, your Israeli colleagues, peace activists, or whomever, what do you share in common? What is there to build on?
So first of all, let me say that we have victims, if I can use that word. But we do have victims from both sides of this who are paying the highest price. So we have a peace activist, the founder of a big feminist movement in Israel that calls for peace. She's taken as a hostage in Gaza. We do have alumni who participated in peacebuilding activities, who’s also taken as hostages in Gaza, but are also living in Gaza. So you have peacebuilders on both sides, who are finding themselves at the forefront of this and paying the highest price. Not everybody understood what was going on on the other side. For a Palestinian, a Palestinian peacebuilder, what happened on the seventh of October – and I'm not justifying it, I'm just trying to explain how some people might see it – what happened to the Israeli Jewish public on the seventh of October is something that the Palestinians have witnessed over and over and over in Jenin, in Nablus, in Jerusalem, in Gaza. For an Israeli Jewish person, this is the first time that this has happened to them. For a Palestinian, we're so used to this. So it really takes a lot of thinking and analysis to understand what it means to be an Israeli Jew, to have been attacked in that way, and to lose 1,400 persons. And at the same time, for the Israelis – because they don't see the media, because there is a lack of communication with one another – I think they don't really understand that we are hearing all the time, the word “Nakba”, and the word displacement. A peacebuilder, unfortunately, told me that, “So what? Let them go to Egypt for a month, and then they can come back”. And me as a peacebuilder when I heard that, I panicked. Because I was like, “No, no, this happened, exactly the same scenario, happened in 1948. And we still have refugees all over the world. And we still don't have a solution for them.” You cannot, as a peacebuilder, come and tell me, “Let them go to Egypt”. You cannot. That means that you basically don't understand the very basic level of the trauma of one another. But right now, I think more and more Israeli peacebuilders, what is happening is that I see there's more sympathy for the ones who are trying to get more news and trying to understand what is really happening in Gaza. There are constant calls and demonstrations for the release of the hostages. And the release of the hostages, they understand, it's not going to happen through war, which means ultimately, a ceasefire. And which means ultimately that you need to go through a negotiation process.
When people call for a ceasefire in Israel, among Palestinians, how is that viewed?
In Israel in general – and I'm not talking about the peacebuilding camp – so when you talk about the ceasefire, it means that “No, we did not get rid of Hamas. Hamas is going to be stronger. We need to get rid of them”. So when you say the word ceasefire, it is not welcomed at all [by] the majority of the Israeli public these days. But right now, for the Palestinians, this is the only thing that we want. Of course, in addition to a humanitarian corridor, in addition to the protection of civilians. But it's because you're feeling extremely hopeless – helpless and hopeless. If you're a Palestinian with an Israeli citizenship, you cannot basically criticise, you cannot express your emotions with what is happening in Gaza. You cannot express sympathy with people from Gaza. You cannot share pictures that are coming out from Gaza. We cannot express our identity. But the ceasefire is definitely what we're asking for. And again, that's another huge gap between the Israelis and the Palestinians right now.
You spoke earlier about the collective trauma of Israelis and the collective trauma of Palestinians. There's such a wide gap between the two, but it's about recognising those starting points, right? So how do you begin to build trust now between Palestinians and Israelis? Where do you start?
That's a very good point. To tell you the truth, it's also a very difficult question. We are seeing Palestinians and Israelis, Palestinians with an Israeli citizenship, and Israeli Jewish community, members of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, and non-members, are coming up together to provide emergency assistance. You see them working together. Even though there are many, many restrictions on the Palestinians with an Israeli citizenship – on the things they say, on the things they do. But these examples, when you see a Palestinian with an Israeli citizenship and an Israeli Jew come together, and they understand that we are all on the same boat together, it gives you hope. And it gives you a basic level of understanding. And then you see the same person, Palestinian with an Israeli citizenship, they also understand exactly what is happening with the Palestinians of the West Bank, and the Palestinians from Gaza, and the Palestinians from Jerusalem. And they're able to take all of that and narrate it to the Israeli Jew. So somehow, we can start from there, we can start to find a middle point that understands the traumas and the narratives of the both sides: the bridge to communicate what is happening to each side. So that's one aspect. The other thing is, we have also members at the Alliance for Middle East Peace who work cross border. And right now, they're bringing the Palestinian staff with the Israeli Jewish staff to talk, to have dialogue, to ask the difficult questions. To ask: “Why are we here today? Where did we go wrong? And what do we need to do for the future?” And that, I think, is a very basic step as well. And as peacebuilders we are definitely going to build on all of these good points and consider those as a starting point towards developing future approaches. But one very main thing that we're also doing at the Alliance for Middle East Peace is not only working at the level of the grassroots here with our members, we're also doing a lot of advocacy, to basically say, we need the protection of civilians, we need the immediate release of hostages, we need a humanitarian corridor, and ultimately, this cannot go on. We need a multilateral peace process, where not only the United States are part [of] – European countries, Arab countries – but we do need to have that multilateral peace process as well going on. Because otherwise, what happened on the seventh of October is going to repeat itself over and over again.
Many of our readers at The New Humanitarian and our listeners for What's Unsaid work in the aid sector – specifically the emergency aid sector. I'm wondering if you have thoughts on what humanitarian organisations should keep in mind when they're talking about working on this current crisis? What can they do that might contribute toward peace?
First of all, I'd like to thank them for everything that they do. They've done enormous work. I am specifically following Oxfam's work as an aid organisation. And I think what they need to remember is to keep doing advocacy – advocacy that is focused on both sides. For example, Oxfam – again, specifically, because I'm following them – hey're calling that all human lives are sacred, the protection of all civilians, the need for a ceasefire, the need for peaceful negotiations. And I think this is what humanitarian agencies need to talk about all the time. Not just: “Let's go in and do humanitarian aid”, which is crucial and important. But it's not enough. You also need to be vocal about: “We don't want this to happen again. And in order for this not to happen again, we need to understand and we need to push for a negotiation, and we need to find the solution”. I think this is what they need to remember. And at the same time, there was a debate earlier ongoing before the seventh of October, that basically said there is a difference between peacebuilding and human rights. And it's like two different sectors. But right now, I think what we're seeing is that they're so intertwined, they're dovetailed together. You cannot talk the language of human rights without talking [about] why you need those human rights and how you're going to protect those human rights, which is exactly peacebuilding. And you cannot talk about peacebuilding without understanding what kind of peace you actually mean, which is exactly the human rights that you want to achieve in order to achieve peace. So these are the simple messages and I hope they're going to review their approaches and include a little bit more of the language of peacebuilding and a call for negotiations.
Can you talk about your vision for peace? What does peace look like to you?
I would love to live in a place where I know I'm secure. Where I know that my identity is celebrated. My identity is not a threat to the other person. My identity as a Palestinian, my identity as a woman, my identity as a mother – it's not a threat to anybody. And people respect that, and give me the space to practice my identity, to be who I want to be. It also means for me that everybody is able to enjoy human rights. It should be equal human rights, equal voting rights, equal accessibility to resources. Equality. Simply security. I have a son who's 13 years old, and it breaks my heart that he's unable to go outside and play. Because we're afraid, in Jerusalem, that something might happen to him, either police violence or extremists can attack him. It breaks my heart that a 13-year-old boy needs to go through this. You cannot go to the movies, you cannot go out to a restaurant, you cannot even go out and play football safely. And these are the things that I want to give for my son – a sense of a normal life. And that sense of a normal life is what peace means to me.
You have such a tough job right now. I'm wondering what drives you to keep pushing for peace. Maybe that's obvious. But what gives you hope that it could actually happen?
I'm 41 years old. So it means that I was born in the 80s. And I witnessed the very first uprising between the Palestinians and the Israelis. So in school, as a young child, I basically remember how Israeli forces used to come into my school, we as little kids trying to hide under the benches. You smell the tear gas in Jerusalem. Some of my neighbors were shot and killed right in front of my eyes. And then from that violence, and from that fear, you suddenly see both of the leaders – the Israeli Jewish leader and a Palestinian leader – shaking hands with one another, putting down their weapons, and basically, there's a symbol, a new symbol, a peace dove that carries the olive branch. And I remember when they signed that agreement, we went out to the streets as Palestinians to celebrate. It was like an euphoria. To kind of recognise that, “Wow, finally, we're going to have our state, we're going to have our own identity card, we're going to be talking in our language, we're going to be neighbours”. And you see the relationships. And you see Israeli Jews come into the Palestinian neighbourhoods to do shopping. And vice versa. People started learning each other's languages. And then the extremists hijacked it. Again. And ever since we didn't have another peaceful process. So I guess what gives me hope to continue and to know that this is possible, is that I have witnessed this moment. It is possible. We just need to first of all have the people demanding that change. But at the same time, we need to have the leadership from both sides that is willing to say, let's make a difficult decision, and let's go for peace.
Nivine, thank you for sharing your views on the next steps for peace. And for joining us today on the What’s Unsaid podcast.
Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Nivine Sandouka is a Palestinian peace activist from East Jerusalem. She works with the Alliance for Middle East Peace.
Visit TheNewHumanitarian dot org for ongoing reporting on the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the region. And stay tuned for next week’s Rethinking Humanitarianism episode, which examines the long-term impacts of aid on Palestinians, and whether humanitarians should be pushing for an end to Israeli occupation.
What are people afraid to talk about in today’s crises? What needs to be discussed openly? Let us know: send us an email: [email protected]. Subscribe to The New Humanitarian on your podcast app for more episodes of What’s Unsaid – our new podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable CONVERSATIONS. With new episodes every other week. Hosted by Ali Laitifi, and me.
This episode is produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf, with sound engineering by Mark Nieto, with original music by Whitney Patterson, and hosted by me, Irwin Loy.