Abstract and Keywords
Before its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the American Friends Service Committee had delivered relief and political and moral assistance to hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe and other parts of the world. When war loomed in Palestine, the United Nations looked to the AFSC to nominate a Quaker municipal commissioner for an internationalized Jerusalem, in the expectation that the nominee would be acceptable to both Jews and Arabs. The volunteers encountered numerous obstacles in Palestine and Israel but managed to learn from them and to adapt in ways that contain useful lessons for today's relief workers and peacemakers. In Gaza, the volunteers found themselves in a territory administered by the Egyptian army. The small-scale grassroots advocacy and unofficial diplomacy that the Quakers pioneered in the early years of the conflict remain for many activists—Israeli, Palestinian, and international—the best hope for reconciliation and resolution of the conflict.
Before its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the American Friends Service Committee had delivered relief and political and moral assistance to hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe and other parts of the world. At the same time, the AFSC had worked for peace with justice following the basic Quaker belief that there is “that of God in all people.” In the years before the Second World War, Quakers had journeyed to Berlin to meet with Nazi leaders in the hope that their visit might encourage Germans who were calling for disarmament. During the war, the AFSC became known for having aided large numbers of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees imperiled by the rise of fascism. The AFSC and its British counterpart, the Friends Service Council, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for their wartime service to refugees and their peacemaking activism.
When war loomed in Palestine, the United Nations looked to the AFSC to nominate a Quaker municipal commissioner for an internationalized Jerusalem, in the expectation that the nominee would be acceptable to both Jews and Arabs. When both sides turned against the concept of an internationalized Jerusalem, the United Nations asked the AFSC to establish refugee relief services in Israel and Gaza.
(p.160) The AFSC volunteers were deeply committed to their service in the Levant. The fact that Palestine was the Holy Land, that Quakers had long maintained schools there, that it was a refuge for those persecuted in the Second World War, and that the United Nations, an organization the Quakers ardently supported, had asked for its help, gave the AFSC a special sense of mission. The volunteers encountered numerous obstacles in Palestine and Israel but managed to learn from them and to adapt in ways that contain useful lessons for today's relief workers and peacemakers. They were respectful of local authorities, they listened to the people and treated them as equals, they were attentive to local conditions, and they were flexible and adaptable.
In Gaza, the volunteers, most of whom were committed pacifists, found themselves in a territory administered by the Egyptian army. This posed a dilemma, because during the Second World War, which had ended just four years before the Gaza project began, many of the American volunteers had been conscientious objectors. Some had been imprisoned while others had participated in various Civilian Public Service projects for refusing to bear arms. To make matters worse, the AFSC had never worked under the military of a formerly colonized state and had not realized that Egyptian nationalists might see them as agents of imperial powers. The volunteers considered themselves to be simply Quakers or pacifists who were there for the betterment of all. They were individuals who had nothing to do with imperialism or nationalism and did not identify with one flag or another. Soon, however, the volunteers realized that they needed the Egyptian military to keep order, transport supplies, and supervise the warehouses. In turn, the Egyptian military needed the AFSC because it lacked the infrastructure to organize a large-scale relief project. Consequently, within a short time, a satisfactory working relationship based on mutual need and respect was reached, and the AFSC worked successfully with the Egyptian military staff.
When the volunteers immediately realized that the refugees had no idea who they were or why they had come to help, they began meeting with village leaders and family heads to explain their mission. They also listened carefully to the refugees to gain an understanding of their views, needs, and experiences. Realizing the high levels of unemployment among the refugees, they made a point of hiring refugees whenever (p.161) possible. They also included Palestinian representatives in AFSC meetings and treated them as colleagues. The volunteers first tried to organize tent encampments in long, orderly rows, but soon learned that people preferred to live in groups of family and friends. Accordingly, they proceeded to organize tent encampments by village of origin, where families and friends could set up their tents near one another. When they found that the donated clothes were not suitable for Palestinian women, they set up a weaving and sewing program.
The AFSC volunteers were inventive and did not follow any sort of rigid protocol. Generally they were out in the camps and took a more ‘hands on’ approach to their tasks, more so than the staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the League of Red Cross Societies. This enabled the AFSC to make a census quickly and efficiently without the extra time, staff, and funds required by the other relief agencies. When the AFSC volunteers learned that indigenous Gazans were suffering from the influx of refugees, they in effect created a ‘new’ village and registered the impoverished Gazans as refugees from it. In short, the AFSC approach was locally based, small-scale, and flexible. Because of this, it was able to build up a rapport that enabled it to establish an effective emergency relief service and a system of clinics and schools that served well over 200,000 Palestinian refugees.
In Israel, as in Gaza, the AFSC volunteers learned to adapt to unexpected circumstances. The AFSC had, for example, initially intended to give relief to both Jewish and Arab refugees. It soon learned that the Israeli authorities preferred to aid Jewish refugees and that the needy were mostly Palestinian Arabs. The AFSC then modified its policy of serving both sides in a given conflict, and sought permission from the Israeli government to aid Palestinian Arabs in two locations: Acre and Tur‘an. The AFSC volunteers’ goal in Israel was to work toward coexistence between Arabs and Jews. In Acre, the volunteers celebrated the rare occasions when Arabs and Jews socialized. In Tur‘an, the volunteers attempted to introduce new agricultural methods that would enable the villagers to compete in the new economic environment and therefore to remain on their land.
In Gaza and Israel, the AFSC volunteers were consistently self-reflexive and self-critical in assessing the results of their efforts. Many (p.162) came to question the moral basis of their humanitarian service. They learned that in a few short months, Palestinian Arabs had ceased to be ordinary people living on their land and had, in the mind of the world, become refugees dependent on charity. On more than one occasion, the volunteers witnessed the Israeli army expelling Palestinian Arabs from their homes and Israeli bulldozers demolishing their villages. They learned that most Palestinians wanted only to return to rebuild their homes. The AFSC's preferred solution for the refugees was repatriation of most, if not all, refugees, and resettlement of the rest. Over time, the AFSC volunteers came to believe that the emergency relief was keeping the refugees alive, but also giving the world an excuse to forget about them. The AFSC became anxious to move from emergency relief to projects with longer-term goals.
The immediate goal was to help save lives. This goal was met. The more fundamental and difficult goal was to work toward creating the conditions for peace. This proved far more elusive. Again, Quaker leaders learned from their experiences and adapted accordingly. They first met with Egyptian, Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders in an effort to understand the situation and to search for common ground among the warring parties. Their initial view—that misunderstanding was at the root of the conflict—was challenged early on. They learned that the Palestinian Arabs felt that they were being invaded by colonialists supported by the imperial powers and that their only crime was to resist the colonization of their land. The Zionists, however, claimed the same territory as a sanctuary from persecution in Europe and for religious and nationalist reasons. The conflict was over territory and nationalist predominance, not misunderstanding. Each party well understood the goals of the other well and knew that their respective nationalist goals were incompatible. The Quakers then hoped to foster a sense of common interest that would prevail over narrow nationalism. They understood that when the stronger party in an unbalanced conflict calls for nonviolent protest, for the weaker party this may mean capitulation and the end of hope for political, territorial, social, and economic restitution. The Quaker idea was to move away from the mentality of confrontation to a mentality of cooperation. They hoped to encourage the warring parties to see the possibilities of (p.163) peace by building mutual respect and trust between them in order to break the cycle of revenge.
In contrast to its earlier efforts, after the Suez War, the AFSC began to focus less on refugee relief and high-level unofficial diplomatic initiatives, and more on small-scale grassroots projects. The AFSC began preschools, kindergartens, and seminars on nonviolence. Volunteers began working with Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, musicians, youth programs, and legal aid programs. While peace has remained elusive, the AFSC has remained committed to nonviolent struggle for peace and human rights for all parties.
Today, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is becoming more and more dangerous. Israel, Pakistan, and India have acquired nuclear weapons and more powers in the region are likely to do so in the future. Gaza, with its population of 1.5 million Palestinians is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. There are about 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and about one million Palestinian citizens of Israel.395 Over 4.3 million refugees are registered with UNRWA. No significant number of refugees has returned.
Yet there is reason for hope. Methods pioneered by the AFSC may have more salience than at any time in the past. Unofficial or track-two diplomacy is better developed now, and Israeli and Palestinian NGOs are playing a much greater role than in the early years of the conflict. There are also many more Palestinians and Israelis trained in nonviolent activism. Peace groups, religious groups, problem-solving workshops, conflict-resolution training programs, associations of nuclear physicists, environmental activists, human rights workers, and various nonviolent groups within Israel/Palestine and elsewhere are attempting to create the conditions for peace at the grassroots level. In the face of seemingly overwhelming political and military opposition, they are gaining in influence and may take comfort in the idea that “the small wheel turns the bigger wheel that turns the still bigger wheel” and in the much quoted words of Margaret Mead, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”396 The small-scale grassroots advocacy and unofficial diplomacy that the Quakers pioneered in the early years of the conflict remain for many activists—Israeli, Palestinian, and international— the best hope for reconciliation and resolution of the conflict. (p.164)
(396) Margaret Mead Quotes: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/margaret_mead.html.