Reflections on Joint Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation Projects

By Sami Adwan and Philip Veerman
In: Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 7 No. 1 2000

Sami Adwan
Dr. Sami Adwan teaches in the faculty of education of Bethlehem University and is co-director, with Prof. Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University, of PRIME (Peace Research Institute in the Middle East).

Philip Veerman
Dr. Philip Veerman is the director of development of the Israeli section of Defense for Children International (DCI-Israel) and the president of the International Executive Council of DCI in Geneva. Before the Oslo agreement in 1993, some Israeli and Palestinian human-rights organizations were in almost daily contact in the fight against Israeli human-rights violations. They have always been able to cooperate on specific issues, as in the Coalition against the Demolition of Houses and the Coalition against ID-Cards Confiscation from Palestinians and, recently, in an initiative of some groups (the Al-Quds Center for Social and Economic Rights; the Palestinian human-rights organization, Law; Rabbis for Human Rights; DCI-Israel and others) to hold an alternative Jerusalem Day (“Jerusalem: A City of Two Peoples. Human Rights and Justice for all Jerusalemites”). An Israeli and a Palestinian section of DCI even maintained (from 1992-1996) a joint office to give Palestinian minors appropriate legal representation.


In many ways the Oslo agreements were a catalyst: some now viewed cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians negatively as helping “normalization” and slowly froze those contacts; others, happy that the end of the conflict was in sight, came together to start cooperative projects in an attempt to speed up the process through people-to-people contacts. Joint organizations were even set up, like Friends of the Earth, PIES (Palestinian-Israeli Environmental Secretariat) and PRIME in order to institutionalize cooperation.
In addition, the Canadian, German, Norwegian and United States governments, as well as the European Union, initiated special programs with accompanying budgets to stimulate such cooperation. All these programs and projects are based on the “contact hypothesis” (1) in social psychology. Gordon Allport (1954) (who formulated this hypothesis) noted in his famous book on prejudice that interracial contact led to decreased prejudice. The Norwegian-sponsored people-to-people program has, for instance, as one of its criteria “that a proposed project should aim at enhancing dialogue and relations between Palestinians and Israelis.” And Hazem Qutteneh noted that “the basic objectives and purpose of these kinds of joint projects are to encourage contacts between Palestinians and Israelis, simultaneously breaking down long-standing barriers for peace and development at the grass-roots level, whilst creating a mutual understanding of the situation and the will to find common ground. This development of mutuality and respect of the situation is the key to a peaceful future.”(2)

Call for Different Programming

The dust has settled around the first groups of enthusiastic people (including ourselves), hurrying along the road of what has often been called “civil society joint projects” and it has become clear that, with some exceptions, without meeting certain requirements, the reality may be the opposite of what the contact hypothesis tries to foster. In the wake of disappointments, we have to look at the Israeli-Palestinian joint projects in a fresh light. We believe that many such projects were too ad hoc, and more long-term thinking needs to be introduced in their planning and funding.
In light of the obstacles that the authorities have placed in the way of “natural” collegial contacts, many projects seem artificial. One of the authors (P.V.), who has a Dutch passport but an Israeli ID card, was unable to meet his colleagues of the Palestinian Bar Association in Gaza, because of the demand by the authorities that on his visit to Gaza he be accompanied by a Palestinian policeman. Indeed, any Israeli wishing to visit a colleague in Gaza needs to be accompanied by a Palestinian policeman, otherwise the permit is denied. On another occasion, he could not visit a Gaza center for deaf children, although by phone a permit was promised him. He did not succeed to cross the Erez checkpoint because the Israeli authorities found the visit too much of a risk. For Palestinians it is much worse; their daily life depends on permits to enter Israel, and these are associated with humiliating experiences at the hands of Israeli military and civil authorities. One has to be very motivated for people-to-people projects to put up with all that. No wonder that some of these projects organize encounters in Cyprus, France, Norway or Sweden, rather than in Israel/Palestine, but the costs of such projects are astronomical.
Building professional long-term projects might be more meaningful than short-term ones, which look good for a few headlines, but lack follow-up, because for that there is already no money left after all the budget has been used. Sometimes such projects even have a negative effect. They are usually limited to a small group of “believers” from both sides, a sort of “preaching to the converted.” Mahmoud Mi’ari (3) confirms that the readiness of Palestinians in the West Bank to meet Israelis is not significantly correlated to self-identity, but to other variables such as party support (those supporters of parties in favor of the peace process were more open to meetings). Sara Hellman (4) found that intergroup encounters do not create consensus or common interests, but rather emphasize each group’s collective identity and different goals and interests.
With all the money poured into joint projects, it is amazing that hardly any evaluation studies or outcomes and attitudes have been commissioned and undertaken, except for a workshop in November 1999 in Finland, which brought together Israeli and Palestinian NGOs and representatives from donor countries. Here we finally saw a first serious attempt by Lee Perlman and Raviv Schwartz from the Israeli side (5) and Naseef Mu’allem (6) from the Palestinian side. Conferences generally have no formal or informal evaluations and tend to end merely with reports about how many people participated, how many sessions there were, and how the money was spent.
There are often some unrealistic expectations entertained by the partners in these projects as regards helping to create a more positive public opinion in support of peace and reconciliation (Declaration of Recommendations to Donors Supporting Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Cooperative Activities, Finland, November 28, 1999). If the politicians cannot agree and the Israeli government continues to act paternalistically (ready to give a little land, but not endorsing a real Palestinian state), you cannot expect enthusiasm from the public at large, especially not from the Palestinians. It is a burden to operate under unrealistic expectations. The partners in the people-to-people projects are not magicians. Munther S. Dajani of the Palestinian Center for Regional Studies (in a paper for the Finland meeting) states that “it is true that the Palestinians are currently in a weak position, but the Israeli leadership should have a long-term vision and policies based on long-term interests.”(7)
We, nevertheless, believe that these projects, under the right conditions and harboring lower expectations and with appropriate help, can succeed.

Strict Equality Needed

Allport (quoted above) noted in his book on prejudice that interracial contacts decrease prejudice only when participants are of equal status. When a Palestinian state comes into being, the contacts can become more equal and effective.
Meanwhile, unhelpfully, some funding agencies sometimes actually create such unequal relations. After having submitted a joint proposal to a big American funding agency, the Palestinian Counseling Center (PCC) and Defense for Children International-Israel (DCI-Israel) received a letter from the donor agency suggesting that “DCI-Israel would serve as the grantee” (signing the grant agreement), thus making one of the two entirely accountable for the financial reporting, and putting the Israeli NGO in an unpleasant role vis-à-vis the Palestinian partner. Such a proposal exacerbates the asymmetry that already exists. On the other hand, some foreign agencies in places like Sweden and the Netherlands identify more with the Palestinian partner and were considered by the Israelis as “more Palestinian than the Palestinians.” The Israeli NGO felt that when the chips are down, these donor agencies would choose the Palestinian side. If the funding agency does not uphold neutrality very strictly, it complicates the joint project.
At a conference of PRIME, (8) the asymmetry was described as one with great difficulties in cooperation between partners: “The Palestinians described the severe limitations they face on movement, not only to Israel but between locations in the West Bank and Gaza. These limitations imposed by the Israeli authorities, on grounds of security requirements, hinder their attempts to implement activities of mutual importance. Even when they are trying to be supportive, and despite their being critical of the security demands, the Israelis seem helpless to change the context. In addition, the arduous existential conditions of life, especially in Gaza, often make joint NGO activities appear to be useless. When such activities are planned, Palestinians tend to see themselves as representatives of their people’s misery, and the Israelis become defensive and feel guilty. The joint venture eventually becomes loaded with deep feelings of frustration, defensiveness and anger.”

Advice and Counseling

If “the play is more important than the end-result” (like the idea of the Olympic Games), and if encouraging cooperation is more important than implementing the activity in all its planned details (as was agreed with the funder), then more emphasis should be placed on the process of cooperation. However, funding agencies often operate the people-to-people projects as if they were developmental aid: planning every detail and leaving no flexibility. When DCI-Israel’s youth group “Colors” and the Palestinian Youth Union wanted to bring together their young people and leave to them the issues that were going to be discussed, it was not acceptable to the funding agencies. If this process of “transforming the relationship between former enemies”9 gets stuck, this means, in most cases, not only anger and sadness in the partners but also upsetting the funders, for whom the output of a certain amount of activities or meetings would be nil. Something should be done to help take away the “psychological poisons.”(10)
Much can be learned from the interdisciplinary approach developed by Vamik Volkan (11) and his Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction in Virginia, USA. This approach seeks to understand and articulate the identity of each large group involved and how the group relates to its neighbor/enemy group. By increasing understanding of the conscious and unconscious dynamics at work on both sides, new ways of interaction become possible. It is proposed to create an intervention team to assist in the process and help projects that get stuck on the road to move again. This will involve neutral third-party specialists in conflict, psycho-dynamics, social psychology, and with an open eye for “psychological issues which contaminate real-world issues and create resistance to peaceful and adaptive solutions.” (12) Such possibilities to receive help in formal and informal meetings may be even more important for inexperienced people. Also Naseef Mu’allem of PCPD reported that some people he interviewed were of the opinion that, at the beginning, a good start is possible when projects and meetings are conducted by neutral facilitators. (13) We intend to raise this idea with Israeli and Palestinian colleagues.


(1) G.W. Allport, The Nature of Prejudice, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing House, 1954. The authors wish to thank Prof. Ruth Butler, dean of the faculty of education of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for pointing this out to us.
(2) Hazem Qutteneh, “Donors’ Interests and Priorities within the ‘People-to-People’ Program,” research paper for the Helsinki Workshop, November 27-28, 1999, p. 1.
(3) Mahmoud Mi’ari, “Self-Identity and Readiness for Inter-Ethnic Contact among Young Palestinians in the West Bank,” Canadian Journal of Sociology, 23:1, Winter 1998.
(4) Sara Hellman, Jewish Inter-Group Dialogue and the Strengthening of National Discourse, Beersheba: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 1998.
(5) Lee Perlman and Raviv Schwartz, “A Preliminary Stocktaking of Israeli Organizations Engaged in Palestinian-Israeli People-to-People Activity,” research paper for the Helsinki Workshop on Evaluating Israeli-Palestinian Civil Society Cooperative Activities, November 27-28, 1999.
(6) Naseef Mu’allem, “Palestinian Israeli Civil Society Cooperative Activities,” paper for the Helsinki Workshop, November 27-28, 1999, PCPD, 1999.
(7) Munther S. Dajani, “The Palestinians on the Eve of the Final-Status Issues: Immediate Hopes and Aspirations,” a discussion paper for the Helsinki Workshop on Civil Society Cooperative Activities, November 27-28, 1999, The Palestinian Center for Regional Cooperation.
(8) Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan, “PRIME’s Role in Supporting the Collaboration of Palestinian and Israeli NGOs,” in: Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On (Eds.) The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in Peace-Building between Palestinians and Israelis, Beit Jala, 2000.
(9) H. Kelman, “Social-Psychological Contributions to Peacemaking and Peace Building in the Middle East,” Applied Psychology (1998), 47, pp. 5-29.
(10) Vamik Volkan, “The Tree Model: A Comprehensive Psychological Approach to Unofficial Diplomacy and the Reduction of Ethnic Tension,” Mind and Human Interaction, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1999, pp. 142-210.
(11) —, The Need to Have Enemies and Allies: From Clinical Practice to International Relationships, Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1988.
(12) —, op. cit., Mind and Human Interaction, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1999, p. 142.
(13) Naseef Mu’allem, op. cit., p. 9. <

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