Breaking ground for discourse on peacebuilding in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories
An Imperative for the Hybrid Model in Peacebuilding: Moving Beyond Dialogue at Tech2Peace
Salina Kuo October 2, 2021
Where entrepreneurship and technology intersect, there is an oft-obscure space that presents opportunities for peacebuilding. In Israel-Palestine, this space is harnessed by organizations that actively bring together Israelis and Palestinians in pursuit of a peace that relies on conditions beyond the conventional foundations of mutual understanding and co-existence: they advocate for a shared reality that is inspired by innovation, co-creation, and economic empowerment.
Tech2Peace is one such organization that seeks to build a lasting community of Israelis and Palestinians, where transformative, cross-border relationships would serve as the catalyst for discovering shared purpose and creating together. The participants engage in a 12-day intensive residential seminar that integrates dialogue, high-tech skill building, and entrepreneurial training. The end of the program is followed by a series of ongoing alumni events, which provide additional resources and support for dialogue, capacity-building, joint-project development, and social connection.
“The dialogue is also an important incentive because people don’t want to cooperate with the other side without having a chance to address their grievances, to state their case, and to address their fears, suspicions, and trauma."
“In the high-tech sessions, Israelis and Palestinians have to cooperate in order to achieve their individual and shared goals of developing high-tech skills, of developing economic opportunities for themselves and of creating projects. This cooperation, while addressing the realities of the conflict and holding that complexity through dialogue, instills in participants an ability to create together in spite of and without ignoring the difficult situation and to create mutually beneficial gains for both sides,” explains Jake Shapiro, a member of the Senior Leadership Team at Tech2Peace.
Shapiro noticed that there is a growing movement towards shared-interest peace programming, particularly when it comes to facilitating economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, but many of these programs exclude a significant dialogue element. “The dialogue is also an important incentive because people don’t want to cooperate with the other side without having a chance to address their grievances, to state their case, and to address their fears, suspicions, and trauma,” he stresses.
In the absence of dialogue, Shapiro believes that shared-interest partnerships between Palestinians and Israelis are fragile as they can easily deteriorate sometime in the future. Sensitive, deep-seated issues that relate to core beliefs and identities may surface somewhere down the line, especially as cycles of violence repeat in Israel and Palestine every few years. When such issues are left unaddressed from the outset, it may be difficult to navigate or mediate without community support, leaving differences to be unresolved and relations to be permanently strained. “We’re really advancing this model—that both models [of dialogue and shared-interest programming] are necessary in parallel to each other.”
Economic opportunities afforded through high-tech training present a valuable, understated incentive to motivate participants that otherwise would not seek a connection with the ‘other side’ or take part in intergroup dialogue. “When I signed up for Tech2Peace, I was more interested in the tech part and didn’t care much about the dialogue. I thought to myself, if I went ahead and participated in this workshop, I might be able to gain some experience and good connections, and this might even help me get a job,” admits Uthman Salama, a former participant and current volunteer at Tech2Peace. Salama is a diaspora child, born to Palestinian parents and raised in Nicaragua. He returned to Palestine to study computer science and graduated from Al-Quds University with a bachelor’s degree.
Despite his initial motivations for joining the program, his experience with meeting fellow participants proved to be illuminating. “Since we had Palestinians from the West Bank, Palestinians that live in Israel and Israelis, each person had their own narrative, and getting to know each one of them was amazing,” he says. “There is this elephant in the room and while you know it’s there, you don’t know much about it and so you don’t care. After you learn by understanding and seeing the different perspectives, you care more than you did before.” This newfound awareness, he believes, was most rewarding. Since the end of his program period, Salama has joined the Tech2Peace team as a volunteer, specifically working to transform the organization by bringing in more “tech-savvy” features to the program. He noted that even with the name “Tech2Peace,” the program may be missing out on the essence of its title as it leans more dialogue-heavy. His team is currently organizing a series of hackathons for both participants and alumni.
Arthur Oxenhorn, another alum, explained that he gravitated towards Tech2Peace because he noticed the involvement of high-profile technology corporations, such as Google and Microsoft, in the program. Oxenhorn is a first-generation Israeli that grew up in Jerusalem and is currently studying computer science. While he had previously served in the army, he had never interacted with Arabs or Palestinians before. At Tech2Peace, he found himself exposed to ideas and perspectives that conflicted with his own: “I did not agree with what people said [in the program], including what Israelis said because I felt like there was mostly left-wing representation and I’m more to the right.” Even when confronted with differing viewpoints, he said “it was interesting for me because I love to debate with people.”
As with Salama, meeting new people was most salient to Oxenhorn’s experience in the program and the tech element remained secondary. “I made some good friends there, from the Arab and Palestinian side. I never had Arab-speaking friends before and this made me want to participate more, so I continue to be involved in the community.” A striking, memorable moment for Oxenhorn was when he witnessed two participants break down into tears after their conversation—one was Palestinian and the other a participant who served in an elite Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) unit.
An understanding of reach and impact across the socio-political spectrum is crucial when evaluating the value of peace programs that operate on the hybrid model of dialogue and shared-interest programming such as Tech2Peace. “70% of our participants have been from the socio-geographic periphery, whereas generally, the high-tech field is concentrated in the center, either in Ramallah or Tel Aviv. Also, 70% of our participants have few relationships with the other and most say that they wouldn’t have made an effort to meet the other side if it wasn’t for Tech2Peace,” says Shapiro. “We know that we’re bringing in people who weren’t really that interested in peacebuilding, and that includes traditional, marginalized, religious, and right-wing groups and also people from the mainstream who are really just from the far left in both societies.”
A program with an exclusive focus on dialogue would primarily attract those with a strong, predetermined interest or willingness to interact with the ‘other side.’ The number of people that fall into this category is also predictably low given the status quo, and any meaningful impact that comes out of dialogue-based initiatives must entail a fundamental change in participant outlook on or relations with people from ‘the other side.’ Have views truly shifted if one came into a dialogue session expecting to discover meaningful, cross-border friendships—or were those views and expectations always there?
The realities and deprivations of living under occupation produce frustration and resentment, and after decades of dialogue with fruitless outcomes, “more dialogue” does not come to mind as a reasonable course of action.
Without the appeal of high-tech skills training and of resources from reputable tech firms, there is little incentive to join a dialogue initiative when individuals seek to prioritize their personal needs of fulfilling technical, skills-based goals and securing employment. When put into context of the current state of Palestine’s economy, where the unemployment rate for youth graduates (age 19-29) stood at 54% in 2020, investing time and energy in dialogue becomes a privilege with little perceived value. Likewise, when individuals come from communities in support of the anti-normalization movement, dialogue programs become a risk to be avoided entirely.
The realities and deprivations of living under occupation produce frustration and resentment, and after decades of dialogue with fruitless outcomes, “more dialogue” does not come to mind as a reasonable course of action. Instead, efforts will be geared towards resistance in all possible forms against an occupying power that seems to have no intention to compromise. Similarly, there is little reason for Israelis to disturb or uproot their relatively comfortable lives by speaking to Palestinians whose own experiences drastically diverge from and are at odds with their own. Israel does, however, have a highly competitive tech sector—consistently infused with high levels of capital investment—that has the capacity to absorb more recruits, given its ever-growing industry demands, and to act as a breeding ground for groundbreaking, innovative solutions. The skills-related opportunities offered by joint-interest, cross-border organizations such as Tech2Peace and 50:50 Startups are potentially a valued commodity for both tech-oriented Israelis and non-traditional peacebuilders alike. The problem-solving tendencies and recurring novelties of the tech sector might just be what the peacebuilding field needs to rejuvenate and expand support for its activities.
When measured by sheer participant numbers, the impact of these programs may seem limited, though the perspectives, work, and potential of participants are carried on beyond the seminars and over to the social, economic, and political fabric of Israel-Palestine. Tech2Peace alumni have taken their experience, learning, and relationships from the program to develop their own joint startups and social ventures, demonstrating to their own communities and society at large that meaningful cooperation between Arabs and Jews is possible and mutually beneficial. For instance, an alumni-founded joint initiative remarkably involves the development of an award-winning app for the public health arena: it works to facilitate communication between medical staff across borders when Palestinian patients are being transferred to Israel from the West Bank.
Shapiro also mentioned the prospect of propelling alumni into “high-professional positions, where they can leverage the influence of their companies to put pressure on the government, citizens, high tech sector and other professionals who have significant political, social, economic and cultural capital.” The program provides the tools and network for their alumni to thrive in the high-tech sector and potentially come into positions of power. “And so we believe that if the heads of these companies, who are either our alumni or are influenced by our alumni, speak out in favor of peace, cooperation, creating cooperation and hiring from [across the border], this can have a big impact on society,” affirms Shapiro.
One noteworthy example is Zada Haj, a former alumna of Tech2Peace who recently launched the startup accelerator “DANA Accelerator” in partnership with an Arab member of Knesset. Other government officials have also been paying close attention to the tech-peace intersection on their own accord, with the former mayor of Yeruham and current Knesset member Michael Biton being an original supporter of Tech2Peace and former Israeli Minister of Science and Technology Yizar Shay having attended their last major publicity event. Ties at the governmental level may provide avenues for pro-peace, anti-occupation views to be heard and considered in legislative decision-making. Possibilities borne out of micro experiences, relations, and projects are usually considered “intangibles” with little to no apparent impact in the grand scheme of things, though instead of being dismissed, such possibilities should be proliferated, encouraged, and realized by actors on the ground. There is both increased media attention surrounding high-tech cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis and a spike in interest for participation in these programs. The extraordinary potential to scale such programs is not just anecdotal: according to Shapiro, Tech2Peace received over 600 applications for 90 seminar spots this summer alone. Their growth is exponential and to meet demand, they are working to expand.
Salina Kuo is a third-year undergraduate student in the dual degree program between Columbia University and Sciences Po. She is currently studying Philosophy at Columbia and previously completed her major in Politics and Government at the Sciences Po campus for the Middle East and Mediterranean region. She is a former fellow and a current volunteer staff of Embodying Peace, and one of the founding editor of Fieldbuilding.