Breaking ground for discourse on peacebuilding in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories
Activities falling in the category of ‘peacebuilding’, especially in the protracted and ever-changing context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are increasingly difficult to categorize. While the focus of peacebuilding before the Oslo Accords revolved around intergroup dialogue and education (Amal-Tikva, 2020), the events that occurred since then have pushed peacebuilders to reconsider their means. The Oslo Accords, the two Intifadas and the 2014 Gaza War shifted the attitudes of conflicting parties and established a call for new approaches to managing peace on the ground. Although dialogue and education are still valid and necessary instruments for peacebuilding, civil society groups adopted new methods of creating peace, such as human rights advocacy, leadership training and skill-building initiatives (Amal-Tikva, 2020). As John Paul Lederach (2003) argues in his seminal work on conflict transformation, peace occurs not only in terms of face-to-face interactions but also in the way in which economic, political and cultural relationships are established. Moreover, from a conflict transformation perspective, peace is a continuously evolving, adapting and dynamic process (Lederach, 2003).
Adopting Lederach’s (2003) framework into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we can better understand the changes in activities taken by civil society groups. Following the 2014 Gaza War, a new dominant track for building peace has emerged, with organizations focusing on language, technology and entrepreneurship. According to Amal-Tikva, one of the leading organizations offering support to the peacebuilding civil society in Israel-Palestine, the new wave of peacebuilding is characterized by skill-building and real-life changes that could facilitate a shared living as opposed to solely dialogue (Amal-Tikva, 2020). Therefore, it is possible to note that peacebuilding is a spectrum, and each organization opts for the method that best aligns with its mission. As will be seen, 50:50 Startups, a non-governmental organization (NGO), which is also simultaneously a startup accelerator, situates itself on this spectrum of peacebuilding in an innovative and strategic manner.
50:50 Startups (50:50) is an NGO that operates in Israel with the goal of bringing together Jewish and Palestinian individuals to establish joint business ventures (50:50 Startups, 2021). Although the organization falls within the peacebuilding spectrum, it is primarily a startup accelerator. A startup accelerator is an institution that helps its participants develop their ideas into successful businesses, often in the technology sector. It offers participants the necessary tools, networks and resources in order to create a business and obtain funding from investors (Cohen, 2013). 50:50 does this through a four-stage process, in which participants are admitted into the program, they team up with like-minded individuals based on a shared goal and they run through multiple weeks of mentorship, workshops, lectures and networking opportunities (50:50 Startups, 2021).
The peace element included in 50:50’s operations can be found across two plains and it is based on the organization’s core principle of equal Israeli and Palestinian ownership, hence its name. Firstly, the NGO is run on an equal ownership basis by one Israeli and one Palestinian co-director (50:50 Startups, 2021). Similar to other civil society organizations such as Sikkuy (Sikkuy, 2020), a model of shared leadership, ensures that decision-making and day-to-day operations are conducted based on the principle of equality between the two groups (Amal-Tikva, 2020). Secondly, during the program’s admission process, the businesses are formed to include both Jewish and Palestinian individuals (50:50 Startups, 2021). It can be argued that this element provides the NGO the attribute of a people-to-people (P2P) initiative. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) loosely defines P2P initiatives as “bringing together representatives of conflicting groups to interact purposefully in a safe space” (USAID, 2011, p. 5). The process of bringing Israelis and Palestinians together enables participants to interact with the other side, shed former prejudice and build trust and empathy. However, participants do not necessarily join the 50:50 program in order to achieve such empathy, but rather to connect based on innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. As such, both Israeli and Palestinian participants have an economic incentive to engage in the program. Startups are risky initiatives in their nature, the founders have to commit time, energy and even capital, which leads the team members to develop a strong relationship and acquire a certain level of trust through cooperation (50:50 Startups, 2021).
P2P initiatives do not have to explicitly mention the fact that they are engaging in the peace process. For instance, when two conflicting groups come together to address an infrastructure problem in their locality, eventually forming a joint committee and fighting for the same cause, relationships will be formed and preconceptions may be shattered (USAID, 2011). Therefore, the startup partnerships established within 50:50, based on common economic incentive, can be seen as a means to an end. 50:50 manages to simultaneously satisfy the shared interest of venture creation whilereducing or even eliminating alienation to promote trust. The direct results of the process are seen in the relationships between the team members, but such a program has a wider potential outreach. Forming internal positive relations may lead participants to discuss their experience with people from their communities who have not been exposed to interactions with the other ethnic group, thus eliminating alienation through word of mouth. The broader impact on the Israeli-Palestinian society can be measured both in terms of promoting “mutual respect” but also in “driving economic prosperity in the region” (50:50 Startups, 2021) through a movement of established entrepreneurs, potential job opportunities and the scaling up of projects.
That being said, perhaps the most important question to arise is how effective can this form of peacebuilding be without saying you are doing peace? One advantage and one disadvantage could help visualize the program’s effect better. On the one hand, the primary advantage of using economic incentives and thus, indirectly making peace is that participants on the Palestinian side who do not want to engage in normalization can still participate. The normalization movement which goes against peacebuilding programs (PACBI, 2011) often shames and threatens participants who engage in peace initiatives (Amal-Tikva, 2020). Similar organizations that focus on entrepreneurship and technology, such as Tech2Peace, also actively engage in conflict dialogue (Tech2Peace, 2021), which might repel certain individuals who want to participate. On the other hand, the disadvantage in not directly making peace is that it can seriously damage the potential for awareness raising, advocacy and even funding opportunities. Organizations that choose to offer Palestinians a safe space to engage in activities with their Israeli counterparts will face such limitations to peacebuilding (Amal-Tikva, 2020). Needless to say, every approach to problem-solving, and especially the delicate field of peacebuilding in Israel-Palestine, carries strengths and weaknesses.
Amal-Tikva defines ‘peacebuilding’ as “working to create a more peaceful reality for Palestinians and Israelis, defined by a) less hatred, tension, and violence, b) increased quality of life, and c) improved systems for interaction. […] it must include taking concrete steps to make lives better today” (Amal-Tikva, 2020, p. 13). In this sense, 50:50 certainly is contributing to peacebuilding in a powerfully strategic manner. It gives all participants an equal chance to succeed, thus eliminating the preconceived idea dominating protracted conflict that solutions are of a zero-sum nature (Amal-Tikva, 2020). Moreover, establishing such partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians leads to relationships of trust that can withstand future provocation in times of tension, effectively escaping the cycle of violence and hatred (USAID, 2011). As a result, this paper positions 50:50 on the peacebuilding spectrum in that it brings together the two sides but also empowers them economically and skill-wise. The NGO manages to address a side of the conflict that dialogue initiatives aiming at changing attitudes fail to promote, which is lifting both sides economically. 50:50 Startups ought to be seen as a necessary and complementary element in the civil society peacebuilding sector in Israel-Palestine.
50:50 Startups. (2021). Our Mission. Retrieved May 17, 2020, from 50:50 Startups: https://www.5050startups.org/about
Amal-Tikva. (2020). The State of Cross-Border Peacebuilding Efforts: Needs Assessment on Israeli and Palestinian Civil Society Organizations. Amal-Tikva.
Cohen, S. (2013). What Do Accelerators Do? Insights from Incubators and Angels. Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization, 8(3-4), 19-25.
Lederach, J. P. (2003). Conflict Transformation. Retrieved May 15, 2021, from Beyond Intractability: https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/transformation
PACBI. (2011, October 31). Israel’s Exceptionalism: Normalizing the Abnormal. Retrieved May 18, 2021, from BDS Movement: https://bdsmovement.net/news/israel%E2%80%99s-exceptionalism-normalizing-abnormal
Sikkuy. (2020). About Sikkuy. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from Sikkuy: https://www.sikkuy.org.il/en/about/
Tech2Peace. (2021). About. Retrieved May 20, 2021, from Tech2Peace: https://www.tech2peace.com/
USAID. (2011). People-to-People Peacebuilding: A Program Guide. Washington, D.C.: USAID Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation.
Adi Nassar is a a Palestinian-Romanian, currently doing a Global Economy MSc at the University of Glasgow. He has written on the role of civil society in Israel-Palestine and worked with multiple NGOs througout my life, and he has experience in the public procurement sector in Romania. His current interests include the link between CSR and profits in private enterprises, startups and civil society, the flow of capital throughout the world, from global to local and vice versa. He is also a passionate documentary photographer when he finds the time.