Breaking ground for discourse on peacebuilding in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories
In an all-important 2011 “message to American friends of Israel,” the late Israeli literary giant and Peace Now co-founder, Amos Oz urged U.S. Jews and non-Jews alike to support the preeminent Israeli peace movement and its sister movement, Americans for Peace Now (APN). Having been raised in America by two Hebrew-speaking parents on the writings of Amos Oz, the Shir LaShalom (“A Song for Peace”), and on the legacy of pro-peace Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, I deferred my acceptance to Cornell University in 2015 to explore the barriers to Israeli-Palestinian peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My gap year atop Har HaTzofim, in Rothberg International School classrooms shared by Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, taught me the importance of Oz’s message in breaking down barriers to peace, including the West Bank separation barrier. (I wrote of this view from my Rothberg classroom window in a piece, “Total Immersion In Jerusalem,” for the Times of Israel).
Peace Now, born out of the 1978 Egypt-Israel Camp David Accords, identifies illegal Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank as a leading barrier to an equitable and enduring peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The movement works to “ensure Israelis embrace the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: two states,” i.e. an Israeli and a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security. Last summer, with the two-state solution under threat by the Israeli government proposal for unilateral West Bank annexation, I acted upon the message of Amos Oz and joined APN’s campaign to combat annexation. While the threats of Israeli de jure annexation were temporarily neutralized, de facto annexation persists, compelling me to continue in my advocacy remotely as a 2021 spring intern for Peace Now amid Covid-19.
Through authoring an APN report, “Jordan Valley Annexation – A Security Liability, Not an Asset” and drafting an educational series for APN about the societal costs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was prepared to return to the region digitally to assist the Peace Now Settlement Watch team in Tel Aviv. This team is internationally recognized for tracking Israeli settlement activity to prevent further illegal construction that would destroy the prospects of two states. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was unable to intern in Israel and instead partnered with Peace Now remotely as part of my spring semester fellowship with Embodying Peace (a global network of volunteers that supports civil society peacebuilding organizations in Israel-Palestine). In addition to my online peacebuilding efforts as an EP fellow, I assisted Peace Now Director of Development and External Relations Dana Mills with the publication of the April 2021 report, “Do Not Settle! Why there are No ‘Legitimate’ Settlements.”
Despite being quarantined on the Cornell campus in Ithaca, New York, I managed to escape from lockdown virtually and contribute to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. In Zoom meetings with Dana, I was assigned to a variety of Hebrew-English translation, writing, editing, and researching tasks in preparation for the “Do Not Settle!” campaign launch. My first Peace Now intern task was to translate the original Hebrew report to English. Thereafter, I was assigned to write additional prose and to edit the English version. The proofreading process required research into unaddressed topics and potential rebuttals. Given my background as a former Cornell Daily Sun political staff writer and research intern at foreign policy think tanks worldwide, these assignments were both highly suitable and supremely engaging.
“What we need from our allies is not another surrender to the despaired voices but a firm clear voice to wake us up from the illusion that we can keep building in settlements and at the same time achieve peace and agreement.”
From the confines of my Cornell dormitory, I was also tasked with preparing for the “Do Not Settle!” campaign launch at the virtual 2021 J Street National Conference: The Political Home for Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Americans. This involved assisting with video scripts for use by the Peace Now team at the J Street Conference. On April 18, 2021, the report was published on the Peace Now website along with a “short video with the main findings” (click here to watch). I am immensely proud of my contributions to the report and the corresponding video, and am deeply honored to have been placed with the historic Peace Now organization during my Embodying Peace fellowship.
“Do Not Settle!” outlines the requirements for viable Palestinian statehood and demonstrates that settlement expansion is a barrier to its establishment. The report warns against a policy of distinguishing between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” settlement expansion that would only serve to legitimize the settlement project, thereby harming the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The full report, including detailed maps that illustrate the dangers of Israeli settlement expansion to the viability of a future Palestinian state, can be downloaded here and covers the history of “past experience” with a counterproductive distinction policy that previously legitimized settlements. In characteristic Peace Now fashion, the conclusion of the report courageously reads as follows: “What we need from our allies is not another surrender to the despaired voices but a firm clear voice to wake us up from the illusion that we can keep building in settlements and at the same time achieve peace and agreement.”
My spring semester with Peace Now and Embodying Peace in the Covid era was a lesson in affecting change in spite of geographic limitations and in times of global crisis. As a diaspora Jew who longs for Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security, I could not allow Covid-19 to keep me apart from the Jewish state. Pandemic was no excuse to ignore the seemingly perpetual irresolution endemic to Israel-Palestine. With the outbreak of the pandemic, I was sent home from my junior year abroad at the London School of Economics, where I had written a piece for LSE’s Middle East Centre Blog entitled, “The Israeli-Palestinian ‘Battle for Peace’ Continues.”
At the time of writing that article, Israel was entering a third round of elections and I urged readers to “hearken Amos Oz’s five immortal words: ‘Let us strive for peace!’” While the fourth election that Israel endured was then unimaginable, these words are still of tremendous import as Peace Now remains on the front line in the ‘Battle for Peace.’ Now, after being welcomed into the Peace Now family, I encourage fellow students and young advocates to join us in striving for a peaceful future. Youth involvement is key to the mission of keeping the candle of peace aflame. Indeed, a future of Shalom, Salaam, Peace for Israeli and Palestinians depends on it!
Avraham Spraragen is a senior at Cornell University majoring in Government with a double minor in Near Eastern Studies and History. He previously studied the Arab-Israeli conflict at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University.