By Avi Bram
Monday night saw a special screening of Encounter Point at the Oxford Union. The film documents the activities of the ‘Parents Circle – Families Forum’, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members in the conflict and have come together to work for peace. After the screening there was an open discussion with Ronit Avni, the director, and two leading PC-FF activists, Ali Abu Awwad and Robi Damelin. The event came at an interesting time, when co-existence projects are coming under criticism from some analysts as being ineffective at best and a distraction from the ‘real issues’ at worst. When this question arose in the discussion, there was general agreement that not all co-existence groups are useful.
Robi stated her contempt for the “hugs and hummous” model of interfaith dialogue, where people from the two sides are encouraged to bond on a personal level but the political aspect is not explored. The difference with PC-FF, in her eyes, was that its aims were promoting understanding of the other’s national history and working for a just resolution to the conflict. Ronit also pointed out that, though hugs-only groups are doomed to fail because they ignore the vital issue, building up personal relations with the ‘other’ at first can often motivate people to become political activists later on.
A powerful example in the film is Shlomo Zagman, a former settler who agrees to meet with Ali – the first Palestinian he’s ever properly talked to – and gradually becomes more involved in social activism, helping found a movement for religious settlers seeking an end to the occupation. When producing Encounter Point the filmmakers took an decision to avoid detailing current affairs (which become out-of-date incredibly quickly in the Middle East), and instead to focus on individuals involved in co-existence work. They selected eight activists from 475 potential applicants and the vast majority of the documentary is given over to their histories, opinions and daily life. The rationale for this is to provide evidence that there are people on both sides who believe in peace, fighting the prevalent notion amongst Israelis and Palestinians that ‘there is no-one to talk to on the other side’. Encounter Point has met with very wide acclaim, showing in cinemas throughout Israel and the Palestinian Territories and in over 35 cities worldwide.
Ali related how he had positive discussions about the film with dignitaries ranging from Jewish US congressman Gary Ackerman to the head of the Jenin branch of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (a Palestinian militant group) Zakariya Zubeidi. The stance of the PC-FF is highly controversial amongst the two populations. Ali explained that, as a fighter who had spent years in Israeli prisons, he could have been a hero in his homeland. However, his decision to work with the ‘Bereaved Families Forum’ raised a lot of criticism from other Palestinians who saw this as ‘collaborating’ with Israelis. In his own view, Ali has continued to resist the occupation, and is not normalising relations with Israelis.
He gave two reasons for switching to non-violent methods: firstly the general principle that the aim of peace should only be achieved through peaceful means, and secondly that violent resistance has proved a failure for the Palestinians in particular: non-violent means will be a more effective way of ending the occupation. Ali cited some common examples of non-violent protest leaders – Gandhi, Martin Luther King – as giving him some inspiration, and further noted that the Palestinian cause lost a lot of the sympathy it had commanded in the West due to the tactic of suicide bombing that became prominent with the start of the ‘Second Intifada’ in 2000. The delegates were adamant in their hopes that Oxford students would join in the struggle for peace. We cannot just sit around and wait for the messiah, Robi warns. “If the messiah comes, either the Palestinians or the Israelis will kill him anyway.” Action is required now – not just warm wishes and hugs. But there is a point of confusion here. The panel are unanimous in their belief that civic society rather than governments must be the ones that bring peace. But what concrete action can we take in Britain apart from pressuring our government to take up a more active role? Indeed, at the end of the talk, the director produced a petition to be sent to Tony Blair, requesting that the PC-FF be included in the upcoming Anapolis peace conference. Certainly, it is valuable for us to be better informed about the conflict. But on its own that is unlikely to change things quickly – the ripple effect from Britain on the people of the Holy Land will not be very powerful. But of course, this conflict has no easy solutions; which is why it was so encouraging to encounter a group of people prepared to struggle against grave difficulties to find peace.