There is a tragic irony among nongovernmental organizations that work for peace and coexistence: they must fight one another for funding.
And as tenacious as they might be in the fight for peace, grassroots NGOs are ill-equipped to battle foreign lawmakers to keep the money to pay their staff flowing.
In a bid to mitigate such tussling as well as to ensure the flow of grant money, over 90 Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian peace-building groups have joined an international umbrella organization, the Alliance for Middle East Peace.
ALLMEP lobbies in the halls of power to ensure aid continues, and — perhaps most importantly — creates a neutral space for groups from across the incredibly diverse Israeli-Palestinian peace-building community to meet and cooperate.
Last Thursday for the first time, the umbrella group held a conference in which people who had taken part in the groups’ activities, as well as senior brass from around Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, met, networked and attended seminars related to the peace-building community.
Though their ultimate goals may be the same, the members of these peace-seeking NGOs do not necessarily know of one another, and their means of effecting change are diverse.
Through shared environmental work like water conservation or farming, through shared educational and scientific efforts, shared prayer sessions, shared businesses ventures, and, most popularly, shared sports — tennis, Taekwondo, squash, basketball and soccer were represented — each group seeks to raise the olive branch in its own way.
Due to the current security situation in Jerusalem — a six-month wave of violence dubbed the “lone wolf intifada” has created high tensions between Jewish and Arab residents — the event, held at the YMCA in central Jerusalem, was not open to the public.
Despite the poisoned atmosphere and possible danger, so many NGOs signed up for the conference that registration had to be prematurely closed.
Along the columned hall in the courtyard of the grand YMCA building, tables were filled with businesses cards, pamphlets and even children’s books written in Hebrew, English and Arabic.
Sitting at one of these tables was Duha Alma, 20, from the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem.
For the past nine years, Alma has been a member of PeacePlayers International, a group that brings Israelis and Palestinians together through basketball.
Two years ago, her mixed Arab-Jewish team, against the odds and facing a wall of pessimism, took home the trophy for the women’s Israeli under-19 basket championship.
Today, the young peace activist is facing two challenges.
First, the wave of violence has led some of her Palestinian friends to slam her for meeting her Jewish friends.
“They say we are betraying and forgetting our people. But violence is not getting us anywhere except for more violence and more deaths,” she said.
‘They say we are betraying and forgetting our people. But violence is not getting us anywhere except for more violence and more deaths’
“Violence,” she added, “is the easy way. We are taking the long and hard way to making things better for everyone.”
The second challenge she is facing today is the fact that most of her Jewish friends are now in the Israeli army.
Some of her Arab friends say her Jewish comrades, with whom she still meets with when they are out of uniform, will turn on her in the army and start to hate Palestinians.
Even if her friends’ values do shift in the army, Alma believes their time together has permanently altered their mentality toward Palestinians.
“I would prefer someone from Peace Players standing at a checkpoint than someone that has never met Palestinians. They are going to treat us like people,” she said.
More than ‘hummus peace-making’
Joel Braunold, the executive director of ALLMEP, said the conference had one overarching message: to strip the image of these NGOs simply making “nice.”
“This stuff really matters to people’s lives,” he said.
To become a member of the alliance, the NGOs have to sign an agreement saying they are committed to changing the status quo.
In return, the members are represented by ALLMEP’s lobbyists in Washington.
Much of the grant money for such NGOs in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel comes from the US AID Conflict Management and Mitigation Program (CMM), which is reevaluated every year by Congress, as well as from EU grants.
This year, in a testament to ALLMEP’s work, Congress allotted $10 million for CMM grants for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence NGOs. This is the largest chunk from the total $26 million the US government set aside for global conflicts.
Braunold expected that around a third of the groups coming to Jerusalem would be from the West Bank. It seemed, though, that Arabs were in the majority.
Huda Abuarquob, an on-the-ground regional director of ALLMEP and former English teacher from the West Bank town of Dura, described not serious peace-making endeavors as “hummus dialogue.”
“For example,” said Abuarquob, “something like women meeting over plates of hummus and talking about what being mothers is like.”
Her work with ALLMEP, she said, “is dialogue that takes us from talking to walking; dialogue that works toward building real trusting relationships.”
To move beyond hummus peace-making, the conference featured expert panels, which included R. David Harden, mission director for USAID in the region, as well as Richard Buangan, the consul for public affairs and public diplomacy at the US Consulate in Jerusalem.
Additionally, tens of outstanding innovators from Forbes Israel’s 30 under 30 list –a group of around 60 Israelis said by the newsmagazine to be leading in their respective fields — were there to lend their expertise.
Behind Abuarquob’s quest for serious peace-making is a philosophy that demands she succeeds both for Palestinians’ and Israelis’ sake.
The ALLMEP regional director is a firm believer in the ideas of Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire, encapsulated in his book the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
She describes Freire’s philosophy as “the responsibility of the oppressed to liberate themselves, and thereby, liberate the oppressor as well.”
One example she gives of her philosophy in action is the time a Holocaust survivor told her to leave the West Bank and go live in Mecca.
“I would accept that from anyone else in the world but not from you. This is the kind of rhetoric that led to your destruction,” she told the survivor. “He then cried and admitted his words came from a sense of fear his people were once again facing destruction,” she said.
Abuarquob insists she is “resisting” injustice not just from Israel, but within Palestinian society as well.
“Resistance” is a term sometimes used by Arabs, especially Palestinians, as a euphemism for violent struggle.
Abuarquob, however, is a proponent of the idea that “dialogue is a form of resistance.”
‘Dialogue is a form of resistance’
In contrast to most of the people interviewed at the conference who complained of being targeted by anti-normalization groups in the West Bank, Abuarquob said no one has yet to smear her as a “collaborator” with Israelis.
“In fact,” she said, “my close friends think this is one way in order to engage and to bring the Palestinian cause to the consciousness of Israelis.”
‘We’ll do anything that can benefit our society’
The table of Suzan Qassas, 24, a pharmacist who works in Abu Dis, was covered in products of Palestinian embroidery.
Since she was 14, she has been volunteering at the Shorouq Women’s Center, which seeks to economically empower Palestinian women by teaching them marketable crafts like embroidery and cooking so they can help provide for their families.
The center gives the women the raw cooking materials and fabric to work with, and asks only for a small portion of the profit to cover the overhead.
Many of the women Qassas helps, she said, have not finished high school and may have a husband who is sick and cannot work.
The pharmacist said she has not been working much with the center lately, partly because she is now newly married and pregnant. But once she heard about the ALLMEP conference, she decided to get back into the game for at least one more day.
Qassas’s mother is from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor and her father, though originally from Jaffa, has a Palestinian Authority identity card from the West Bank. Today, her parents live in Abu Tor, but Qassas says the Israeli Interior Ministry has been unresponsive to her applications for a permission to live in the capital. She says she does not know why and for years lived alone in the family’s home in al-Eizariya, a city located east of Jerusalem.
If Qassas’s experience with Israeli bureaucracy has caused her any bitterness, she hides it quite well.
Though the center she represented at the ALLMEP conference is mainly about empowering Palestinian women, the NGO she works with also runs a project that brings Palestinian children from around al-Eizariya to meet Israeli children in Jerusalem.
“It’s something additional. We’ll do anything that can benefit our society,” said Qassas.
The center is also starting a project to help Palestinian women with breast cancer.
From the vantage point of where Qassas was sitting during the interview, she could see all the tables representing the peacemaking NGOs.
Scanning her surroundings, she said, “Each organization has its role, its own way. But I’m glad we are here all working toward the same goal together.”