Israel and Palestine: challenging conventional peace and conflict paradigms

By Adan E. Suazo

26 August 2014: Adan E. Suazo argues that conventional peace wisdom needs to be revisited and challenged to adjust to the ever-changing realities in both Israel and Palestine.

Image source: Justin McIntosh

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are three key policy angles that are currently not being touched upon by decision-makers: military disproportionality, religion and inclusion patterns. By not prioritizing these key policy concerns, it is hard to envision that peace will ever be brokered in this conflict, given its history and its strong polarizing potential.

Unlike many accounts, violent behaviour is not one-sided. This however is not to say that the parties’ military capabilities are equal. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Israel spent $16 billion on its military in 2013. In contrast, it was reported that the Palestinian Authority’s entire budget for 2013 amounted to $3.9 billion. Despite the clear military disproportionality evident in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is wrong to argue that aggressive behaviour is one-sided, or that there is only one victimized group, for both sides have engaged in military action, albeit commensurate with their armies’ capacity.

There is much attention given to Egypt’s proposed ceasefire, but given the heavy military unevenness featured in this conflict, there needs to be a stronger focus on matters such as demobilization. While a ceasefire would help to facilitate a temporary period of reflection and provision of humanitarian aid, it may also allow the warring parties to regroup and rearm. In other words, a ceasefire would not affect the parties’ overall capacity to wage war. This is particularly true if each party perceives that a military victory is attainable. By focusing on demobilization, one affects the direct costs of waging war, increasing the expenses connected with regrouping and remobilizing, which may in turn make war recurrence less likely.

In terms of how the conflict has been explained in policy circles, the two-state solution advocated by many actors, including the US, is predicated on the belief that Israeli-Palestinian hostilities are based solely on claims over territory. While this remains true in conventional academic and policy terms, there is a problem with approaching this issue on territorial considerations alone.

Religion plays a key role both in the development of war rationale, and on the structural make-up of Israel and Palestine’s social and political infrastructure. At the core of this conflict, legal claims over territory are tightly intertwined with religious history. Any peace plan that tries to bridge these territorial claims with a two-state solution must take into account the religious component imbedded in each actors’ collective mindset. As Landau argues (p.2), religious traditions are paramount for the identity-building process of both Israel and Palestine, deeming them inseparable from most aspects of everyday life. To adopt a secularized, western conception of a peace solution would risk overlooking the important connections that exist between religion and both parties’ claims over territory.

Conventional views of inclusion pervade the currently proposed solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, inclusion patterns were designed based on the premise that two negotiating parties were enough to ensure the legitimacy and representativeness of the subsequent peace deliberations. By initially bringing together individuals close to Israeli and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) decision-makers, a veritable peace process was allowed to transition towards a formal peace agreement. The dyadic nature of the conflict at that time liberated the entire process from having to enact exclusivity.

The current state of the conflict is substantially different from that of the 1980s-1990s, as there are more stakeholders on both sides of the conflict. Since the rise to power of Hamas in 2007, the political insurgency of Fatah, and a proliferation of civil society groups in Palestine, the PLO no longer presents itself as the only proponent of Palestinian interests. Similar patterns can be discerned on the Israeli side, whereby Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government is comprised of a mosaic of different political groups, some of which oppose peace talks with Palestine. To craft conflict resolution schemes without addressing the plurality of groups with vested interests in peace would be unwise, and would lead to continued stalls in the process.

Given the disproportionate nature of the military capabilities of Israel and Palestine, the currently overlooked religious aspect of the conflict, and an inclusion pattern that needs substantial adjustments, one can make the following observations.

Firstly, a revisionist mindset needs to be adopted when thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whereby conventional western paradigms of peace need to be replaced by locally based solutions. In terms of its relationship with the conflict itself, religion is a severely misunderstood and understudied variable that does not cease to be an omnipresent actor in the region. In this context, religion must be perceived as a central component in any peace initiative, the study of which needs to be initiated locally by groups and individuals better acquainted with religious discourse and its influence on political and social institutions.

Secondly, any peace initiative must also include non-combatant groups. This is done for two reasons, first of which is the dilution of the warring groups’ veto-wielding potential. Given their direct role in war decision-making, military and political classes have traditionally been the obvious actors to include in a peace process, but they have also been the ones with the highest likelihood of renouncing the peace agenda. By expanding this paradigm to include non-combatant groups such as community leaders, non-governmental organizations and foreign governments, one may succeed in decentralizing decision-making power, therefore decreasing the chances of disruption.

And secondly, including non-combatant parties would reflect a yet-to-be recognized reality of war: combatant groups are not the only stakeholders in conflict zones. Wars, in the Middle East and elsewhere, are not confined to their warring parties; they also affect non-combatant groups and individuals, effectively making them legitimate stakeholders of war. To a great extent, peace processes seek overarching social and political changes, which need to be agreed-upon by individuals and groups other than warring parties, for they will also be affected by such changes.

In closing, space for dialogue still remains in this conflict, but conventional peace wisdom needs to be revisited and challenged to adjust to the ever-changing realities in both Israel and Palestine.

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Jack F. Sigman on Aug. 26, 2014, 10:56 a.m.

<p>"there needs to be a stronger focus on matters such as demobilization."</p> <p></p> <p>If the conflict was confined to Israel and Hamas, this would be a logical process. However, Israel must also contend with Syria and Lebanon, as well as the looming presence of Turkey and Iran. Therefore, demobilization is not in Israel's best interest.</p> <p></p> <p>Hamas, on the other hand, has enemies in Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and other factions. Fatah will not let the murder of over 100 members in Gaza, some by being thrown of roofs, go unavenged.  It seems likely that more have died in the internecine violence then in conflict with israel.</p>

George Murray on Aug. 27, 2014, 4:26 a.m.

Mr. Suazo has produced a sterling representation of academia. Beautiful. I'm not sure how the above proposes to deal with a Hamas dedicated to the total obliteration of Israel and which also murders its own Gazan "non combatant parties" for the sin of being non combatants. Plus, as murder, suicide, and the random killing of innocents is absolutely forbidden by Islam, what religion would Mr. Suazo want to take into account when dealing with such an entity as Hamas?

Adan E. Suazo on Aug. 27, 2014, 3:14 p.m.

I appreciate enormously your input, and your very well informed comments. Above all I appreciate the respectful tone of your comments. In reply to your questions, I would like to add the following. Pertaining to the question of religion, what I mean in my paper is that religious discourse is an undeniable variable that plays a key role in the development of social and political life in both Israel and Palestine. With that in mind, much wisdom and guidance may be derived from religious figures, which may be operationalized and materialized through the inclusion of moderate religious leaders in a formal peace process, as opposed to only including military and political representatives. I also acknowledge that religion in this context is very misunderstood and understudied, which necessitates a shift on how we approach research questions and theorizing. As per Israel's regional security concerns, you are absolutely right. Regional conflict dynamics remain a concern in the face of demobilization. However, recent developments in Syria, and the shift of the Assad regime over the ISIS situation, have allied the Syrian government with the U.S. Whether this alliance will remain unbroken in the long-term is a different thing, but what is worth noting is that, while regional actors such as Syria continue to become closer to the American government, security stress in Israel may likely decrease. A theme I am currently exploring within this context is Israel's deepening relationship with NATO, and how collective security could help to ease Israel's security concerns further. These are important examples of potential opportunities for peace that need to be explored further. In terms of overarching inclusion in the Gaza Strip, challenges do exist in terms of the numerous political and paramilitary factions that exist. This unfortunately forms part of the greater question of reconciliation in Gaza, which needs to be emphasized more strongly when talking about a peace process with Israel. I do make note of this plurality of actors in my paper, but much more can be said about this beyond the limits of an academic work. I appreciate your feedback, and I look forward to future exchanges. Best, Adan E. Suazo

Howard Cort on Aug. 30, 2014, 7:10 a.m.

A MAJOR NEED, now, is willingness to hold answers in abeyance till as many as possible alternative political approaches are examined.I, and others, are working on this, and it may be that one or more alternatives may emerge thnat--among other things--will both meet Israel's security needs and Palestine's freedom needs..

Fred Brailey on Sept. 3, 2014, 2:10 a.m.

Many NGO's, working both in Israel and in Palestine, being well informed on many of the contentious issues, should be invited to talks aiming for peace. A 'permanent' U.N.O. negotiating team should work with moderate leaders in all of the neighboring nations.

Sarah Moha on Sept. 3, 2014, 6:09 a.m.

Perhaps your argument about the inclusion of religion would be more palatable (and relevant) if it were understood that the role that religion plays is not simply as religious doctrine. In conflict, it forms an axis upon which political identities are polarized. The politicization of religious identities (regardless of actual religious practice, as Mr. Murray points out) and the salience of religious identities in day-to-day life in the contested territories are the issue, not the fact that they simply hold differing religious beliefs.

Shai on Oct. 9, 2014, 10:47 p.m.

Peace, like war, must sometimes be waged asymmetrically. I'd like to draw your attention to an unorthodox little initiative that's been running quietly in the background for quite a while now. The total capital expenditure of this 5-year adventure in collaborative document creation was less than a thousand dollars – not including volunteered time and other in-kind contributions. Between Nov 2009 and Sep 2014, thousands of ordinary people around the world were challenged to donate their brains to peace; i.e. to share their own ideas about peace and the Middle East. The goal was to massage those crowd-sourced ideas into a plausible plan for just and sustainable harmony. The process was iterative and the public was regularly invited to comment on the evolving document – and to participate directly in the conversation. The final text of “A Peace of Jerusalem” can be found here: — all comments welcome :)

Pi on Oct. 9, 2014, 11:34 p.m.

Very good analysis and follow-up, Adan. Good comments, everyone. Happily, freedom and security make for an imperfect continuum, so this gives us some wiggle room for accommodation. Religion can't (and shouldn't) be ignored, but the urge to conflate certain issues with faith can lead to disagreements, even where the respective scriptural sources might agree. I also strongly recommend APoJi. Talk about challenging paradigms. Awesome! Shalom / Salaam / Peace / Pax

Howard Cort on Jan. 4, 2015, 1:42 p.m.

Thanks,everyone, very much. I’ve written a draft plan, not yet on my much neglected website (founded in 2008), It divides the Holy Land into about 200 geographic units, with jointly determined boundaries, about half of whom would have a Jewish Israeli majority, and about half with a Muslim/Christian majority. Each having it’s own parliament, together they would form a country-wide parliament, with built -in constitutional safeguarding of minority human rights.