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Establishing a "Localized" Process for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission In Israel and Palestine To Address Refugee Issues at the Heart of the Conflict

Prof. Sami Adwan, Bethlehem University
Prof. Dan Bar-On, Ben Gurion University

Background: The Centrality of Refugees

Israel-Palestine is a region comprised of refugees from both sides, whose experience and identity construction lies at the very core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Jewish-Israelis emigrated from Europe, after they survived the Holocaust, or from North Africa and Asia, where they were persecuted by their Arab governments and communities. During the 1948 war, and later on in 1967, many Palestinians became internal refugees (within Israel) or external refugees (to neighboring Arab countries) when they were either forcibly expelled from their homes or fled due to fear of the Israelis. To this day, many of them still live in refugee camps. However, before the war of 1948, for a period of time, many of these Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis were also neighbors.

This rich and complex parallel history has not become part of the normative Israeli and Palestinian discourse. Palestinians, for the most part, want to speak only of "what was" prior to 1948 or 1967, and Israelis only of "what came to be" after each war. Clearly, these subjective constructions have also social and political reasons and aims: the Palestinians want to restore what was in Palestine prior to 1948 as part of their solution (eg., the "right of return"), while the Israelis want to legally establish what became the reality after the 1948 and 1967 wars.

Now, as many of those on both sides who lived through the 1948 and 1967 wars near the end of their lives, it is essential that they share with each other—and with their children and grandchildren—their respective experiences, and the independent identities constructed out of those experiences, so that a compromise may be established based on inclusion rather than exclusion of the "Other". Whatever will be the legal and political solution to the issues of borders and to Palestinian refugee resettlement, only when each side acknowledges the difficult-to-confront realities and shared human experiences of the other will true reconciliation be achieved.

The Need for a Truth and Reconciliation Process

The issue of refugees for both Palestinians and Israelis is so emotionally charged and complex, and so central to the identities that have energized the conflict, that no broad political settlement will likely be sustained without addressing the issue on a more fundamental, psycho-social level. This is a critical role for a future Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Israel and Palestine.

The experience of South Africa shows that the TRC process can provide essential social and psychological healing (as a bottom-up process) in parallel to formal, top-down political peace agreements. Events of the last four years in Israel and Palestine only highlight the need for a similar, bottom-up peace process, involving face-to-face encounters between Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian peoples, especially those who feel most strongly about the refugee issue.

That being said, such a process will be anything but easy, precisely because of the political pressures that exist at the national levels. Moreover, a national process that ignores local cultural distinctions, refugee experiences, and a range of potential local solutions, may actually undercut the possibility of broader reconciliation.

A New Methodology

For this reason, the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) has developed a new "localized" methodology for approaching Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. The methodology focuses on recording oral histories to document Palestinian refugees who fled, or were forced out of specific locations within Israel and Jewish-Israeli immigrants who settled in those same locations, many of them after fleeing the Holocaust or persecution in Arab lands. It also involves recording local Palestinian-Israeli encounters that bring together a small number of such families—up to three generations each—over several days.

This new methodology is based on three broad assumptions:

  1. One assumption is that early life experiences of both Jews and Arabs prior to1948 shaped the way in which these individuals construct their personal biographies. In order to understand the significance both groups give to their lives today, it is important to explore these early experiences in relation to later experiences during and after war, in the context of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict generally, and with respect to the social and cultural milieu in which they live today within their localities.
  2. A second assumption is that most of the memories recalled by the Palestinians and Israeli-Jews who once lived together, will not be overwhelmingly positive. However, the memories recalled will provide rich details of collective Israeli-Palestinian life—information that will show how these two peoples lived, and often worked together, despite their divergent political attitudes concerning the future of Israel/Palestine. It also suggests that within the broader negative picture there were always positive local "islands of friendship and cooperation" which have been forgotten as a result of the continuous national struggle.
  3. A third assumption is that the experiences of Arabs and Jews have molded not only their own identity, but also the identity of generations of Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis. By learning how these experiences and identity constructions are transmitted through generations, progress toward reconciliation can be made.

In recent years, some Jewish-Israeli scholars (e.g. Kimmerling, 1992, 1995; Morris, 1987, 1993; Pappe, 1988) have begun publicly addressing the stories behind the expulsion/ fleeing of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 and 1967 wars. They have examined the part played by Jewish-Israelis, and the effects of these actions on Israeli and Palestinian society. These accounts challenge what has been traditionally taught in Israeli educational and academic institutions. At the same time, Palestinian scholars (e.g. Kanaana, 1992; Kanaana, & al-Kabi, 1987; Khalidi, 1959; Khalidi et al., 1992) have also explored some of these issues. Some of this work has resulted in “memorial books” (Slyomovics, 1998), which provide a picture of the political, cultural and architectural aspects of Arab villages and neighborhoods that were either depopulated or destroyed by the Israelis.

The PRIME approach builds upon a review of this research and other data that deal with the experiences of Palestinian refugees and of Jewish-Israelis who were once refugees themselves.

Initial Work (2001-2004)

Beginning in 2001, PRIME initiated a pilot project that successfully tested oral history and video taping techniques involving interviews with Palestinian refugees from Haifa and Jewish-Israeli immigrants to Haifa who had fled persecution (Bar-On, 2004).

From 2002-2004, PRIME selected two localities to continue oral history interviewing where Jews and Arabs used to live together prior to the 1948 war—Haifa (expanding the work of the pilot project) and the Beit Jubreen areas [1].

In order to locate interviewees, PRIME used:

  • known contacts and the snowball technique of
    reaching other individuals; and
  • Israeli and Palestinian archives. For example, PRIME accessed the Israeli archives of the Hagana, the IDF, and the Mapam Party in addition to the archives and memory books at the Bir Zeit University Documentation Center, and the expertise of Palestinian scholars.

Researchers, working together from both communities, provided information on the history of the places and people to be interviewed.

Two Palestinian and two Jewish-Israeli interview teams conducted audio or video-taped interviews with selected Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis in their homes. In the case of videotaping, each team also included a videographer. These personal interviews were conducted in the individual’s native language. The interviews used a modified “life story” approach (Rosenthal, 1993), and focused on all periods of the person’s life. However, special emphasis was given to the experiences leading up to, during, and immediately following the 1948 or 1967 wars. During the interviews, the individuals were also given the opportunity to show photographs or other artifacts and talk about the personal importance that these objects have for them.

By the end of 2004, approximately 300 interviews (150 Palestinian refugees from Haifa and Beit Jeubreen, and 150 Jewish Israelis who immigrated to these areas to flee persecution) will have been recorded. In addition, based on what was learned from the life story interviews, PRIME also conducted a joint encounter between willing Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis, including three generations in each family, who told their life stories. The overall goal of the encounter was to explore avenues of mutual recognition and reconciliation between the two peoples by focusing on shared localized histories, rather than by engaging in an abstract dialogue about political issues.

In the encounter, Palestinians and Israelis first met separately for one day, then together for 2-3 days. The participants were asked to share their personal histories with one another, to visit each other's homes, to learn the history of the regions, and to reflect on how their experience could enhance acknowledgement and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Each group was co-planned and co-facilitated by Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli facilitators. The encounter was also videotaped so that group facilitation, the themes of importance to the group, and the group dynamics could be analyzed. These videotapes are also in the process of being edited into a film by a joint team of professional Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers.

All of the above work from 2001 to 2004 was funded by a grant of $344,440 from the Wye River Foundation. As of December, 2004, all Wye River funds will have been expended.


In the next phase of the project, PRIME will undertake:

  1. development of an indexing framework for appropriate data coding of audio, video and other data collected over the past four years;
  2. analysis of the encoded results, including lessons learned for expanded follow-on activities;
  3. consultation with experienced colleagues of ‘localized’ Truth and Reconciliation processes undertaken globally;
  4. internal evaluation of process and development of a preliminary plan for the structuring and eventual implementation of a broader Truth and Reconciliation process; and
  5. testing of the results with a gathering of civil society representatives in the region.

Working together with a methodologist and an oral history expert, PRIME will develop a framework for appropriate indexing to encode the data for easy access and analysis using a multi-media database. Then, a statistical sampling of the oral histories, encounters, and associated maps, photographs and other data will be evaluated using the indexed database.

PRIME will conduct preliminary analysis of the data and gather a team of experienced Truth and Reconciliation ‘partners’ from regions that have undertaken ‘localized’ Truth and Reconciliation processes—‘partners’ who have worked together on the ground in such places as South Africa, Rwanda, and France-Germany, to share the lessons they have learned from their experiences. This gathering will review PRIME's preliminary analysis of data and undertake an internal evaluation of the project.

This consultation with TRC ‘partners’ will also assist PRIME in the development of criteria for evaluating the psychological and social impacts on Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians who provided oral histories and participated in encounters, as well as the wider value of using oral history and encounter techniques developed through the project in building trust and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.

For example, attitudes of tolerance among individuals exposed to the database of oral history interviews and among participants in project encounters will be compared to attitudes of those who did not share these experiences. Evaluators will also explore differing concepts of locality that emerged from interviews and encounters: while for the Arab-Palestinians, the actual place of their homes, village or town is the crucial parameter, for the Israeli-Jews, their land, as a national home, is the crucial parameter. These and other differences that surface from database analysis will be considered in refining the reconciliation process.

Based on these lessons learned, PRIME will undertake an additional 40 oral history interviews (20 Palestinians and 20 Israelis) and one encounter. These will also focus on additional localities where there may be less of a history, than in earlier interviews, of coexistence or of communication between Israeli-Jews and Palestinians.

PRIME will then analyze the data from these additional interviews and encounters, evaluate effectiveness and scalability, and develop a preliminary plan for the structuring and eventual implementation of a broader Truth and Reconciliation process among Palestinians and Jewish-Israelis.

Finally, an intimate gathering of civil society members in the region will be organized to explore receptiveness to the methodologies and implementation strategies identified PRIME for a future Truth and Reconciliation process in the region.

Indicators of project success

  1. Ability to code and index interviews and encounters for database access in ways that are meaningful and useful for analysis;
  2. Documentation of more open and tolerant attitudes among individuals exposed to the oral history database and among participants in encounters, as compared to those who did not share in these experiences;
  3. Discovery of independent local resolutions of conflicting refugee claims that may vary geographically;
  4. Scalability of "localized" oral history and encounter methodologies for broader Truth and Reconciliation process.

Project Timeline (2005)

  • Jan-Feb: Development of Indexing Framework, translation of interviews
  • Mar-June: Coding and Database development for sampling of interviews
  • July: Evaluation seminar; collaboration with Truth and Reconciliation ‘partners’ on lessons learned
  • Aug-Oct: Conduct Follow-up Interviews—transcribe, translate, code
  • November: Assessment of new data, and recommendations regarding strategy for institutionalizing "localized" interviews and encounters in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • December: Presentation of project results, evaluation, and future strategy for Civil Society representatives.

Follow-on Plans

Successful use of "localized" interviews and encounters in building attitudes of reconciliation and in potentially finding local resolutions to conflicting claims will provide the foundation for follow-on efforts to gain support for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission based on techniques tested and proven during the one year evaluation effort.

Such follow-on efforts will likely include:

  1. Providing public access to the multi-media database of interviews and encounters via the internet to build public awareness within the Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish Communities, as well as among related international constituencies.
  2. Publishing a written report on the results of "localized" reconciliation efforts and hosting an international conference to build political support for creation of a formal Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Israel and Palestine based on this experience.
  3. Expanding participation in reconciliation efforts based on "localized" interviews and encounters to more communities through a formal Truth and Reconciliation Commission endorsed by Israel and the future Palestinian State.
  4. Creating a joint Museum of Palestinian Refugees and Israeli Immigrants that would commemorate and teach the "localized" histories of the Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli people that come to light through these efforts. The museum would maintain the Truth and Reconciliation Commission database, together with related artifacts, photographs, maps and relevant historical documents, which would become the core of an educational resource for future generations.

Project Funding

Initial work (2001-2004) was funded with $344,440 in U.S. State Department from the Wye River Foundation. PRIME also raised an additional $404,000 in private donations and in-kind donations (primarily in the form of professional salaries and organizational overhead).
The budget for 2005 activities is $349,731.

Project Management

PRIME's co-directors—Sami Adwan, Prof. of Education, Bethlehem University and Dan Bar-On, Prof. of Social Psychology, Ben Gurion University—serve as project directors.

PRIME’s work is based in part on Prof. Bar-On's pioneering research on methods of reconciliation between the children of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators and how these techniques (called To Reflect and Trust or TRT) might be applied in other post-conflict situations (Bar-On, 2000). PRIME's projects also draw much from Prof. Adwan's research on Palestinian and Israeli school textbooks and his experience with people-to-people dialogues in the region (Adwan and Firer, 2004; Adwan and Bar-On, 2004).

PRIME does not take political positions, beyond favoring a Two State Solution between Israel and Palestine. It focuses on projects that will help create a social infrastructure capable of sustaining peace between Israelis and Palestinians in parallel to the implementation of formal political agreements that will enable the establishment of a Palestinian State alongside the State of Israel.


[1] The choice of these locations was not coincidental: Haifa is know as a town of positive mutual experiences between Jews and Arabs prior to 1948 and Beit Jubreen was an area in which Jewish and Palestinian farmers used to communicate prior to 1948.

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