A third party for the Middle East

I would like to express a personal point of view that nowadays seems too rarely expressed on the conflicts in the Middle East. I have since 2002 been carrying out projects in the Palestinian territories and in Israel, both with the music ensemble Ictus and with Music Fund, an organisation created by the Belgian NGO Oxfam-Solidarity and Ictus. We have built bonds of friendship in the region with Jewish and Arab Israelis and with Palestinians in the territories. Musicians of Ictus have since 2002 visited the region already 13 times for work periods of 7 to 14 days and Music Fund has organised several deliveries of musical instruments, as well as started the establishment of training for the repair and maintenance and repair of music instruments.

What concerns me most of all in this context is the following question: “What is it that we, Belgians and Europeans, can do for the inhabitants of this region?” or “In what way can we give them support as a third party?” This question seems to me far more poignant than idle chatter in our European living rooms about who is to blame on what, without understanding much about what is going on over there. What can one do as a simple citizen? Undoubtedly, we cannot make nor break peace, yet what we can try, as Belgian and European citizens, is to play our role as third party to the full. We have at least one right that they do not: We are free to cross borders. It would be a pity not to avail ourselves of this freedom. We are faced with only a few minimal constraints: waiting at checkpoints or at borders. Palestinians and Israelis cannot cross to the other side though, unless they have a special permission. They are carefully separated, one of the reasons that this conflict goes on.

But to play a role of third party effectively, it is necessary to be accepted as a partner. To succeed, we must establish contacts, build partnerships and create bonds of friendship, not only with one party, but with all the parties in the region.

I am disturbed by the current demonisation of Israel. As if it were the only one responsible for the wrongs of this region. Being a friend of Israelis does not hinder me from being very critical about the occupation and the recent war in Lebanon, and to talk to them about it. And as a friend of Palestinians, I have no difficulty in being as categorical about the destructive place accorded to ‘martyrs’ in the Palestinian society, as if, there too, violence was a way to peace and freedom – nor to discuss the matter in their company. Although it is not really our principal aim, building bonds of work and friendship also gives us the liberty to address these issues. On the other hand, I do not think it is right to take sides and to represent the ones as the personification of the devil and the others as simple victims. And yet that is precisely what is happening a lot at this time. I understand very well why it is that sides are taken when so much violence is all around this region. But still, I would like to know, with whom should the Palestinians and the Arab countries make peace, if it were true that the Israelis are devils and assassins?

In recent times, we have been confronted by unilateral indignation. This indignation is not fair; it does not reflect the reality, and does not get things moving a single inch. In this context, the idea of boycotting Israel is often advanced, in particular in the cultural sector, in which I work. It think that quite the contrary should be achieved: we must get to know the men, women and children in the region. My colleagues and I are neither peace activists nor politicians; we work through music, we play together and hold music workshops for children and university students. The boycott option is depressing and desperate, but also harshly unfair for an entire people. It fuels even further incomprehension, hate and rage. Reaching for one’s cheque book and resorting to arms again are the solutions put forward all too often. And yet, it is only when we realise that money and bombs are not enough that it becomes possible to consider peace.

By keeping contact in a selective, but also very intense and committed manner, by putting together projects with all those who are victims of the conflict in the region – Palestinians in the occupied territories, the Arabs and the Jews of Israel – we show our solidarity with those who, in spite of everything, continue to dream of peace in future, even if that future seems remote.

I cannot imagine reducing the work of several years to projects only with Palestinians in the occupied territories. It would be as if all of a sudden, we chose a side in this conflict, and abandoned all vision and all hope for peace.

The Jews with whom we work in Israel also dream of peace and security. Our educational exchanges give them immense comfort, because very often, in other contexts, people turn to look the other way when they are there.

So let us behave towards the Jews and Palestinians the way we want others to behave towards us: like people who have to stay in contact, no matter how bad things get, with what is best in life. Through solidarity we, as Belgians and Europeans, endorse this role of that third party, which may then come to mean something in these difficult conflicts.

This is not a neutral attitude at all. It is a strong commitment, where strong human bonds are established but are constantly at risk of breaking; where dangerous words are exchanged, and where no one can emerge unscathed. This is precisely the risk to take in order to build a better existence in trying moments. That is why I shall continue to cross the borders.

Lukas Pairon