Transforming obstacles in the Palestinian/Israeli peace process

At the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) training with Palestinians and Israelis we offered many choices for topics.  I wanted to explore how to apply the principles of NVC for social change and to discover solutions to societal issues.   In one “Open Space” session (in which trainers and participants posted an array of topics that we wanted to address and participants chose which group to attend), I posted “Applying Nonviolent Communication to Dismantling the Wall”.

A number of Israeli, Palestinian and international participants gathered for this topic. During the session, we created a group role play – we were the Task Force appointed by the  future Israeli and Palestinian governments to create a plan to dismantle the separation Wall.

We divided into two groups, both of which included participants who identify as Israelis, Palestinians, and people from other countries in the Mideast and the world. One group was asked to represent the needs of Palestinians and the other group to represent the needs of Israelis.  We began by brainstorming together  all the needs that we’d want to meet so that taking down the Wall  would be done in a way that really addresses the needs and concerns of everyone affected.

The underlying philosophy of this approach to conflict transformation is that we are all interconnected and interdependent.  This means that the more anyone’s needs are met, the more everyone’s needs will also be met.  This also means that “peace”- an end to violence and hatred- can only come about when everyone is brought along, when everyone who is affected by something has a say in it and their say is included in the decision making.

This approach, based on Nonviolent Communication and the work of many NVC trainers such as Marshall Rosenberg and Miki Kashtan, also posits that conflict does not occur at the level of needs – conflict occurs at the level of strategies we use to met needs.  This principle is explored in this blog and is what we explored at the workshop session.

People from all the groups in the session represented each others’ and their own group’s needs.

This “needs-based” approach is very different from the usual approach where each “side” says or demands what they want without concern as to how their strategy affects anyone else.  The process:

1. As the “Task Force” members from each group stated the needs they thought were important to meet, the facilitator wrote them on a large board. We create one list of needs; there are no sides, only a common dilemma: how do we do this in a way that will meet everyone’s needs?

As the process developed,  people began to realize that they share the basic human needs of each person.  We all experienced a growing realization that meeting everyone’s needs is the way to create the stability and trust that everyone wants.  As we continued to identify needs, people from each side began to express needs they imagined the other side would also want to meet. The “conflict” had shifted to a common dilemma for us to solve together. Partnership was developing as we connected to each others’ needs.

2. We distinguished needs from the strategies to meet the needs – for example, the needs for safety and security were raised early on by the group representing the Israelis’ needs. The needs for freedom, dignity and choice were raised early on by the group representing the Palestinians’ needs. All of these are basic universal human needs shared by all of us. There is no conflict on the level of these needs.

There is conflict on the level of the strategies to meet the needs. Negotiations and thinking that habitually stay on the level of strategies are unable to break through the conflict. When we instead look at the basic underlying needs that the strategies aim to meet, and commit to finding solutions that truly meet the needs, we open up to greater flexibility and creativity in finding new solutions.

The commitment in this process is to find ways – new strategies – to meet both sets of needs. In this case, this does not require that everyone agree that the Wall’s purpose is actually to meet needs for security; it does require the understanding and agreement that the Israeli’s need for safety and security have to be met before they will willingly agree to dismantle the Wall. This does not mean that everyone agrees that the Wall ‘s impact on Palestinians’ freedom, dignity and choice is “unjustifiable” or “unacceptable”; it does mean that the Palestinians’ needs for freedom, dignity and choice will be met in how we proceed.   So the commitment becomes for everyone to work together to come up with new strategies to meet the needs.

3. We keep going until all the needs have been gathered and put on the list. We engage in this process together. For example, both sides expressed needs for children to have full access to education that celebrates and honors each group’s cultural and religious preferences. The needs for meaning and mattering, autonomy and choice were some of the needs expressed here. After we looked at those needs, people from both groups began to brainstorm about the importance of creating common education, an education that would create shared vision and values so that children would learn to understand each other and the needs of the society. From there we all realized and began to brainstorm about the importance of bringing in parents and teachers to create education that would both honor each group’s need for autonomy as well as create a stable coherent connection for a high functioning society.

4.Once we had satisfied ourselves that we had listed all the needs we could imagine, we set up subcommittees to create specific programs to address the needs and propose strategies to meet them. These task forces were to return to the whole group in the next week and report on their plans. The participants would then look closely to make sure that the plan – the strategies to meet their needs – would indeed meet the identified needs.

As we shared the impact the process had on each of us, participants reported amazement at how we all want the same needs met and how this can bring us together instead of pushing us apart.  There was a realization that the needs aren’t in conflict – only the strategies we are attached to – and that when we create an understanding and trust that we are going for a solution that will address all the needs, new unthought of solutions, creative solutions, creativity and even fun become possible in the process. People reported feeling an unexpected sense of hopefulness and connection to what they had previously thought of as “the other side.”