Can you name this city?
It has two distinct ethno-religious communities that are separated by a large wall. On one side of the barrier, you will find Israeli flags and graffiti depicting a narrative of a people who have suffered from terrorism and honoring the brave soldiers who have risked their lives to keep their people safe. On the other side, you will find Palestinian flags and graffiti telling a narrative of a people who have suffered from settler colonialism and have struggled for independence.
If you guessed Jerusalem, you would actually be mistaken.
The city I just described is in fact Belfast in Northern Ireland.
The people residing on the side with Israeli flags are not Jews, but British Protestants who fly the flag of Great Britain alongside the flag of the State of Israel. On the other side of the wall are not Palestinian Arabs, but Irish Catholics who fly the flag of Ireland alongside the Palestinian flag.
Last year, I traveled to Northern Ireland where I took a dual narrative tour in Belfast and found striking similarities to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the first half of the tour, I walked along the Catholic side of the wall with a former member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who told his people’s story of how they were colonized by the British and have been struggling for independence. On the other side of the wall, I toured through the Protestant neighborhoods with a former British soldier who told his story of how he lost many of his comrades while fighting to keep his people safe from terrorists. Indeed, just like Israelis and Palestinians have different narratives and compete over who is the true victim of the conflict, so too have the Irish nationalists and British Unionists in Northern Ireland.
However, despite these similarities, unlike Israelis and Palestinians, the Irish and the British have experienced a long-lasting state of peace in Northern Ireland for over twenty years since the historic signing of what was known as the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
One of the primary factors that helped lead up to the historic signing was people-to-people dialogue. Again, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Northern Ireland conflict is significantly driven by the two sides’ conflicting narratives and competition over victimhood. That said, thanks to the work of grassroots movements promoting people-to-people exchanges, more Irish and British were able to recognize each other’s grievances, overcome their competition over victimhood, and thus became more willing support a comprehensive peace agreement.
Of course, people-to-people work is not foreign to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. There are many grassroots movements on the ground that are also trying to promote coexistence and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians through people-to-people dialogue. The difference may be the lack of funding Israeli and Palestinian grassroots movements receive.
In 1986, then-US President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-MA) helped establish what is known as the International Fund for Ireland. To this day, the fund has supported grassroots movements in Northern Ireland, giving them the financial capacity they need to bring more people together to develop the public support necessary for a comprehensive peace.
For the past few years, the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) has been working to establish a similar fund for Israelis and Palestinians. ALLMEP is a network of roughly 100 organizations trying to promote peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, but it estimates that it needs about $200 million to sufficiently fund them. It has proposed establishing an international fund modeled after the Ireland fund where the US, Europe, the Arab world, and the private sector would each contribute 25% to it.
Their lobbying efforts culminated on Wednesday June 5, when Senators and Representatives from both parties introduced a bi-partisan bill referred to the as the Partnership Fund for Peace. It would have the US invest $50 million into Palestinian economic development and coexistence and reconciliation efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. It already has the support of several members of Congress and, while there is still a long way to go, it is the most concrete step in making the idea of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace a reality.
Peace activists have been working long and hard for years to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but they will need the help of an international fund to take the next step. With enough financial support, we just might see a similar culture of peace develop in the heart of the Middle East just as we saw in Northern Ireland.