How Israel Is Cultivating Peace During COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has pillaged the global community. Everyone has been affected. In Israel, the disturbing side effects trickle down through society, and millions have been propelled into precarious positions. Even so, Israelis have refused to wallow in despair, harnessing strength from a past encompassed by existential threat.
Throughout the crisis, Israelis have cleared new paths within society and worked toward relationship building and reconciliation between historic adversaries — from close to home, in Gaza, and all the way to Pakistan.
Pakistani-Israeli diplomatic relations have always been delicate. For religious reasons, Pakistan adamantly opposed UN Resolution 181 in 1947, which helped lead to Israel’s founding. Although evidence of economic cooperation between the two countries has been unearthed, official Pakistani policy remains opposed to Israeli sovereignty. Antagonism between the two states intensified in the 1980s, when Israel was suspected of collaborating with India to preemptively strike the Kahuta nuclear facility. During this troublesome time, Tajwar Ali was born.
Currently studying Sino-Israel relations in China as a PhD candidate, Ali was encouraged by his professor to attend an online lecture about Zionism through Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership (SIGNAL)’s Faculty Training Program (FTP), which he did during the coronavirus pandemic. Considering that Ali is not Chinese, and that the Pakistani passport declares itself valid “for all the countries of the world except Israel,” Ali would have found it virtually impossible to attend an FTP class in person. But that all changed during COVID-19.
Throughout his childhood, Ali was bombarded with depictions of Israel as the enemy. However, says Ali, “the media changed its message around 2004” and began to promote “pragmatism and the elimination of unnecessary animosity.” According to Ali, the Pakistani population today generally perceives Israel as a competent and prosperous nation. He and other Pakistani scholars believe that “Israel will be a major player in the coming years,” rendering Israel-Pakistan hostility illogical. Because of institutional adaptations to the pandemic, Ali was empowered to act on his more pragmatic views, and take a positive step to overcome a historically strained relationship.
Closer to Israel’s borders, another virtual bridge was erected — into Gaza. Amid the complex, highly delicate situation, the Gaza Youth Committee created “Skype With Your Enemy.” While first established in 2015, the pandemic has elicited noticeably greater participation in the initiative. The latest Zoom discussion session hosted more than 200 Israeli and Gazan participants, keen to learn about the people they have traditionally been taught to hate.
The conversation lasted for almost two hours. Young Israeli participants asked questions ranging from “do you have music festivals?” to “how do you maintain hope when things get tough?” Rami Aman, founder of the Youth Committee, responded that his faith is preserved by the growth of projects like “Skype With Your Enemy.”
The coronavirus has also prompted physical gatherings of medical experts from both sides of the barbed border. The Israeli government facilitated training sessions for Gazan medical aid workers. During these sessions, Israelis taught doctors and nurses from Gaza how to more effectively care for those infected with COVID-19. In addition to their formal intentions, these workshops have also served as instruments of personal connectivity. Because of a global health crisis, the extraordinary intersection of Israeli and Gazan lives became unavoidable.
Domestically, the pandemic has bolstered a sense of solidarity between Jews and Arabs, a usually contentious relationship. As Anwar Mhajne explains, since 1948, “the state and Jewish Israelis constantly reminds us [the Palestinian minority] of the fragility of our Israeli citizenship.” But amid the cooperation catalyzed by the virus’ indiscriminate infection pattern, sentiments seem to have changed. This year 77% of Israeli Arabs report feeling a sense of belonging, a sharp rise from last year’s 42%.
Whether these cross-cultural platforms will outlast COVID-19 remains to be seen. The total devastation of the virus is still unfolding. Nevertheless, these boundary-breaking initiatives reveal an earnest inclination among the global community to both seek and engage in constructive dialogue with supposed adversaries. Should the government and civil society make a conscious effort to capitalize on and cultivate this momentum, Israel may be one step closer to peace.
Hannah Yacknin-Dawson earned a BA in History and Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, and an MA in Public Policy, with a focus on Conflict Resolution, from Tel Aviv University. Her research interests include women’s studies, the present-day role of historical wisdom, and the mechanisms of generating identity.