As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict raged this week, our latest interview with seasoned peacebuilder Séverine Autesserre gained an urgent new edge. Autesserre spoke to Mila about her new book, The Frontlines of Peace: An Insider’s Guide to Changing the World, which looks at the ways bottom-up peacebuilding succeeds.
Bottom-up peacebuilding is the idea that peace depends on the community level where local stakeholders make the decisions and outsiders play a supportive role. By contrast, Autesserre argues, standard peacebuilding efforts that focus on political alliances, high-level talks, ceasefire agreements, and outsider intervention aren’t working. Unfortunately for the citizens of Israel and Palestine, their current conflict proves her point.
Since 1967, the world has tried to broker peace between Israel and Palestine a dozen times. Attempts made by the UN, several sitting US presidents, and EU interventions sought peace but found it never lasts. The agreements made by high-ranking Israeli and Palestinian leaders often look good on paper but prove ineffective or are actively undermined, resulting in fresh waves of violence like the one we’re watching today.
These summits at Camp David, secret meetings in Oslo, and peace treaties signed are examples of high-level “top-down” peacebuilding. Leaders of Israel and Palestine attended numerous talks over the years facilitated by elites and foreign peacebuilders, and yet violence rages today as intensely as ever. If we consider only top-down approaches, the outlook is grim.
Luckily, as Autesserre’s book emphasizes, there is another way—and it’s working in Israel right now.
The village of Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom (WAS-NS) means “Oasis of Peace” in both Arabic and Hebrew—a name it lives up to spectacularly well given its location and ethnic makeup. WAS-NS is “the only village in the world founded for the express purpose of demonstrating that two enemy groups can live together,” wrote Autesserre in her book.
WAS-NS sits on the so-called “Green Line,” the historical border of Israel as decided in 1949. Situated equidistant from Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, Jewish Israelis and Arab and Christian Palestinians make up equal parts of its citizenry. Conspicuously absent from the community is the violence that has become a hallmark of life in much of the country.
WAS-NS is democratically run, and both Israeli and Palestinian constituents make decisions. Jewish and Arab children attend the same “bilingual, binational” school—the first of its kind. They learn each other’s languages, cultures, and critically, how to live in harmony together. “Whereas other children in Israel grow up in relative ignorance of the other people that share the same land, children in the WAS-NS educational framework learn to accept the inter-cultural exchange as something that is natural and desirable,” the WAS-NS website explains.
WAS-NS also hosts the adult School for Peace, an institution that hopes to foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians around the country. Since its inception in 1979, more than 60,000 pupils have learned the school’s lessons of tolerance and peace.
WAS-NS now boasts a population of more than 70 families, with plans to expand to 150. Guards appear only where required by law, and municipal amenities like the town swimming pool have morphed into multi-ethnic, multi-religion meeting spaces. Different religious groups happily share a common spiritual center.
Like any town, there are disputes. According to Autesserre, however, conflicts in WAS-NS “never escalate into violence. All are resolved through talking, arguing, debating, compromising, or voting. In a country that many of its inhabitants have likened to an apartheid state, where fear and hatred of the other group continually fuel violence, the people of Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom show that Jews and Palestinians can actually thrive together.”
WAS-NS is an excellent example of bottom-up peacebuilding: no elite convened a summit to create it—only the hard work of local citizens brought peace and prosperity to the area. As the results of top-down peacebuilding played out in bloody fashion around the country, WAS-NS was safe and working hard to mitigate violence elsewhere. Although a ceasefire was announced Thursday, it will take more to create lasting peace than yet another agreement between elites and outside parties. It’s clear that the bottom-up approach is working in Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom and should be exported on a national scale.
Autesserre Séverine. The Frontlines of Peace: an Insider’s Guide to Changing the World. Oxford University Press, 2021.
“Camp David: a Tragedy of Errors.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 20 July 2001, www.theguardian.com/world/2001/jul/20/comment.
Halper, Judy, and Nswassfp. The School for Peace, The School for Peace, 20 May 2021, sfpeace.org/.
Heller, Jeffrey. “Long Line of Israeli-Palestinian Peace Bids Precede Trump Push.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 27 Jan. 2020, www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-palestinians-plan-history/long-line-of-israeli-palestinian-peace-bids-precede-trump-push-idUSKBN1ZQ0RQ.
“Israel and Hamas Agree to a Cease-Fire, Potentially Ending the Bloodiest Fighting the Region Has Seen in Years.” MSN.com, www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/israel-and-hamas-agree-to-a-cease-fire-after-bloodiest-fighting-the-region-has-seen-in-years/ar-AAKcHMQ.
“The Oslo Accords and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, history.state.gov/milestones/1993-2000/oslo.
“Wahat Al-Salam – Neve Shalom -.” Wahat Al-Salam – Neve Shalom, wasns.org/.
Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom. “Children’s Educational System.” Wahat Al-Salam – Neve Shalom, 7 Sept. 2020, wasns.org/-school32-.