Middle East Peace Initiative
01 October 2004

Frédéric Chavanne reports on a meeting of people from one of Africa’s most turbulent regions.

FOUR OF the Israelis and Palestinians behind the Geneva Initiative, a civil-society effort to produce a peace agreement for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spoke together in Caux.

Welcoming Avraham Burg, Tsvia Walden, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Walid Salem as well as other Palestinians and Israelis, Swiss Ambassador Urs Ziswiler described the Geneva Initiative as ‘a taboo-breaking proposal’. Its very existence ‘is the proof that there are partners for peace on both sides, a real alternative to the senseless cycle of violence and destruction’.

The Initiative was the result of more than two years’ patient work, with the help and support of many people, said Abed Rabbo, a member of the executive committee of the PLO and spokesperson for the Palestinian Peace Coalition. They had built on the foundations of many previous peace efforts and negotiations to arrive at a ‘realistic, detailed and credible agreement’.

There was no solution without pragmatism, he continued. The claims of religion, culture and history must be addressed, ‘but in the most open and pragmatic way possible’. In this approach, the devil didn’t lie in the details, but rather ‘the details can overcome the devil’.

Avraham Burg, a former Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, now working in private business, said he ‘belonged to the same orchestra’ even though his music was a little different. Governments and leadership had failed. They had long talked of ‘painful compromise’, but had never spelt
out the details. Both sides tended to be paralyzed by the feeling that they had no partners on the other side, ‘but we have a partner on the other side,’ he insisted. ‘He empowers me, and I empower him.’

They needed to move to an understanding that both sides could be winners—too often, they still lived in a mentality of total victory, and contempt for the vanquished. ‘We want to be sensitive to each other, to respect each other,’ he said. They were dealing with icons, symbols and emotions, ‘the trauma of history’—the Holocaust for the Jews, and colonialism for the Arabs. It was important to ‘reintegrate hope into the equations of despair’. In the Middle East, ‘If you don’t build your rationale on a miracle, you’re a lunatic!’


‘PEACE IS possible—though it isn’t easy,’ Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Romebased St Egidio Community stated. Drawing on the community’s long and successful involvement with the peace process in Mozambique, Riccardi underlined the importance of non-state actors, with no means of pressure. ‘There is a humble power for peace, rooted in dialogue and in prayer. This weak force is one of the most precious inheritances of the 20th Century.’

‘We must never accept war which is the mother of poverty and the expression of evil,’ he said. Peace demanded a commitment of many actors, at the level of the state, but also civil society.

Sixteen years of civil war in Mozambique led to 1.5 million dead. It took more than two years of negotiations to arrive at a peace accord between the FRELIMO government and the RENAMO guerrilla movement. ‘We opened up a space for dialogue through a growing climate of trust,’ Riccardi said. Former UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali called the process ‘the Italian formula, a mix of governmental activity and NGO efforts’. Faith could seem weak in the face of the complexity of society and the powers of evil, Riccardi said. ‘But believers have a power for peace, founded in the power of dialogue.’


‘We will not have peace for Israel without peace for the Palestinians; there is no future for Israel without a future for the Palestinians,’ said Michael Melchior, a former Chief Rabbi of Norway and former Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel.

‘Religion is not a side issue,’ he stressed, ‘it is at the heart of the issue. The bad news is that religions can be the gateway to hell. The good news is that there is another way.’ We must leave space for the other, he continued. There are some who seek a conflict of civilizations, ‘but the real clash has to be within, inside each civilization, with the totalitarian elements within our civilizations, our religions, and even inside ourselves—there is no better option’. The main fault with the peace process so far was that it had ignored the religious and ethnic dimension, he claimed.


TWO NIGERIANS spoke side by side of their work to reconcile Muslim and Christian in Kaduna, northern Nigeria—after having taken part in inter-religious violence themselves.

Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, the Imam of Kaduna, and the Rev James Movel Wuye, are the Joint Directors of the Inter-Faith Mediation Centre in their city.

‘We were two militant religious activists,’ said the Imam, ‘but now we are working to create space, not just for peace, but also for the transformation of society.’

Movel Wuye continued, ‘We were programmed to hate one another, to Islamize or evangelize at all costs. This threatens the very existence of Nigeria.’

‘We were both victims of the situation that we had both had a part in creating,’ Nurayn Ashafa added. His spiritual master and two brothers had been killed by Christian militias; Movel Wuye had lost an arm in the violence.

‘What motivated us to transform hate into love, vengeance into reconciliation?’ the Imam asked. ‘In our hearts, we were weeping, but we were still full of hate.’ A turning point had come when he heard another Imam preaching in the mosque at Friday prayers about the power of forgiveness, and the example of the Prophet. This had led to a war within, he said. Then embracing Movel Wuye beside him, he added, ‘he is no more an enemy but a friend.’

Movel Wuye said that it had taken him three years to overcome his hatred and to start to trust the Imam. The process had started when Nurayn Ashafa had visited him after his mother died. An American evangelist had told him that you cannot preach to someone you hate. ‘He was radiating love, but I’d been blinded by hate and pain,’ he added. Now they were working with other spiritual leaders, ‘to create space for peace and understanding’.

‘WAR IS born in the human spirit. And it’s in the human spirit that the ramparts of peace must be erected,’ said Ibrahima Fall, echoing the preamble of UNESCO’s constitution. As Kofi Annan’s Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa, Fall is coordinating the international conference on the peace, security and development of the Great Lakes region which will take place in November, organized by the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union.

Fall was in Caux to take part in a meeting of IofC’s Great Lakes programme, which for the last four years has sought to support peace initiatives in the region. Fall expressed his wish for cooperation between IofC, the national committees preparing the November conference and civil society in the Great Lakes region.

The meeting at Caux began on 13 August, the day when 160 Banyamulenge refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo were massacred in a camp in Burundi. This weighed all the more on the exchanges at Caux because a member of the affected community was taking part. The international community has condemned the killings and has committed itself to finding and punishing the perpetrators. But, as a Congolese participant commented, ‘It is all of us Congolese who are responsible. In so far as we do not cure the politics of exclusion which made the Banyamulenges into pariahs, condemned to living in camps outside our country, we allow such massacres to happen.’

IofC believes that, if the UN/AU/EU conference is not to turn into a vast tribunal with everyone accusing each other, delegates should go through a process of examining the past—so that they can understand the reasons for the madness which has plunged their countries into torment. Suspicion, fear, frustration—both within and between the countries—must be overcome, particularly in the three countries which since the early 1960s have formed the epicentre of the main explosions of violence. Every Burundian, Rwandan and Congolese must look at the things in himself which have hurt, thwarted or humiliated the other, so that a frank and sincere dialogue can take place.

These days in Caux made a modest contribution to creating trust and understanding between people returning to these countries in conflict.


SADAKO OGATA, President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke of the need for a ‘seamless harmony’ between ‘humanitarian action’ and ‘development assistance’.

Humanitarian action and development assistance had to be seen as complementary, she insisted, working on common principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality.

But there were tragic ambiguities. Bringing together refugees in camps in order to feed and care for them had also provided soft targets for killer groups—as, recently, on the border between Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo— but agencies’ absence from such conflict regions likewise condemned refugees to certain death.

She expressed the hope that more effort could be made towards tackling the root causes of conflicts—and she had already taken pioneering steps in this direction, as head of the UNHCR. All too often there was ‘unbearable frustration amid the lack of political solutions’, and even worse, ‘humanitarian assistance became a fig-leaf for political inaction’. There needed to be ‘a commitment to a longterm healing process,’ she said. In the aftermath of ethnic, religious or tribal wars, ‘fought door to door, between neighbours’, the trust between people was destroyed, the social fabric torn. Refugees could return home, but their social relations with the communities where they live had to be rebuilt.