The Best Hope for Ending the Israel-Hamas War? Civil Society Peace-Builders

Grant makers are often reluctant to support the risky work of grass-roots groups struggling to build peace in the Middle East and elsewhere. But they need us now more than ever.

30 October 2023//

In recent years, peace-builders throughout the Middle East, including in Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, and beyond, have endured horrific violence and widespread repression.

As opportunities for people to speak out and advocate for themselves shrink amid authoritarian crackdowns, groups in the region funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — where I lead the peace-building program — have faced arbitrary detention or worse. Brutal online attacks, including doxing and death threats, have become common occupational hazards for our grantees in the United States and Europe. The most toxic are frequently reserved for women of color.

The unconscionable Hamas attack against Israeli civilians on October 7 and the subsequent strikes on Gaza mark the beginning of a devastating new chapter.

Our Israeli partners have told us about friends and family forced to hide in bunkers while more than 1,400 of their neighbors were brutally murdered and more than 200 taken hostage. We’ve heard from Palestinian partners who have lost loved ones in Israeli airstrikes that have reportedly killed more than 8,000 Palestinians in Gaza, including more than 3,000 children, amid a struggle to survive without access to drinking water or safe shelter and a collapse of Gaza’s medical system.

In such grim circumstances, it’s easy to lose hope. Much of the world, including government leaders and regular citizens, are asking how they can respond to these horrors. The answer, we believe, lies with the civil-society organizations dedicated to building peace in Israel, Palestine, and elsewhere in the Middle East — and whose work is crucial to countering extremist ideology of groups such as Hamas.

Our grantees are providing emergency assistance where possible to vulnerable communities. They are seeking to mobilize popular support for humanitarian relief, de-escalation, and ceasefire, which have the backing of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio GuterresPope Francis, and countless others. They are conducting analysis and research against a rising tide of disinformation and dehumanizing rhetoric to better understand both the current crisis and the larger conflict, including the decades-long occupation of the Palestinian Territories that frames it.

Our partners are engaging with policymakers in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East to advocate for peaceful solutions and human rights while exploring ways to bring more hostages home. And they are offering legal support to peace activists and Palestinian rights advocates who face growing repression.

Unfortunately, many institutional donors have been reluctant to enter this field. While some step up with humanitarian aid in response to the latest crisis, those critical funds aren’t enough. The political and social changes that can address the root causes of conflict require sustained attention and increased support. Israeli and Palestinian peace-builders need philanthropy now more than ever.

Threats and Accusations

There are few easy wins in this line of work.

Policy successes years in the making can evaporate in an instant. Organizations engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peace-building often do so at great institutional and personal risk. The stakes are especially high for grass-roots peace-builders in Israel and Palestine, who long before October 7 faced wide-scale repression and criminalization by successive right-wing Israeli governments.

The challenges for foundations engaged in this work, while not comparable to grass-roots groups on the ground, are real. During the past decade, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has been threatened with lawsuits designed to “silence and shut down the work of civil society organizations that support Palestinian rights and operate humanitarian, peace-building and other programs,” according to a report by the Charity and Security Network, a research and advocacy organization that backs the work of peace-builders and humanitarian aid groups.

We have been maligned in the press and social media, where those who disagree with us question our morality and commitment to nonviolence. We’ve faced accusations of both antisemitism and Islamophobia, which we forcefully reject as contrary to our mission and poisonous to our goal of just and durable peace in the region. We conduct robust due diligence to ensure that our grants are used only for peaceful activities and scrupulously comply with all U.S. laws and regulations.

The accusations leveled at peace-building organizations and their funders aim to shut down dissent and new perspectives. But good policy, especially in moments of crisis, cannot be made without open policy debate.

After the 9/11 attacks, political discourse was marked by fear and insecurity. Critical voices from all sectors of society who questioned the underlying rationale of military invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, were systematically discredited, sidelined, and attacked. With the hindsight of two decades — and the loss of hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians and thousands of American soldiers — the limitations of military solutions have become tragically clear.

Similar dynamics are emerging today. As the crisis in Israel and Gaza unfolded over the last nearly three weeks, calls for a humanitarian ceasefire were rejected. Instead, one prominent U.S. lawmaker called on Israel to “level the place.” France and Germany issued bans on protests expressing solidarity with Gaza, citing vague security concerns. Two annual national conferences organized by pro-Palestinian groups were canceled or postponed after vigorous social media cancellation campaigns. Several European countries have suspended aid to Palestinian civil-society groups precisely when their nonviolent opposition to Hamas’ extremist ideology is needed most.

This crisis will someday come to an end, ushering in a new era. While there seems little reason for optimism, history reminds us that transformative diplomatic openings can sometimes follow devastating episodes of violence. But lasting and just peace can only be achieved with the meaningful involvement of civil society based on principles of equality, security, justice, and human dignity.

The political imperatives to return to the status quo will be strong. But such a course, including a permanent military occupation of the Palestinian Territories, will only sow the seeds for further violence, repression, and extremism. Breaking this cycle will require efforts by Palestinian and Israeli nonprofit groups committed to building a just and durable peace through nonviolent means.

To succeed where politicians have failed, they need our support — especially now when the prospects for peace feel most distant.