Activists from the Standing Together Movement play drums at a demonstration.

Standing Together leaders discuss attempts to open Jewish-Arab dialogue amid Gaza war

As political and military leaders negotiate over the fate of civilians on both sides of the war in Gaza, there are Israeli and Palestinian people who are working together to search for common ground. The World's host Marco Werman had a discussion with two leaders from Standing Together, the largest Jewish-Arab grassroots organization in Israel. They are both Israeli citizens. Sally Abed is Palestinian and lives in Haifa. Alon-Lee Green is Jewish and lives in Tel Aviv.

The World

Israel and Hamas agreed to a four-day ceasefire for the war in Gaza on Wednesday. The development will free dozens of hostages held by Hamas, as well as Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. It will also allow for aid to enter the besieged Gaza Strip.

The truce has raised hopes of an eventual winding down of the current war, now in its seventh week.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US President Joe Biden that Israel will press ahead with its operations after the ceasefire expires.

The Israeli military has killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza with thousands more missing, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, since the attack by Hamas on Oct. 7.

As political and military leaders negotiate over the fate of civilians on both sides of the war, there are Israeli and Palestinian people who are working together to search for common ground.

The World's host Marco Werman had a discussion with two leaders from Standing Together, the largest Jewish-Arab grassroots organization in Israel. 

They just returned to Israel after a weeklong trip around the US, bringing a message of Arab-Jewish partnership. They are both Israeli citizens. Sally Abed is Palestinian and lives in Haifa. Alon-Lee Green is Jewish and lives in Tel Aviv.

Marco Werman: Fresh off your trip, Sally, what surprised you about the conversation around the Israel-Hamas war in the US versus what you've been hearing in Israel?
Sally Abed: A lot of things surprised us, but also a lot of things have been aligned with the divisive nature that we have here. A lot of people around the world, and especially in the US, just have a very personal connection and feelings about what is happening in Israel-Palestine and coming from a very, very difficult moment, you know, to the US and finding ourselves yet in another extremely divided, tense environment. We also saw the same pattern, so it was easy to navigate them and actually provide our insight in how to create the duality of the experience.
Marco Werman: I mean, this is kind of the mission of Standing Together. Alon-Lee, can you just tell us briefly about the impetus behind the organization? I know you founded it in 2015 after a very different, sort of, Israeli operation in Gaza. Can you remind us what was happening and what you set out to do with standing together?
Alon-Lee Green: Standing Together was founded after yet another war, the war of 2014 against Gaza and the people living there and another violent escalation in 2015. It was two very bloody years where a lot of Palestinians lost their lives and Israelis lost their lives. And we looked at this war and we saw that our leaders were only promising us more blood and more hatred. And we said that there must be a different way, a way where Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish citizens of Israel are standing together and actually seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace, a life where we can all live freely and equally and with independence.
I mean, Oct. 7 feels very much like it's reset the stage for that zero sum game again. Sally, most recently, were you working closely with Palestinians in the West Bank?
Sally Abed: We organize citizens of Israel, both Palestinian and Jewish. However, we do collaborate with also cross-border organizations, as well as Palestinians on the ground in the West Bank against the settler violence that they face on a daily basis, that they are still facing. And right now, obviously, a lot of our work is within Israel and trying to amplify our voice, our joint voice, our joint humanity, but also seeing a very, very political message. We're at a junction, a historical junction, that is very dark, very painful. And we need to choose a way. And our way is peace and not out of naivete, not out of saying that we need to be in this together, but really out of the very deep, radical idea that there is no other way and that maintaining violent military control over millions of people is just not sustainable and will never be the way.
I mean, one can imagine how challenging that work is right now because of the divisions and because the events of Oct. 7 were so horrific. Alon-Lee, you and your organization have had to pivot since Oct. 7. What kinds of activities is your group involved in now on the ground?
Alon-Lee Green: So, the first responsibility we chose to take upon ourselves was the responsibility to bring the Palestinian citizens and the Jewish citizens together to really keep the safety of our society, to try and prevent those who are in the very radical and extreme right wing, from pushing our society into more hatred and violence and tension. So, we created Jewish-Arab solidarity groups all across the country, and we also tried to monitor calls for violence and revenge and to prevent them, working with the police, working with the media, working with our activists to really de-escalate this moment.
Let me ask you about that, Sally, because, I mean, it's an understatement to say Israelis are in a deep state of trauma at the moment. Palestinians in Gaza under the Israeli missiles are also deeply traumatized. The pivot that Alon-Lee was talking about once the missiles were flying in both directions, and you're faced with many traumatized folks, I mean, is that working to bring people together, creating sort of universal empathy?
Sally Abed: It really is much deeper than that. You know, what we are trying to say and portray is really shifting the conception and shifting the paradigm from zero sum game to really understanding that Jewish Israeli safety is dependent on Palestinian freedom. It's dependent on it and it's really much beyond humanity and human solidarity, which is extremely important. And obviously, in the very first days, that's all we could have hoped. You know, we are humans and humans when they are scared, when they are traumatized, it's very, very difficult to hold humanity of the other, right? But what we're seeing right now is really a very political message that really understands that we will never have safety, we will never actually have a sustainable, safe future if we are not all equal.
In this fraught moment, though, are you finding a lot of citizens in Israel willing to give up that zero sum game attitude?
Sally Abed: One, we don't have the privilege to give up on the humanity or the morality or, you know, whatever you want to call it, of the Israeli public. We are fighting over the soul of our society and what it actually will look like. This is a defining moment and we need to do it as Palestinians and Jews together.
Alon-Lee, I mean, there does seem to be so little overlap in how many Israelis and many Palestinians understand this conflict. With so few shared facts and so little trust, how do you start or continue a conversation about partnership in this particular moment?
Alon-Lee Green: It is very difficult. The emotions are very strong. People are really afraid and we stand this fear. So, the first thing we do is not preach, is not take the moral high ground and don't talk to people from a place of being or feeling better than others. We are not. And we are trying to meet people in their emotional place and to really try and build conversations from there. Yes, we are afraid. But also people on the other side are afraid. We're talking about the fact that we don't want to leave our home. Other people don't want to leave their home as well. But it is difficult. It is difficult because people with a lot of power, with a lot of influence coming from the far right, there are ministers, there are parliament members, there are people with a lot of followers in the media. They're trying to push our society in the opposite direction. They're coming to the 8:00 news every evening, saying that the children in Gaza today are the terrorists of tomorrow. So, there's no innocent people in Gaza, they claim, and we need to battle it. We need to to fight this. We need to win the war over our society. It's almost illegal, at the moment, to to demonstrate or to do political activities in Israel. The police even says if you want to rally in support of or Gaza, we'll put you on a bus to Gaza. And that's a real quote of the chief of the police. So, we need to be able to operate. We do it in a very delicate way, in a very complicated way. But we we're not going to stop. It's the only possible way we have.
Sally, based on your and Alon-Lee's experience in the US, so divided, was that trip something of a training ground for how to proceed in the Mideast with those conversations? Like, what did you learn about how to start a conversation or how not to start one?
Sally Abed: Absolutely. I think just like we are trying to find a new way here and trying to challenge the binary, trying to challenge the paradigm and the conception, I think the American left needs to do the same thing. If we are going out of that assumption that we have equal rights for existence and freedom and that we are both there to stay, no one is going anywhere, if we go off of that, then we will be able to shift the paradigm and the conversation and really overcome this polarization.
I think about the vocabulary of protests here in the US, terms like genocide, ethnic cleansing or apartheid to describe Israel's policies in Gaza or, you know, phrases like colonizing, colonizers. I mean, you don't use that language or, I mean, how do you answer the question in this extreme moment, "Who is there first?" I mean, do you use any of this language? Do you address any of that?
Sally Abed: We don't use that language, not because we don't acknowledge the decades-long systemic oppression of Palestinians and really the power differential, you know, we acknowledge that. But I do think a lot of the times from the left that there is an escalation of terminology, right, like you said, of trying to explain the situation in Palestine, which comes sometimes from also a lot of pain, a lot of frustration and a lot of, let's say, lack of tools to actually navigate this hegemony. And we acknowledge it. With that being said, and that's a very important point and a very important disclaimer, we don't think that kind of conversation should be the one leading us right now towards a solution and towards the very basic facts that we need to stop the bloodshed. And our vision and our desires and our interest is to live safely and equally — both peoples. And that's where we should start from.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.

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