On Wednesday, International Human Rights Day, the Israeli non-profit Zochrot will host the country’s first unofficial “public truth commission”, modelled on South Africa’s post-apartheid truth and reconciliation process.
Israelis who served in the Negev Desert during the country’s War of Independence and Palestinian refugees uprooted from the area between 1947 and 1949, will share testimonies before an expert panel of human rights lawyers, scholars and civil society activists in Beersheba, Israel.
“We have to find a way with the Arabs,” said Amnon Noyman, one of the testifying Israelis who served in the Haganah, the underground Jewish military organisation that operated during British rule before 1948.
“The war was the point of deviation between us and them. We did a lot of bad things. I was young – 18 or 19,” Noyman told Al Jazeera. “As I got older, I heard about the lives of refugees. Nobody likes to think about them, but they are human beings.”
Two years in the making, the commission is Zochrot’s attempt to introduce the language of transitional justice to Israel and Palestine. Along with testimonies from former Jewish fighters, displaced Palestinians and their descendants – many of whom now live in Gaza – the commission will hear from expert witnesses such as Safa Aburabia, an anthropologist specialising in the Arab Bedouins of the Negev. In addition to providing a historical overview, Aburabia will link the tragedies of the past to recent conflicts such as the Gaza war.
The panel overseeing the commission will ultimately draft a final report, including recommendations on how to address alleged wrongdoings. While the report’s conclusions cannot be imposed on the Israeli government, organisers hope the process could be a model for future conflict resolution.
“We’re testing the waters,” Zochrot’s Debby Farber, who has overseen the planning of the commission since January 2013, told Al Jazeera. “Zochrot is an educational organisation, and it’s using various strategies in order to dismantle Israelis’ fears and expose them to a less threatening discourse. I think a lot of the transformations that people can go through are rooted in education. There has to be an extreme shift in the main discourse in order to prepare the ground for change.”
Most Israeli human rights organisations consider the 1967 war to be “ground zero” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Farber said, but Zochrot traces it back to the 1948 war that dispossessed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, an event known as the Nakba (catastrophe). Before Zochrot and its partners began working to raise awareness of this, Noa Shaindlinger, an Israeli PhD candidate in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto and an activist with Zochrot, said: “Almost no Israelis knew what the Nakba was. Now everyone does.”
Until Israel acknowledges its responsibility for the Nakba and rights its wrongs – including the refugee problem – there can be no peaceful and just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Zochrot argues.
Testimony at the commission from a Palestinian woman who witnessed the al-Dahmash mosque massacre in July of 1948 will not likely change the minds of hardline Israelis, Farber added, “but when you have a testimony from the Zionist fighter who fired the gun in the mosque, you cannot ignore that. This was the inspiration for the commission”. Al Jazeera