A Radical Geography Community
Diana Martin, University of Portsmouth
In June 2014 the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories set off a chain reaction of extreme violence. Operation Protective Edge started on 8 July. The 50-day war was one of the harshest of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and claimed more than 2,100 Palestinian lives and 74 Israeli casualties.
The world kept its eyes firmly on Palestine. Social media and online newspapers became platforms for everyone who had an opinion, speaking one truth at the expense of another. Xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic comments populated the virtual and real world.
Less often, however, we heard of instances of peaceful relations, solidarity and support occurring across borders in Palestine and elsewhere. If social media and the internet may be dangerous for their allowance of abuses in the name of freedom of expression and anonymity, they can also connect people across borders and divisions.
While I do not argue that social media and information and communication technologies will change the world and alone lead to peace, I contend that they create bridges that in other circumstances would be impossible to build. A brief analysis of some of the Palestinians’, Israelis’, Arabs’ and Jews’ reactions on the web could illustrate how, if we change the language with which we address the conflict, this might positively affect the ways in which people relate to each other.
Geopolitics of Peace: Between Facebook Groups and Twitter Hashtags
Geographers have been more attentive to war than peace (Megoran 2010, 2011; Williams and McConnell 2011; Williams et al. 2014). Research on divisions and cleavages and the ways in which people are driven apart has animated academic debates. Much less effort has been invested in understanding the ways in which people come together and develop peaceful relations. It is notorious that even when geographers attempt to talk about peace they often end up conceptualising war (Megoran 2010, 2011).
As highlighted by Williams et al. (2014), in the narrow but growing literature on geopolitics of peace three main arguments have been stressed. Firstly, peace is not a status, but a process in which people actively engage towards the resolution of a conflict and the building of peaceful and collaborative relations. Secondly, it is not the prerogative of political institutions only, but involves ordinary people too. Thirdly, peace is not the mere absence of war, but–and as I argue here–peace can happen in wartime. Peace in war is what happened in the most recent Palestinian-Israeli conflict as mutual understanding and support was manifested through various social media.
In 2012, ordinary Israelis and Palestinians set up two Facebook groups, “Israel Loves Palestine” and “Palestine Loves Israel”, which aim to show that there is an alternative road to that of hatred and animosity. These groups connect people divided by walls, checkpoints, propaganda and history, but united in the will to achieve peace. Through these two platforms Israelis and Palestinians, but also Jews and Arabs more broadly, get to know each other by sharing their daily lives and thoughts. As Megoran (2011) argues, meeting people and getting to know more about them may change perspectives. The Other is no longer the stereotype circulated by the media and national propaganda. Gaza and Israel are no longer the homes of terrorists or colonialists and oppressors. They become the homes of ordinary people who wake up, work, struggle, have families. The homes of mundane everyday practices in which each and everyone recognises themselves.
During the ceasefires, members talk about their lives. Together they also remember the darkest pages of Jewish and Palestinian histories. Both the Shoah and the Nakba are remembered with equal pain and sorrow as members of the groups express sadness and solidarity for each other’s “catastrophe”. These virtual geographies of peace identify points of ruptures and find ways (or at least attempt to) to re-sew those splits and relations through a process of re-humanisation of the Other which takes place through the sharing of lives, stories, and fears.
Perhaps not surprisingly, if people extend themselves in times of ceasefire and “relative” peace, these groups are even more active in times of war as they become sources of information on what is happening, as well as platforms to express solidarity, share information on peace demonstrations and the collection of basic necessities such as food and blankets (in Israel, to be sent to Gaza). This illustrates that peace rather than being a state is a process, and perhaps even more so, a state of mind.
Slogans like “not in my name” become an everyday politics that transforms violence into friendship and empathy, and aims to change (albeit slowly and not without difficulty) people’s minds about the war, their governing institutions, and the other side of the conflict. The “enemy” is no longer an anonymous Palestinian or Israeli, but becomes a person with a name, a history, a family, and an ordinariness that makes them human. The sharing of the human condition makes everyone somehow connected and dependent on each other (Butler 2004; Woon 2014).
The tools that are proposed to heal the traumas and build bridges are “friendship and compassion”. JouJou, founder of the group “Palestine Loves Israel”, only three days after the proclamation of the ceasefire said:
It takes an incredible amount of courage and bravery to stand up for peace and to reach out to the other side these days […] To all of you who made a friend from “the other side”: Your example of love and friendship will change the world one day. It already changed your world. Keep it on! This is the way. (“Palestine Loves Israel”, 29 August 2014)
The administrators of the groups are not naive. They realise that there are manifestations of fear, anger, and hate. But they also witness members becoming friends. Most importantly these groups allow people to re-negotiate their opinions as they get to know about the Other’s life in this ongoing conflict.
Yet, these are not the only instances of virtual geopolitics of peace. As the conflict broke out, reactions to it were globalised. In July 2014, as a form of activism against war Abraham Gutman, an Israeli, and Dania Darwish, a Syrian, and both students of Hunter College in New York City, created the hashtag campaign #ArabsAndJewsRefuseToBeEnemies, and an accompanying Facebook page, to spread messages of understanding and peace. Afraid that a street demonstration would turn into a manifestation of hatred rather than solidarity, the founders of the initiative decided to start with an online campaign supporting peace. They chose a virtual platform to reach the widest possible audience and to remind people that as hatred can spread through the social media, so could peace.
While there are certainly limitations in the use of social media and hashtags to spread the seeds of peace, the founders hope that the hashtag will provide people with the possibility of exchanging ideas about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and sharing a language of potential friendship rather than hatred. They wish these virtual platforms could open up spaces of dialogue and connection in which people do not have to necessarily agree, but could express disagreement with respect for human life.
The initiative was soon supported by people around the world posting pictures of themselves with the hashtag. More importantly it was joined by other Jews and Arabs, mixed race and mixed ethnic couples, and cross-cultural friends who posted pictures showing their love and friendship and proving that Jews and Arabs can live together. Such virtual manifestations of peace were accompanied by on-the-ground initiatives such as an interfaith memorial service in NYC to mourn the victims of the war.
This is not to say that these virtual geopolitics of peace are enough. While they provide platforms for more composed and respectful discussions, they still need to be accompanied by gestures on the ground showing solidarity and mutual understanding wherever possible. Empathy can be developed starting from moments of rupture and violence. As the founders of these groups and hashtag campaigns demonstrate, virtual geopolitics of peace may contribute to changing the way we talk about conflict, and ultimately this may lead to more radical changes as words become states of mind.
Geographers of Peace: A Future Agenda
The problem with conceptualising peace as the “absence of war” is that it implies passivity and lethargy in action. Peace is about engaging and being proactive. It is not just the task of diplomacy: peace is also in our hands, words, and mundane everyday gestures, because if war is a practice then so is peace. It is an everyday project aimed at global justice and could be pursued and explored through concepts of tolerance, friendship, hospitality, and empathy (Williams and McConnell 2011: 930).
Geopolitics of peace is therefore a geopolitics that is “sensitive and sympathetic to the claims of nonviolence” (Woon 2014: 656). But as Woon argues, just as human life is precarious (see Butler 2004), fragile also are these geopolitics. Because of their vulnerability, they need to be nurtured, protected, and constantly fed. I do not argue that virtual instances of peaceful coexistence like the one shown above would radically change the nature of politics or lead to a just peace process–the diplomatic one–within reasonable times. I hope that the latter will be achieved in our lifetime, but we should be ready to accept that this may not be the case. And yet every gesture remains crucial. With this in mind, I contend that peace can happen in wartime too. If solidarity and empathy may happen when hostilities are suspended, any forms of exchange and support become even more powerful in wartime. It is peace in war.
Geographers have the moral duty to witness efforts towards peaceful coexistence. Coming from a discipline so entrenched in a culture of militarism which for so long served the interests of empires, they have the task to keep denouncing oppression and violence. Most importantly, they must identify and promote bridges by being attentive to the variety of situated gestures that step by step construct tolerant or friendlier relations.
As Woon (2014) maintains, it is also crucial to explain why nonviolence and peace should be preferred to violence and war through empirical examples. This is certainly explored in Williams’ (2013) recent work on coexistence and cooperation (and the effort taken, and the difficulties presented) between Hindu and Muslim communities in the silk sari industry of North India. But more needs to be done in proving how peaceful relations can benefit everyone’s wellbeing.
Pursuing a geopolitics of peace does not entail pursuing agreement. In the search for peaceful relations and coexistence, geographers must stress the recognition of differences and attend to the ways in which differences of opinion and cultural practice could be respected alongside coexistence. In their investigations, they should examine different roads to peace, including the most tortuous and difficult to walk. Perhaps studying peace in wartime may be the ultimate instance that eventually will lead to radical changes.
Butler J (2004) Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso
Megoran N (2010) Towards a geography of peace: Pacific geopolitics and evangelical Christian Crusade apologies. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 35(3):382-398
Megoran N (2011) War and peace? An agenda for peace research and practice in geography. Political Geography 30(4):178-189
Williams P and McConnell F (2011) Critical geographies of peace. Antipode 43(4):927-931
Williams P (2013) Reproducing everyday peace in North India: Process, politics, and power. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 103(1):230-250
Williams P, Megoran N and McConnell F (2014) Geographical approaches to peace. In F McConnell, N Megoran and P Williams (eds) Geographies of Peace (pp1-27). London: I.B. Tauris
Woon C Y (2014) Precarious geopolitics and the possibilities of nonviolence. Progress in Human Geography 38(5):654-670