US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's decision to meet Palestinian and Israeli civil society organisations gave a boost to groups helping to bring communities together at a time of heightened hostility, those involved told The National following the “unprecedented” move.
Mr Blinken's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories aimed to cool rapidly escalating regional tension after a spate of deadly incidents in recent weeks.
It was his first visit to the region since Israel's new right-wing coalition government took office in December and included meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
During his time in Israel, he set aside time to meet representatives from five leading civil society organisations before doing the same with Palestinian groups in Ramallah.
A US embassy source told local media that the move by the Secretary of State was “rare, if not unprecedented”.
Those present welcomed the gesture, saying it gave them a boost at a time when they are facing increasing hostility, including from the new administration.
“It’s not a comfortable situation and the new government is a huge threat to us and our work, but we’re also more motivated and active,” Daphna Goldschmidt-Cohen of Ropes, which seeks to bring together emerging leaders from across the Middle East, told The National.
Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich previously described human rights organisations as an “existential threat” to Israel. Staff of several organisations have been subjected to travel restrictions and a number of reports last year alleged that Israel had used sophisticated spyware to tap phones of Palestinian and Israeli rights activists.
In 2021, Israel labelled six leading Palestinian rights groups as terrorist organisations and raided their offices.
“It’s very rare for our government to get involved in work bringing Israelis and Palestinians together … I’d say that 90 per cent of that work is undertaken by civil society organisations,” Ms Goldschmidt-Cohen said. “However difficult, our work is crucial because there’s no other meeting point for Palestinians and Israelis.”
But she added that such hostility — while bad — was not new and had not yet stopped them from working.
“We’re more motivated and active. We need to remember that the government in Israel has been pretty similar for the past decade and a half,” she said.
This work is crucial to fostering understanding between the different sides, explained Nitzan Shauloff, who said the meeting with Mr Blinken was “unforgettable”.
“Civil society organisations play a critical role in Israel by promoting dialogue and collaboration between different communities and advocating for the most marginalised groups in society. In the current political climate, their role is even more crucial,” he said.
Mr Shauloff represents Tikkun Olam Makers, which brings together specialists to help society and make things such as 3D-printed limbs.
Ryan Levin of the Netzach Educational Network, which encourages social mobility in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community and works to overcome suspicion of the secular world, highlighted the stabilising nature of civil society initiatives.
“Whatever the political situation might be, our work is largely unreliant on government for its success,” he said.
Mr Levin said Mr Blinken seemed to have a “real understanding” of the sensitivity of the situation.
“He is incredibly pragmatic and genuine. The message he communicated both to the press and behind closed doors was intensely supportive of civil society and affirmed unequivocal US support of it.”
Others agreed that the move was a good step, even if Mr Blinken's visit did not yield any specific breakthroughs in calming tension or restarting long-stalled peace talks.
“It really was a positive meeting, and he then went and met counterparts in Ramallah,” said Ms Goldschmidt-Cohen. “Nothing bad can come from him visiting, at least … Time will tell what the impact of the trip will be.”
Last year was the deadliest in more than a decade in the West Bank. Violence steadily escalated following a spate of lethal Palestinian attacks in Israel, which led to Israel stepping up raids in Palestinian areas.
Mr Blinken called on both sides to ease tension during his visit to the region, during which he reaffirmed Washington's support for a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict.
Barbara Leaf, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and US special representative for Palestinian affairs Hady Amr have remained behind to continue de-escalation talks between the two sides.