Truth and Reconciliation

By Elana Summers | 2003-01-01 12:00:00

Would a truth

commission help

overcome the decades of enmity among Israelis and Palestinians?

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: Priscilla Hayner defines the term reconciliation as "building or rebuilding relationships today that are not haunted by the conflicts and hatreds of yesterday." Her book Unspeakable Truths is a comprehensive exploration on truth commissions and their contribution to the reconciliation process.2 In addition to national reconciliation, she demonstrates that truth commissions may also advance the healing process for victims of trauma and atrocity, end impunity by bringing to justice perpetrators of horrific crimes, and suggest reforms that the political or judiciary system may implement in order to prevent the recurrence of future crimes.

A number of characteristics of a truth commission suggest this is a suitable reconciliation mechanism for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, truth commissions provide victims with a public voice and bring the victims' experiences of suffering to the attention of the broader public by gathering their testimonies and publishing the results.3 In many instances, they have proven themselves better suited to the needs of victims than courts of justice because courts themselves, in addition to the military and police, are often complicit in committing atrocities. In such cases, gathering victims' testimonies becomes the first time that victims' claims are acknowledged by a state body. This would provide a forum for Palestinians to voice and receive official Israeli acknowledgement for the atrocities committed against them by the Israeli army in the 1948 War as well as in later wars and confrontations. And listening to Israeli voices recounting the atrocities committed against them during the Holocaust, in Arab states (for Sephardic Jews), and as a result of suicide bombings and other Palestinian acts of violence, would force the Palestinians to acknowledge that victimization in the Israeli psyche is what causes acts of violence against them. The mutual recognition of victimization that is a key to any just resolution of the conflict could be accomplished through a truth commission.

Unsilence dangerous topics

Second, and related to the first point, is that under the aegis of a truth commission, official recognition of past abuses serves to "unsilence a topic that might otherwise be spoken of only in hushed tones, long considered too dangerous for general conversation, rarely reported honestly in the press, and certainly out of bounds of the official history taught in the schools."4 By reclaiming a country's history for public review, truth commissions facilitate both knowledge and acknowledgement of past abuses: Acknowledgement means that the state has admitted to committing past wrongs, and knowledge implies that the uncovered "truth" enters public cognition and reshapes the collective memory.5 This in turn allows for a rewriting or re-evaluation of a nation's history "by facing unwelcome truths in order to harmonize world views so that continuing conflicts stand at least within a single universe of comprehensibility."6

In the Israeli-Palestinian case, therefore, a truth commission can contribute to the reconciliation process by emphasizing the incompatibility of the two narratives' depiction of the 1948 War and by ensuring that although each side may not internalize the others' experience, they can at least acknowledge that the 1948 War has radically different meanings for each group (which should not be allowed to obstruct reconciliation). The potential for a shift toward greater differentiation in both Israeli and Palestinian narratives is demonstrated in the following quote by Graciela Fernández Meijide following the presentation of the Nunca más report in Uruguay:

"I do not delude myself. I know that history advances and recedes. But I also know that, fortunately, the history of the period has been written, not in what is pejoratively called the official history of the victor, but as history written by the victims. Whoever honestly wants to know what really happened in these countries in that period…can make use of these books."7

Third, truth commissions can actually assist victims of past traumas and abuses resolve and heal their traumas. Unresolved and non-integrated traumas do not disappear with the passage of time. In reopening old wounds that never closed properly, truth commissions therefore allow victims to cure the infection in order to prevent festering in the future.8 This is especially critical in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where there is a constant tension between individual and collective bereavement and mourning (the latter continues to repeat the Zionist belief that "it is good to die for your country"), and in particular in Palestinian society where grief and shock at the loss of loved ones is overshadowed by a disturbingly strong emphasis on martyrdom and suicide bombings. In societies, therefore, where grief takes on a strong nationalist tone, a truth commission would give precedence to the individual voices as well, thus nurturing individual and collective healing.

Instead of retribution

Finally, because there is no one standard model of a truth commission, populations affected by violence can design a truth commission in a manner responsive to local cultures and traditions. In this manner, thornier issues such as retributive justice, naming the guilty, and reparations are not forced upon the populations, but dealt with in a manner best suited to reconciliation.

This point is aptly demonstrated in the differences between the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The ICTR was established by the United Nations with the express purpose of bringing to justice those guilty for the 1994 Rwandan genocide. According to Rwandan author Bubu Aynido, "the retributive understanding of crime and justice, upon which the ICTR is founded, is discordant with the world view of many African communities. To emphasize retribution is the surest way to poison the seeds of reconciliation. If anything, retribution turns offenders into heroes, re-victimizes the victims and fertilizes the cycle of violence."9 Aynido contrasts the ICTR with the South African truth commission which he believes focuses on the future by refusing to inflict heavy penalties on the victimizers and their descendants, and by emphasizing the need to reconcile the future relationships between the different South African communities.

Justice is not necessarily served through criminal proceedings alone, but can be facilitated by emphasizing forgiveness and empathy, identifying the needs and obligations of both the victims and the victimizers, and focusing on the need to end the cycle of victimization.10 Although reparation should be included as part of a truth and reconciliation commission between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the principle of mutually recognizing the wrongs committed by both sides and actively pursuing a reconciliation process could have a cathartic effect.

Israelis need the Palestinians to recognize that acts of terror perpetuate a legacy of trauma and suffering. Yet they also have an obligation not to impose their own suffering upon the Palestinians. Palestinians, in turn, need Israel to recognize that the Israeli legacy of trauma resulted in the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people, but they also have an obligation not to dismiss the atrocities committed against the Jews. Such mutual recognition could allow Israelis to recognize that although the establishment of the State of Israel was seen as a necessary guarantee for the continued existence of the Jewish people in light of the Holocaust, their actions during the war were not always in self-defence alone; terrible atrocities were committed against the Palestinians. Mutual recognition removes the sacred character of Israel's past and transforms it into a more differentiated understanding of Jewish history. This would allow Israel to confront its role in the creation of the refugee problem and consider reparations to the survivors and their families without diminishing the trauma that the Jews endured in the Holocaust.11

What System for them?

What form can a truth and reconciliation commission take between the Israelis and the Palestinians? First, a commission must be the result of a joint Israeli-Palestinian decision and should not be carried out by an international body. Israelis and Palestinians must decide together to pursue the path of reconciliation. If political leaders and governmental bodies, such as the judiciary system, are not prepared for this process, it should then be initiated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Truth commissions conducted by NGOs can influence governments and the wider public, and even elicit their co-operation by holding public hearings, producing reports, and suggesting reforms or judicial proceedings. Second, the results of a truth commission must penetrate the collective memories and narratives of the Israelis and the Palestinians. The final report cannot remain simply a collection of testimonies or statements; it must be witnessed in the revision of history books and the commemoration of holidays (especially Independence Day and Memorial Day). Should the governments support this process, then the transforming of the collective memories in both populations will be facilitated. But even without government support, the widespread need for each side to recognize each other, and the suffering of each side, will attract broad public attention to the truth commission's activities.


1. Elana Summers examines the psychological forces that have fueled the persistent and destructive conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians during most of the past century.

2 Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 161.

3 Ibid, p. 28.

4 Ibid, p. 25.

5 Ibid, pp. 25-26.
6 Kader Asmal, Louise Asmal, and Ronald Suresh Roberts, quoted in Hayner, p. 162.

7 Quoted in Luis Roniger and Mario Sznajder, The Legacy of Human-Rights Violations in the Southern Cone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 194. Hayner is somewhat weary of the healing effects of a truth commission and she records a number of cases in which the traumatic effects were actually magnified when victims publicly spoke about their traumatic experiences. Although this may have been the case at some commissions, it merely emphasizes the need to implement strong support systems for victims and their families during and after the truth commission process.

8 Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine journalist, in Hayner, p. 133.

9 Quoted in Ilan Pappe. "Fear, Victimization, Self and Other". The MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies 1,4-14. p. 21.

10 Pappe, p. 12.

11. Rashid Khalidi. "Attainable Justice". International Journal LIII(2).(1998), insists that the UN and Arab countries also take responsibility for the refugee problem. Although their responsibility is more indirect, the UN and Arab countries exacerbated the problem and placing sole blame on Israel would be a grave injustice and a distortion of history (p. 245).


Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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