Since Israel’s decimation of Gaza began, I have not seen the word peacebuilding in any Arabic article or social media post. I am not surprised: it is delusional and absurd to ask a population facing extermination to not be frustrated and angry.

Peacebuilding may seem like a concept from outer space for Palestinians, given the latest assaults – including apparent war crimes and other violations of international law – as well as the decades-long colonial occupation and the relentless dehumanisation they are subjected to.

Worse, the illegal actions of Israel in Palestine – as well as its attacks across the borders in Lebanon and elsewhere – seem to have the unwavering support of leading players in the international community, particularly the US. This brings into question a core principle of human rights: universality.

Are human rights really universal, or only meant to serve the political and economic interests of the Global North, the former colonial powers?

Unfortunately, many young Arabs have been tweeting that colonialism never ended, as they see the so-called ‘free world’ leaders as supporting the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. These are people, peacebuilders, who were on the frontlines of the Arab Spring. They sought democracy and peaceful reforms; they were imprisoned in their countries or forced into exile. Even then, they didn’t lose faith in the universality of human rights. Now, they do. That’s a huge loss.

On the other hand, there have always been the sceptics, who argue that the Global North preaches democracy and human rights only when it aligns with their interests, without caring about the aspirations of people genuinely seeking non-violent change. This camp is gaining more ground and increasing in numbers. The fault lines are deepening and polarisation is growing. Their frustration, and that of the entrapped Gazans, should be addressed in order to avoid vicious cycles of violence that would nourish xenophobia and Islamophobia.

Anti-colonial peacebuilding?

Despite this, peacebuilding might be possible, if not by the Palestinians, but for their sake, and for the common, universal values of justice. It will be an out-of-context, anti-colonial peacebuilding, perhaps a redefinition of the practice.

I think South Africa suing Israel for genocide in Gaza may restore shaken faith in the international establishment. The resignation of top UN and US officials in their objection to Israel’s “genocide unfolding before our eyes” is an act of peacebuilding.

So is the bravery of anti-Zionist Jews, as more and more Jewish groups endorse Palestinians’ rights. “Not in my name,” they say, condemning the Israeli atrocities. Many have been threatened and bullied for criticising Tel Aviv, but continue to affirm (as Wieland Hoban, Chairman of Germany’s Jewish Voice, told Euronews) “there is no inherent contradiction between being Jewish and supporting Palestinian rights.”

Descendants of Holocaust survivors were arrested for denouncing genocide in Gaza. That’s the ultimate embodiment of the bonds of humanity. That’s peacebuilding. It is not the first time Holocaust survivors and descendants have denounced the ‘destruction’ of Gaza – in a 2014 letter, more than 300 of them warned that “genocide begins with the silence of the world.”

Well, this hush is being challenged, as never before. Weekly demonstrations worldwide continue, unprecedented since the 2003 war on Iraq. American activists sent more than 300,000 letters to the US Congress, where representatives pushed to block weapons sales “used to fund war crimes in Gaza.” That’s grassroots and institutional peacebuilding.

Academic peacebuilding is best manifested in the overwhelming uprising on US campuses, as students and faculty members demand universities divest from Israel. The ensuing violent crackdowns on student protestors have raised serious concerns about the status of freedom of speech in a country that sees itself as a watchdog against such violations occurring elsewhere. Double standards or hypocrisy? It doesn’t really matter, as the impact of the protests cannot be undone. They inspired university students in Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, and the Middle East, including Lebanon. And their message of solidarity has reached Gazans, who shared their gratitude and their own messages of support for protestors.

a poster that reads 'stop funding genocide'

An anti-genocide poster seen in Beirut, photo by Sawssan Abou-Zahr.

Moreover, students at the University of Glasgow chose the British-Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a firsthand witness to the Israeli atrocities, as their rector, adopting his pledge to divest the university from the arms trade. His landslide win is also an act of anti-colonialism – particularly given Arthur Balfour, who wrote the Balfour Declaration on the establishment of a Jewish nation in Palestine, previously held this rector position.

In other forms of peacebuilding, dock workers in Spain and Belgium blocked arms shipments to Tel Aviv “as there is no justification for sacrificing civilians.” Their Italian and South African colleagues did so too in 2021. A similar objection took place in Australia, with legal action in the country's high court against the shadowy arms trade.

British unionists blockaded a factory that provides Israel with components for military aircraft used in “the genocidal bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza by the Israeli occupying forces and violence across historic Palestine.” It is extremely brave of them to use the term ‘historic Palestine’ to condemn the colonialism and occupation of that land since 1948.

In addition, boycott movements are gaining more ground, targeting goods produced in illegal settlements in the West Bank as well as international chains donating profits to Israel. Capitalism is one of the many faces of colonialism and the morality of resisting both is equally an act of peacebuilding.

Last but not least, the professional and personal sacrifices of Palestinian journalists received well-deserved recognition with the prestigious 2024 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. Media organisations worldwide have also demanded better protections for journalists in Gaza and elsewhere, in light of the threats they face.

Anas Mohammed via Shutterstock - Palestinian relatives mourn the body of journalist Akram Al-Shafi’i in the European Hospital, who was killed during an air strike on his home in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza Strip on Januar

Palestinian relatives mourn the body of journalist Akram Al-Shafi’i in the European Hospital, who was killed during an air strike on his home in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza Strip in January.

As of 22 May 2024, at least 100 Palestinian journalists and media workers have been killed through Israeli attacks in Gaza, in addition to three Lebanese targeted in the Lebanese territories. Some were killed in direct strikes to their family homes, or sniper attacks, according to the Committee to Project Journalists.

Yet, the Palestinian side of the story, sidelined since 1948, is being heard.

Shifting powers

Now, the devastation of Gaza is shaking the world.

At the ShiftThePower summit in Bogota last December in which I took part, Palestinian activist Sohair Asaad from the RawaFund motivated a sympathetic audience by calling for “a global movement” as “people in the streets are not there only for Gaza, but are in the process of a huge reclaim of power... and changing the terms set by [Western] elites... [who] should prove that they are not racist or colonial.”

That movement is a reality, and continues to grow. While international powers and long-standing colonialism hinder peace efforts, individual activists and grassroots movements are stepping up. They rightly call for peace built from the ground up, humanising Palestinians and respecting their narrative and rights as an indigenous population that has generations of refugees who should be able to return to their homeland. They know peace cannot be imposed top-down, as was the colonial Balfour Declaration or the outdated two-state solution.

Enough, we say, with atrocities committed by the Global North or under its auspices. Let it be for a new order where the South has equal status in global leadership.

South Africa has much to teach the North about overcoming colonial apartheid, truth and reconciliation, and fighting for international justice. Brazil is also breaking decades of Israeli diplomatic and political impunity, accusing Israel of genocide and halting an arms deal.

Let it be a new world order ending the double standards of colonial superiority of the North over the South, and truly respecting the common values of human rights and peacebuilding. Otherwise, we are doomed to an unprecedented failure of humanity. It is a shame if we don’t all try to prevent it. ‘Never again’ is now or never!

Sohair Assad at Shift The Power - Bogota - Nico F - Efeunodos - 2023

Sohair Asaad at the Shift The Power Summit in Bogota, Dec 2023 - Nico F - Efeunodos.