The Israeli-Palestinian conflict emerged and has continued to be characterised by the conflicting rights or perceived rights of the two parties (Finkelstein 1995; Said 2000; Shlaim 2001). This has led to violent resistance, which also included grave human rights abuses. The conflict emerged as an identity-based conflict, as the Zionist pursuit of a Jewish state in mandatory Palestine was resisted by the predominantly Arab and Muslim worlds, including the local Palestinian population. At its outset, the attempt to assert the Jewish right to self-determination implied the violation of Palestinian individual human rights, through the mass displacement of populations primarily in 1948 and through the disrespect of international humanitarian law since 1967.

Following the 1993 Oslo accords, the overall concept for a solution (although this was not codified by the international community until almost a decade later), was that the conflicting claims of the parties could be reconciled through a territorial compromise. Israel would satisfy its right for self-determination, while allowing for the satisfaction of Palestinian collective and individual rights by withdrawing from the territories it occupied in 1967. Yet the concept has not materialised yet, and its ineffective implementation triggered in 2000 the most violent stage of the conflict since 1948.

In the discussion on human rights and conflict, the Israel-Palestine study opens key issues and questions. First, and connected in particular to the Cyprus conflict, is the link between individual and collective rights in conflict. The case of Israel-Palestine is characterised by a seeming irreconcilability between the parties’ claims to rights. UN Resolution 242, the Oslo accords, and the ensuing development of the two-state solution concept were based on the premise that the parties’ collective rights could be mutually satisfied through a territorial arrangement. Israel would withdraw to the 1967 borders and exert its collective right to self-determination on the 1948 boundaries. The Palestinians would exert their right to self-determination through a state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The territorial solution also entailed the partial fulfilment of the parties’ individual human rights. Hence, Israelis would be guaranteed safety and security and Palestinians would no longer suffer the human rights abuses deriving from Israel’s occupation. Yet the territorial solution alone cannot account for all parties’ claims to rights. More specifically, Israel’s understanding of its collective right (of Jewish rather than Israeli self-determination) contrasted with the Palestinian refugees’ demanded right of return, as well as the rights to equal citizenship called for by the Palestinian minority in Israel.

This raises the fundamental question concerning the potential clash between collective and individual rights and more specifically regarding the definition of what a legitimate collective right entails. A related question concerns the nature of negotiations and a future settlement. In the light of a conflict between individual rights and the specific interpretation of collective rights, does a settlement and/or resolution require the mutual satisfaction of perceived rights? Is the respect for individual human rights a prerequisite for conflict resolution over and above settlement? Or does the attachment to law and rights hinder a compromise settlement in the Middle East?

As opposed to Turkey’s Kurdish question, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has seen a vibrant role of civil society. International NGOs have been present in the region, principally operating in Palestine, particularly since the 1993 Oslo process. This has been due to the humanitarian and human rights situation on the ground (which deteriorated considerably since 2000), as well as to the degree of international attention devoted to the conflict. There has been considerable international and European attention devoted to the Israel-Palestine conflict because of its potential negative spill-over effects (similarly to the Western Balkans and unlike Cyprus). This has also made European decision-makers potentially responsive to the lobbying activities of Jewish or Arab (and Muslim) lobbying groups operating within member states and at the EU level. Finally, the presence of international civil society actors has been high in view of the permeability of the Palestinian context. The absence of statehood in Palestine has generated a highly fluid and open situation in which the divide between the public sphere and the wider civil society arena has been far from clear-cut.

For similar reasons there has been a burgeoning civil society sector in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. In Palestine, the absence of a sovereign state, the continuing occupation and the high degree of donor assistance (when compared to other conflicts) has led to a mushrooming of NGOs in the occupied territories. In Israel, in view of the degree of democratic practice (albeit incomplete), both Israeli Jewish and Israeli Arab NGOs have operated on the ground. Their work has concentrated on issues pertaining to Israeli policies in the occupied territories (e.g., human rights NGOs opposing settlements, settler movements calling for Jewish rights to settle in the West Bank and Gaza, or ‘refusenick’ movements opposing Israel’s military conduct in the territories) as well as on policies and practices concerning the rights and status of the Palestinian minority in Israel. Far less common have been genuinely bi-communal NGO’s, due to the degree of tension between the parties as well as the objective difficulties in meeting and operating jointly on the ground.

The Israel-Palestine conflict opens a set of questions and dilemmas of key importance to this project. The first set of inter-connected questions, relating to Palestine, concern the role of civil society in a non-state context. In view of the absence of a sovereign state and the ensuing blurred lines between state and non-state actors, what have been the implications on the role and effectiveness of local (as well as international) civil society actors in the occupied territories? How have the aims, conceptions and modus operandi of international donors affected the nature, actions and effectiveness of Palestinian civil society? What has been the effect on civil society of donors’ concentration on the most ‘westernised’ Palestinian towns (Jerusalem and Ramallah) at the expense of smaller and more peripheral areas? What has been the role of civil society actors, principally the ones belonging to the broad Islamic camp in Palestine and Jewish fundamentalism in Israel and what has been their role and influence in the conflict?

The second set of questions concerns the impact of the conflict on civil society. As in the case of Cyprus, the physical difficulty of meeting and working together has led to the absence of bi-communal NGOs. In addition, the very lack of an agreement and the deep animosities between the two societies has hindered joint initiatives, or discredited domestically the few track-two initiatives that have existed (some of which have led to the signature of an unofficial agreements). In other words, what impact has the conflict itself had on the effectiveness of bi-communal civil society and how have joint Israeli-Palestinian initiatives sought to escape the vicious circle of mutual mistrust in which they have been caught in?