In many ways, 2011 was a year when the people finally had their say. From Cairo to Wall Street, throngs of frustrated yet invigorated civilians poured into the streets and took their societies' futures into their own hands. Though unpredictable, these movements grabbed the world's attention, and helped remind us that great change comes most often through the courageous actions of ordinary people.
In 2012, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to learn the necessary lessons from these movements, and to apply them to some of the world's most pressing problems. There is no better place to start than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where for too long global attention has been exclusively focused on obstacles at the top, rather than breakthroughs at the bottom.
Many pundits have already written off 2012 as a year in which progress towards an equitable resolution to the conflict will be impossible. The arrival of election season in the US, the unbridgeable gap between the current Israeli and Palestinian governments, and the pressing domestic concerns of other would-be mediators in Europe and the Middle East, all seem to point to a frustrating year of deadlock and stagnation. From a political and diplomatic perspective, the outlook is bleak.
Fortunately, there is another way to look at the coming year. Instead of fixating on on a small number of intransigent politicians, we can choose to notice the scores of Palestinians and Israelis currently working at the grassroots to resolve the conflict and end the occupation. We can recognize what their resilience and steadfastness have already accomplished, even in the face of escalating violence. And we can lend them support as they strive to change the toxic dynamics of the conflict, creating foundations of trust that their leaders can later build on.
Our attention as a global audience is the fuel on which these movements run, providing their participants with the recognition, leverage and protection they need to continue their courageous work. With an audience behind them, local leaders can make a much stronger case to their people that popular nonviolent strategies offer the best chance of achieving their goals.
We have already seen several hopeful signs that this global audience is developing, with public figures from Nicholas Kristof to Sir Richard Branson acknowledging the significance of Israeli and Palestinian civilians pursuing nonviolence. Gradually, the voices of engaged civilians are beginning to have as much of an impact in the public conversation as those of politicians or militants, if not more so.
Nowhere is this shift more urgently needed than in Jerusalem, a city in which sinister politicking have been particularly effective in undermining the best efforts of civilians on the ground to build a shared future. As the epicenter of the conflict, Jerusalem sets the tone for the region. It has the capacity to be a dangerous tinderbox or, unlikely as it may now seem, a powerful symbol of mutual trust, cooperation and justice.
The yearning for that more hopeful image of Jerusalem has been on display for the past two years in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. There, Palestinian residents and a diverse group of Israeli supporters have waged an ongoing nonviolent campaign to prevent extremist Israeli settlers from evicting Palestinian residents from their homes.
Through this cooperation, many Israelis were exposed for the first time to the discrimination faced by Palestinians living minutes away from them, while many Palestinians had their first encounter with Israelis who were willing to stand by their side, even it meant facing down their own compatriots.
Together with director Rebekah Wingert, our team at Just Vision recently spent time filming their stories for our newly released short film series, Home Front. We were repeatedly struck by the nonviolence organizers' conviction that they can no longer wait for their leaders to deliver meaningful solutions, and that it fell to them to blaze a path that their governments could later follow.
The practical can-do spirit and solid determination of the individuals struggling in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the region should serve as a firm reminder that there is a potent alternative to dysfunctional politics and diplomacy. Rather than counting down the days to the next summit or election and to the disappointment that inevitably follows, these women and men are crafting a more hopeful future for their people right now. Their concern is not with old problems but with new solutions, and in the year ahead, ours should be as well.
Julia Bacha is an award-winning filmmaker and Media Director at Just Vision. She directed and produced the critically-acclaimed documentary, Budrus, and most recently, wrote and produced the series Home Front: Portraits from Sheikh Jarrah.