Book review — Mobilizing for Peace (eds Benjamin Gidron et al)

Book review — Mobilizing for Peace: Conflict Resolution in Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, and South Africa (eds Benjamin GIDRON, Stanley N. KATZ, and Yeheskel HASENFELD)
by Benjamin WHITE
15 February 2021

Mobilizing for Peace is a comparative empirical study assessing the structure and efficacy of third sector organisations in three protracted conflict regions. These regions: Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine and South Africa, all experienced significant political breakthroughs at around the time of study and, as noted by the editors: “These historic agreements were preceded by intense activity from nongovernmental/civil society groups and organizations, which advocated for peace, reconciliation, and resolution” (p. 3). The book is dedicated to these contributing peace and conflict resolution organisations (P/CROs) and they were studied in the name of promoting peace in their conflict-stricken regions.

With it being a comparative work, there lies the unavoidable question of what can be learned from the three cases with regards to how civil society plays a part in creating space for dialogue. It is quickly made apparent that the overall aim of the book is to establish whether there are transregional commonalities between the P/CROs involved, alongside the goal of evaluating the extent to which these organisations facilitated political shifts towards peace. The authors are mindful of the fact that such lessons might be modest. However, the P/CROs held a dissenting view to their respective governments at the time. Therefore, there is an argument that these pioneering organisations played a role in legitimising the road to peace from within this hostile environment.

While some of the P/CROs concerned were formed earlier and some later, most arose concurrently within the 1980s. That is to say that the peaks of the conflicts sparked the rise of the majority of these organisations. To take Northern Ireland as an example, the heightened intensity of paramilitary violence in the 1980s, coupled with an increasing encouragement from the British government for the third sector, stimulated this paradigm (Meyer, p. 176). In the words of the editors, the formation and continuation of these organisations relied on a “magic moment” as described by one founder of a South African P/CRO (p. 4). Although such moments are not explicitly defined in the book, it is clear that the timing of the formation of an organisation is incredibly important. There needs to be not only a tangible purpose for an organisation, but also the political space that will allow action. This is perhaps the most profound finding of the study as all of the major comparative implications outlined later in the book have their basis here.

As noted by the editors (p. 229), the four main theoretical discoveries are as follows:

  1. Centrality of foreign funding
  2. The importance of charismatic leadership
  3. The formalization and professionalisation of P/CROs
  4. Impact of P/CROs

Due to the contested nature of the regions in question, all three regions relied heavily on foreign donors (finding number 1). Northern Ireland can be considered an exception here, depending on your views on the role of the British state in the conflict. Nevertheless, only one of the Northern Irish P/CROs studied held British policy as a primary root cause of the conflict. With most organisations forming around the mid-1980s, when the British and Irish governments were coming to be viewed as more neutral mediators, the P/CROs position on the conflict’s causation is understable. The premise of most Northern Irish P/CROs was centred on transforming attitudes and beliefs (Meyer, p. 188), rather than reforming the political system (as was the case with Israel), or transforming the political systemic structures (South Africa).

P/CROs in Northern Ireland largely framed the conflict as being derived internally, which aligned with the British standpoint (Meyer, p. 189). British funding was offered most to organisations that held an intercommunity relations focus and, with this, the P/CROs tended to orientate their work around the acute and “day-to-day” symptoms of the conflict, rather than the big issues of a political solution (Cochrane and Dunn, p. 169). However, the authors also regard that substantial investment by the British state in the voluntary sector suggests these P/CROs might have been more inclined to uphold a pro-British attitude towards the conflict in Northern Ireland (Meyer, p. 189).

The reliance on external funding also played a consequential role in the operations of the majority of the organisations, cross-regionally speaking. While the editors note that institutionalisation was not inevitable (p. 231), the study found that most P/CROs needed to adapt and formalise their structures in order to secure funding and survive. Twenty-four of 27 of the P/CROs studied came to be run by paid staff (Meyer, p. 184), and this is in spite of the fact that many emerged as informal organisations that operated predominantly on a voluntary basis. This affirms finding 3. Furthermore, the editors emphasise that the importance of strong and charismatic leadership (finding 2) is understandable, given the conflicted and difficult-to-traverse setting within which they operated (p. 230). Such contexts meant significant risks to the survival of the organisations in themselves as well as their staff. Duly, the editors note that it takes individuals with particularly strong conviction to maintain a successful P/CRO (p. 230).

Finally, regarding efficacy (finding 4), although the book notes  the extreme difficulty in measuring the impact of individual organisations, the P/CROs are thought to have had a more abstract impact on the peace processes. Across the regions, the P/CROs played major roles in challenging the mainstream negative and zero-sum narratives that pervaded each conflict.

South Africa

For example, in the chapter on South Africa, Taylor emphasises that the studied P/CROs had a cumulative effect, interacting through largely informal networks: “These organisations overlapped and combined, influenced and penetrated each other, evolved together, and eventually came project a new emergent reality — namely, a virtual non-racial democratic South Africa” (p. 85). This was achieved through a myriad of different organisations and methods, all with the intent of presenting a postaparthaid way forward.


In the chapter documenting P/CROs in Israel, Hermann notes that determining the success of the organisations is problematic, as there is no substantial link between their activities and the political processes behind the Oslo Accords. With that said, the author is mindful of a notable attitudinal change: “[The peace movement] can be credited for its contributions to the cognitive change that facilitated Israeli-Palestinian rapprochment and resulted in the Oslo process” (p. 119). In spite of consequential setbacks such as a stigma against the movement claiming it unpatriotic, the P/CROs in Israel are considered to have dented the zero-sum relations between the two states. As with the case of South Africa, the organisations were successful in offering an alternative view to the mainstream notion that violence is inevitable (p.124). The book also presents a chapter outlining the work of Palestinian P/CROs and while limited in efficacy, these organisations do represent a noteworthy peace camp. Nevertheless, the failure to gain a political compromise and territorial rights to Palestine has heavily impacted the activity of the state’s P/CROs, and as the author, Hassassin, regards: “Although the third sector fought to hold onto the support of the people, only those organisations whose work had principled outlooks based on a realist perspective of the Palestinian predicament remained” (p. 149).

Northern Ireland

Regarding Northern Ireland, Cochrane and Dunn assert that the work of the studies P/CROs was incremental, continuous, and valuable to peace (p. 168). While an indirect feat, these organisations are acclaimed to have brought an inclusivist NGO philosophy into the political sphere and fostered the scope for political involvement for those that were formally marginalised: “P/CROs provided a means to incorporate both nationalist and unionist former paramilitary members into the political process, afforded space for such people to develop competence within more conventional politics, and saw some of these people graduate to mainstream political party membership” (p. 169). The P/CROs incrementally gave a significant stimulus to the wider civil society in Northern Ireland and, by way of that, made a notable contribution to peace (p. 170).

Across the study, these organisations risked much within unforgiving contexts to break the cycles of inter-communal hatred, occupation, and aparthied, by promoting public discourse and alternative identities. In addition, the organisations are seen to have played an important intermediate role between the political process and the grass-root communities. Through these means, P/CROs can be seen as a consequential element in global efforts to confront conflict and promote peace. While one cannot discern or quantify the exact outcomes of the work of these organisations, due to the variety of their methods, they can be seen as part of the bedrock on which peace is built. Peace processes are reliant on a willing and accepting civil society that believes, communally, to be a beneficiary of this new imagined future. The P/CROs in this context could be said to have materialised the foundations of peace.

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