Guest author: Oliver Fink, University of Basel


The most fascinating aspect of my project so far are the people I encounter along the way. I don’t even mean the extraordinary ones by worldly or scientific standards, but the ones you can meet in the day to day life in Israel and Palestine:

The granny sharing her fascinating family history of her mom and aunt ending up on opposing sides during the war of independence in’48 after both managed to leave Germany before the Second World War. The aunt married an Arab Christian facing a sad history of deportation and exile while her sister prospered in Israel.

The farmer from a Moshaw (agricultural settlement, a bit like a Kibbutz) giving me his perspective on the land and his difficulties as a farmer, including how his land gets taken away little by little by the government.

The manager of a small business whom some might call a terrorist as he spent several years in prison for related charges describing his young family with deep affection while at the same time being filled with so much anger that he refused his prison sentence being shortened as this would have required an apology.

The Israeli Scientist (not a conflict researcher) going out of his way to support Palestinians either in his own research group or in a village nearby his home and all the frustrations linked to his efforts.

Daily encounters showing kindness, opposition, indifference, support and most of all, them sharing their fascinating stories with me. Stories of hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear – emotions in intractable conflict that we urgently need to understand better…


The land seems to be doing something with the people in it and my intricate balance between the Israeli and the Palestinian culture is an almost impossible one – finding a form of equality between two opposing unequal parties, defining and executing a project that hopefully serves both (which makes it instantly also very suspicious for both).

For a long time, we were pondering where to live: in the Westbank – where our children attend an Arab / German School – or in Israel. The former implies that all our Israeli friends will have a hard time to visit us while the latter would mean that our Palestinian friends or our kids’ school buddies can’t come for a visit.

We are definitely the odd ones out, in our little Israeli community as well as in the school our kids are attending. Normally we simply tell people that we live in the Jerusalem area, which is true and works miraculously for both.

There is certain irony in our “between the cultures” lifestyle. As Christians we were warmly welcomed at a local Jewish Reform Synagogue leading to me driving to a nearby ultraorthodox settlement on Friday morning before our first visit to find a kippa out of respect for the congregation. There I ended up discussing with the tailor in Yiddish that I don’t want a black velvet one – the only type he had in his shop – which makes our Jewish reform friends still laughing their heads off. And our kids ended up being blessed by the Rabbi in Hebrew for their school year in an Arabic School.

We might end up like the “Museum on the Seam” in Jerusalem, a rugged stone structure full of scars challenged by funding problems – fractured and torn between two cultures, dipping our toes into each one but being at home in none.

Maybe this is an occupational hazard for people trying to build bridges or maybe this is leading to a conceptual breakthrough…


The biggest and most profound career impairment of all times are my children. Without them I might be a Nobel Price Winner. I used to sleep better in the warzone of eastern Congo during a Humanitarian assignment with shootings every night, ambushes and UN troops than in the last years with three young children in beautiful Switzerland.

On the positive side, they give a balance from professional tunnel vision and pointless ambition. They also facilitate a unique perspective:

  • Making two grim and tense soldiers in the bus at Bethlehem’s “Tunnel Checkpoint” smile and calling them “Gingi” (which is Hebrew for “redhead”), maybe reminding them of their own kids at home and turning soldiers with guns and body armor into dads.
  • Or the Orthodox Patriarch feeding sweets to our youngest in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre directly under the “do not eat” sign, turning strict commandments into the generosity of a grandparent.

My wife and I discussed for quite a while the impact of our decisions on the family before heading out to the Middle East – will our own positive experiences in Africa be repeated here and will the adventure be an enrichment for our kids?

We don’t know yet and even in Europe we can’t fully control the fate of our children, but seeing them play football or doing gymnastics with Palestinian as well as Israeli kids, discover Jerusalem’s old town or the green nature of Wadi Bokek, it’s worth at least trying out…


Throughout my professional life I have been involved in several fascinating sectors. The most intense, but in many aspects also the most rewarding was a humanitarian assignment in Eastern Congo, another intractable conflict. Lasting friendships were formed, new insights gained and most importantly – we were making a difference helping people in severe need.

So why not approaching my current context in essentially the same way? Several friends of my time in humanitarian aid have opted for this approach, I would be familiar with the NGO sector and could be much more effective, couldn’t I?

The “Copenhagen Consensus” is an effort of some of the most brilliant economists making sense of the world’s biggest problems and possible solutions by economic standards. “Armed Conflict” ranks consistently high as a significant problem but very low when it comes to practical solutions, for example:

  • In the original version from 2008, “Armed Conflict” is at the highest position of all problems, the first mentioned solution comes at rank #18 in terms of economic effectiveness.
  • In the next version from 2012 with assumed budget restraints of 75bn USD, no conflict solution made it into the final list considered a worthwhile investment.
  • In the most detailed current version, an investment in the “health” sector produces approximately a six times higher return on investment than “conflict & violence” interventions.

The bottom line – there is so much we don’t know about how to solve intractable conflicts in an effective way…

Back in Congo – besides my real job as projects coordinator and psychosocial specialist – I was for some time involved in reconstruction of schools and health centers, filling in for the absent project manager. In the beginning my main job was to assess which schools had been destroyed in an outbreak of violence after our first phase of reconstruction and I’m pretty sure some of “my” structures were redestroyed afterwards again.

As fulfilling and useful direct help can be, maybe a more sustainable answer is needed after all – even if this answer is not very clear yet. The toughest response to a question (especially in academic circles) is “I don’t know”. My current answer is “I don’t know but I’m going to find out” …