Guest author: Oliver Fink, University of Basel

The crusader period is normally not a happy time, especially not for a peace researcher, but in June 1228, a remarkable man set out on a crusade. Friedrich II, although Holy Roman Emperor of the German Hohenstaufen dynasty having grown up mainly in Sicily, was fluent in six languages including Arabic. He had close ties to the oriental population of his kingdom, employing Jews as translators of literature and Muslims as his bodyguards.

Consequently (or maybe also just for a lack of troops), he took a very different approach than his predecessors in the Holy Land. Instead of fighting another futile crusade, he used his knowledge of Muslim language and culture to launch a campaign of forceful negotiations that won the Franks most of Jerusalem, a strip of territory linking the city to Akko and an alliance with the Sultan of Egypt. Although the reasons for his move are complicated and were highly unpopular amongst the local Frankish nobles at the time, the treaty of Jaffa and Tell Ajul, signed in February 1229, resulted in the restitution of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem and a coastal strip, stabilizing the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the extent possible in very difficult times. It also had the appealing side effect of crowning himself King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Although there might be interesting implications for current ‘peace deals of the century’, my point is a more general one. Sometimes it is worthwhile to look at outliers from expectations, especially in trying times. Looking at such outlier dynamics from behavioral and emotional norms is what we have been doing for a while, in a qualitative research project very different from our usual quantitative approach.

While we normally try to understand the exact dynamics how emotions contribute to violence after conflict events (conflict will “harden your heart”, but exactly what are the mechanisms how this happens?), the research question of how to create emotional and behavioral change in the face of violence and loss in an intractable conflict was once called a ‘million-dollar question’ by an eminent researcher.

One possibility of approaching this issue is to look at cases where this emotional change happens spontaneously and seemingly by itself ‘against all odds’. We have been analyzing testimonials of a small number of Palestinians that didn’t react to loss and violence with further violence and hate, but instead, they became active in reconciliation efforts and mutual peacebuilding activities. It is known from the literature that in special cases despite difficult circumstances, positive growth and resilience out of suffering can happen, but what are the essential factors that contribute to such a change in our intractable conflict context?

And this change is remarkable at times, it can range from – “one of my friends died in the Intifada. I returned home filled with hatred of the Jews, blood, and the war” or “I became extremely bitter and angry, … and used my pain to spread hatred against the other side” to “I realized for the first time that I had mistaken the enemy. I had thought it was the Israeli people, but I was wrong. Instead, we have a common enemy, hatred and fear.”

Without going too much into detail to distinguish patterns and factors, one important aspect (in 75% of the cases) is an unforeseen direct or indirect encounter in contrast to the normally experienced power asymmetry, for example, a respectful meeting ‘at eye level’ with an Israeli or watching a holocaust movie. One participant described a meeting in the house of a relative in the following way – “[The Israeli] respectfully stood to greet me. He shook my hand. I felt as though he was about to hug me. I asked: ›What are you doing here?‹”. These encounters didn’t follow the usual intractable conflict patterns, where almost all contacts are asymmetric in terms of power, for example in a dependent work setting where Palestinians do menial labour in Israel or settlements and often hostile, like at checkpoints or during house searches by the armed forces.

Accordingly, we initiated similar encounters with Palestinians and Israelis, although low-key and in a ‘natural’ private setting, organizing these are not easy in a time where mutual meetings ‘at eye level’ are virtually non-existent, but so worthwhile seeing a Jewish Rabbi and a Palestinian activist in agitated friendly discussion…

Outliers are per definition rare but therefore especially important to reach out to and useful to study, maybe one day we’ll find creative ways to create more of them…