Mobilizing anger

Reflections for peace builders in the Holy Land from an ecological perspective

Eelke Wielinga

May 2011


Is there any hope peace builders could cling to?

The peace workers I met in Bethlehem during my first visit to Israel and Palestine have left a deep impression on me. After returning home I’ve been emotional, angry and worried. I felt a mobilizing kind of anger. These people are operating in a seemingly hopeless situation. It is hard to see outcomes that are acceptable for all parties in the conflict that is still deepening out, and fear at both sides of the border is increasing further every day. Where to find openings? And what is the role of foreigners here?


This experience has put the network philosophy I’m elaborating to the test. People interact in networks of all kinds and shapes. Societies can be seen as complex networks too. In my view these networks are alive, just like all living organisms in nature. They can be healthy or sick, and sometimes they die and feed other forms of life. Conflict is part of nature. Anger has an inevitable role. But it easily adds to a kind of destruction that nobody desires.

As a peace worker, where do you stand? Where do you find the energy to carry on, despite so many disappointments? What hope is realistic? What are you doing with the anger that mobilised you to get involved anyway?

In this essay I first try to understand the positions of the main actors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then I will reframe the situation from the perspective of living systems and explore what options for action can be derived from this. As a newcomer in this area I do not pretend to deliver the ultimate answer, where so many wise people have failed to do so before. I want to explore what the approach of living networks could offer to peace workers, like clings in the steep mountain wall hikers could grasp while hanging somewhere between heaven and earth.

How to stay out of the claws of the monster?

Even a conflict can be seen as a living creature. It is like a monster that tries to get you into its swamp. Once it succeeds you’re lost, the creature will feed on you and grow even bigger. Only if you manage to stay out of his swampy area you will have your mind free for developing a strategy. For doing so it might help to see conflict as an ecological phenomenon. If you understand how it works, you can try to acquire a position where you are not part of the problem but of solutions instead.

A drama with a global impact

It touches me

People who are dear to me wondered what touched me so much when I told them about what I had seen during this journey. They found it unusual to see me angry this way. I’ve been travelling to many places in the world and I have seen more situations of suffering and injustice. What made it so different this time? Although any rationalisation of emotions is an attempt to reconstruct something that is deeper than words can capture, it might have something to do with the lack of positive perspective of the conflict that is going on, while the potential consequences go further than the Middle East alone. Three mainstream religions with worshippers around the Globe feel connected to the Holy Land, and this magnifies the conflict to a global scale. Injustice in this small piece of land feeds hatred all around the World. This is affecting us all, also in Europe. In The Netherlands, a populist political movement, which is gaining strength with frightening speed, takes the Israeli struggle against the Arabs as its example for containing the ‘Muslim danger’ in Western societies.

The conflict is still deepening out. Probably there is no solution without firm action by the international community, but so far the responses are not adequate. In these circumstances I admire anyone who tries to contribute to peace, however small this contribution may seem. I am sure that sooner or later the good seeds they are planting now will flower.

Incompatible positions

The position of the Palestinians is that their land is being occupied, their properties are being stolen, their rights are being ignored, and the circumstances in their country are systematically made so miserable that fleeing seems the only option left, which is precisely what the occupants are after. For them, the root of injustice is the decision of the international community in 1948 to give in to the Zionist movement and allow the invaders to establish their own state on Palestinian territory. Even if the Palestinians would accept this state as an accomplished fact, they claim decent living conditions in the territories that are left to them. In their view only foreign assistance can restore rights and dignity, and that is what they are waiting for. The international community should repair the damage it has caused, and if it doesn’t, any help from neighbouring countries to recapture freedom will be more than welcome.

The position of the Jewish people is that after many centuries they returned to the holy land of their ancestors to build up a nation where they can live peacefully celebrating their own identity. They were longing for a safe heaven, after being persecuted and humiliated in so many places in the World, culminating in the Holocaust. From their religious perspective it was logical that Palestine would be the promised land.

The new state was build up with remarkable success, especially under the circumstances of the Middle East region. Differences in prosperity naturally cause frictions, so Israel had to put huge efforts in its capacity to defend itself. This has led to a situation of armed peace that is highly unstable, involving huge risks for the region and beyond. For the Israeli state the Jewish identity is a key issue, which needs to be protected from hostile threats. Many Jews claim that the Arabs who are living within the area they control are much better off than elsewhere in the Middle East and they should not complain. Others find daily proof that Jews and Arabs will never be able to live peacefully together and would rather see their land be cleared from those who do not declare themselves loyal to the Jewish identity.

For the international community the issue of the Jewish identity might be understandable, given the history, but it is hard to reconcile with international law that defies discrimination based on race or religion. Justifications for the occupation of territory, based on exclusive religious texts or the fact that ancestors were expelled from the country more than seven centuries ago, would not be acceptable in any place in the world. These arguments cannot serve as a basis for negotiation.

The dilemma for countries that nevertheless support Israel is that they cannot just withdraw their contribution without running the risk that the power balance tips over. That would pull out the plug of the bath and give the chance to the most hostile enemies of the Jews to flush them into the Mediterranean Sea.

How far should people be allowed to go in preserving their identity? This theme is not exclusive for the Middle East. Populist xenophobe movements are rising quickly in most Western countries and have the same root: people who feel threatened in their cultural identity. It is not easy to escape from an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness, looking at the disastrous effects of what is going on and the fear it spreads around. But by looking away the monster does not become less dangerous. Doing nothing is no option.


Conflict as an ecological phenomenon

Changing the perspective to find a way out

You cannot solve problems by the way of thinking that caused them, Einstein said. As long as people keep on thinking in terms of win-or-loose, us against them, conflicting interests and power to control, there is no way out of the conflict. This approach only works if one party really has all the means to get control over the situation. This condition is most unlikely in the Middle East. Even if one party would win at the cost of others, people should ask themselves how desirable the outcome will be in view of the path of destruction the battle will cause.  

Finding the exit requires a different way of thinking. It is worth investigating if the ecological view on human networks might have that potential. In this view conflicts are inherent of evolutionary processes. Understanding their nature can help to escape from the whirlpool of fear, anger and violence: to stay away from the claws of the monster. The living networks approach might enable us to act strategically and utilise our energy in a constructive manner.

Human societies as living networks

People live in networks. They relate to each other and act in patterns. They form entities to which they say “We”: such networks have an identity. Networks can have loose or strong ties. Usually we relate to many networks at the same time: networks of friends, professionals, relatives, networks around initiatives, etc.. Also a village, a cultural community or a society can be seen as a network.

Networks can be seen as living organisms. They have a life cycle and they can be healthy or sick. In a “healthy” network people feel they are profiting from their relationships. This makes them willing to do effort and to align with others. This increases their gain and it generates energy they can feel. It can turn out the other way as well. Things can happen that make people feel disappointed or angry, the balance between give and take becomes negative, and the willingness to do effort and to align decreases. This is a self-propelling process as well. Energy is drained away, and we could call such a network “sick”.

The dynamics in healthy and sick networks of humans basically do not differ from those in any living organism in nature. A bacteria cell, a plant, a human body or an entire ecosystem: they all are networks with many components, developing a task division and specialisation, and interaction patterns that maintain the process of life. This way of looking at human societies offers an interesting view on conflicts.

Destructive patterns have an essential function

Living systems consist of numerous dynamic patterns that link all components of the system together. A cell has a nucleus, mitochondria, ribosomes, plasma, membranes, etc., all doing their part to reproduce the cell, just as the cell ensures the reproduction of its parts. The same is true for a tree, a human body or entire ecosystems. As long as all essential components are connected, the organism is healthy. When connections are distorted, the organism gets sick. Connection makes the difference between healthy and sick, between growth and regression.

Living systems have a life cycle. In the period of growth tasks division and specialisation increases, along with the structure that develops along with the complexity. This structure facilitates the dynamic patterns that connect the constituting parts of the living system.

Interaction patterns can be divided into two types. Constructive patterns stimulate the system to grow, to maintain the task division and to allow for specialisation of its parts. The gain in efficiency and capacity generates energy. Destructive patterns are built in as well, ready to break down the structure as soon as it loses its function.

In the phase of growth constructive patterns dominate and help the organism to develop its full potential. In the mature phase of living systems constructive and destructive patterns keep each other balanced. In the aging phase the structure gradually loses its flexibility to respond to what is required. The destructive patterns take over, eventually leading to the death and decomposition of the organism.

Livings systems have the capacity to respond to their environment. Simple organisms like bacteria have a narrow range of responses and only survive in a specific environment, whereas more complex organisms like animals can live in a wider variety of biotopes. This responsive capacity has grown in a long evolutionary process of trial and error, of variety and selection, mainly by genetic adaptation over millions of years.

The built-in destructive patterns basically have two functions. One is to make an end to structures that have lost their responsive capacity, in order to give way for new life. In most cases this literally means food for other creatures. The other function is to challenge the structure for improving its responsive capacity. If it finds better ways of connecting its elements, the system becomes stronger. If it does not, it has to die.

The difference between constructive and destructive patterns is that the constructive ones connect and seek balance, whereas the destructive ones disconnect and escalate into stagnation or chaos, and ultimately death.

Conflict as natural pattern in human interaction

Human structures are part of nature too, just as any other living organism. Structures like networks, organisations, and even societies rise and fall, they develop task division and specialisation, they generate energy, but they also can enter into stages of regression in which energy is drained away. Eventually they dissolve to make place for other structures that are more responsive to what is required under the given circumstances.

The two functions of destructive patterns can be recognised in conflicts. When a structure does not facilitate an adequate response to challenges in its environment, conflict will arise. It indicates that essential elements are not well connected. Examples are many: discrimination, abuse of power, huge differences in wealth, fight for control over scarce resources, etc.. Either such patterns break down the structure to give way to more adequate ones, or it provokes a change within the system allowing the constructive patterns to connect in a new way what they failed to connect before.

The Circle of Coherence (figure 1) visualises constructive and destructive patterns in human interaction. In the centre of the circle there is vital space. This is what it takes to maintain task division and specialisation. Vital space is what you experience when there is a proper degree of trust: there is room to cooperate, to challenge each other, to experiment, to learn, to be creative and to be meaningful. If there is vital space, you feel invited to contribute and to align to others. It generates energy, and just because it is rewarding, others will increase their input too.  

In this self-propelling process constructive interaction patterns are at work. Although they can manifest themselves in many ways, there are four basic constructive patterns that feed vital space: 

·         Exchange: This pattern balances costs and benefits for individuals. As long as the gain outweighs the effort, the willingness to contribute and to align to others will increase.

·         Challenge: This pattern stimulates individuals to give the best of their qualities in order to find the position in which they are most useful.

·         Structure:  This pattern organises the traffic between the individuals, helping them to align to each other and making them accountable for their contribution.

·         Dialogue: This pattern enables learning, which includes genuine curiosity and the willingness to exchange fixed convictions for better ones.

Each of these constructive patterns reinforces connection. At the dimension of contents they connect the obvious and the unknown, agreement and disagreement, similarities and differences. Between these poles there is a range where people can be curious and learn. At the dimension of relations these patterns connect individuals and the collective, me and we. Between these poles people feel meaningful and protected. People are constantly playing games to determine the shifting borderlines of the space where they trust each other. Children are curious and like to play. This gives them energy. The same is true for adults.



figure 1: The Circle of Coherence















As long as people feel connected, these constructive patterns alternate and supplement each other. Usually one of the patterns is more prevalent than others, but if needed there is always someone who takes an initiative to redirect the interaction into another pattern that requires attention. Healthy systems have their built-in dynamics to keep themselves healthy. They are self-organising.

This is different for destructive patterns. They tend to escalate. Each constructive pattern has a destructive counterpart:

·         Fleeing: When individuals conclude that the balance between give and take is negative, they will withdraw their contribution and be less prepared to align to others. They disconnect. This decreases the gain for others, lowering their threshold for stepping out too. From their own perspective they may have very good reasons for leaving, but from the point of view of an initiator who needs their contribution for a collective purpose, this is a pattern of fleeing.

·         Fighting: As long as individuals are challenging each other, their competences will grow, even if they lose a game, because they learn how to respond better next time. When challenge turns into fight, the connection gets broken. The other is no longer an esteemed opponent but an enemy whose influence should be eliminated. This pattern escalates because each party takes a strike from the adversary as a legitimate reason to hit the other even harder. Fighting leads to mutual destruction.

·         Freezing: Structure can turn into a situation where some are setting and maintaining the rules while others are suffering from it. They do not dare to move outside the limited space that is left to them, and do not see how to change this unsatisfactory situation. When people are complaining or become cynical, these are signs of this pattern. The dominant party usually profits more from this situation, but complains as well about the lack of trust and the efforts it takes to maintain control. Due to this lack of connection a spiral of control and fear develops where people end up being afraid to make any move. This is the pattern of freezing.

·         Conforming: When interaction has been rewarding for some time and dialogue has developed to the satisfaction of all involved, the pattern can turn into a destructive variety too. This occurs when people start taking disagreement as a threat for their harmony. This is a common phenomenon in idealist movements, religious sects, and also in groups that feel threatened by the outside world. Groupthink develops in a sneaky way, without people inside of the structure noticing it. They conform to what they expect others are expecting from them, because being accepted in the group is more important than having a disturbing opinion.

The Circle of Coherence visualises how the steering dynamics for healthy growth as well as those for destruction are inherent in human structures, just as they are in any living organism. This should not be surprising. The human species is walking around on two feet on the planet for about a million years. The ability to live in social groups has developed in an even longer period, since also the primates are doing so. This means that the dynamics to keep social interaction healthy must be much older than the thin rational layer in the human brain with which we pretend to organise ourselves. Rational thinking has an evolutionary history of a few thousand years only.

This observation places quite a number of frequently used arguments to oppose against each other, like rights and morality, science, interests and religious claims, in a wider perspective. What really matters in the end is connection. In a healthy system this connection has at least three dimensions.

·         The horizontal dimension is connection with each other within a group, organisation, network or society. This is the structure where we are active and try to bring about change.

·         The vertical dimension refers to the connection between a social structure and its environment. A structure is only sustainable if it has a serving function in the larger structure it is part of.

·         The core dimension is connecting us with ourselves, our authentic identity, and what we know before we give words to it. This knowing beyond rationality is feeding our intuition.

The ecological metaphor and the larger picture

The metaphor of living organisms for human systems has been abused

Before I continue with the consequences of this ecological view for possible action in conflicts, I have to pay attention to two questions. First, the ecological metaphor has been abused in the past, with horrible effects. What makes this approach different? The second question takes the issue further to this specific situation. Wouldn’t it be more natural to let them to sort out who is the strongest and to allow the best one to win? Why is victory for either the Jewish settlers or the Palestinians no option?

After Darwin had formulated his theory on the origin of species, people used it as a justification for the downside of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. The survival of the fittest allowed them to gain wealth and power at the cost of the lower classes that obviously represented the weaker part of the human species. Up to date, this social Darwinism is leading many hardliner conservatives to believe that success only depends on individual qualities. Any interference, especially from the state, for providing equal chances for all is harmful for a healthy (read: competitive) society.

The Nazi’s used the biological metaphor to justify the eradication of the Jews, who were supposed to be a virus that had to be killed in order to make the society healthy again.

These justifications just take out one element of the living nature that fits well to the purpose of the user. What is left out is the larger picture that shows how in the end all essential components of the system are connected. The survival of the fittest consists of both constructive and destructive patterns that keep the ecosystem as a whole connected and balanced. For sure that feels differently for the rabbit that runs for his life, than for the fox that is just after a daily meal.

Comparing an ethnic group with a virus is clearly disconnecting and ends up in mutual destruction, as history has shown. It is a common strategy of populists to blame a group with a strong and visible identity for all that goes wrong in society. It starts with mobilizing anger that has been caused by misfits in society, and then this anger is channelled towards a victim that is poorly connected with society. Even if this ethnic group would have challenged society (which was not the case in Hitler’s time), you still cannot blame a virus for attacking a weak organism. The healthy response would have been to reconnect in a different way, in order to make better use of all qualities. Fighting the threat only by trying to eradicate it inevitably leads to a path of disaster.

Winning is no option

The rabbit and the fox in their fight of life or death are not aware of their place in the larger ecosystem, where this struggle contributes to the balance in the habitat. When rabbits have no predators they become a plague, as was the case in Australia where they were introduced by the Europeans. This disturbs the balance in the ecosystem, causing a loss of biodiversity. A society that reduces diversity is weakening itself.

Mankind has reached a stage in its evolutionary development in which it can no longer ignore its place in the global ecosystem. Human behaviour is affecting the climate and biotopes everywhere in an unprecedented manner. All rational capacities, wisdom and ingenuity will be needed to align human behaviour to the carrying capacity of the planet. It is not too difficult to understand that if a volume of carbon dioxide that has been stored in energy rich carbon compounds in a period of many millions of years is being released in the atmosphere in only a few decades, an essential cyclic process is being distorted and trouble is at hand. This is only one example of broken connections between the human society and its environment. Most scientists are now convinced that the worldwide ecosystem is no longer capable of accommodating these man made changes without severe consequences. This means that mankind is now responsible for cleaning up the mess it has created. The conflict is obvious. Either it stimulates people to improve their responsive capacity by finding new ways of connecting, or the destructive patterns push through and bring this civilization to an end. 

I put it this so strongly because I do believe we cannot ignore our interdependency any longer. Winning at the cost of others is no option anymore. It will not be alright in the end as long as anyone goes for his own interests, as many economists after Adam Smith still believe. We have to understand that we all play our part in a larger system, and that we have to take responsibility for it.

Belief systems correspond to the degree of complexity of society

Belief systems have developed over time in human history. Belief systems provide a shared set of convictions and norms to social groups, and they are accompanied by stories that explain and justify desired behaviour. Usually belief systems contain deep wisdom, wrapped in a language that was comprehensible by the people in the period of history in which they were developed. For example, the Ten Commandments in the Torah and the Holy Bible represent universal wisdom. The story by which they were introduced made them acceptable for many generations.

Belief systems develop in response to the environment. When the environment changes and becomes more complex, belief systems should grow along with the complexity, since they play an important role in the way people respond to the circumstances. The belief system that dominated the Middle Ages enabled people to create some save heavens in a hostile world full of local warfare and criminals roaming around. It justified the power of strong leaders and sacrifices of the powerless, and it was reinforced by religious leaders who were seen as the interpreters of the will of mystic and superior powers. This ancient belief system does not produce appropriate answers anymore in this complex world of interconnectedness.

Belief systems can also prevent social groups from improving their capacity to respond to a changing environment. In Circle of Coherence this happens when dialogue turns into the pattern of conforming. The signals of this escalating and destructive pattern are that behaviour becomes more and more prescribed, while it seems that all group members accept it without difficulties. This pattern disconnects people from their authentic individuality, from their capacity to ask questions and from being creative.

Fundamentalist Jewish settlers as well as orthodox Muslim groups show signs of a belief system that has been developed for the Middle Ages. If these groups could have their way, they would create a society with the complexity of the Middle Ages. There is one significant difference, however. They have the technology of the 21th century, which is many times more destructive than the bows and arrows the Middle Agers were using to fight each other. If the conflict escalates further, it will not only drag the Middle East region back into the dark Middle Ages. It will mobilise anger in many more regions in the world, and the path of destruction will reach much further. I do not want to see my society to deteriorate into such a harsh society. What is more: the global society, facing the eco-challenge, cannot afford it.

The energy of anger can take different pathways

Paralyzing and mobilising anger

What could this ecological view on conflicts mean for anyone who wants to work on peace? In the last part of this essay I will try to bring the large picture of the previous sections back to what peace keepers experience in their daily work, that is, as far as I try to imagine. What makes the difference between being part of the problem and being part of possible solutions?

Peace workers have chosen to become active and do something concretely. Something gave them the energy to do so. Conflicts generate energy in the form of anger. Anger is linked to aggression, which has the natural function of mobilising spare energy for defending ourselves and the ones we care for.

This energy can take different pathways. First we should distinguish mobilising anger from paralyzing anger. If paralyzing anger gets hold on us, we don’t know what to do anymore. We feel our feet sinking away in the swamp. All options seem hopelessly dangerous. When fear is getting stronger, it is blurring our mind, disturbing our perception, and it magnifies the dangers. With the way out being blocked, this energy seeks its way to the inside, and there it destroys our capacity to respond adequately. We become inactive, and we rather would hide or look away. We become an easy prey for the powers that seek to destroy the structure. The terrorist strategy of spreading fear is very effective indeed: fear spreads much more easily than trust. It demobilises people. In the Circle of Coherence, paralyzing anger feeds the destructive pattern of freezing.

Mobilizing anger directs the energy to the outside in order to deal with the disturbance. It might release powers we did not expect to have. But before we are aware of it, this mobilizing anger makes us rush into the swamp where we will be swallowed by the monster of conflict. Then we become part of the problem. Mobilising anger can either be destructive or constructive.

Destructive and constructive anger: the difference is connection

Destructive anger adds to the escalating pattern of fighting. Every aggressive move will be explained by the adversaries as a violation that justifies a counter strike of at least equal proportion. This pattern inevitably leads to damage. It might take a huge amount of self-control to stay out of this destructive anger, especially when fighting becomes mean. People in conflict can do terrible things to each other, and they will try to force us to choose their side and condemn the others. Looking at what the others are actually doing it is often hard not to condemn them. The monster of conflict seems to have the skill to detect our weakest spot with scary precision, for triggering a response from us that it can use best to get us into its swamp. But as soon as we act like that, our anger is destructive and we add to the escalating pattern of fighting.

If we succeed in using the energy of mobilising anger in a strategic manner, it can become constructive. The difference here is that constructive anger does not seek to win but to connect in a new way. This is difference is fundamental. Remember that conflict is being caused by disconnection. People feel ignored, deprived, discriminated, dominated, threatened, abused or whatever: all manifestations of a lack of connec­tion in the structure. Mobilizing anger brings to the surface what has become disconnected. The challenge is to find ways for reconnecting in a new manner.

Destructive anger is blind, it has a short horizon and it refuses to consider consequences in the long run. By violating acceptable norms and rules, it provokes blind destructive anger at the other side of the conflict, and it is confirming the illusion that looking further than winning only now is irrelevant for the moment. Revenge is an example of destructive anger.

Constructive anger is strategic and looks ahead. It is aware of the challenge of avoiding the swamp and acting more cleverly than the monster. In terms of the Circle of Coherence, we position ourselves within the circle again, in the pattern of challenge. There is vitalising energy in challenge. How horrible the features of conflict may be and mutually respected rules seem to be lacking, it starts feeling like a game trying to be more clever than the monster.

Transforming anger into constructive strategic action

The purpose is to connect what has become disconnected

What could strategic action mean in practice? Don’t expect a handbook of the art of constructive fighting in this section of the essay. It would be good to mobilise forces for writing such a handbook one day, based on the experiences of practitioners. What I want to explore here are possible actions that can be derived from the perspective of living networks and the language it provides for dealing with conflict.

A first conclusion we can draw is that the purpose of strategic action is not to win and destroy the enemy, but to restore connection. Connection requires mutual respect. People can only relate to each other when they respect mutually accepted borderlines. The identity and integrity of the one should not be threatened by the other. This statement is not new: it is the basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For restoring connection it is necessary that the destructive patterns at work will stop, and construc­tive pattern take over. When huge destructive forces are at work, finding a position in which some­thing constructive can be done might be very difficult. Yet, many small contributions can add up to something significant.

Probably there is a sequence of steps to be taken on the long path towards peace.

1.       Remain hopeful. We have to make sure that our own source of energy does not dry up.

2.       Acquire position. We should find allies, in order to strengthen our position.

3.       Stop the destructive spiral. We must use the power we have to stop the destructive spiral where ever we can: make destructive behaviour more difficult, and take away the perspective of winning unilaterally. As long as one party in the conflict does not feel it as inevitable to communicate, efforts to negotiate have no chance.

4.       Restore connection.  We have to find a shared ambition, as starting point for learning together how to deal with the roots of the conflict. This shared ambition might be found in putting an end to the path of mutual destruction. The root of any conflict is disconnection. Parties have to find new ways of connecting, without fear for their own safety and identity.

Let us explore each step.  

Keep the fire of hope burning

A prerequisite for any constructive action is that we keep the fire of hope burning. This starts with the hope we feel ourselves. Without this fire we become victim of paralyzing anger. In ecological terms this means that the process of decomposition is taking away our last resistance against destruction. We have to protect ourselves. Without a position of basic safety and strength we cannot be part of any solution. A good sense of humour is helpful under severe circumstances, but when it becomes cynicism, this should ring the alarm bell. Avoid others who have become cynical. It takes away hope and it drains energy. There are also people with a strong and healthy mind who seem to emit energy, whatever the circumstances may be. We are lucky if we have such persons around. We should cherish them. Finally, it helps to focus on the vitalising energy of challenge, and the strategic game we have to play.

Acquire a position of strength

For doing something constructively, we need a position in which we are being taken seriously by other stakeholders in the conflict. Usually this means linking up with allies. If we share our dreams with others who are accessible for us, this strengthens the hope that there is a way to realise them. In a network of likeminded people the power of numbers starts to count, and a larger network provides access to resources that are hard to reach for individuals or small groups. A big network is hard to ignore, as can be seen in the recent peoples revolution movements in the Arab world.

It is beautiful if people from both sides of a conflict can meet in informal networks. By lack of real information it is tempting to make generalisations about the enemy: “They are all like that, and none of them can be trusted”. But this is language of the monster, trying to get us into the swamp of destructive patterns. Among the hawks there are always doves being unhappy about further escalation of the conflict and longing for peace.

Probably the hawks want peace as well, but they lost hope that this can be achieved unless they defy their enemies and win. By thinking this way they have become part of the monster of conflict. It might help us to realise that the struggle between defending ourselves and connecting to others is part of each one of us. People who cut themselves off from their environment actually should be liberated from the strangulating illusion that they are on their own in a hostile world.

Examples of hope are powerful. If we succeed in creating even small successes, this sends a message that makes it more difficult to maintain that winning is the only option, and it reinforces the hope of anyone who wants to work on peace constructively. They make our position stronger.

Destructive behaviour should be stopped

As long as people have the illusion that they can win at the cost of the other, they will not be seriously interested in any attempts to connect. If there are peace talks at all, they can last forever. This seems to be the case in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. There must be a sense of urgency.

However hopeless the situation might seem at the large scale, there are many ways to make destructive behaviour at least more difficult. One path is transparency. “Name and blame” is a strategy of many activist groups, as well as journalists. When evidence of unacceptable behaviour is exposed this can affect the power balance. The threat of exposure makes the threshold for destructive behaviour higher. This is, of course, the reason for the necessity of a free press, and it is also why objective information is the first victim in times of conflict. In these days it is fascinating to see how the mobile phone is dramatically changing the scene, since it gives so many people access to real time information.

In some cases it helps to introduce or reinforce rules that are based on respect. This might start at a small scale, for example by telling women that it is not normal that their husbands beat them. At a higher level, probably the international community has to play its role more firmly, for example by stressing that ethnic cleansing is not acceptable anymore in the 21st century. It was the reason for a military intervention of NATO in the Balkan region during the nineties. Colonising Palestinian areas by making lives of Palestinians unbearable is not much different in nature.

Sometimes it is needed to use force and even violence, in order to deny the other party any further access to destructive pathways. This is delicate, because the line between constructive action and further destruction is thin. The only justification can be to restore respect, by making the price of pursuing destructive behaviour too high.

It is not helpful to define the conflict as a religious problem. This only cultivates images of the enemy and adds to the escalating pattern of destruction. It easily leads to the confusion between behaviour and identity. If a Palestinian shoots a rocket in the name of Allah, not all Muslims should be condemned for this. But the rocket bombing has to stop. If a group of Jewish settlers steels land, not the entire Jewish people should be condemned for this. But the steeling has to stop. Religious arguments cannot justify such actions, just as they cannot justify condemning a people for the acts of some.

For designing constructive strategies we have to understand that it is nothing else but a conflict of interests, and religious arguments are being used as weapons. A conflict of interest is like people disagreeing on how to divide a pie. As long as they keep on using destructive strategies, the pie will shrink, and all get less in the end. Once they learn how to use constructive means to settle their dispute, they will discover that the pie is bigger than they thought and there is more to divide.

Reconnect what has become disconnected

Fighting parties basically are calling for recognition. In the Circle of Coherence, the quadrant of challenge and fighting is about how to divide the pie. As long as interaction is healthy, contesters use their qualities and creativity to find the best way to make use of each other, including their differences. By disagreeing and arguing they find out what the possibilities and limitations are. Often it appears that there are more possibilities than they had thought of, once they know more about the situation and each other. This is how the pie turns out to be bigger.

The pattern of challenge shifts to the pattern of fighting when people do not feel sufficiently recognised in their ambitions and the position they think they need for realising them. Then they start to believe they are better off when they diminish the influence of others. This provokes similar thoughts at their opponents, and the escalating pattern takes off.

As long as they do not feel recognized themselves in their legitimate interests and intentions, they will not have the mental space for giving attention to others. A negotiator, being respected by both sides, should provide this recognition, and then facilitate the negotiations on how to deal with the differences.

When trust has been destroyed, it can take a long time to build it up again. Here it helps to remember that trust will grow if it is properly nourished. Connection is the key. As long as people live in separation, it is easy to nurture biases. When people meet, many of these biases appear not to be true.

Usually we project both hope and fear on other people. Hope on the ones that might help us out of the misery. Clever populist leaders abuse this for gaining power. Fear on the ones we mistrust. In conflicts, these fears might become disproportional, and once we start acting according to these fears as being true, they might even become self-fulfilling prophecies. Part of the process of trust building is therefore to know about these fears at both sides, and make efforts to defy suspicion. When we succeed in making such suspicions explicit, and agree on ways to deal with them, this is a big move forward.

Language for reflection and encouragement

This list of strategic steps cannot be exhaustive. I have tried to draw a framework that follows from the ecological approach of networks, and I hope that many things peace workers are doing already can be better understood, as well as some pitfalls they should avoid.

How such strategic steps would look like in the dark circumstances of peace workers in the Holy Land: I cannot tell. I hope the way of framing conflict in ecological terms, and language it offers to talk about what really matters, could be helpful in finding such strategies together, with examples from practice. If we succeed in reinforcing hope of each other that we might be a small part of solutions rather than part of the problem, this might provide us with the encouragement and energy to carry on.