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Hudna:The Only Path to Reconciliation in the Middle East

The hudna is an ancient custom that has been used in the Arab world for thousands of years in any situation that requires an interim ceasefire while negotiations are underway to completely end a blood feud. We believe the hudna can also be used to resolve political and national disputes, and that it holds the most genuine hope for reconciliation in the Middle East.

Eyal Erlich

The reconciliation initiative we seek to advance is based on using a traditional mechanism for settling disputes that has existed for thousands of years in our region. Firmly anchored in Arab society, the custom is held in great respect by the Palestinians, as well as the Jordanians and the local Bedouin tribes.

Researchers in the social sciences have identified the Arab culture as a “culture of honor,” that is, a culture in which the honor of the individual and the group (family, tribe, clan and so forth) is a supreme value that must be defended.

In honor-based cultures, certain strict codes of behavior apply, including the well-known custom of blood vengeance. It dictates that the victim’s family is entitled – indeed, obligated – to take revenge; moreover, failure to do so entails a mark of disgrace that damages the family’s status.

The Hudna: A Code of Honor

Another equally important code in every culture of honor that values life is the existence of a clear and orderly process for reconciliation, which is meant to prevent long-running bloody disputes between families or groups.

In Arab societies, which are by their nature life-loving, customs to achieve reconciliation (suluh) sprang up alongside the custom of blood vengeance. Thus, every Arab population center has an active “reconciliation committee” made up of seven dignitaries who are generally heads of clans or villages. Each committee is headed by a well-respected leader who is recognized by the entire community as fair and impartial.

The reconciliation committees fulfill a role in the community that is similar to emergency medical services or firefighters: They are called in to help in emergency situations and their job is to act as quickly as possible to prevent further bloodshed.

Reconciliation: How It Works

The reconciliation committee enters the picture in any situation in which one person has caused the death of another person – whether through murder, a traffic accident or even a case of medical negligence. The committee’s job is to try to prevent retaliatory blood vengeance.

Sometimes, fearful of revenge, the killer’s family calls in the committee. In other cases, the local police force or a third party will seek the committee’s help.

With the call to action, each member of the reconciliation committee calls on his relatives (men only) to join a “reconciliation delegation” (jaha suluh) consisting of several dozen men, which hurries over to the home of the victim’s family.

The conduct of the process from this point onward is clear and familiar to all: The victim’s family makes a “gesture of respect” and accedes to the request of the delegation’s leader. The family declares a limited time period (three months, six months, a year or whatever) during which it pledges to lay down its weapons. This timeout, or truce, is called a hudna in Arabic.

The Standing of the Hudna

In Arab culture, the family’s commitment to abide by the hudna is tantamount to a sacred vow – even though the hudna is not a religious custom and is observed by Arabs of all faiths and sects.

Violating a hudna is perceived as a dishonorable act that brings unforgivable disgrace upon the violator and upon the entire group to which he belongs.

If a person expresses a wish to break the commitment to the hudna, his family will try to stop him at any price. This even includes killing him, if necessary, in order to preserve the family honor.

From Hudna to Ending the Conflict

Achieving a hudna, whether long or short, provides a timeout of relative calm that allows the parties to work toward attaining full reconciliation or at least an extension of the existing hudna. Clearly, one of the outstanding advantages of such a period of quiet is the cooling-down effect, providing a respite that increases the chances of reaching reconciliation.

A central feature of the reconciliation process is monetary compensation, which is very similar to life insurance. The perpetrator’s family compensates the victim’s family with a pre-agreed sum, whose payment constitutes the basis for reconciliation.

Concurrently with declaring the hudna and setting out its conditions, the head of the reconciliation delegation makes sure that the victim’s family receives an advance payment (atwe, in Arabic) to be deducted from the full compensation (diya) to be paid for the death of their loved one. Generally, the atwe is set at 20 percent of the full diya.

Sometimes the reconciliation committee conducts negotiations between the sides and sets certain conditions that must be fulfilled to preserve and extend the hudna, or in order to achieve a full resolution of the conflict. This can include, for example, deciding that the perpetrator must leave the village for a certain period of time, or even forever.

At the end of the hudna period and after the two sides reach an agreement in principle about ending the conflict, a well-attended public event is held, according to strict rules of protocol. The high point occurs when the victim’s family receives the remainder of the compensation payment and a family representative then ties a white cloth to a pole. This symbolic act marks the end of the conflict.

The Hudna as a Political Solution

Over the years, we have presented the idea of applying the principles of the hudna to political conflicts, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to a wide spectrum of Middle East experts, sociologists and anthropologists, statesmen and diplomats, spiritual and religious leaders in our region and throughout the world.

Almost everyone we approached received the idea with enthusiasm, especially those who are familiar with Arab culture. The consensus was clear: This idea could work. Many people – Israelis, Palestinians and others – helped work the idea into a plan that would lead to a successful hudna.

We envision a delegation of dignitaries made up of well-known and influential figures from all over the world that would come to the region, meet with the hostile sides and start to formulate a multilateral agreement for a long-term hudna. We are absolutely certain that such a delegation would be warmly welcomed by the Palestinian side and that any hudna that is achieved would be honored fully and punctiliously by the Palestinians.

Clearly, the mediation stage will require a substantial amount of time and difficult compromises by both sides, but we are convinced that the process will result in a plan that will allow an initial Hudna period.

The Advantages of Hudna over Other Solutions

We think one of the essential advantages of our hudna is its ability to gain overwhelming grass-roots support from both Israelis and Palestinians.

Because we have no intention at this stage of promoting a final comprehensive peace agreement, the sides will not need to make painful concessions in areas such as refugees and the right of return, the status of Jerusalem, final borders and so forth.

These difficult problems, some of which may prove to be insoluble, can be bypassed for the moment by means of the hudna, which will seek only to put a stop to the ongoing bloodshed. We believe that a large majority of both peoples will wholeheartedly endorse our proposal, due to the huge measure of hope it offers.

Challenges on the Path to a first two-year Hudna

During the negotiations for a hudna, several key understandings can and must be reached:

  • First, the international delegation of distinguished figures will need to achieve a Hudna agreement between the rival Palestinian factions (Hamas and Fatah), who will be obliged to reach an agreement in regard to a mechanism allowing establishment of an agreed central government to govern the Palestinian authority. In addition, a robust police will be established to uphold the law and be the only arms-bearing entity. All the parties will understand that all the aforementioned is part of a broader move to bring about a honorable Hudna agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis..
  • The reconciliation between the Palestinian factions will allow negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in regard to modeling of life in the region during the Hudna period. We belive that Israel and the Palestinians must, and can agreement on the following principles, which will be jealously upheld during the Hudna periuod:

a.            All parties will undertake cessation of all hostilities.

b.            Israel will undertake to fully halt the settlement activities.

c.            The Hamas will undertake to fully halt arms smuggling activities to Gaza or manufacturing of arms.

  • An important condition for the success of the hudna will be the international community’s pledge to provide to the Palestinian people an Atwe (advance payment) of several billion dollars, which will be used to rebuild the Palestinian state and its infrastructures and for investment in the Palestinian Authority. This time, however, promises are not enough and the often-disappointed Palestinians must be assured that a “Middle East Marshall Plan” awaits them just around the corner. They must feel certain that, under the proper conditions, a momentum of constriction will be formed, creating many thousands of jobs, completely transforming the economic reality in the Palestinian Authority (and later, the Palestinian state).
    The most suitable model, we believe, is a foundation under international supervision, which will allocate funds directly to rehabilitation and construction projects. Naturally, it is of the utmost importance that this process is conducted with total transparency and accountability.

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