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  • Writer's pictureAntonia Boorman

Exploring Truth Recovery & the Role of Narratives in Conflict: A Case Study of Israel/Palestine

This piece was written as coursework for my LLM in Human Rights Law at Queen's University Belfast.


What is truth, exactly? Many see truth as a factual and irrefutable statement backed by evidence, however, in practice, truth isn’t that straightforward. There can be more than one truth, and how that truth is recovered, and by who, can impact the narrative it consists of. In this essay, I will be examining the aspect of truth at its core, and how narratives affect truth recovery and vice versa, identifying and critically analysing the challenges they meet throughout. I will address these components using a case study analysis of the truth recovery process and the various narratives that exist in the Israel / Palestine conflict.

The crux of the Israel / Palestine conflict concerns claims to land[1], yet there are multiple overlapping narratives that surround the claims to this land and the process of truth recovery itself has contributed to these conflicting narratives. This is what makes the Israel / Palestine case study relevant to exploring this question. Furthermore, the aspect of the truth and these conflicting narratives feeds into the conflict itself, making the case study extremely relevant to examining the topic of truth in conflict, clashing narratives and relevance of truth within transitional justice.

What is Transitional Justice?

According to the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), Transitional Justice “refers to the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large-scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response”[2]. Truth recovery is a crucial part of Transitional Justice for four main reasons: providing closure on the past to move on to focusing on the future; creating an understanding of the narratives/perspectives of the other sides to enhance empathy and reduce animosity in conflict; to reduce victimization by understanding the wrongs both sides of the conflict have committed; to produce apologies and reparations needed to recover and move on in democratic state-building post conflict[3]. Truth recovery is especially important in post-conflict nation-building where mass human rights violations and violence has occurred[4]. Without addressing the past, this leaves space for the fuelling of future violence based upon unresolved and unaddressed tensions[5].

It’s important to note that the process of truth recovery can affect the narratives that exist around the conflict, either positively by providing holistic information that increases empathy, or negatively by giving one-sided information which increases bias and polarisation. Within the context of Israel / Palestine, various narratives currently exist that influence and propagate the conflict. These current narratives also influence what truth recovery mechanisms will be the most appropriate and effective, and thus must be considered.

What is a Narrative?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a narrative is “a particular way of explaining or understanding events”[6]. There can be, and usually is, multiple narratives within a conflict setting stemming from governmental stances, biased media coverage, engrained sentiments and beliefs passed through generations, segregated schooling, ideological groups and organisations. Many of these narratives can be true too, one truth does not override another, but many truths can be entangled in identity making them focused on portraying the side the narrator belongs to as the victimized. When both sides feel victimized, this can entrench the conflict. This, to some extent, can be exemplified in the Israel / Palestine conflict.

History can be interpreted in different ways depending on the narratives and perspectives. There's what happened historically, then there’s how it happened, and why, which can differ depending on the side you stand on.

For example, from the Palestinian perspective, Palestinians have always been on the land and see it as their heritage, which they rebel to protect and reclaim using with their right to self-determination and state sovereignty[7]. For Palestinians, after failures of the many wars and rebellions, many were left feeling helpless and colonised by the Israeli settlements and state[8]. They have been denied their state and nation, and now live under military occupation, many without rights such as political participation[9]. Many feel victimized, which can be supported by the higher comparative number of deaths of Palestinians than Israelis in the conflict where Palestinians statistically die proportionately more[10].

From the Israeli perspective, they have been given a state officially by the United Nations, the state of Israel which through Zionism they recognise as their homeland and are acting against terrorist acts that attack their legitimized state[11]. Increasing territory through military victory is something done and legitimized by many other nations[12]. For many Israelis, the actions of the state, the IDF and Israeli paramilitary groups are legitimized by their need to protect and act in self-defence[13]. Many of the Israeli public has become apathetic, as they have become removed from the conflict, and believe that Palestinians will never accept peace, and instead approach managing the conflict rather than the solving of it[14].

Both sides have lost thousands to the conflict, and both see their actions within the context of self-defence or retributive justice[15], with their attacks a just response to the provocations from the other. It is important to note that even these narratives again aren't holistic or representative of all on that “side”, for example, some Israelis support Zionism, while others condemn it[16]. Some Palestinians want a two-nation state, while others would resent even the idea of it[17]. Furthermore, depending on the person’s experience, connectedness with the conflict, community perspective, parents’ views, schooling, international exposure, age, and many other variants, their narrative could change. Additionally, a narrative isn’t stagnant and is subject to change as the person is subject to different experiences and perspectives. A prime example of this is the award-winning Parents Circle Families Forum (PCFF), a joint Israeli-Palestinian organization that brings families who have lost loved ones to the conflict together to share in their grief through conversations with each other, fundraising and giving talks for education[18]. The PCFF believes that “the process of reconciliation between nations is a prerequisite to achieving sustainable peace”[19] and thus brings together those who suffer most in the conflict to share their stories, be supported and raise awareness of the events and narratives on each side, to increase empathy to unite everyone to form a lasting post-conflict state[20].

All of this shows how multiple narratives exist, are legitimized and clash. Understanding this is crucial to even start to approach truth recovery due to the complexities and sensitivities that are involved.

So, which of these narratives is the truth? Israeli or Palestinian? Well, both technically. Each of them is based upon the actual events that took place, the way that these events are interpreted i.e., reclaiming land or colonisation, is based upon the narratives at play. When multiple legitimate narratives exist, however, this can cause issues especially in a conflict situation. They can exacerbate the conflict by in-group and out-grouping, illustrating the in-group as the victims acting in self-defence, and the out-group as the perpetrators looking to destroy peace. Yet if both sides feel this way, enhanced by segregation, it makes it much harder to understand the other’s perspective. This brings me to the process of truth recovery, and how it can be used to help understand all of the narratives at play, without which, peace cannot be achievable or sustained.

Narratives and Truth Recovery

These conflicting narratives, their legitimacy and connection to identity, and the involvement of multiple agents in the conflict make the political climate very sensitive which directly impacts the methods of truth recovery that can be used. This next section will explore each method in turn, analysing its appropriateness in this context, as well as how the process of truth recovery affects the existence of these current narratives, through examining the impact of current truth recovery approaches and suggesting potential approaches that could be effective in Israel / Palestine.

Truth Commissions

According to the ICTJ, Truth Commissions are “non-judicial inquiries established to determine the facts, root causes, and societal consequences of past human rights violations”[21]. A truth commission aims to uncover and publicly establish truths about killings, disappearances, and acts of terrorism, to provide victims’ families and communities closure to help heal. This is achieved through investigates of state and social actors, producing reports on past abuses, gathering testimonies from witnesses and perpetrators alike, judicial inquiries, independent reviews, the conducting of public hearings, and the analysis of official documentation[22].

There has been debate on whether or not truth commissions are effective. For the most part, truth commissions can be effective when viewed as a component in moving on to a new post-conflict society. Aiming to tie off loose ends so that society can make peace with the past and continue. Truth commissions can provide details that can help prosecute criminals and close cases, as well as provide information to help victims and their families gain closure and healing. They can act as an implementer of accountability and justice, through the information gained from the truth commissions being used as prosecution evidence[23]. Yet, sometimes there is a trade-off between truth and justice, as perpetrators could be granted amnesties or immunity in exchange for cooperation and the disclosing of information. Truth cannot be a substitute for justice, as this weakens the credibility and faith in judicial processes that are needed for reconciliation.

The temporary aspect of truth commissions[24] means that not every victim gets the information they need to heal. Additionally, the effectiveness of truth commissions relies on the cooperation of governmental and paramilitary perpetrators, which isn’t always guaranteed[25]. Truth Commissions are usually sponsored by the acting government[26] which could reduce the acceptance in this context as the Israeli government would be the acting sponsor, which Palestinians refuse to legitimise or trust, so may be sceptical of the results of the truth commission, which defeats the point.

To overcome this, truth commissions could be run by an impartial international actor, such as the ICJ or United Nations, to establish underlying truths from the events that occurred and publicly shed light on the narratives that went into these events for both sides to hear. As exemplified by this, how these truth commissions are approached, funded and carried out is important to note. Truth Commissions can be closed or open to the public[27]. Due to the multiple narratives and intense amount of polarisation that exists in Israel / Palestine, the truth commissions should be publicly broadcasted through both Israeli and Palestinian media outlets to encourage transparency and form a shared narrative. As expressed by the scholar James Gibson, “truth commissions are most effective when they attempt to transform a society rather than focus primarily on the needs of victims and perpetrators”[28].

Truth commissions officially acknowledge truths. This can offer legitimacy to matching narratives, which can help to create an official truth that can help victims heal and reduce the ability to deny or contest what, how and why the events in the conflict happened, such as the Intifadas and the Nakba. The legitimacy that comes with the official declarations from truth commissions can also officially put the responsibility on contributing actors, such as the state, who may respond with official apologies which have their restorative attributes in transitional justice[29].

Truth commissions can also result in the identification of root causes that need to be addressed in the conflict, as well as providing recommendations through public consultations to reform institutions and improve public policy, which in itself can encourage cooperation of the two societies. For the Israeli / Palestinian case, this involves the investment into Palestinian communities and public programming, especially in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which are extremely underfunded in comparison to the Israeli public programming in settlement communities (Figure 1)[30], as well as addressing the aspect of citizenship in Jerusalem which is a contentious issue[31]. In Israel / Palestine, a truth commission, coupled with official apologies, could strengthen the trust in the state that is currently lacking and crucial for reparative processes.

Figure 1: Snapshot from Vox video[32]

The unstable political climate may make the establishment of a truth commission difficult due to some of the narratives at play i.e., the Palestinian view that the Israeli state is illegitimate and the boycotting of elections[33], or the Israeli view that Palestinians may not be interested in peace-making[34]. Truth commissions can only be as impactful as the agents involved allow them to be. Without the appropriate resources for, cooperation with and dedication to the investigation, this can undermine the point of the truth recovery[35]. Additionally, the public from both sides must support and want the truth commission to happen to benefit from it.

Truth commissions can be an effective mechanism to societal rebuilding if used complementarity to other reparative processes and in conjunction with unofficial truth recovery mechanisms in transitional justice such as journalism and media, NGO work and grassroots approaches.

Journalism and Media

The way truth is recovered, as well as how it is reported, is crucial to shaping the narrative. For example, a media outlet with political associations can create polarisation through the way that they portray events. Crafting a non-biased representation of events from impartial journalistic actors is crucial to understanding narratives and discrediting misinformation.

Biased information can be detrimental to truth recovery processes as it further engrains a narrative that may already be heavily tied to identity. When narratives are tied to identity, this makes them incredibly difficult to dissolve or alter in any way as it can cause cognitive dissonance and require changing a fundamental belief about a person’s sense of self[36]. Overcoming this is crucial and should be approached with seriousness.

A good example of when media can be effectively used to stimulate dialogue and share dialogues is the Middle Ground YouTube Episode “Can Israelis and Palestinians See Eye to Eye?”[37]. The episode consists of Israelis and Palestinians sharing their experiences, perspectives and understandings of the conflict. By distributing this dialogue publicly, it allows for Israeli, Palestinian, and international actors to gain a deeper understanding of the narratives associated with the conflict. Using this form of a moderated dialogue between actors on opposing sides could be a good method of truth recovery that takes these differing narratives into account. Discussions could be conducted on various levels i.e., the general public, between politicians and paramilitary agents, organisation and business owners, neighbours in settlement areas, etc. The dialogue aims to get each side to communicate and understand the other’s perspective, while the broadcasting of these conversations would encourage further conversations in the public sphere. This could be a good way to share information and disband inaccurate information. This is also an opportunity to address abuses committed by one’s side and take into account conflicting information (i.e., victimization and perpetration)[38]. Addressing accountability and wrongdoings is crucial to creating empathy between groups and reducing polarisation.

NGO & Grassroots Approaches

Various NGOs and grassroots organizations throughout Israel / Palestine have been working diligently to collect and share stories to use truth recovery to establish and maintain peace. Similar to the Ardoyne Commemoration Project[39] in Northern Ireland, New Story Leadership (NSL) is an organization that collects the testimonies and stories of Israelis and Palestinians and shares them publicly to disband misinformation. NSL believes that “conflict is built out of stories. These stories divide, demonize and dictate that there can be no compromise with the other side”[40], therefore by collecting and sharing these stories NSL works to encourage compromise through shared understanding and empathy.

Storytelling can be extremely persuasive when sharing and understanding narratives. From the Parents Circle connecting victims, to MEET and Seeds with Peace, that establish activities to connect young people from both communities to work together on entrepreneurship and team-building activities that are specifically designed to unite them together and encourage narrative sharing. MEET strives “to educate and empower tomorrow’s most promising Palestinian and Israeli leaders to take action towards creating positive social and political impact in the Middle East”[41], while Seeds of Peace brings youth and educators to summer camps in the USA and provides local programming when they return to reduce segregation and polarisation of narratives[42]. By establishing forums to share perspectives, this helps people from both sides to eliminate bias and thus promoting a more sustainable future.


For all the above approaches, it's important to consider bias that may affect the process of truth recovery. As explained briefly above, bias can affect the narratives that are portrayed through truth commissions or journalism and overcoming this is crucial. The NGOs examined above successfully overcome bias by having organising and participating members from both communities. This, therefore, is a successful truth recovery mechanism for this case.

Funding is another limitation that can affect narratives forming from truth recovery. For example, if funding is only given to organisations that look into PLO attacks, or solely focus on the investigation of Israeli settlers, then this provides a biased narrative and could damage the conflict more by providing further polarization and demonization of the other. Funding must be appropriately allocated to truth recovery for both communities.

Lastly, political standing and power significantly affect the narratives formed from truth recovery, due to power, influence and funding, as described above. International connections and influence can affect what and how information is recovered, which could be subject to corruption. International actors, such as other states and international organizations like the United Nations, can be both a positive and negative contributing factor. Positive through putting pressure on governments to pursue truth recovery through trade embargoes and tariffs, through investigative journalism that spreads awareness and education on the issue to the international public, such as the CrashCourse and Vox video cited in this paper, or through political sanctioning. Yet, involvement can also be negative, for example, the United Nations declaring the state of Israel and the colonisation of Palestine by the British significantly contributed to the conflict.

Future endeavours

To summarize, truth recovery can be a powerful mechanism to reforming narratives during times of post-conflict, but how the truth recovery is conducted is crucial to shaping non-biased narratives that will help to create and maintain a sustainable society. A more holistic approach using a mixture of multiple of these truth recovery mechanisms offers a more impactful process, which is both necessary and beneficial to aiding social reconciliation and state-building. One method on its own may fail to have the desired effect as only focusing on top-down approaches fails to address the needs of victims, and solely focusing on bottom-up approaches fails to address the societal issues that need reforming. Careful and serious consideration of the delivery of the truth recovery processes must be enabled to move forward in the case of Israel / Palestine, without which it leaves space for an ever-continuing state of segregated narratives and tensions. Final considerations in delivery include full disclosure and cooperation of all actors involved (state and public alike), non-partisan independent agents acting as mediators and investigators in truth commissions to avoid bias, full and unbiased neutral media coverage, both an equally victim-centred (with all victims treated equally with respect) and society reparative focused approaches, broadcasted and private discussions conducted through public trials, stories shared through journalism, and NGO moderated forums. All of which can lead to the recovery of truth, reforming of narratives, and empathy-building to ensure that conflict will cease, and peace will be sustained.



[1] CrashCourse, Conflict in Israel and Palestine (2015) <> accessed 9 December 2020. [2] International Center for Transitional Justice, ‘What Is Transitional Justice?’ (International Center for Transitional Justice, 22 February 2011) <> accessed 16 December 2020. [3] Jeremie Bracka, ‘Truth or Dare in the Middle East?’ (JusticeInfo.Net, 20 December 2018) <> accessed 16 December 2020. [4] Kieran McEvoy, Making Peace with the Past: Options for Truth Recovery Regarding the Conflict in and about Northern Ireland (Queen’s University Belfast 2006) <>. [5] Kristine Höglund and Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs, ‘Beyond the Absence of War: The Diversity of Peace in Post-Settlement Societies’ (2010) 36 Review of International Studies 367. [6] Cambridge English Dictionary, ‘NARRATIVE | Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary’ (Cambridge English Dictionary) <> accessed 16 December 2020. [7] Majdi Shomali, ‘Land, Heritage and Identity of the Palestinian People’ (2001) 8 Palestine-Israel Journal <> accessed 16 December 2020. [8] Daniel Avelar and Bianca Ferrari, ‘Israel and Palestine: A Story of Modern Colonialism’ (openDemocracy, 29 May 2018) <> accessed 16 December 2020. [9] Jubilee, Can Israelis and Palestinians See Eye to Eye? || Creators for Change | Middle Ground (2018) <> accessed 9 December 2020. [10] Max Fisher, ‘Every Person Killed in Israel-Palestine since 2000’ (Vox, 14 July 2014) <> accessed 16 December 2020. [11] Stephen M Felty, ‘Social Identity Theory and Intergroup Conflict in Israel/Palestine’ (Naval Postgraduate School 2019) <> accessed 16 December 2020. [12] CrashCourse, Conflict in Israel and Palestine (2015) <> accessed 9 December 2020. [13] Jubilee, Can Israelis and Palestinians See Eye to Eye? || Creators for Change | Middle Ground (2018) <> accessed 9 December 2020. [14] Jubilee, Can Israelis and Palestinians See Eye to Eye? || Creators for Change | Middle Ground (2018) <> accessed 9 December 2020. [15] Jubilee, Can Israelis and Palestinians See Eye to Eye? || Creators for Change | Middle Ground (2018) <> accessed 9 December 2020. [16] Jubilee, Can Israelis and Palestinians See Eye to Eye? || Creators for Change | Middle Ground (2018) <> accessed 9 December 2020. [17] Jubilee, Can Israelis and Palestinians See Eye to Eye? || Creators for Change | Middle Ground (2018) <> accessed 9 December 2020. [18] Gili Meisler, ‘About PCFF’ (Parents Circle Families Forum) <> accessed 17 December 2020. [19] Martyna Starosta, ‘“We Don’t Want You Here”’ (The Forward, 6 August 2014) <> accessed 17 December 2020. [20] Gili Meisler, ‘About PCFF’ (Parents Circle Families Forum) <> accessed 17 December 2020. [21] International Center for Transitional Justice, ‘Truth Commissions’ (International Center for Transitional Justice, 14 March 2012) <> accessed 16 December 2020. [22] Hillel Cohen and Ron Dudai, 'Dealing with the Past when the Conflict is still Present: Civil Society Truth-Seeking Initiatives in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict', in Pierre Hazan, Rosalind Shaw and Lars Waldorf, Localizing Transitional Justice: Interventions and Priorities after Mass Violence (Univ Press 2010) <> accessed 16 December 2020. [23] GSDRC, ‘Truth Commissions’ (GSDRC, August 2016) <> accessed 16 December 2020. [24] Kelebogile Zvobgo and Claire Crawford, ‘What Is a Truth Commission?’ (The Washington Post, 21 October 2020) <> accessed 15 December 2020. [25] Sinn Fein, ‘Truth’ (Ulster University 2003) <> accessed 15 December 2020. [26] Kelebogile Zvobgo and Claire Crawford, ‘What Is a Truth Commission?’ (The Washington Post, 21 October 2020) <> accessed 15 December 2020. 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[36] Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford University Press 1957). [37] Jubilee, Can Israelis and Palestinians See Eye to Eye? || Creators for Change | Middle Ground (2018) <> accessed 9 December 2020. [38] Jeremie Bracka, ‘Truth or Dare in the Middle East?’ (JusticeInfo.Net, 20 December 2018) <> accessed 16 December 2020. [39] Ardoyne Commemoration Project (ed), Ardoyne: The Untold Truth (Beyond the Pale 2002). [40] New Story Leadership, ‘NSL Summer Program’ (New Story Leadership) <> accessed 17 December 2020. [41] Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow, ‘Vision & Mission’ (MEET) <> accessed 17 December 2020. [42] Seeds of Peace, ‘About’ (Seeds of Peace, 2020) <> accessed 17 December 2020.



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