Can there be a general theoretical perspective on civil society's involvement in transitional justice? This article considers this question in its application to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Within the study of transitional justice and conflict resolution, civil society – a notoriously plastic concept – can be understood narrowly as rights-oriented groups working ‘for’ peace, but the term is equally available to describe a broader array of communities that can either promote or prevent peace and justice.
It is, in fact, quite difficult to sustain a theoretical distinction between them, because transitional justice does not escape the dictates of politics – of differing human desires expressed through power. Efforts to memorialise imply conflict over the particular memories to be privileged; claims for reparations are not only demands for justice, but for material redistribution that in turn may promote conflict. A narrow view of civil society problematically assumes we even know – let alone agree on – what constitutes positive change.
In the context of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, that is a fraught proposition. Both an accurate definition of civil society and the valence of justice work slip beyond the narrow confines of the received model's assumptions: both Jewish and Palestinian groups mobilise a spectrum of resources from political engagement, to overseas support, to violent self-help. On both sides, civil society groups are instrumentalised to advance not an agenda of peace or justice in some abstract sense but a parochial claim that, seen from the other side, is, in fact, an obstacle to resolution. Indeed, there may be no peace or justice initiatives that can be analytically separated from efforts the purpose and effect of which is the very opposite of our conventional understanding of the field. The range from vocal activism to violent action, the spectrum of activation, commitment and radicalism, must be understood as fraught but connected and unbroken – as, at most, a kind of punctuated continuum.
The real work performed by civil society in promoting agendas of peace and justice cannot properly be understood without locating it in a defensible theoretical and empirical framework. Imagining a narrow civil society risks skewing our analysis of what civil society can do and actually does in relation to conflict. Civil society can clear the path to peace, or can provide the principal obstacles to it – it can simultaneously do both. In this it very much shares the ambiguous, multivalent profile of its classic counterpart: politics in the public sphere.