After 50 years of fighting, Palestinians and Israelis seem to have finally found the one thing that can really get the other side really angry. This became clear this week when the Israelis went berserk because of their inability to return their captured soldier and ordinary Palestinians felt completely helpless to stop the crimes of war in the form of collective punishments that Israel meted out in retaliation.
Palestinians and Israelis have become more polarised these past two weeks than at any time that I can recall.
Talking to an average, well-educated Israeli or Palestinian (this writer included) yields entirely opposite points of view, narrated passionately.
What is it that blinds the two sides, making each incapable of understanding the other? Why are we unable to have any empathy for the other?
One of the answers must be in attitudes of individuals versus the collective. Israelis, like many in the West give priority to the individual over the collective. At times, this laudable defence of the individual goes too far, becoming an obsession.
No logical explanation can defend the Israeli attacks in Gaza that took the lives of tens of Palestinians, gave the Israelis public relations a black eye and, in the end, is unlikely to bring about the return of the captured Israeli.
Palestinians, on the other hand, while not as vulnerable regarding individual rights, have a strong collective feeling that makes them very angry when they are targeted as a group, as a collective. Thousands of Palestinians who were caught outside the Gaza Strip when the present cycle began feel that preventing all of them to return is a form of a collective punishment that angers them tremendously.
Blowing up bridges and power plants, preventing the entire body of civil servants from being paid angers Palestinians who see in that a violation of the larger family, community, tribe, nation. Palestinians, as a community, are very upset when travel to and from West Bank is made a nightmare, when Palestinian Americans are not allowed into the West Bank. It is almost as if Palestinians would be willing to accept violations of individuals but when they are punished as a collective, they are unable to accept that as legitimate.
Ironically, while each side seems to know what angers the other, there is also a parallel process that tries to give the opposite point of view, regardless of whether it is conscious or subconscious. One hears the public statements of Ehud Olmert and gets the impression that he is keen on preserving Palestinians’ humanitarian needs and on avoiding having the population targeted. On the other side, Hamas talks repeatedly about democracy and of having been elected by Palestinian individuals in free and fair elections.
Israelis cannot understand why Palestinians are so angry with them, and the opposite is true when you ask Palestinians.
Another problem in these opposing narratives is the issue of time. If you ask either side to explain their narrative, they begin at a particular advantageous time. For the Israelis, the attack that led to the capture of their soldier and the attack against the troops in the north of Israel was unprovoked. Palestinians point out that these same soldiers are part of an army that had been shelling them, that has been assassinating their leaders and has been holding nearly 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. For Israelis, time begins with the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Palestinians would point out that the settlements were illegal in the first place, and that the occupation was declared unacceptable by the international community.
Some take the issue of time in a larger context. To them, the occupation occurred because the Arabs attacked first in 1967. Arabs respond that the Israelis are in reality the ones who attacked first. The Israelis go back in time a month or so before and point out that the Egyptians are the ones who blocked the Suez Canal. Older Israelis would say they were victim of seven Arab armies attacking us in 1948. Palestinians say that Israeli underground militants had before that ethnically cleansed Palestinian Arabs from their homes and lands.
Palestinians and Israelis clearly know what angers the other side and have the ability to finesse whatever they want when using the narratives, timelines and justifications that their public understands. Will the time come when we can go past this self-serving process? Can we skip the need to wait another few months or a few years before we come to terms with what everyone knows is needed to make peace in the region?