As Hamas indiscriminately fires rockets into Israel from occupied territory and as Israel replies with a callous show of force, killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians in a couple of weeks, you wonder who is to blame for the massacre.
Hamas fighters claim they care deeply about Palestinian casualties but they believe that without drastic actions the long-enduring and unjust plight of the Palestinian people will remain ignored by Israel and the international community. Many Israelis, in turn, sanction the assault because they believe that they cannot simply allow Hamas to keep firing rockets towards Israeli towns and the only way to stop the rockets for good is by eradicating Hamas – hiding in the densely populated Gaza strip. In an immediate sense, you understand why Hamas is firing rockets and why Israel wants to eradicate Hamas. What is more difficult to comprehend, however, is the lack of regard for the lives of those who did not choose to be a part of this conflict – especially children.
What is it, then, that drives people towards such a state of blind bloodthirstiness that they are willing to treat hundreds of innocent lives as mere collateral damage? One answer lies in the war itself: as civilians watch their homes being bombarded and their loved ones killed and injured by an enemy that they never personally provoked, their rage boils up to a point where they consider joining an organization like Hamas to retaliate for the unjust atrocities they personally witnessed. In a land of perpetual conflict, it is easy to see why an organization like Hamas exists and thrives.
Similarly, this hatred of Israel among the Palestinians is palpable to their neighbors – the Israelis – and it is reinforced by media depiction of violent acts such as suicide bombings as well as virulent rants by aggrieved Palestinians who blame Israel for their dire situation. This makes many Israelis stereotype Palestinians as raging ‘Jihadists’ who desire nothing more than the fall of Israel. This is not helped by the fact that there is a lack of human interaction with everyday Palestinians who are segregated behind massive walls, which ensures a concomitant lack of empathy for them. In addition, mandatory conscription into the Israel Defense Forces and the military propaganda further fans the flames of fear and hate in Israeli men and women.
All of this creates and sustains a view of Palestinians not as human beings but as potential threats to the physical safety of Israelis. This view leads to a lack of sympathy for Palestinians even in the face of a staggering and rapidly rising civilian death toll in the current Gaza assault. As an example, a poll published by Israel’s Channel 10 TV on July 27 – when the conflict had already caused over 1,000 deaths – suggested 87% of Israelis were in favor of the assault and just 7% wanted a full ceasefire. (There is, of course, a minority of Israelis that does not subscribe to the insensitive views towards Palestinians and even courageously protests in the streets of Israel against this popular assault – example: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/07/26/tel-aviv-rally-gaza_n_5623752.html).
When you go further back in history, it is clear how unfortunate circumstances escalated into this perpetual and seemingly worsening conflict. After centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust, Jews understandably fled from Europe into Palestine to seek refuge in their ‘rightful’ ancient land of Israel. However, this land then belonged to Palestine, which at the time was under British control after World War I. There was already a small group of Jewish Zionists – those who believe through religion that Jews deserve to reclaim their ancient land of Israel – who had been fighting both the British and the Palestinians since the 1920s generating increasing tension between Arabs and Jews. Sympathetic to the plight of the Jewish people after the Holocaust, the international community forcefully – and perhaps naively – partitioned Palestine equally into Israel and Palestine through a United Nations resolution despite the protests of Palestinians, Arabs, and the British – who were well aware of the potential problems of such a deal.
The anger at this forceful partition led to militant Palestinian groups attacking Jewish areas. The Zionist militia – the Haganah – was much more organized and powerful than the relatively small, scattered, and ill-equipped Palestinian militant groups. In response to the provocations of the Palestinian groups, the Haganah launched an all-out war on Palestine, which did not have an organized army. After one campaign by the Haganah in which civilians were killed in a Palestinian village, word spread that the Haganah was killing Palestinian villagers and many Palestinians fled from their villages. The Haganah easily captured Palestinian territory and claimed it as Israel’s, beyond what the already generous UN resolution had given them.
The Arabs – Egypt, Jordan, and Syria –, in a show of Arabic unity, then attacked Israel from all sides in 1948 and recovered large chunks of territories where Palestinians resettled. However, the Israeli military had grown very powerful by 1967 and easily reclaimed what it had lost to the Arabs. Despite Israel taking over all of UN-defined Palestinian territory, many Palestinians did not leave their homes in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and Golan Heights. Due of the presence of Palestinians in these areas, which Israel deemed potentially hostile, they erected massive walls between these areas and the rest of Israel, establishing strict checkpoints for entry into Israel. Through the 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinians were allowed by Israel to self-govern in these enclosed areas, although Israel did not and still does not recognize an official Palestinian state – many countries do – and maintains strong military control of the areas. The military presence, the strict checkpoints, economic blockades, and frequent episodes of military operations against insurgent Palestinian groups have created a claustrophobic and volatile atmosphere within the Palestinian territories where life goes on simply because life has to go on. Palestinians deem these areas occupied territories and find the occupation incredibly oppressive, which sometimes translates into violent resistance. The international sympathy for the Palestinian cause is partly based on the fact that Palestinians are now willing to accept the 1967 borders – a much smaller territory than the one designated by the UN in 1947.
On the other side, after a few generations, Israelis know no other home. They fear that if they did not possess military and political might, the surrounding Arab states sympathetic to the Palestinian resistance will simply engulf them. The Arab threat and what they perceive as biased international support for Palestine has made Israelis more patriotic and paranoid and willing to accept mandatory conscription into the Israeli army. Many Israelis believe that, firstly, the UN resolution legitimately established the modern Israeli state in 1947 and, secondly, that the disputed territories are also legitimately Israel’s because they won it in a war against the Arab states, much like how borders had been determined by war throughout history.
It is clear why Palestinians are fighting Israelis and why Israelis are fighting back with gusto: Palestinians want their own home and Israelis want to keep their home. What is perhaps not as clear is whether the current situation was inevitable due to the events that played out in history. If you had been born in place of the Hamas fighter and had been through all that he or she had been through, would you have done the same? If you had been born in place of the Israeli soldier and had seen, heard, and experienced all that he or she had, would you have done the same? Having lived in completely different circumstances, you do not think like they do. If they had been born in your place, they would perhaps think like you do. You were not born with your attitudes, beliefs, and values; you developed these in response to the world around you. You are nothing like you were as an infant, the Hamas fighter is nothing like he or she was as an infant, the Israeli soldier is nothing like he or she was as an infant; however, all three of you were almost identical in your attitudes, beliefs, and values when you were infants.
What is, perhaps, even more poignant is the fact that no infant has ever had any say in where and when he or she was to be born. In essence, when born, a baby is the representation of biological evolutionary history up to that point. By the time that baby becomes an adult he or she will have become a representation of his or her particular ancestral and cultural history. Just as we have deterministic biological genes, we also possess deterministic but invisible cultural genes. These biological genes, cultural genes, and our experiences combine to make us who we are.
Forgiveness is the key for a respectable and just agreement between Israel and Palestine. Forgiveness comes about by understanding that people are products of their genetic, cultural, and experiential history. Palestinians and Israelis may be willing to forgive if they can admit that they might have done the same if they were born on the other side. Only with empathy comes forgiveness and only with forgiveness can there be peace and respect for human dignity.
Does their cultural history and their experiences give the fighters an excuse to keep fighting as the civilian death toll rises above 1,000, though? Human will is not fully limited by biological genes, cultural genes, or experience – especially in making immediate decisions. One of the reasons is that all humans, regardless of their make-up, recognize certain universals such as justice, dignity, love, and kindness (Plato’s ideal forms). Humans have a natural tendency to recognize right from wrong. We can understand why Palestinians and Israelis are fighting each other and perhaps even admit that if we were born in their place we might be doing the same. We cannot, however, condone their callousness towards innocent lives. They know that the death of innocent civilians — especially children — is tragic and it is in their hands to stop the conflict. Especially the leaders of both Hamas and Israel who make the decisions to continue fighting must know that their decisions are responsible for these deaths. Despite everything they have been taught and have been through, when they had to decide between right and extremely wrong, they chose and continue to choose extremely wrong. They bear the responsibility for not stopping even when they had the choice — a ceasefire that the whole world is urging them to accept. Our patience with them can only go so far.
(I totally condemn to the greatest degree all killings of all people in this conflict. If only they could learn forgiveness and treat each other with the dignity they would like to be treated with. This situation will only get better once Israeli and Palestinian children start going to the same schools and start seeing each other as human beings with intrinsic value.)