The Need for Empathy in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

During Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza, over one thousand Palestinians have died, and the UN says three quarters of the dead have been civilians. UNICEF, meanwhile, affirms that at least 30 percent have been children. The Israeli State claims that blame for civilian deaths lays with Hamas, because the group ‘fires from residential neighbourhoods’ and ‘uses civilians as human shields’. [1] Realistically, however, the reason for so many civilian casualties in Palestine is that “an incredibly powerful air force is bombing the hell out of one of the most crowded, vulnerable places in the world”. [2] The fault, therefore, according to Larry Derfner at +972, “lies with Israel, whose punitive, often lethal blockade of Gaza, together with its military occupation of the West Bank, invites Palestinians to fight back”. Israel, he says, “is the aggressor… as in all its wars… since 1967”.


Derfner affirms that “the problem – in Gaza and the West Bank, now and before – is that the IDF is a colonial army, which is an inherently brutal role”. It has thousands of tanks and hundreds of fighter jets at its disposal, while Palestine has a grand total of zero. Gazan militants therefore have to “live among the civilian population and keep much of their weaponry in the neighbourhoods”, just as “every guerrilla army that fights on its own turf against an incomparably stronger enemy” does. This is not to lionise Hamas, as it seems they have instructed Gazan residents “to disregard Israeli warnings to evacuate their homes”, but Israelis themselves were told during the 1980s that it was their “patriotic duty” to “sit at home, helpless, risking [their lives] against incoming rockets, for the sake of national morale”. Although such an expectation for civilians to ‘die for the cause’ is not pleasant, the New York Times has highlighted that there is “no evidence that Hamas and other militants force civilians to stay in areas that are under attack” (which is the legal international definition of a human shield). [3]


Noam Sheizaf even points out that there are many Palestinians who do not like Hamas, but that a large number of them support the resistance against Israel because they see it as “part of their own war of independence”. [4] Israel doesn’t recognise this – or at least not in public – and its rhetoric is therefore limited to ‘fundamentalist terrorism’. For any change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to take place, however, it is essential that Israelis understand why the Palestinians keep resisting.


The “inability to understand the enemy”, according to former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara (who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson), “stems from a lack of empathy”, and Sheizaf says this is true about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The US government, for example, was able to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis in part thanks to its “ability to put itself in the shoes of the Soviets and understand their point of view”, but its failures in Vietnam resulted from the fact that it “didn’t know [the Vietnamese] well enough to empathise”. Subsequently, “each side had a completely different understanding of what the war was about”, and independence and unity between the south and north were only achieved after “between one and three million people”, mostly Vietnamese civilians, had died. The Vietnamese foreign minister told McNamara in 1991 “you were fighting to enslave us”, but McNamara affirmed that Vietnam was, for the USA, just another “element of the Cold War”. After this meeting, he could finally understand that, for the Vietnamese, it was a war of independence, and that was why they were “willing to make the worst sacrifices” – because they were “fighting [primarily] for their freedom.


This anecdote, according to Sheizaf, is applicable to both Israel and Palestine. For example, little after the mass extermination of Jews by the Nazis, around “one percent of the Jewish population” gave their lives in the war of 1948. Although Arab states resisted what they saw as continued colonialism, many Jews in Israel felt that they “were fighting for their lives and for their freedom”. Decades later, Palestinians tend to “support Hamas in its war against Israel” even if they oppose its “fundamentalist ideology, political oppression or other aspects of its rule”. For them, fighting the siege is part of their war of independence, which saw around 1,000 Palestinian civilians killed in the 2008-9 and 2012 Israeli ‘operations’ in Gaza, and which has seen another thousand such deaths in the current attack. Like the Jews back in 1948, the Palestinians feel they are fighting for their lives and their freedom.


Hamas, therefore, is not a “dictatorship fighting Israel against its people’s will”. In spite of opposition to aspects of Hamas’s rule and ideology, many Palestinians support “the attacks on IDF soldiers entering Gaza”, “kidnapping as means to release their… prisoners of war”, and “firing rockets at Israel”. They are under siege, and Hamas offers to defend them. Israelis who ask Gazans to “protest against Hamas” whilst under fire, therefore, fail to understand the Palestinian perspective, and what Hamas represents for the Palestinian resistance in Gaza. At the same time, it is incredibly hypocritical of the Israeli State, which hates “protests in times of war”, to ask Palestinian citizens to do something that it opposes in its own territory. Bombing Gaza “will not change their minds”, Sheizaf says, so the only way forward is to “understand what lies behind their position”, and use that understanding to advance with peaceful discussions. The current operation, if anything, is likely to have a negative effect on the conflict, putting at risk the support of the majority of Gazans [5] for a unity government with Mahmoud Abbas which renounces violence.


Back in the 1960s, according to McNamara, the USA “wouldn’t have even cared” about Vietnam if its citizens had “abandoned Communism” but, from the Vietnamese perspective, the Americans were simply continuing on from French colonialism. They felt they were stuck between “a corrupt US-sponsored regime in the south and a horrific war with the north”, and resistance seemed like the only option. In Palestine, meanwhile, “the choice is between occupation by proxy in the West Bank and a war in Gaza”. Neither option offers any hope or freedom.


Ending the armed struggle against Israel does not seem like an option for many Gazans, as such an action is not guaranteed to change anything. Peace in the West Bank, for example, hasn’t seen Palestinians move any closer to an independent state. At the same time, Hamas affirms that freedom “comes at the cost of blood”, and history suggests they are right. Only after the Second Intifada, in which thousands of Palestinians and Israelis died, were Israeli settlements in Gaza finally evacuated. This act was the result of violence, not negotiations. The Oslo Accords, meanwhile, in which the Israeli government and the PLO signed their first face-to-face agreement, only came after the First Intifada.


The Palestinians see “no reason to stop fighting” because they feel that, when the current invasion is over, “the siege will [simply] be reinforced”. And as long as Israel thinks it is “fighting a terror organization driven by a fundamentalist Islamic ideology”, and therefore refuses to understand that it is fighting against a people hungry for freedom, it is “only a matter of time before the next round of violence”. To end Palestinian resistance once and for all, then, Israel itself will have to abandon violence.


In a Facebook comment responding to Sheizaf’s article, Zeid Hamdi said that Israel “can be part of the solution by providing basic human needs such as security, stability, and shelter”, and ending “their efforts in settlement expansion”. If it stops giving citizenship and land (formerly belonging to Palestinians) to Jewish-born adults who have “never been to Israel or even the Middle East”, a significant step forward will have been taken, he affirmed. Palestinians would still have to forgive Israeli transgressions, and work to live harmoniously with their neighbours, but Hamdi believes this is possible if they feel they are being treated like human beings.


Benjamin Birely, meanwhile, who also responded to Sheizaf from Facebook, asserted that, from a pragmatic Israeli perspective, he understands why Gazans (and Palestinians in general) are fighting, but asks how many Gazans understand “the Israeli side”. “If I were a Palestinian”, he insisted, “I would want to resist Israel as well”, but “Israelis also have fears, frustrations, [and] problems” that need to be addressed. They are not “better or more important than Palestinians”, he said, but six million Jews in Israel cannot simply be ignored by Palestinians. If the latter wish to attract understanding from Israelis, therefore, and “mobilize [them] in huge numbers against the occupation”, they “must abandon violent resistance” and the claim to “all of historic Palestine”.


Zionism, Birely claimed, is simply part of the Israeli mind-set, and “will be… for generations”. The majority of Israeli Jews “were born and grew up here” and are not just “artificial colonialists who can just disappear”. They have no other home country, and want guarantees for their own safety and their own culture. Their colonialist government promises all of this, and they are scared about what would happen if they elected a government that took a softer line. As a result, “Israelis will never elect a left-wing government and will never give up on violence”, he affirmed, as long as “Palestinians and their leadership are committed to violent resistance”. It is a complicated and vicious cycle, agreed Birely, but this “is simply the reality”. Only by reaching an understanding between the people of Palestine and the people of Israel, therefore, will there be a lasting solution to the conflict between them.


Finally, Shu Ki (a worker at UNFPA) affirmed that “the only solution is the one state solution where all of us live together” (a solution not currently popular in Palestine (or Israel)). Based on the understanding and empathy referred to in this article, this solution can only happen, Ki says, if Israel stops “using violence to impose a monopoly on the land”.


The key thing to remember about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that there are reasons why people on each side feel as they do. Condemnation of, and an end to, civilian murders in Palestine at the hands of the Israeli State is indeed necessary in the short term. In the long run, however, Palestinian and Israeli communities need to understand each other better, and bypass the violent rhetoric of their political leaders (whether colonisers or colonised). And observers around the world need to do the same, understanding that there is no simple solution to this conflict. The best we can do is to organise in our own communities and countries, and push for empathy and dialogue by pressurising our own ‘governments’ to end the arms trade with Israel. If they refuse to do so, then we must expose their complicity in the murder of innocent Palestinian civilians.









This post was inspired by an article written by Noam Sheizaf and published at +972 on July 22, 2014. [4] The +972 blog (named after the telephone area code shared by Israel and Palestine) is a blog-based web magazine that is jointly owned by a collective of journalists, bloggers and photographers. It is committed to human rights and freedom of information, and opposed to the Israeli occupation. It is financed through readers’ support and grants, and writing is done voluntarily.


About Ed Sykes

Independent journalist. Co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative. Author of Rojava: An Alternative. Ex-Canary editor and writer (2015-2020). Aka 'Oso Sabio' - see @ososabiouk on Twitter.
This entry was posted in Anarchism, Assassination, Autonomy, Bourgeois Democracy, capitalism, Democracy, dignity, Education, Exploitation, Gaza, Imperialism, Impunity, independence, Injustice, International Relations, Israel, justice, Libertarian Communism, Murder, Neoliberalism, Oppression, Palestine, politics, rebellion, revolution, socialism, The Media, UK, USA, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Need for Empathy in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

  1. Pingback: Gaza: A Capitalist Genocide (Essay) | Oso Sabio speaks…

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