Guest Post by Boaz Atzili
Here we go again. “Israel has the right to defend itself.” So said US President Barack Obama on Sunday in response to the recent escalation, repeating Israel’s own justification for its massive aerial campaign against the Gaza Strip.
Well, of course it does. But does this mean it has to apply the same medicine that does not work again and again? Does this mean it is should “destroy the infrastructure of terror” for the billionth time? “Palestinians have the right to defend themselves!” we often hear from the other side. Well, of course they do. But since when does committing suicide count as defense?
Herein lies the key to understanding the current conflagration around Gaza, and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly. Justice (or rather a lopsided blind version of it) has replaced strategy as the logic of action. Righteous propaganda has been a part of most conflicts. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, however, the propaganda penetrates much deeper. “I have the right to do it” rather than “it is in my interest to do it” becomes the story Israelis and Palestinians are telling themselves, not only outsiders. And this kind of reasoning blocks compromise, which is the sin-qua-non of peace.
More than anything else, the conflict has become a competition in victimization. Like children in kindergarten, Israelis and Palestinians repeatedly point to the cycle of escalating violence, each shouting loudly “he started it!” At the same time that both sides compete to prove to the world that they are the true victims of violence, they also compete in the rhetoric of threats. The results would be comic if they were not so tragic.
Israel, for instance, rightly emphasizes the suffering of the civilian residents of the cities, towns, and kibbutzim of the south. For the last seven years, since its forces retreated from Gaza (and even before) these citizens live in daily fear, and frequently have to sit in shelters or run for cover from Palestinian rockets. Children are traumatized and parents are scared to send their kids to school. It’s true Palestinian militants have been firing thousands such rockets on Israel in the last few years. But it’s only part of the truth, since the lives of civilians on the other side of the fence are much less tolerable. The people of the Gaza Strip too suffer from frequent attacks coming unannounced from above. Israeli drones and helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles are a daily presence in their sky. Their children too are traumatized, and much more so, since Israel’s attacks kill at a much greater frequency. Regardless of the targets of Israel’s attacks, the “collateral damage” is often high — a lethal price paid by civilians.
But righteousness is not the sin of Israelis alone. Palestinians in Gaza often decry the loss of civilian lives; the children and elderly who are hurt when Israel supposedly targets militants. And they have good reasons to do so. But then they typically follow by demanding their leaders to throw even more rockets at Israel, which are generally aimed at Israel’s civilian population. The fact that these rockets are much less accurate and much less effective than Israeli weapons, and that Israelis have better defenses, does not negate the irony here: if targeting civilians is unacceptable, it is unacceptable whether it succeeds or it fails.
As soon as Israelis and Palestinians start to consider defending their people rather than defending their pretentious moral high ground, they will find there is in fact somebody to talk to on the other side. A real dialogue about building peace that moves beyond the sins of the past is necessary for any true long-term reconciliation. But at this stage, if the aim is to stop escalation and reach a reasonable compromise, these one-sided and blind notions of justice are obstructing rather than helping. If the aim is to actually defend a people rather than claim moral victory, being smart is better than being loud.
Justice is not worth it if it leads to future generations of agony and grieving. A real resolution to the conflict will be future-oriented rather than past-oriented and will necessarily be based on compromise. Neither side will see compromise as perfectly just, but both sides can — and must — learn to live with it.
* Boaz Atzili is an Assistant Professor at the School of International Service, American University, Washington DC. He is the author of Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict .