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The Futility of Picking Sides - my elusive search for justice in Israel-Palestine, revisiting my college memories and present day reflections.
This post is my personal journey to unpack my conflicted feelings about Palestine and Israel. I feel helpless to impact this conflict and have felt so since I first tried to participate when I was an energetic, principled college student. If you want a much more detailed analysis of the history, players and dynamics, I recommend. If you are interested in my personal reflections and thinking, continue reading.
*images in this post were generated via DALL-E using prompts recommended by GPT 4.
There is war again in Palestine and Israel or Israel and Palestine (even which one goes first is a point to reflect). Or maybe, its that the war never stopped. I just stopped noticing. I was so passionate about this topic in University, but since then, I'd forgotten.
After so many years in this state of conflict, isn’t there a better way to think about these things than either party is right or wrong?
Both realities are true, can be true. Hamas and Israel actions are horrible and unacceptable. Trying to compare or justify is simply unacceptable. It reminds me of those stupid games: “is it better to kill 10 people to save 1 million?” It’s the wrong question with a meaningless answer. Meaningless because no matter how you answer it, the outcomes, the reality doesn’t change.
Nothing Israel has done justifies the murder of more than 1,000 civilians. Nothing Hamas has done justifies the apartheid treatment, annexation, and brutality Palestinians face in and around Israel. And it doesn’t justify the escalation. And it is a war.
Beyond the internet megaphone I wonder where do we go from here as individuals? When I was in university, the more I thought about the injustice unfolding the more powerless and hopeless I felt. Donating even felt hopeless as I’d be likely supporting violence indirectly. We can lobby our politicians, protest and write letters. But the reality is these things won’t change the dynamic. This is a reality shaped by powers beyond us individually. So I actually think that we as individuals should treat this as another tragedy playing out on humans who occupy a land known as Palestine and with vastly different interests and also shockingly similar ones.
Outrage attracts attention and this war is no different. The nature of this conflict is appealing to our instincts as well. This is a conflict easy to “sell” across many different narratives. And there is plenty of engaging content. Everyone has Ticktock on their phones and is consuming the manufactured injustice in this conflict on both sides. And that underlying distortion makes it easy to write pretty much anything following one of the narratives and be right enough the people will consume. I’m not sure anyone consciously believes the chaos they consume but it is appealing.
Consuming something that satisfies a world views is reassuring. It’s much easier to process this conflict through a lens of an oppressed minority fighting back (Hamas) or of a nation besieged by aggressors (Israel). The actions of either side can be packaged into injustice and taken to an extreme. Yet, it is a war between two groups that want one thing. The logic is one of war without any form of civility. If it was nice, it wouldn’t be called war.
While we individually are powerless in this conflict, that the wider Middle East has not risen up and declared another regional war is promising in a horrible way. It shows more moderation across the world even in the face of a horrible human toll, injustice and terror.
What is statehood anyway?
A lot of the underlying narrative for this war seems to come from the history of the Palestine territory - most recently part of the Ottoman Empire. Yet those borders and communities are liquid things. Before Ottoman different lines were drawn and after each world war new lines were drawn. Many places that we consider sovereign, independent states have only existed since the end of World War 2. Statehood isn’t something real but something we tell ourselves and is something someone else can use to manipulate us.
Palestine isn’t any more or less real than Israel. Both Palestine and Israel have statehood narratives and for various reasons, more powerful countries are willing to accept the Israel narrative than the Palestine one. Yet that also creates an opportunity - like in every other part of the world there are many possible histories and narratives. If enough people are angry, frustrated, bitter or disenfranchised any of those possible narratives can become an all consuming justification for conflict and war.
The ignored and frustrating part of this war is that the people born in Palestine and Israel today have equal right to claim the land as their home. They aren’t given a choice before birth whether to be either or neither. They are born where they are born. Neither fits the category of colonist. There were Jews, Christians and Muslims in the area for thousands of years. The states are arbitrary concepts. Yet those concepts are what we fight about. The experiences of people born between both narratives highlight this dynamic and the power of tribes.
How we value lives
This war is especially uncomfortable because it highlights the differences in how we value lives politically and nationally vs how individuals have come to perceive the value of life when they can see it online, personalised. The practical reality that the average person sees is the international community values the lives of wealthy countries more than those of poor and especially stateless communities.
This makes sense in the clinical calculus of international politics and on some level national, logical sense - any one country should prioritise the lives of their citizens more than other countries and with a difference in wealth between countries this means wealthy countries will spend more on their expensive citizens. Individual experiences always worked against this and we have seen many groups push against it.
A big disruption of this dynamic is the present war live-streamed. This leads to a further disconnect between the political reality of interdependent countries and the individual experience of a citizen angry at why their virtual-friends on social media are getting bombed. The politics is being overwhelmed by the personal experience. This is leading to increasing and different pressure on politicians.
An infinite loop, death spiral of human suffering
The media narrative around this war struggles with the complexity of this topic. It’s hard to put this war in a frame. Both sides are doing horrible things. Israel is using its power advantage and doing horrible things. Hamas is using its power disadvantage and doing horrible things. Yet wars, especially asymmetrical wars between two groups that have drastically different profiles are horrible.
This is a situation designed to avoid a solution and ensure that both sides continue to dig in and continue to face strife into the future. Both sides (and many others) have invested interests in the conflict continuing and it will continue. Or rather than say that there are many parties with an invested interest in it continuing, it’s maybe better to say that there are many parties who do not like the alternatives or the alternative options require effort that is perceived to be more damaging than maintaining the status quo.
It is a horrible infinite loop. Any action Israel may take towards easing tensions, removing or reducing blockades, opening borders or improving relations will be an opportunity to increase violence from Hamas. And each action of violence by Hamas is met by swift and decisive retaliation from Israel which brings Hamas more power, sympathy and recruits. The cycle repeats. Ignoring the realities, culture, behaviour and history, Israel has set themselves up perfectly as the Goliath and Hamas as the David of this story. Any compromise or proposal from Hamas, would likely be seen as insincere and pointless by Israel. "After what they have done, what's the point?"
There isn't an easy resolution
Seeing the factions from a distance the options are bleak for anything other than a continued infinite loop / death spiral of instigation and reprisal. Which then justifies additional instigation and leads to further reprisals.
Israel does seem to be using this escalation as a way to push the war towards some kind of brutal conclusion; they may continue to bomb Gaza until some truce is reached or until enough blood is paid. The Israeli government is framing this war as a battle for survival. That is a joke. Hamas would never have the power to legitimately challenge Israel.
But in a war, either side can decide to go all out. And Israel has made that choice. They will decimate Gaza. And if they opt to occupy the territory, they will become subject to insurgency. I don’t think the people in the Israeli military are dumb. They know what this will result in. I think they have on some level accepted the trade off. Maintaining the status quo by a process of "management" with Hamas has become more damaging than the costs of outright occupation. And their hardened position made it impossible to respond to the terrible attacks with a hand. They will say they had no choice but to respond with bombs. To Hamas, Israel is showing its true colours. To Israel, Hamas has forced them to take extreme action.
Two groups with conflicting claims
If we take away my experiences and we reduce the conflict to its component parts, what would make sense? I recognise this is an oversimplification on the dynamic. There are temples and history and all kind of different aspects to this particular conflict that make it special, unique. Yet, I think if we all take a step back, most conflicts are similar in most respects, unique and terrible.
While the media spotlight is shinning so brightly, we may forget that the Hamas-Israel conflict is not unique in the world. There are multiple active conflicts around the world some with death and destruction much larger or impact wider reaching. We shouldn't let this reduce the meaning of this struggle but we should also recognise how we have tunnel vision for the conflicts we pay attention to.
“Two groups occupy one territory. Both claim the territory as wholly theirs. One is more powerful, richer and internationally stable than the other.” Explore this situation with Poe/GPT4
Considering this simple description, the pathways lead to where we are today. The other examples all relate to compromise. In this case, both groups are unwilling or unable to compromise or collaborate. International intervention is also a possible outcome, yet given the power and position of one of the groups, it seems highly unlikely. It seems possible that Israeli action could eventually bring Middle Eastern powers together in a way that allows them to force a more structured, negotiated conclusion. I'd love for that but it seems unlikely.
Two groups with conflicting claims to a single territory have every incentive to demonise each-other and fight a war of attrition. The more powerful group is likely to grab territory whenever possible and the weaker group is more likely to revert to terrorism as the only viable way to slow or hold-off their loss. Each side will be righteous and justified in increasingly extreme actions towards the other.
Even moderate or reasoned views about the war are often attacked. Those defending Israel see this conflict as existential for Israel to exist. Their reaction speaks to an insecurity that even with a globally recognised, powerful and rich nation, they are still at risk. Such an extreme view will drive ever more justification of extreme behaviour and demands for others to defend them in-spite of that escalation. External support can even make such insecurity worse as it may remind people that they are dependent on other countries.
And in a strange way, Israel actions are creating an environment where that extreme, existential case seems possible but created by Israel itself. If the unlikely event were to happen where this conflict became the leverage needed to bring a real group of Arab states together against Israel in a formal way, there could be enough force there to legitimately threaten Israel. But that concept of Arab states joining forces to challenge Israel has happened before. The region has a horrible history of wars. And Israel has survived. No matter the outrage today, I think it’s unlikely any state with the power to really threaten Israel is willing to do so any more. The actions of Israel are horrible and so too are those of Hamas. But maybe in the cold logic of global politics, the actions aren’t so horrible to move the machines of regional war.
A situation that avoids a media simplicity
The reality of this war conflicts with the simplistic narratives that we seem to prefer in the modern world these days. We like things to fit nice narratives of an aggressor and a victim. Stalemates and complex dynamics that don’t have real villains but lots of different kinds of victims are frustrating to write about and don’t trigger strong emotions that encourage people to consume more. The narratives for these conflicts contradict, frustrate and turn people away. We can’t easily choose sides and as soon as we think we have figured things out, things change again. We can say many things - ceasefire is urgently needed; the actions of Hamas and Israel are horrible in different ways; people born in Palestine need a way to live just as those in Israel need one too.
Everyone has a right to a life no matter where they are born. This is the biggest moral dilemma and literal challenge for our unfair-by-design-and-reality world.
Options for a full reset
The goal for both parties is not to compromise. The goal is absolute occupation of the territory under dispute. Which makes me wonder if there are other solutions which over the long term could reset the dynamic:
New Country - accept that there won’t be a solution that maintains the two separate countries and instead create a new country that combines both. Name it some variation of “Holy Land”, run internationally monitored elections and form a new government. It will be messy, rife with terrorism and all sorts of other issues. It also recognises that the area itself has a large number of people with equally valid claims to the land.
Citizenship - offer Palestinians Israeli citizenship. Let’s wipe the slate clean and recognise the fact that Israel is the occupying force. It’s happened many times in the past. Most countries today are created states of some form or another. I don’t think it would solve any problems short term and would likely lead to more problems with Hamas violently attacking people who attempt the process but for the average Palestinian it would be a massive improvement over their present life.
Real Recognition - for Israel to full recognise the state of Palestine and pay for the land they inhabit into some kind of trust which is internationally managed. In essence, Palestine would be treated in a similar way to First People's policies in many other countries.
Formal Intervention - The UN, Arab League, other group formally intervenes and provides security. I don’t think this will resolve much other than a short term truce. Underlying inequalities have to be addressed in some what to remove the oil from the Hamas fire. Formalising boarders and enforcing rule of law / reasonable international relations between groups may start to reset the dynamic.
Anything else involves accepting the reality that both sides are in an infinite loop/spiral without avenues for compromise. And accept that each side will continue to make tactical decision that they think are best. This accepts that Palestinians will be exploited by Hamas and Israel. And that Israel will continue to have unstable security. This also assumes a steady continued escalation of violence on both sides as presently there aren’t counter forces pushing both sides towards de-escalation. There are many forces pushing towards an eventual tipping point where Israel takes this seriously as a war of occupation and goes full force (which does seem a serious consideration for Israel now).
We all try to make the best of the hands we are dealt in life. And sometimes that works out great and in others it spirals into a war, humanitarian disaster and chaos.
The news will fade from view
As the conflict continues and the narrative becomes more grey the coverage will likely decline. This conflict has always been morally complex and this escalation isn't helping. The Israel is doing horrible things and Hamas is too. It can be true that both are wrong in their own ways and that neither action justifies the others. By responding to the horrible actions of Hamas in such an extreme manner, Israel has abandoned the moral high ground and is loosing the information war around this conflict.
Handled differently, Israel could have turned the Hamas horrific butchering of civilians into a touchstone in the region as to why all people and nations in the Middle East need to join together against terrorists and extremists. Yet by responding in such an extreme manner, Israel has turned a narrative about the horrors of terrorism into a contrived narrative about Israel statehood, bullying and abusive treatment of different ethnic groups in Israel.
The truth is that Israel is a state created in an area called Palestine with Jews, Christians and Muslims who all have communities who share a common history for hundreds of years in that same location. There are other groups in that same area who claim statehood and sovereignty over that land yet which lack the money, international recognition and power that Israel has. This narrative is true but doesn't fit in a comfortable, online, tribal screaming fit about how Hamas represents an existential threat to Israel and anyone who questions the actions of Israel is an antisemite while on the other side claims that any action against Israel is justified due to their colonial, apartheid behaviour.
Like with any complex, nuanced argument - it's much easier to try and scream down your opponent than actually find a place of common ground.
The Burden of the American Jew (rosselliotbarkan.com) *This article is an excellent summary of the struggle with shocking comments.
I don't agree with much of what Chris Hedges writes about. I still check in on his articles as I think he represents well the edge view of people who are angry about what is happening and have questionable facts. Israel’s Final Solution for the Palestinians (substack.com)
How this topic somehow creates a whole lot of free-speech and backlash issues. Israel, Palestine, and the need for principled free speech (slowboring.com)
Other writings/notes on this topic
Palestine is a topic I buried myself in during university and recent events have brought me a lot of pause and introspection. I’ve been out of university for 20 years and things haven’t improved for the average Palestinian and average Israel (in different ways). This is my attempt to unpack this topic for myself. I’m sharing it here in the hope that it may help you as well.
I’ve been trying to find the right way to write about this topic. This is some other writing approaches that I explored while drafting this post. Sharing here to provide perspective and insight on the thinking and research.
The vast majority of people on both sides are just trying to make a life for themselves.
With out meaning to without the intention to we end up here. Yet media doesn’t like that. It’s easier to have a good vs evil battle rather than a situationally guilty issue. It’s much easier for both sides to frame this as a right-against-wrong narrative. And both are doing exactly that. It’s like Hamas and Israel are comparing notes on war propaganda. But they don’t need to. This is as old as written history. Horror for all to see.
It is right to call out Israel for abuse of Palestinians while at the same time recognising that Hamas is a terrorist organisation operating in its best interests and harming Palestinians in a different and equally horrible way.
We can be against Israel policies without being against Israeli Citizens and Jewish people (in general). We can be against Hamas actions without being against Palestinians. Both are true.
For Palestine, Hamas is using the population for their own objectives and means. And the majority of the population doesn’t have an alternative to Hamas' violence. The present war is already a victory for Hamas. They will benefit from the propaganda, the inequality, the one-sidedness of this war for years to come. Some people in Israel clearly see their response as righteous action, yet it is giving Hamas everything they wanted and more.
For Israel, the majority of the population isn’t happy with the occupation or abuse of Palestinians. They are, we are all human and just want to be able to work, not die and not have their families killed. Most of the people in Israel aren't part of the government. They don't fire the missiles or blow up hospitals. The average person in Israel is the same as the average Palestinian, they just want to live their lives. Yet the situation has created a problem for everyone.
This does not absolve those who helped create this situation in post World War One and Two recoveries yet we cannot go backwards and change those choices. We aren’t able to rewrite this kind of history. We carry the burden of the choices of our ancestors. We can yell and scream and blame but these were the cards we were dealt. It’s up to us how we play them now. And is it really them to blame? All states are created things.
We need to say that the behaviour and policies of Israel towards Palestine are fundamentally wrong and are feeding a cycle of violence and reprisal that only empowers groups like Hamas, conspiracies and regional conflict. And we also need to say that the actions of Hamas are not the actions of Palestinians and need to be treated as such. Gaza, the West Bank, everyone living in the area that Palestine and Israel inhabit are victims of Hamas. So the blanket punishment of Palestinians for issues with Hamas is not the right solution. Anyone can see it just provides ammunition for Hamas to recruit more. The fathers and sons of killed family members are easy to recruit into efforts to revenge which are nothing but a way for groups like Hamas to collect more power and influence.
Likewise, there is a role for international countries to play where they cannot simply keep allowing Israel to maintain this untenable situation. It will only get worse and only create more problems for everyone across the world. We somehow have to find a balance that works for everyone. The biggest issue is the Israel holds all the cards and won't surrender anytime soon.
This is the tradeoff that we are faced every day in our globalised system. The only controlling force that countries have to force a change in another country is to fight a war. And wars to subjugate another population are by-now known to be a complete waste of effort. Thus, bully countries like Israel can and do get away with horrible crimes because no country is willing to even threaten a war to make them stop. Just like any bully, they lie when asked why they hit the kid on the playground and if caught red-handed they apologise with clenched teeth and go back and punch the kid again.
This war is already in an escalation spiral. It will continue to escalate until Israel fails and breaks or Israel succeeds to some extent and decides the only way to ensure security of Jews is to control the entire territory. We somehow have to find a way to take the position that the circle of violence is unacceptable. and must stop but in order for it to stop Israel must take a first step and change their approach. Yet that is close to impossible for Israel to do. As each violent act cannot be ignored or the government will be seen as weak and innocent civilians will be hurt and demand some kind of revenge. Yet that cycle gives Hamas exactly what they want. Israel is simply playing by Hamas books. Thinking that their guns and demands and missiles are hurting Hamas but instead they come across as a giant lashing out at the ants bitting its feet. Hamas knows that they will never defeat Israel. They likely know that their mission is entirely futile but this process gives them power, violence gives them power the violence that they commit is one kind of power but the retaliation is an even greater power for them. It validates their existence.
Open the borders and its chaos. But they have to find a way to slowly de-escalate and turn Palestinians into advocates rather than passive detractors.
We also need to find ways to recognise that extreme positions like giving Palestine its own independent state or creating multiple states is not going to resolve the underlying reality that those groups with power over the situation are happy with the status quo. Hamas and the Israeli Military are very comfortable with the dynamic in play and do not see any reason to let go of their hard absolute and selfish moving lines. For each of them only one reality is true.
The outcome most likely to benefit the majority of the population of both groups in the short term and long term is a single state that combines the legal and structural stability of Israel with the energy and population muscle of Palestine. Having the most invested countries agree to a joint transition program would be a massive step in the right direction. Giving Palestinians equal rights, citizenship, representation, etc in Israel and tabling a combined state referendum/plan to play out over the next 20 years would almost certainly undermine a power base of Hamas and extremist Israelis obsessed with taking over all of the holy land. Restitutions and apologies to people harmed by Hamas and Israel won’t fix things but will help. And a public, joint recognition that all peoples and all religions have shared ownership of humanity’s cultural and religious heritage will certainly help move things along. These things are possible and could set both populations on the path towards a brighter future for their children. But taking such a path requires courage and strength that both sides presently lack. Israel government is run by self professed cowards, religious extremists and corrupt actors. Just as they’re counter parts in Hamas. Both sides to this conflict have too much invested in their extreme positions to let go one inch. Sadly neither group suffers from this arrangement. The average Israeli and average Palestinian suffers the most. Watching a greater future that could be simply be blown up and washed away in blood. The international community is equally invested and conflicted with each side unwilling to agree a joint approach and instead preferring to posture and blame.
The reality is no single player is responsible for what is happening (and will continue to happen) in Israel and Palestine. Yet all players are responsible for allowing it to continue. Shame on you, shame on us.
And because both are true this war will continue for a very long time. Both sides have every interest in continuing it and no reason to stop it.