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On the Middle East Conflict: Loyalty vs. Facts

Affiliation and group loyalty tend to shape a person’s perspective of the world. Two people with opposing views will have very different subjective readings of the same facts. Sometimes it’s unconscious because people are selective in both the comprehension and retention of information, but other times it is perhaps less so. The Middle East conflict is definitely a topic that is ripe for this type of subjectivity. It is therefore probably not surprising that I felt, as an Egyptian woman, that the articles in last week’s Harbus entitled “Sharon vs. Arafat: An Alternative Approach to An Alternative Approach” and “Stability Requires Unequivocal Support for Israel” presented a distorted view of the story.
Obviously there was much that I disagreed with, but what was most shocking for me was the de-legitimization of the Palestinians’ claims to the lands which they inhabit and the suggestion that it was Israeli goodwill that allows the Palestinians to stay there. Newly built settlements were presented as “Jewish villages.” “An Alternative Approach to an Alternative Approach” points to the Jewish Bible in order to validate the Jewish claim to the land, but I would caution against the use of religion; either side of the conflict could equally use religion as a source of “ultimate truth.”

Rather, I would hope that readers would understand that the Arabs who reside in the Occupied Territories are descendants of people who lived on this land for centuries if not a millennium. But I really don’t think that any solution to the Middle East conflict will be determined by assessing who has more legitimate rights to the land in question. Land rights in the Middle East can be debated forever; they could fill the entire Harbus for the rest of the year.

To take one side and try to dig up or make up the facts that prove it to be right only serves to further polarize the issue. It forces us to adopt an “us vs. them” mentality that makes it difficult to recognize that there are faults on both sides of the conflict which need to be resolved if any just peace is to be reached. An “us vs. them” mentality also fails to recognize that achieving security for Israel and justice for the Palestinians are highly interdependent goals.

I will not attempt to delve into the history of the conflict or prove which side has more rights to what land. I will limit my discussion to the situation as it currently stands. I know that my background will inevitably bias my opinions, so I will ask you not to take what I have written in these pages at face value. Instead, I ask you to do your own reading on the subject, deduce your own facts by exploring the perspectives of the extreme positions but also the opinions of the moderates in between.
The Middle East conflict is not a conflict of equals. Israel’s GDP per capita is $20,000; Palestinians’ is probably less than a $1,000. Palestinian towns are under military occupation; there is no Israeli territory under Palestinian occupation. Palestinians have no army. For this reason, there is a much larger death toll on the Palestinian side of the conflict. While deaths on both sides strengthen the vicious cycle as they blur symptom and cause, they cannot fully explain the root causes of the continuing violence. To go a layer deeper, one needs to look at the day-to-day lives of participants in the conflict.

Palestinians’ lives have no resemblance to an “ordinary” life, as we are accustomed to today in the U.S. Israelis lives are not as “ordinary” as ours either in that they live with a greater fear of terrorism and increased anxiety regarding their security. However, Israeli lives resemble ours far more than Palestinians’ lives driven by the fact that the former have institutions and statehood within their control. They have a real economy and all the activities that come along with one.
On the other hand, Palestinians have no state, their territories are divided from one another and if you live in one territory you need Israel’s authorization, usually difficult to obtain, to cross over to another. Checkpoints, blockades, frequent curfews, collective punishment, destroying signs of statehood (e.g. radio station and airport), bulldozing of homes & uprooting of trees – these all affirm the reality of the Israeli occupation.

Israel claims that the curfews and checkpoints are necessary for their security. The curfews are meant to provide security for thousands of settlers and allow them to move around freely while the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians cannot. The blockades and the destruction of all signs of statehood are collective punishments by Israel as a reaction to killing of soldiers or suicide bombings. The problem is this aggression leads to further aggression, strengthening a vicious circle of hatred and killings. As a result, both sides suffer.

Because Palestinians live under military occupation, their resistance is at least understandable. They have no weapons to launch a systematic resistance and have become known for rock throwing as the best means of resisting their oppressors.

Suicide bombings are the second most common act Palestinians are known for. I cannot defend suicide bombings, as I believe that violence against civilians on either side is unacceptable. But I do understand why this has emerged as the chosen way of young Palestinians to express their resistance. These Palestinians simply do not have alternative weaponry to fight off the Israeli army. The military power disparity between the two sides is enormous.

Recently, when a ship of arms was intercepted in the Red Sea, no one suggested that the Palestinians might have the right to defend themselves on an equal basis. Rather, the media was quick to judge that this was a huge crime and an obstacle to peace. But Israel’s legitimacy to fight with its full military strength remained unquestioned.

Last week’s Harbus articles spoke about the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against military occupation, as terrorism. Given the conditions Palestinians encounter in their territories, I find this claim to be unfair. I also find it simplistic to criticize the uprising and to expect Palestinian sentiments towards Israel to improve when occupation continues to destroy their lives (figuratively and literally). In an ideal world, the Palestinians perhaps could have learned from Ghandi and employed nonviolence resistance. Maybe it could have worked, but it’s much easier to delve on ideals when one is not subjected to an occupation on a daily on basis.

One could claim that my background and the media I choose bias my opinion. But I would point to public criticism by Israel’s own citizens. There are many Israeli and Jewish peacemakers who are struggling for media airtime, and I hope one day will be more heard. Some notable examples are: Shalom Achshav or Peace Now (www.Peacenow.org), Jews for Peace in Palestine & Israel (www.JPPI.org), Gideon Levy, a notable writer for the Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper, and Noam Chomsky, professor at MIT.

I hope that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. With a new Saudi peace proposal on the table, both sides are welcoming an opportunity to re-start peace talks. I just hope that we recognize here that there are two sides to the story. If we are genuinely searching for peace then we should place the same value on each side’s human life and everyone should be afforded the same basic rights. That means trying to separate facts from emotion, and to think in shades of gray instead of black and white, recognizing that it is to the detriment of a lasting peace to fuel enmity and unequivocally support just one side of the argument.

March 4, 2002
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