A call for empathy

Nov 2, 2023
Flags of Israel and Palestine behind the barbed wire.

A friend of mine in Israel, sickened by the events of the past few weeks, when asked what we outside the country could do suggested we begin with empathy.

Empathy needs to cut across the tribal divisions that are becoming the standard response to the war. It is possible to both condemn the barbarity of the Hamas attacks and to recognise the sense of desperation that brings recruits into Hamas, to feel for the hostages held in Gaza—some of whom are not even Israelis—and to be outraged by the devastation caused by the Israeli response.

Many years ago the Palestinian American Edward Said wrote that he was “horrified both at the terror visited upon its victims and horrified by the terror in Palestinian men and women who were driven to do such things.” Anyone who wants to understand how these words remain relevant should read the Jewish American Peter Beinart, who has struggled to combine empathy with analysis.

Each weekend our cities see demonstrations fuelled by the conflict, marked by a sea of Palestinian or Israeli flags: we have yet to see a demonstration which recognises the horror felt by both groups. My sympathies lean towards the Palestinians, but when I hear the calls to free Palestine from the river to the sea I wonder what this means for the millions of people who are born and have grown up in Israel and who hear this as a call for their dispossession.

Both sides in this conflict feel forgotten and imperilled by the outside world. For Jews the Hamas attacks brought back memories of the Holocaust, fuelled by a global rise in anti-Semitism. For Palestinians the brutality of October 7 paralleled the brutality meted out to Palestinians in the West Bank, where Jewish settlers have systematically dispossessed and attacked Palestinians for thirty years. When both sides fear genocide and draw parallels with Nazis we need understand that these are reactions born of inter-generational trauma.

There is no doubt that Hamas calculated for a military Israeli response and that they were aware that this would place civilians in Gaza in danger. How far they saw this as a necessary step to win global support at a time when many Arab countries were moving towards rapprochement with Israel is impossible to know, but we can assume they saw this as collateral damage, much as did the United States in attacks on Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Empathy might seem soft-hearted but it actually demands a degree of realism that is lacking in the rhetoric of both sides. Since the collapse of the Oslo Accord in the 1990s neither Israelis nor Palestinians have been able to break free of the impasse between them. Nor have they been helped by international rhetoric, shared by successive Australian governments, that the solution is the establishment of two states, without any serious attempts to think through how this could be achieved.

I suspect the two-state solution is dead, in large part because the sheer size of Jewish settlements on the West Bank have made it improbable. Rather than recycling the words is it beyond any of our governments to imagine new forms of co-sovereignty, which would guarantee equality for both?

There is hardly a lack of examples to suggest that military force can only result in greater misery and despair; President Biden, who understood this in the case of Afghanistan seems to have forgotten it in the case of Palestine. Imagine if instead of declaring full support for Israel he had used the opportunity to reach beyond the immediate crisis to speak of the overwhelming need for a just solution, one which would allow both Palestinians and Israelis to live with full dignity.

There are no magic solutions to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But for those of us living far away from the war zone there is an obligation to try to understand the perceptions and motivations on both sides. Empathy requires more than tribal loyalties and slogans.

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