Last night I got into a discussion about Gaza, and, as is typical for me in a verbal discussion, I was not able to defend my arguments against violence very well. I was accused of “feeling” that violence is wrong, but not providing any rational argument against it or suggestion for an alternative in this particular situation. I think this is a valid point; I do “feel” that violence is wrong, but not everyone does, so in order to convince people to try something different it is important to show why violence is not just wrong, but ineffective, and to provide ideas for what to do instead.
I therefore would like to attempt to set feelings aside and argue that rationally-speaking violence is not an effective long-term solution to the conflict in Gaza, as well as propose some alternatives. I welcome thoughtful discussion; please feel free to leave a comment.
Why violence is not the solution
An argument in favor of Israel’s actions usually starts out with the point that Israel has a right – and perhaps even a moral obligation to its citizens – to defend itself. The word defend automatically brings up the image of force, but force is not necessarily the best defense. If what Israel really wants to do is ensure its security; that is, to protect itself and its citizens, then we need to stop thinking of violence as the only option.
Using force against one’s attackers will not ensure long-term security for one significant reason: violence breeds more violence. When people feel threatened and attacked, they naturally feel anger towards and fear of their attackers. They are not going to suddenly decide that they love the people doing the killing and want to make peace with them. No, they are going to continue to hate them and want to do violence in retaliation. Thus, Israel’s current actions are not surprising: Israel felt threatened and attacked by the rockets and decided to retaliate. However, the problem is that their retaliation will only increase Hamas’s hatred, anger, and desire to retaliate in return. Violence is a vicious, escalating cycle.
At this point one might argue that the vicious cycle does not apply in this situation because Israel’s military is so much stronger than Hamas’s. Israel can very likely “win” this particular battle, achieving through force their immediate goal of stopping the rocket attacks. They can perhaps even take down the terrorist-led government by killing many of the key people in it, leaving behind a seemingly subdued group of people. In the short-term, therefore, Israel may feel as if they have greater security after they have succeeded in this battle. However, their sense of security will be an illusion. The hatred will not have magically disappeared. No matter how many of the key militants they kill, there will be someone left behind in which hatred is brewing, someone who will become a new leader. Eventually the Palestinians will acquire more rockets or other weapons, and once again attack Israel. The violence, the battle that Israel appeared to have won, only ensured a short-term peace. There is no doubt that the conflict will spring up again, and another cycle of violence will begin. We do not need to only theorize about the future to be convinced; taking a look at the immediate past of the region shows clearly the cycles of violence and “peace.” Violence has been tried many times before and clearly does not work. Why should we continue trying to use an approach that will get us nowhere except to more violence?
In short, violence is not a solution because all it can do is lead to more violence and hatred. Violence cannot breed peaceful coexistence, because the use of violence requires an us versus them mentality that turns a group of people into the “other” and excludes mutual acceptance.
As I mentioned above, Israel’s actions are not at all unexpected given the situation. In the context of a society where we condone the use of violence as a solution to conflict, it does not make sense to condemn Israel’s actions. I condemn them in a larger context, one that says violence will not lead to long-term peace, as evidenced by history, sociology, and psychology, and therefore we should look for a different solution. I challenge Israel to take the high road, to break themselves out of the cycle of violence and try something different.
Alternatives to violence
Let me preface this section by pointing out that if I had all the answers, I would be over there helping them resolve their conflict, not sitting here writing a blog post. I am not an expert on the details of the situation and I have not studied the history of the region in depth. I do not presume to be able to solve a centuries-old conflict in one short examination of it. However, I have a few ideas of things they could try. Some of them may seem a bit out-there, unlikely to ever happen, but this is the type of problem that requires creative brainstorming of solutions. You never know until you try.
At the root of all conflicts are needs and feelings. Every human being has needs, and when those needs are not being met, conflict (and violence) often results. Every human being also has feelings, and when those feelings are not acknowledged and accepted, conflict (and violence) often results. (Note that accepting a feeling is NOT the same thing as accepting an action based on that feeling. It is possible to accept that Palestinians feel anger towards Israel without accepting their actions of shooting rockets at Israel). So one place to start with the conflict in Gaza is to do active listening with the key individuals involved. This means individual meetings where the person in the role of “counselor” listens to the other person talk about their perspective on the conflict. In order for it to be effective, the counselor needs to probe for the root needs and feelings (the person is most likely not aware of what these are; a good counselor can draw them out) and reflect back to the individual what they hear, thus acknowledging the person’s needs and feelings and making the person feel accepted.
I am aware that this may sound a bit too touchy-feely to many of you. Most of us are extremely uncomfortable thinking about our own or anyone else’s needs and feelings, let alone talking about them, because our society has taught us to repress them. This does not mean they are not important, however. In fact, I maintain that addressing each individual’s underlying needs and feelings is absolutely necessary to reaching permanent resolution of a conflict. As long as there are feelings going unacknowledged and needs going unaddressed, the conflict will not be resolved; people will continue to harbor resentments and bitter thoughts.
We cannot stop there, however. After individual meetings with the leaders as I described above, I would propose bringing the leaders together for mediation. I realize that negotiation has been tried and not succeeded numerous times. Perhaps true mediation has also been tried, but I do not know. By true mediation, I again mean something that includes needs and feelings. Negotiation by itself is not sufficient because it jumps right to the last step, of trying to come up with a compromise. True mediation starts by getting each party to truly hear what the other party is saying. They take turns explaining their position, and the other party is required to reflect back what they hear. The act of doing this results in each party gaining a better understanding of the other position. Only at this point will they be able to make progress together towards a solution. Furthermore, they should be seeking a win-win solution, one that meets ALL of their stated (true, root) needs, not a compromise with which neither side is completely satisfied.
It would be very difficult for Israel and Hamas to initiate these actions all by themselves. This is where the third side comes in. The rest of the world needs to put serious pressure on both Israel and Hamas to stop their censeless fighting and try something else. Some uninvolved third-party needs to step forward and lead the steps I proposed above. Someone needs to initiate individual meetings with each leader and work through their needs and feelings with them. Someone needs to lead the mediation (or most likely series of mediations) between Israel and Hamas. We cannot expect the involved parties to take these steps by themselves; the rest of the world must take action to help them work towards a non-violent solution.
However, perhaps none of this will work. Perhaps the Hamas leadership is simply too irrational, and there is little hope of doing enough individual counseling work with them to really reach to the root of the conflict. We of course cannot know this unless we give it the best try we can, but assuming that we do encounter failure, do we just give up and go back to violence? No, we should not go back to violence. There are other things to try.
I suggest to you that the majority of the people living in Gaza do not in fact harbor such virulent hatred against Israel. Yes, they elected a terrorist as their leader. However, I have read suggestions that this was because this same terrorist promised them social services programs, something the previous leader, being corrupt, did not provide. I do not know how accurate this evaluation is, but I don’t doubt that there is some truth to it. The people who elected Hamas likely made a very rational decision: when you are struggling for your survival on a daily basis, you are probably going to vote for the person who promises you the most hope of a better life, regardless of what other policies and beliefs that person might have. So instead of looking at the needs of the leaders, who may be beyond hope, let’s instead look at the needs of the people.
I can perceive a few needs from my perspective, although to really find out we could of course have to talk to the actual people living in Gaza and Israel. The needs that I see include the needs of those living in Gaza for sufficient food, water, power, health care, and education, and the needs of those living in Israel for assurance that they and their loved ones will not be hit by a rocket. I want to focus on the basic survival needs of those living in Gaza, because they are the ones who elected a terrorist. I suspect that if these people’s needs were met, they would be much more likely to elect a leader who is not a terrorist. Such a leader may be more rational, and thus more willing and able to enter into mediation with Israel. Furthermore, the people would not need to use Israel as a scapegoat for their problems (which they may or may not be doing now, and Israel may or may not actually have caused some of their problems – the point is that when people are struggling to survive they will look for someone to hate, someone to blame their struggles on). Essentially, meeting people’s basic needs for survival is a prerequisite to reaching peaceful coexistence. Thus, what can Israel and the rest of the world do to work towards a solution to the conflict? Ensure that everyone’s basic survival needs are being met.
However, meeting the general population’s basic needs is probably not enough. It is important to recognize that the mutual hatred and distrust between Arabs and Jews is centuries old. Many Arabs and Jews grow up with little exposure to each other, and they are taught – not necessarily explicitly (although that may be the case), but through their society and culture – to hate and more significantly to fear the other. Removing the centuries-deep layers of distrust and fear is neither an easy nor a fast process, but it is a necessary one.
Meaningful exposure and interaction is critical to removing fear and distrust. It is not as easy to fear a group of people as the “other” when you have a human connection with someone from that group. To bring this out of theory and back to the current situation in Gaza, I propose activities that bring Palestinians and Israeli Jews together in activities where they must cooperate to solve a problem. How about forming many small mixed groups and having them work together to tear down the barriers along the border of Gaza (if there are physical barriers)? Or having them work together half the day rebuilding a destroyed Israeli structure and half the day rebuilding a destroyed Gaza structure? Or perhaps building a community center together that sits right on top of the border, and then having them work together to come up with programs and activities that the community center could host. Some other ideas are an exchange program where a young college-age Palestinian spends a week living with an Israeli family and vice-versa, or bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to live in a Kibbutz-like setting for a month. Forming connections between children is also critical. How about a mixed Arab/Jew elementary school or after-school program that emphasizes cooperative interaction between the children, where they have to work together to solve some problem? Some of these ideas may sound impossible, but the point is that we have to be creative. We have to think of ways we can bring people together to build bonds and trust with one another. If we come up with enough ideas, we are bound to come up with something that is possible.
Building mutual acceptance, trust, and peaceful coexistence between two groups of people that have hated each other for a long time is anything but easy. It requires creativity and hard work, thinking of solutions and things to try that go beyond the easy, instinctual reaction of using force and violence. Violence may appear to solve conflicts in the short-term, but it is an illusion. As long as the two groups are using violence on one another, they will continue to fear and hate each other. Long-term security can only be guaranteed by breaking the cycle of violence and reaching beyond it for human connection and the gradual return of trust.