Emanuel Shahaf

Empathize with the Palestinians

In Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary, “The Fog of War”, Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defence recounts his experiences and the lessons learned from his role at the epicenter of the world’s major crises of his time, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. The first and probably most important lesson is to empathize with your enemy which was crucial for the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis where literally the survival of the world as we know it was at stake.

At that time it was the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation that put the pressure on both sides. Today there is no doubt that at least the Gazan’s feel under threat of annihilation and even Israel puts the Hamas missile threat in the starkest of terms even though, thanks to our technology it hasn’t become much more than a serious headache. The fact that “Iron Dome” works so well, reduces Israel’s urgency to seek a quick solution. At the same time, Israel’s inability to empathize with the Palestinians as a people severely restricts our ability to try and resolve the conflict. While deep down inside we know that the Palestinians are not a physical existential threat to the people of Israel as a whole, we relate to the threats posed by them with the same vengeance and ruthlessness as we would direct towards any enemy who is out to wipe Israel from the face of the earth and not only intends to but also has the military capability to do so (which the Palestinians, including Hamas do not).

That is one of the reasons we do not consider negotiations as the preferred path to a resolution of the conflict. It is also the reason for the disproportional damage and casualty figures that are part and parcel of this exchange of fire with Gaza – we use an enormous amount of the power at our disposal trying to wipe out what we consider a mortal enemy, restricting ourselves not so much through our own high moral values (on which we compromise at our convenience) but mainly because the whole world watches. The other reason of course is that we do not want to compromise over the land of Israel claiming all of it to be our’s.  Not de-jure, for the time being, except for Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but definitely de-facto as Prime Minister Netanyahu just confirmed a few days ago in slightly different terms. Whatever we do, we do not empathize, to any degree, with our adversary, the Palestinians.

We ignore the fact that despite our unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip in 2005 we are still, technically and possibly legally as well, the occupying power there since we control sea, air and (jointly with the Egyptians) land access to the strip. We ignore the fact that Gaza, for all intents and purposes is a large prison where 1.8 Million people are cooped up under impossible conditions, unable to leave or receive visits, without economic means of subsistence and depending on hand-outs for their livelihood. We even acknowledge our responsibility for the Gaza strip by continuing to provide electricity, water fuel and humanitarian supplies as we must, according to international law. We ignore the fact that the same law does not permit the occupier the luxury of walking away from an occupation as we did in 2005 without, by means of an agreement, putting an alternate political arrangement in charge. Great Britain in 1947, didn’t walk away from the mandate over Palestine – it returned the mandate to the United Nations. We ignore the fact that Gaza is run by a ruthless terrorist organization that is almost as hard on the inhabitants of the area as it is on us Israelis. We simply ignore our next door neighbors despite the fact that the situation there boils over periodically affecting millions of Israelis who have their life interrupted by missile and terror attacks. We couldn’t care less. We deal with it as if it’s a natural phenomenon, a fire that breaks out periodically only to be extinguished for a while until adverse weather conditions make it flare up again only to be extinguished yet again, until next time.

If we would empathize with the Palestinians we would not have stopped the negotiations with the PA when we did. Had we empathized we would have insisted on supporting the unity government to reunite the West Bank and Gaza as one administrative unit under one central government helping the PA to reestablish its power there. Were we to empathize we would not have used every opportunity to hit at Hamas when it was down and out knowing that it will have to lash out, having been left with no other choice. Were we to empathize we would never consider leaving four million Palestinians without hope for a brighter future, under our control, at our mercy. Were we to empathize we would not use only force as the only means by which we communicate.

We do what our leadership shows us to do, practice deliberate ruthlessness without remorse and we certainly don’t empathize with our adversary. Our government doesn’t even empathize with us, its own citizens because when you give no hope to the Palestinians, you give no hope to Israelis. And just like we tell the Palestinians that they have to get rid of Hamas, we have to get rid of the Netanyahu government. And just like the Palestinians have diffiiculty with that because they are afraid, we too have difficulty because we are afraid. They are afraid of Hamas and we are afraid of peace and compromise. Deathly afraid.

And here is lesson 11 from the “Fog of War” –  You can’t change human nature.

We will explore all the possibilites and after having explored them all we will return to where we started – and know the place for the first time.

(T.S. Eliot)

About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is Vice Chairman of the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, Vice-Chairman of the Israeli-German Society (IDG), Co-Chair of the Federation Movement (, member of the council at and author of "Identity: The Quest for Israel's Future".