Many innocent civilians have been killed in recent weeks. Israeli women, children and elderly; Palestinian women, children and elderly. They have been buried and their relatives remain plunged in grief for the time being. Some are boiling with anger and screaming for revenge. But the grief exists on both sides, only they cannot or will not feel it that way. “Not being able to acknowledge the suffering of the other side is one of the main causes why the conflict continues,” said Ofer Shinar Levanon. He conducted research on the psychology of the lingering conflict for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
How difficult it is not to denounce the other side, Shinar Levanon experiences in his own environment. Two of his wife’s relatives are being held hostage in Gaza. The family is shocked by Hamas’ atrocities, the Israeli says from his home in London. Like many Israelis who know a kidnapped, wounded or murdered fellow citizen, Shinar Levanon feels deeply affected. And yet he tries to be open to the grief on the other side of the border, something he believes few Israelis and Palestinians are capable of doing. “Acknowledging the suffering of the other person many find intolerable,” he said.
If you cannot have empathy for the other side, it is difficult to eventually make concessions toward a lasting peace. Almost everyone remains in the same psychological state, observes Shinar Levanon. ”I think you have to change that before you look at the other reasons for the conflict, such as security and borders. Psychology goes beyond these issues. Citizens involved in violent conflict tend to see the other as the ultimate aggressor. They often see themselves as defenseless victims who are thus attacked by the other side. But this applies to both sides, that is, equally to Israeli and Palestinian citizens. For both camps, the picture must remain black and white. If an Israeli feels like a victim, a Palestinian cannot also be one.”
Yet not everyone thinks this way. There are certainly Palestinians and Israelis who do look out for each other. Impressive in that regard was an interview, last week, on American TV with Jewish journalist and writer Amira Hass. She is now pushing for a cease-fire and an end to the tragedy unfolding in Gaza.
According to Hass, it is currently impossible to convince parts of the Israeli people of what Palestinian families are going through on the other side of the wall. ”There are people I know and love there. People who can be emotional and rational at the same time. People who are appalled by what happened on October 7th (the massacres by Hamas) but who at the same time can say that this conflict did not start on October 7th. There are no words for what my friends in Gaza are going through right now, but they cannot manage to speak to the Israeli public about it. People are so drunk with the desire to take revenge for what happened October 7th that they don’t know anything at all about what is going on in Gaza, nor do they care.” Nor is Hass optimistic about how many American and European politicians now view it.
Shinar Levanon worked with an organization where Palestinian and Israeli bereaved families talk together about their loved ones who died because of the conflict. They then talk about their brothers, sisters and fathers, and really try to acknowledge each other’s suffering and then try to make peace. This is sometimes the only solution for those who have had to pay the greatest price, the researcher said. “We have to realize that outsiders have to get involved in this, such as a European Union. We cannot solve this conflict ourselves by militarizing one side or demilitarizing the other. You can try to eliminate Hamas, but in five years new leaders will rise again. That is why mediators, who look at the conflict more independently, need to work on the psychological root causes.”
Shinar Levanon holds out hope that one day they will succeed in coming closer together. “But only if we can look at the past together and acknowledge the other’s suffering as well.”
Back to Oslo Accords?
The 1993 Oslo Accords were the only meaningful attempt to establish peace in the region, Shinar Levanon said. Those who worked to achieve them (U.S. President Bill Clinton, PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin) he considers, in retrospect, “highly intelligent and motivated”. But Clinton, Arafat and Rabin also ultimately failed because they did not look back enough to the past. “They were more concerned with the future and forgot that the past dictates the future. For generations born into prolonged conflicts, it is very difficult to look rationally at the other side. World War II, on the other hand, did not last very long, apart from being the most terrible war. You saw the United States reestablishing good ties with Germany shortly after the war. Today, there is almost no one alive on earth who has known a period where there was no Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is why this conflict continues. It is very difficult for a long-term conflict to make peace.”