When we can’t agree on the meaning of violence

Any discussion of the role and ramifications of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seriously hampered by the two sides’ inability to agree on the meaning of violence–much less the ramifications.

This has not been an issue in Israel’s other conflicts. Israel has fought wars with Egypt and Syria, with both sides declaratively accepting the need to observe the international rules of war with regard to civilians, POWs, banned ammunition, etc. If there were violations of the “rules of violence”–and there were, on both sides–the two parties were able to deal with them in the context of their bilateral relationship. Thus the legacy of violence has not played a significant role in Israel’s efforts to make peace with Egypt, which succeeded, and with Syria, which failed.

This is not the case in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, where violence appears to be a more central factor. First, because we can’t agree on the meaning of the term. Many Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause define violence as anything that derives from the occupation. According to this approach, the settlements are violence, deportations are violence–indeed, any Israeli act of occupation is violence–and the violence embodied in all such acts is equally severe.

Israelis, this writer included, generally disagree: the occupation is bad and many of the settlements reflect a terrible mistake in Israeli strategic thinking. They are an abuse of power. But to term any abuse of power “violence” befuddles the issue. The term “violence” should be confined to the meaning of rough or injurious physical force. Wherever possible, abuses of power should be dealt with politically rather than with a violent response. The record shows that at a number of junctures in recent decades the Palestinians could have achieved statehood on far better terms than they can contemplate today, had they renounced violence and accepted or adhered to a political process: for example in 1947-48, 1978 (Camp David I) and 2000 (Camp David II). By and large violence has hurt, not helped, the Palestinian cause.

This brings us to the second reason why violence is now so central to our conflict. Most Palestinians apparently refuse to distinguish between the violence of suicide bombings and other attacks carried out by Palestinian civilians that deliberately target Israeli civilians, and the violence of Israeli military responses that target Palestinian perpetrators of violence and all too frequently inadvertently injure innocent Palestinian civilians, or even the violence attributed to acts of occupation. In those instances where Palestinians agree that Israeli civilians should not be targeted, they generally refuse to view Israeli settlers, including women, children and the aged (who do not bear arms) as civilians. Moreover, many of those Palestinians who criticize the use of violence against Israeli civilians express their reservations at the level of utility–costs and benefits–rather than morality.

Israelis not only insist upon these moral distinctions, but since the events of 9/11 in New York we are in good company: the issue of the right to deliberately target civilians with violence is today on the cutting edge of a clash of civilizations between the Islamic radical movements and their supporters on the one hand, and Israel, the United States and much of the rest of the world, on the other. One additional key aspect of this clash touches on the readiness to do violence to oneself, i.e., to commit suicide, in order to injure enemy civilians. Here we appear to be confronting significant differences in current religious and cultural attitudes toward life and death between Judaism and Christianity on the one hand, and some adherents of Islam, on the other.

Meanwhile, the violence of the conflict is having a disastrous effect within our respective societies. As Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad El Sarraj notes in the current Palestine-Israel Journal, “it is a proven fact that abused people will turn to abuse others.” This is something neither side wants or needs.

Because we cannot agree on the definition of violence relative to our conflict, we cannot productively discuss many of its ramifications. This is a major impediment to the restoration of mutual confidence and of a shared capacity to communicate between the two sides. Still, even if the two sides can agree on a partial suspension of violence–though they apparently cannot do so on the basis of shared values and motives–this could be a step forward. This is where we currently stand with the efforts to implement the roadmap.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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