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The Gaza Conflict – Understanding the Israelis

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As the Israeli army once again top the death toll charts, the world looks on with horror and wonders just how this could happen. The most densely-populated area in the world is being bombed and shelled and civilians are dying left, right and center – how could anyone in Israel support this?

I’ve lived in Israel for around 2 of the last 10 years and heard just about all there is to hear on ‘the situation’, as it’s known. I soon learnt to keep my mouth shut when politics came up. As an outsider my opinions didn’t really count and it was just inviting someone to download a lifetime of propaganda and angst on me.

So I just listened and learned what many Israelis think and why. I heard stories of soldiers back from combat and heading out again on reserve duty. I heard from people who had lost family members in previous wars and from those who suffered recurring nightmares of being on the wrong bus. I heard the version of history taught in school and what image of Arabs is shown in the mass media.

And the more I listened, the less I was able to judge. I asked myself if I would have had similar sentiments had I been born in Israel and guessed I probably would. Most of us grow up with some kind of loyalty to the ideas and values that surround us, that are cherished by those we love. To reject them would be a betrayal.

The key to understanding the Israelis is to know that any and every conflict the country is involved in is a matter of survival. Not in a political or military sense but on a psychological level. Israel was, of course, practically founded on the Holocaust and the pogroms before it. Almost every religious holiday in Israel celebrates the narrow escape from an attempted genocide of the Jews at some point in their troubled history and the schools teach that they’re surrounded by enemies who want to throw them back into the sea.

Once the niceties of a political discussion with an Israeli fade away, you’ll often see the buried fear and rage, the bitterness of living with the constant tension and occasionally even a trace of guilt at the occupation. But none of that is usually articulated, generally the whole gist of the argument comes down to one word: survival.

It’s been observed that the entire country is perhaps suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And certainly, in fight-or-flight mode, there’s little room to empathize and step into the other person’s shoes. Most Israelis would rather the whole problem just went away. They’re getting on with their lives, why can’t the Palestinians do the same without firing rockets at Israeli civilians?

Almost no one in Israel has ever been to Gaza or the West Bank unless they were wearing a uniform and carrying a gun at the time. Almost no one knows what Palestinians in the refugee camps go through, what it’s like to be humiliated at checkpoints, or just how difficult it is to make ends meet for most Palestinians. There’s almost no contact with the Israeli-Arabs either, except to eat good hummus once a while – Arabic cuisine being one of the only positive things you’ll ever hear about their culture in Israel.

Spill a drink at the table in Israel and someone might joke ‘Ha, Arab!’. Arabs are renowned (often with reason) for doing a poor job and are thought to be unpredictable, backward, even hysterical. Pictures on the evening news of a frenzied rent-a-mob in the streets of Damascus or Amman confirm those fears. You can live your life in Israel without ever speaking to an Arab – you can shop at American malls, work in an IT office, watch Friends on TV and drink Nescafe. But everyone knows that just 50 or 100 miles away there’s a whole other world.

The Israeli wall running around the West Bank was ostensibly constructed to prevent suicide bombers from entering the country but you could see it as a symbol of the national psychology. Shut it all out and maybe it will just go away. Just let us get on with our lives without having to look over the other side.

Very few Israelis outside of military intelligence speak any Arabic. Around a third of the country’s ancestors lived in Yemen, Egypt, Morocco and Iraq. But those stories rarely make it into the school history books that focus on the troubles of European Jews, as if they were the only founders of the country. Arabic Jews still have the food, maybe even the temperament of their ancestral origins, but if any of them look back at the past at all, it’s to dig up the contract of a butter-fingered lawyer by the name of Moses…

Every couple of years in the Middle East the pressure valves break and once again Israel is in the news. The world public is reminded of the differences between Hamas and Hezbollah, the PLO and Fatah, and all the old indignation makes the front pages and occasional political march. Thing is, it’s not the conflict that’s the problem. Missiles falling on Be’er Sheva is an enormous threat and there’s no easy way to resolve it militarily.

The word for ‘war’ in Hebrew is ‘milchamah’ and inside is the word ‘lchm’ = ‘bread’. Wars are usually fought over the spoils of the land and if there’s enough to go round then few people are that eager to strap pounds of explosives around their waist and walk into a crowded marketplace.

There are all kinds of reasons why the Palestinians are so poor, from settlement building to corruption in the Palestinian leadership. How to solve it is less a political or religious problem but a matter of logistics. Gaza is an open air prison camp – to understand why it’s burst into conflict Israelis need to break down the wall in the minds first.