The latest war between Israel and Hamas, their third in less than a decade, has now produced at least one shared result: utter despair among Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza that either side knows what peace might look like.
This emotion of despair is difficult to measure. Yet it can be seen on the faces of people disheartened by the rocket-and-bomb violence that began in June. Each side should now more easily recognize it in the other. And perhaps with that can come some hope of a shared response to despair – and its paralyzing effect on resolving Israeli-Palestinian differences.
This possibility was heard in a Tel Aviv rally Saturday in which about 7,000 people chanted “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” And in a noted speech there, Ben Kfir, an Israeli whose daughter was killed by Hamas, said: “In Gaza they are digging concrete tunnels and we are erecting a separation fence. How sad it is that we can’t channel these efforts for peace.”
It was also heard at a July 8 peace conference sponsored by the newspaper Haaretz in which writer David Grossman offered these words:
“We cannot afford the luxury and indulgence of despair. The situation is too desperate to be left to the despairing, for accepting despair amounts to an admission that we’ve been defeated. Defeated not on the battlefield, but as human beings. Something deep and vital to us as humans was taken away, was stolen from us, the moment we agreed to let despair to have a dominion.”
Addressing despair itself should now be the top priority among Israelis and Palestinians, for two reasons:
1. When each side talks about possible details of a compromise, it becomes all too easy to bring up past grievances, current injustices, or future threats. How much of Israel’s blockade of Gaza should be lifted? Should Hamas be totally disarmed? Often such issues quickly descend into questions of Israel’s 1948 founding, the Holocaust, and even the biblical origins of Jews and Arabs. Word choices alone -- such as defining occupation, civilian, or terror – can become flash-points for feuding. Better to start by acknowledging that each side is fed up with despair and wants to exchange it for hope.
2. Many leaders on each side have learned to exploit or encourage public despair in their competition for power with political rivals. Despondency becomes an excuse to militarize, hunker down, or stall for time. The past failures of peace deals, such as the 1993 Oslo peace accords, are used to sow pessimism about the potential for new ones. The breakdown of the recent American-led peace negotiation becomes an opportunity for radicals to deny hope of a deal.
Despair can be abused but it can also be used as a point of empathy. After the 1973 war between Israel and Egypt, a shared despair helped drive talks that led to the Camp David accords and a long peace between the two countries. That old despair is largely forgotten. This lesson – that despair can quickly end when simply confronted as a self-imposed obstacle to peace – should now be applied to make sure this latest Hamas-Israel war is the last.