In their latest and third war, Israel and Hamas have tried once again to evoke empathy from the rest of world for the suffering of their civilians. For sure, the victim tally in Gaza has been much higher than in Israel, especially of children. But Israelis have had to live in terror from random rockets, and were forced to run into bomb shelters while also worrying about armed militants slipping out of tunnels.
Largely absent from this play for world empathy is any imagining by Gazans or Israelis about the hardship of the other side. They desperately want from the world what they are so unwilling to give each other.
Their suffering from this war may be unequal. But each was equal in callous disregard for the distress on the other side caused by their armed forces.
By most accounts, this “empathy deficit” between Israelis and Palestinians began to increase after the second intifada, which erupted in 2000. Walls of separation and military checkpoints now divide the two peoples more than ever. Day-to-day contact is lessening as Israel issues fewer work permits for Palestinians. And groups that try to promote personal connections of understanding are seen as unpatriotic and sometimes threatened.
“Many peace activists view this as a devastating development, where everyday Israelis become less and less aware and concerned with occupation, and where Palestinians solely see Israelis as imperious, occupying soldiers and never as fellow human beings,” wrote two Swedish scholars at Lund University in a paper last year.
For two peoples whose fates are so entwined, the indifference seems boggling to outsiders. This is why American mediation in the Middle East often starts with attempts to create trust between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Former negotiator Dennis Ross, writing in his book “Statecraft,” called this approach the “empathy rule.”
“The more you show that you will reach out and that you do understand the other side,” he wrote, “the more you can and should create an expectation that the other side must also understand your needs and respond to them.”
Empathy, he admits, is not enough. The next step is action. Empathy brings the two parties to the point of a decision, but “to get them to cross historic thresholds, they must also feel that there will be a profound, adverse consequence if they do not do so.”
After three wars, Israelis and Gazans have experienced enough adverse consequences. It’s time to give empathy a try, and then act on it.