Our Obligations to Palestinians – Part I Reply to Grossman

Our Obligations to Palestinians – Part I Reply to Grossman


Howard Adelman


I received more responses than usual to my last missive and some came with attachments that I believe need or deserve responses. The most moving and heartfelt was one sent by Leora, an OpEd by David Grossman, “An Israel Without Illusions: Stop the Grindstone of Israeli-Palestinian Violence” published in the NYT on 27 July. Perhaps it was the most poignant because I am just finishing reading his last novel, To the End of the Land which he himself finished writing just after his youngest son, Uri, was killed almost eight years ago while serving in the IDF in an armored corps in southern Lebanon on 12 August, 2006. His tank was hit be an enemy shell as it went to rescue fellow soldiers in another tank. He and three other soldiers in his tank all died.

A second sent by Cornelia was a Joint Declaration by International Law Experts on Israel’s Gaza Offensive entitled, “The International Community Must End Israel’s Collective Punishment of the Civilian Population in the Gaza Strip.” A third far less one-sided and much more deeply considered document on international law sent by Michael focused on the obligations of Israel to supply electricity and water to the citizens of Gaza entitled “Opinio Juris” putting forth the debate on each side of the question and posted on 26 July on Kevin Jon Heller’s blog.

I will review each in turn over the next three days and draw some conclusions on the fourth on the topic of “Our Obligations to Palestinians”..

Grossman’s article argued that both the Israelis and Palestinians were caught up in cognitive bubbles that both justified the actions of each side and prevented each from either hearing or understanding the position and plight of the other side. The article began, “Israelis and Palestinians are imprisoned in what seems increasingly like a hermetically sealed bubble. Over the years, inside this bubble, each side has evolved sophisticated justifications for every act it commits.” What is bubble on each side?

“Israel can rightly claim that no country in the world would abstain from responding to incessant attacks like those of Hamas, or to the threat posed by the tunnels dug from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Hamas, conversely, justifies its attacks on Israel by arguing that the Palestinians are still under occupation and that residents of Gaza are withering away under the blockade enforced by Israel.” One immediately notices that in this effort to be even-handed, Grossman appears to be endorsing Israel’s justification because he adds the adverb “rightly” which is omitted from the Palestinian justification. I say “appears” because in the very next paragraph he writes that, “both sides are right”. But he then undercuts both justifications by characterizing them as obeying “the law of violence and war, revenge and hatred”. So the real question for him is how both sides got trapped in this century old two self-enclosed bubbles.

Instead of answering this question which he himself poses, the newly apparent even-handedness is then turned the other way when he writes that he can only address Israelis and cannot address Hamas nor “purport to understand its way of thinking”. So he asks Prime Minister Netanyahu: “How could you have wasted the years since the last conflict without initiating dialogue, without even making the slightest gesture toward dialogue with Hamas, without attempting to change our explosive reality? Why, for these past few years, has Israel avoided judicious negotiations with the moderate and more conversable sectors of the Palestinian people — an act that could also have served to pressure Hamas? Why have you ignored, for 12 years, the Arab League initiative that could have enlisted moderate Arab states with the power to impose, perhaps, a compromise on Hamas? In other words: Why is it that Israeli governments have been incapable, for decades, of thinking outside the bubble?”

Grossman does not continue this line of questioning and certainly does not try to defend its truth. It quickly becomes clear that his point is simply rhetorical, intended to reinforce his insistence on Israeli blindness but without justifying or explaining the political depiction he puts forth. Instead, Grossman takes another turn and shifts to his belief that he has detected a new maturity among Israelis and that they have begun to recognize the vicious circle in which they have become trapped and are finally “now looking into the futile cycle of violence, revenge and counter-revenge”. ”The main artery of the Israeli public is gaining sobriety.”

No sooner does his dovish approach offer a foundation for hope than he locates that hope in a re-arisen and more enlightened left. Not because the left has come to a greater understanding of what is required to make peace with the Palestinians but because the left has come to appreciate that, “right wing’s fears are not mere paranoia, that they address a real and crucial threat.” Any peace would be fragile and the hatred within Palestinians is far more deep-seated.

The right, he pleads, must make a parallel recognition of “the limits of force” and that, “There is no military solution to the real anguish of the Palestinian people, and as long as the suffocation felt in Gaza is not alleviated, we in Israel will not be able to breathe freely either.”

And that’s it. OpEds are necessarily brief and truncated. But one is most impressed at the continual series of “s” turns Grossman makes in such a short piece, the same type of twists and turns that mesmerize the reader in his novel. In the process, a reader becomes both spellbound and dizzy, but a pause lets one recognize that:

  1. The political picture of a right-wing government blind to peace initiatives, specifically from the Arab League, is not shared by most Israelis or even most analysts even if such a portrait enjoys my sympathies, with the important qualification that the peace offering was politically loaded on both the issue of refugee return and Jerusalem.
  2. The observation that each side is trapped in a cognitive bubble is never justified. If in 1940 a commentator claimed that both the Germans and the allies in the West were trapped in their respective cognitive bubbles, one might suggest that it is the commentator that needed his head examined for one side represented a force for evil and the other, with all its faults, was on the side of the good guys. Grossman, or his alter ego at the time, might respond that this characterization just proved what a bubble such a representation indicated. My only point is not to suggest that each side is NOT suffering from mindblindness, but that it is neither a given nor even an easy conclusion to draw without extensive explication and justification.
  3. When the nature of the bubble is further described as one where each side is bent on violence and revenge I, for one, become even more skeptical because I see little evidence that either Hamas or Israel is driven by revenge and Grossman himself also suggests in his opening that Israel is motivated by self-defense given the threat f the rockets and tunnels and Hamas is also driven by a desire to defend Palestinians who want and need to escape their entrapment within Gaza.
  4. On the other hand, Grossman’s claim to have detected a new maturity among Israelis because the left has come to recognize both the futility of this vicious cycle and the legitimate fears behind the posture of the right in Israel, does seem to resonate — though I would be wary of characterizing it as maturity. Further, I see an obverse side to this recognition, the resignation of Israelis to what they believe to be a new reality, that they are doomed to be fighting a series of endless wars without any ultimate victory but also without any realistic prospect of a conclusion through any mutually agreeable peace agreement. So whereas Grossman detects hope, I detect resignation.
  5. Further, both the left and right in Israel recognize that this case of “eternal return” can only be alleviated by improving the lot of the Palestinians strikes me as a fall back on an old left conviction which will meet with virtually no resonance from the right. In other words, the right will not hear any such plea because they will see in it the same confusion of hope and misplaced reliance on material relief for the Palestinians when the anguish and despair among Palestinians is much deeper and more profound than the newly recognized dead-end that Israelis increasingly sense and that Grossman unintentionally points out.

In either case, whether once comes to believe that there is a realistic prospect of the Palestinians arriving at the same degree of maturity than Grossman claims to detect among Israelis, it is hard to see how hope can trump pessimism unless Israelis can grasp and understand the Palestinian mind-set, which Grossman claims he is unable to do though he does say they want to escape their entrapment..

My own conviction is that we owe the Palestinians two fundamental obligations:

  1. to deeply and comprehensively understand the major strands that have produced the current impasse cognitively, religiously, politically, militarily, sociologically and psychologically from the Israeli perspective;
  2. contrary to Grossman, to deeply and comprehensively understand the major strands that have produced the current impasse cognitively, religiously, politically, militarily, sociologically and psychologically from the Palestinian perspective;

Without such an empathetic understanding, despair will trump hope every time.


This entry was posted in Israel.

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