Four dimensions for managing and possibly resolving violent conflict
As I have written, the debate has shifted for the critics of Israel – from two nations competing for the same land in which the division of the land arrived at was unfair and unjust to the Palestinians, to a different narrative of an oppressed group denied self-determination by an repressive colonial and apartheid regime that perpetuates injustice, both by denying Palestinians the right to self-determination and by the unequal and unjust treatment of even its own citizens who are Palestinian. The source of the violence in both cases is injustice, just differently characterized in the two accounts.
Justice then is the necessary condition to ensure a sustainable peace. On the other hand, peace is supposed to be a necessary condition for attaining true justice. Justice and peace, in this view, are symbiotically related, each dependent on the other, although they refer to different spheres. Justice, that is social rather than just legal justice, is concerned with minimizing inequality. Peace is concerned with minimizing violence. Inequalities foster violence and violence benefits those who have little interest in human rights.
The realistic but positive option is to increase the justice for both groups in the expectation that the prospect of violence will be reduced. However, the problem is not that simple. When Israel removed its settlements and its military from Gaza in 2005, the justice for Palestinians was purportedly increased in that self-determination was now in their own hands. As well, the Israelis left behind an economic infrastructure that could be used to improve the living standards of the Gazans. But Hamas won the election in Gaza, deposed the Palestinian Authority from any role and introduced a more repressive regime. Further, after the evacuation, instead of turning the greenhouses left behind by the settlers into thriving production centres, they were dismantled.
This, of course, does not prove that there is no correlation between improved justice and improved prospects of peace. But it does suggest that there is no necessary link between the two. They are independent elements of a society, sometimes working in cooperation for improvement, but at other times, as in the case above, injustice increased with the withdrawal of the military. Further, with increased independence and self-determination, Gaza became a centre for attacking Israel on a major scale on four different occasions – 2008-9, 2012, 2014 and 2021. Violence increased significantly with an increase in Gazan self-determination.
There was and remains a reason for that. There is a gap between the increased justice the Gazans gained and the increased sense of the injustices of the past when 720,000 refugees fled, and the Palestinians lost their lands and homes. Thus, the perceived and felt net sense of injustice rose even though, in any objective measure, the justice in terms of self-determination increased.
Is there a correlation between increased sense of injustice and an increased propensity to engage in violence? Even in that sense, when repression sets in, there is often a decline in violence because the new regime may be so repressive that violence of all kinds declines except for that committed by the regime itself. In sum, there is no necessary connection between improvements in justice and a decline in violence. These are two independent variables. Look at it another way. Right wing commentators have suggested that the 2021 Gaza War broke out precisely because Iran was seeking a revived nuclear deal with the US. Iran unleashed its minions in Gaza to stir up trouble and offer a warning signal to America about what could happen if the US continues to reinforce a pariah status for Iran.
In parallel to the relationship believed to exist between the degree of injustice and the degree of violence, there is a general belief that an increased understanding of the perspective of the other will enhance the prospects of peace. But when commentators study the thought processes and beliefs of Hamas leaders and understand how powerful the antipathy to Israel is and that they truly intend, as their charter states, to work to dismantle and destroy Israel, Israel is prone to increase its ability to respond militarily to deter a resort to violence by Hamas. In some situations, enhanced empathetic understanding of the beliefs, emotions and thinking of the other can be correlated with enhanced violence.
If we examine the correlation between truth and the use of violence, the more acutely a nation understood the real nature and intentions of a regime like Stalin’s or Hitler’s, the more resolved the nation was to recognize that “peace in our time” was an unlikely prospect and that one had better prepare for war. They say that truth is the first casualty of war. But it may be truer to say in some cases that truth can be the first and primary cause of war and the resort to violence.
My point is simply that there is no necessary connection between truth, between empathy and between injustice and the prospect of peace and war. Further, there is no correlation between injustice and empathy. Even though one’s initial judgement is that there would be. After all, if one can get inside the head and heart of another and more acutely recognize the injustices that others suffer, one would think that increased empathy would be correlated with an increased desire to bring greater justice to that other.
It is possible, however, that if one gets to understand the injustices experienced by another, one may become more determined than ever not to get into the position of the other, and, even more dangerously, decide to reinforce the repression of the other in fear of what the freedom from repression might bring in a backlash from the other. All this does is attempt to destroy false correlations without providing any substitute.
That is because I cannot find regular correlations between and among these various values and individual cases. Instead, I suggest that conclusions not be drawn on the basis of expected correlations, nor on the basis of only one or two of the above dimensions. Instead, one should conduct a detailed case study to ascertain how degrees of violence, degrees of justice, degrees of empathy and degrees of truth all interact to result in the net possibility of increased or decreased violence. The case analysis should yield what can come out of different combinations and what cannot emerge.
Eliminate the can’t, the impossibilities from one’s consideration and focus on the realities. Then of the much more limited set of possibilities, analyze what the effects of different elements and their combination are likely to be. Taking into consideration the realistic alternative possibilities, choose the option you most prefer to promote and which levers are most susceptible to affecting the outcome and how your own position can help tip the balance one way or another.
If we use the Gaza-Israeli conflict as an example and one key element in the larger Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the factual analysis, it becomes clear that the closer one studies the case, the clearer it becomes that inconvenient facts are being ignored and that other facts are simplified beyond recognition. More often than not, the prescribed framing of the narrative even determines what is believed to be the case rather than what is the case.
Further, when empathetic reenactment enters into the equation, the prospect of Hamas doing anything besides possibly harassing and threatening Israel, no matter what degree Israel reduces the pressures on Gaza to prevent the import of military equipment, then one cannot help but arrive at a decision that a policy of enhanced controls, and, hence, enhanced injustices on the Gazan people, is the most likely path of reducing the prospect of violence. In fact, the clearer Israel communicates the message that it is ready to resort to the use of violence to deter Hamas, the less likely Hamas will be to resort to violence itself.
This is particularly true if there is no political gain to be expected from bystanders driven by sympathy rather than empathy, driven by a repugnance against violence, driven by a deep-seated sense of injustice that they are willing, indeed eager, to set aside inconvenient facts that may challenge such a position of naivete. Ironically, in the pursuit of peace and justice, such bystanders may be complicit in enhancing violence rather than diminishing its prospects.
I am not suggesting that realism is the answer, that an opposite simplification, such as all nations are determined in their policies by the protection of their own interests and that a hard-hearted approach is necessary. Hamas could change. The PLO did, perhaps insufficiently, but it did change. So did the attitudes of the countries that entered the Abraham process of normalization. Counties must be ready to adapt quickly to these changes which enhance the prospects of peace, the prospects of reducing injustices, the prospects of enhancing the understanding the other. The bottom line requires a detailed attention to the truth in any situation and the avoidance of eliding the truth, distorting it, underplaying it and otherwise not paying it the greatest respect – often the consequence of an overriding a priori picture that enhances mindblindness rather than insight.