Middle Eastern grief

It was impossible to remain unmoved by recent images of Israelis being dragged from their homes in the Gaza strip (September 05).  Perhaps the most agonising element was that young Israeli soldiers (many of them conscripts) had to enforce a highly contentious government decision and endure at first hand the grief and rage of the people they were evicting. Clearly, this was no simple decision.  Nor was it obviously driven by moral considerations.

The Gaza strip is part of a series of territories occupied by Israel after their victory in the war of June 1967.  Extending Israel’s boundaries seemed to make strategic sense for Israel.  But the agonies that have followed were surely predictable.  Occupation compromises the occupiers as powerfully as it does those who are “occupied”.  

Locked together in a relationship that lacks equality and justice, people cease to be fully human to one another.  What is perhaps miraculous is how many people – Jews and Arabs – were able to maintain some degree of social accord.  In the end, however, the withdrawal from Gaza was not driven by those pockets of tenacious good will, or even the recognition of the profound harm caused to citizens on both sides as long as a democracy functions as an occupying force.  It was more strategic than that. Fewer than 9000 Jewish Israelis were living among 1.4 million Palestinians whose civil and social rights were totally controlled by Israel.  Holding onto those territories, as well as to the West Bank, was crippling for Israel.  As crucially, it meant that Jews would be an increasing minority in their own country, an unacceptable challenge to Israel’s picture of itself as a democracy – and to its vision of itself as a Jewish state.

So there were clearly good reasons why Israel should “give back” the land. Yet the pain for the people losing land and homes was no less acute because it made good sense.  It may be hard for outsiders to imagine how people could become so attached to living in such a dangerous and hostile situation.  But clearly in the forty years of occupation, those settlements had become “theirs”.  Families had been raised, people had been born and died there.  And beyond personal attachments, many settlers also genuinely believed that they have a duty to God to return to and retain a “Greater Israel”.

 In that situation, it is unlikely that they – or their fellow citizens – would have much energy to see how starkly their devastation mirrors the grief and outrage of the Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes in the Gaza strip, on the West Bank, or during the original 1947 partition. Those are parallels easy to see from outside. From the inside looking out, the view is probably different.

In this, as in most else, “Jews” and “Arabs” are no different from one another – or the rest of humankind.  Whoever we are, wherever we come from, what happens to “them” is hardly ever seen in the same light as what happens to “us”.  This is our human tragedy.  Beyond our garden gate, we rarely take other people’s pain seriously or see how like our own pain it is. Yet empathy is essential to justice as well as peacemaking. And when empathy is absent, violence rushes in.

The agonies on both sides of this conflict feel very close to me.  I went to Gaza in 1967. I was a naïve girl, living on a kibbutz in the Negev desert. Egypt’s occupation of Gaza had just ended; the Israeli occupation had just begun. The poverty I saw in Gaza stunned me, but not as much as the fear.  It was expressed very differently by those who had the power and those who didn’t, but in both directions I could see how it stripped people of their humanity – and turned their suffering into meaninglessness.

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