Cultural chasm filled with hatred

As violence continues between Israelis and Palestinians, it has become clear that neither side has empathy for the other.

September 02, 2001

After one of the worst years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed since 1948, a central fact has become all the more apparent: Neither side has much of a clue what makes the other tick.

Underlying the current conflict and the gulf in understanding that has persisted for more than five decades are warped impressions: one-sided views of history, a failure to recognize grievances and an almost willful dismissal of religious sensitivities. Each side exaggerates the threat posed by the other and underestimates its determination.

In the best of circumstances, it would be hard to expect Israelis and Palestinians to try to get along. Separated by ethnicity, customs, culture, language and religion, and fighting over a small, crowded territory, they have less in common than the warring peoples of the Balkans, central Africa or Northern Ireland.

Worse, by the time Jews and Palestinian Arabs encountered each other in large numbers a century ago, both had suffered enormously in the course of history.

The Jewish people had been dispersed for centuries, isolated in ghettoes, always a minority, persecuted and victimized finally by pogroms. The early Zionists' dream of redeeming the land of Israel as a Jewish homeland was reinforced by a sense among many that this was their only chance for a permanent safe haven. The subsequent decades in Europe culminating in the Holocaust only confirmed that feeling. Even now, some Israelis believe their country exists as a bulwark against anti-Semitism worldwide. What was it like for Jews in the United States before the state of Israel existed? Raanan Gissin, an adviser to the prime minister, asked an audience of Americans not long ago. He supplied hisown answer: "Heads down, cowering."

Palestinians had seen their own national identity trampled, their progress stunted and their land occupied for centuries by the Ottoman Empire before falling under the British mandate after World War I. For Israelis, 1948 marked a war for national survival and independence against multiple attacking Arab armies. For Palestinians, the same year represents the naqba, or catastrophe, when they were driven from their ancestral land by yet another invading power.

A few Palestinians deny the Holocaust, with relish. But even among the more enlightened, acceptance of the fact of the Holocaust is often coupled with the disclaimer that it wasn't committed by the Palestinians, and so why are the Israelis oppressing them? Some Palestinian intellectuals speak derisively of an Israeli "ghetto mentality." The impact of mass murder and centuries of persecution on the Israeli consciousness, and the way it has honed Israeli survival instincts, is lost.

Israelis, for their part, tend to minimize the displacement and suffering that creation of their state inflicted on the Palestinians, hundreds of thousands of whom became refugees. Israel's "new historians," who came to prominence in the last decade with a revised view of Israel's birth, are still regarded with suspicion among some academics.

As for religion, noisy spokesmen on each side can frequently be heard dismissing the historical value of the other's holy sites, ignoring the key truth that what counts above all is not archaeological evidence but reverence.

Some Palestinians dispute the fact that a Jewish temple ever existed on the manmade plateau known to Muslims as the Haram al Sharif. Israelis question the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims by repeatedly pointing out that Islam's holiest shrines are in Mecca and Medina, in Saudi Arabia. A West Bank Jewish settler, recalling the now-reversed Israeli occupation of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, a disputed holy site, remarked that at the time its yard was overrun with weeds and livestock - typical, she said, of how Palestinians treated holy places.

History obscures and distorts present-day reality, with each side viewing the actions of the other through the prism of its own past traumas.

Israelis, for the most part, are blind to a dominant fact of Palestinian daily life, which is continued Israeli occupation. The internationally recognized term "occupied territory" is effectively banished from the discourse of all except the left wing in Israel. What Israelis see as essential security measures, from the laborious scrutiny of goods, suitcases and bodies at borders to the long lines of traffic and pedestrians at checkpoints, Palestinians view as heavy-handed collective punishment.

Palestinians refuse to recognize a dominant fact of Israeli daily life: that continued acts of hatred, which were sporadic but real before the intifada broke out, keep the Israeli public on edge and the Israeli leadership under constant pressure to bolster the very security measures that fuel the hatred.

The cruelty of the 7-year Oslo peace process was that it prolonged the tense negotiations over territory while failing to address these dominant facts.

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