A WIIS Member’s Reflections from the Field

Invisibility, victimhood and the sunk costs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

By Helidah Ogude

In May 2010, I travelled to Syria, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank in efforts to better understand the Arab-Israeli conflict. During my time there, certain encounters stained my memory forever.

The most distinctive encounter I had was in Amman, Jordan. As part of a group of students from New York University there to study the conflict, we were having a lively discussion with journalists from the Jordanian Times. We listened keenly as a Jordanian journalist explained how deeply disconnected Arabs and Israelis are. He recalled an opportunity he had to interact with Israeli journalists – “both sides know very little about each other and rely on distorted images promoted by local and international media, which have served only to incite anger and reinforce negative perceptions.” He went on to say, in reference to an Israeli’s perception of him and his fellow Arab journalists, “I was surprised to discover that she was led to believe that Arabs, in her words, “are not like any other people”… she even admitted to staring at me and my Arab colleagues just to see how we acted.”

His observations were immensely revealing. I thought to myself, what an unfortunate paradox, that such a profound disconnect exists between a people that are so geographically proximate. His story has since remained with me, partly because as a black South African, I understood what he meant all too well. In that moment I was able to comprehend that various parties to the conflict don’t see one another. It is not the ‘Separation’/ ‘Apartheid’ Wall, nor any other physical boundary that is most difficult to dismantle in the pursuit of peace. In fact, it is the ‘invisible’ walls that cloud people’s understanding of one another that are most problematic.

His experience is crucial to highlight because it is people like him and his Israeli counterpart, far beyond the reach of the high political echelons and negotiation tables, that most feel the reality of living a life of conflict. In her writings on Truths, Myths and Victimhood in Kosovo, Julie Mertus expresses this kind of phenomenon that can emerge even in the context of ‘peace’: “Socially and politically [they] inhabit a world of unspoken premises, hidden dangers, subtle contradictions and quiet intractability’s, a world where nothing is quite what it seems to be, a world whose muscular realities wrap and attenuate [their] values.”

Palestinians and Israelis in particular, bring with them a history of victimhood and see themselves in the present context, by and large, as victims. Both groups bring to the conflict a national history of persecution and destruction. In the Israeli case, the unparalleled protracted history of persecution, which peaked with the Holocaust of European Jews, produced a siege mentality that has been brought to bear with the conflict with Palestinians and other Arabs. In the Palestinian case, the history of colonization that peaked with The Nakba, (The Catastrophe) in which their society was dismantled and their homeland lost, is considered by many to be second only to physical destruction. Thus, each group brings to the conflict a deep sense of persecution that is not always recognized by the other side because each are too preoccupied with their own tragic national experience.

Mertus contends that victims use their own experiences to justify the oppression and victimization of others. She says that “the most dangerous identity is that of the victim. Once we see ourselves as victims, we can clearly identify an enemy. Steeped in our own victimhood, we no longer feel bound by moral considerations in becoming perpetrators”. Numerous events that occur reinforce perceived and real distance. The future fighting becomes not about the overarching original aim, but rather about justifying the “sunk costs” –for instance, the death of a revered political leader – with little concern for additional costs that might be incurred in the future.

Today, the recent discovery of the bodies of three murdered Israeli teenage settlers, Eyal Ifrach, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frankel, is the ‘sunk cost’ for Israelis. Meanwhile for the Palestinians, it is the death of 18-year-old Yusuf Abu Zagher at the hands of Israeli troops and the recently discovered body of 17-year-old Mohammed Hasan Abu Khdair in a Jerusalem forest; his body charred and with signs of violence.

And so the routine, shrouded by the politicisation of grief, has started again. The exchange between Palestinian and Israeli politicians becomes, not about achieving a lasting and sustainable peace, but about the most recent ‘event’ that affects each party most. Abbas’s spokesperson criticised the Israeli government, stating that it bears “full responsibility” for the murder of the Palestinian teen, while Netanyahu has vowed that Israel will expand its operation in the West Bank in pursuit of the killers of the Israeli teenagers. In his book on Palestinian identity, Rashid Khalidi captures this phenomenon most poignantly, “In a sense, each party to this conflict, and every other claimant, operates in a different dimension from the other, looking back to a different era of the past, and living in a different present, albeit in the very same place”.

The combination of, on the one hand, the ‘invisibility’ of each claimant in relation to the other; while on the other hand, their assumed roles as victims, however legitimate, make for a dangerous environment. Against this backdrop, actions are taken with little empathy for the ‘other’, and sometimes with no moral considerations, because after all, the perpetrators see themselves only as victims.

As I continue to closely monitor and analyse the events that are rapidly and violently unfolding in Israel and the Occupied Territories, I am acutely aware of the long and sordid history that contextualises each killing, each arrest, and each political statement. If we fail to consciously contextualise, we too will continue to analyse the recent killings of teens as if they are isolated events. And in turn, we will condone the short-termism of political decision-making. Decision-making that focuses not on the overarching aim of sustained peace but instead, the most recent ‘sunk costs’.

Helidah Refiloe Ogude is a Policy Analyst currently working for the South African Government. Her interests include international development, the role of media in global affairs and conflict resolution in Africa and the Middle East. She holds a Masters of Science in Global Affairs from New York University. Follow @DidiOgude on Twitter.

Picture credit: Ian Scott ‘Panorama of Old Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives’ https://flic.kr/p/9MCKgK