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We Are Better Than This

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A shaky ceasefire may be taking hold in Gaza. After three weeks of armed confrontation, and more than 1000 casualties, it seems that both sides have achieved their military objectives of reinforcing the status quo. As the dust begins the settle, there is only one refrain running through my mind: we are better than this.

'We', humanity at large, are better than the slavering, libelous mob that we automatically deteriorate into any time somebody mentions the word 'Gaza'. Somewhere, there is a great PhD thesis in progress about this very topic, and a budding social scientist will get an early tenure-track position for her example-laden explanation of how 'Gaza' has become the modern day equivalent of Pavlov's dog and the dinner bell, the mere mention of which triggers a visceral response in otherwise reasonable human beings. We are better than this.

I've lost count of how many Facebook feeds I've blocked, how many Twitter users I've un-followed because of the constant re-posting of truly outrageous 'news stories' about the current situation in Gaza. These selectively researched op-eds masquerading as journalism are always written from one uncompromising position or the other, and offered as proof that 'I am right, and you are wrong'. It is disappointing that so many otherwise intelligent and rational people let their social media posts reflect the basest examples of herd mentality. We are better than this.

I write from a position of certainty--I have nuanced and at times contradictory views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and you can, too. I previously worked as a legal adviser to the Israeli government, so I have some idea of the perspective from inside the Iron Dome. I have also served as a lawyer on behalf of several of the Muslim inmates imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay (including a Palestinian), protesting against the American government's inhumane counter-terrorism policies. Many would argue that holding one of these positions would inherently preclude holding the other, because of [insert your ALL CAPS SOUNDBITE and inflammatory photo taken out of context here]. But neither of these positions 'radicalized' me; in fact, I became more convinced than ever that it is neither religion nor rockets which fuel this conflict, but rather a seemingly inexhaustible supply of moral certainty. People on both sides of the equation want to be right more than they want to make peace. We are better than this.

Let's address some of those indisputable, unassailable convictions that feature so prominently on your newsfeed:

  • 'Israelis are war criminals'. Do you even know the definition of a war crime? Or has 'war criminal' just become a kind of cultural short hand, like 'hipster', to encompass a population you can't identify with and therefore want to denigrate? Assuming you are well-versed on the legal intricacies at issue here, it seems very statistically unlikely that all Israelis are war criminals. It is certainly conceivable that some of the military operations undertaken by the IDF in Gaza are in violation of the laws of war. The deaths of those four boys playing on a beach are difficult to explain, and the scenes of houses and hospitals reduced to rubble may make you question Israel's military strategy. But there is a difference between the IDF commanders who ordered those missile strikes, and 'Israelis', a population of people who have always lived in a unfriendly neighborhood, full of parents that have to show kindergartners where the nearest bomb shelter is, and teach them how to crouch when the air-raid sirens sound. Notably, it's a group which also includes some of the Israeli government's harshest critics and the Palestinians' most outspoken champions, voices that are often unfortunately taken out of context to fit one self-serving narrative or another. We are better than this.
  • 'Palestinians are terrorists'. Do you even know the definition of terrorism? (Trick question: there isn't one.) 'Palestinians' are not terrorists any more than 'Israelis' are war criminals. The majority of Palestinians in Gaza are simply people who live in unbelievably difficult, crowded conditions, and must periodically watch their homes and businesses get destroyed by tanks and fighter jets. They are worn down by constant affronts to basic human dignity, they are frustrated by their utter lack of opportunity, and they are mad as hell. You would be, too. We are better than this.
  • A small minority of Palestinians do plan and carry out terrorist attacks, which are unreservedly inexcusable--every single time. Spare me your moralizing that 'they have no other way to express themselves'. Human beings can easily make the rationale choice not to kill an unarmed civilian that they have never even met. The overwhelming majority of us do it every single day. Israelis will not soon forget the carnage of human body parts left in the wreckage of buses and cafes during the Second Intifada, although the rest of the world seems content to. Nevertheless, if you insist on clinging to the shallow analysis is that 'their circumstances excuse their actions', then it has to be true for the other side as well--meaning that if Palestinians 'have to' carry out terrorist attacks because of the occupation, Israel 'can't help' but build settlements because of the Holocaust. (Dissatisfying, isn't it?) We are better than this
  • IT'S THE OCCUPATION, STUPID. Oh, right, the occupation. Israel's occupation of the West Bank (and effective blockade of Gaza) is the ultimate chicken-and-egg existential issue. There is no question that it dehumanizes every single person affected by it--both those who subjugate fellow human beings, and those who must live under unjust rules and laws imposed by the hated 'other'. The effects of it are poisonous and insidious for Israelis and Palestinians alike. But the Palestinians have never pledged not to immediately attack Israel if and when the occupation ends, and every Israeli politician values his or her job too much to make a serious suggestion that Israel be courageous enough to attempt a complete unilateral withdrawal from all the territories occupied in 1967. The first bombing, kidnapping or rocket attack that took place in the wake of such a withdrawal would spell the immediate end of any sitting government, throwing potential peace talks into disarray for months or years. The present circumstances are inherently unsustainable, and yet no one has ever proposed a legitimate, workable alternative. Both sides are in desperate need of their Mandela, their Gandhi, their Martin Luther King, Jr.--great statesmen (or women) with the moral fortitude to put the struggle for peace above their individual career longevity. We are better than this.
  • Of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the only case of occupation in the world, although you would be forgiven for thinking so. Crimea has faded quickly from most people's minds in the glut of other terrible news coming out of Ukraine, but there's also Northern Cyprus, Tibet, and Western Sahara, not to mention the Kurds and all that confusion in the Caucasus. Those of you who feel so strongly that the international community must #FreePalestine do not seem to be able to gather the same verve to call for the overthrow of the 'occupation regimes' in Ankara, Beijing or Rabat. #FreeLaayoune is demonstrably not trending on Twitter. It might be worth it to take some time for self-reflection to ask why this is the case. We are better than this.
  • Conversely, those of you who blithely claim that Gazans 'deserve what they get' for 'electing' Hamas need to think long and hard about this statement while sipping a latte from behind the safety of your laptop screen. It is true that when faced between the choice of 'terrible' and 'even worse', an under-informed electorate can sometimes have questionable taste in their preferred leadership--although notably, no one suggested blockading Russia when Putin 'won' the Presidency in 2012. (The world is undoubtedly now regretting their apathy.) The bigger problem, though, is that your grasp of demographics is a bit shaky: as of June 2014, 63% of Gaza's population was under 24 years of age. This means that when Palestinian legislative elections were held in 2006, the majority of people currently living in Gaza were either 1) teenagers, or 2) not even born yet. They had nothing to do with Hamas coming to power, and yet 'deserve' the terribly violent fallout from the perpetual inability of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to come to terms on a two state solution? That hardly seems fair. We are better than this.

So, while the powers-that-be retreat to their various lairs and try to figure out how to stop killing each other long enough to re-stock their arsenals, here's my modest proposal: nobody is right. We are all wrong. Because you know there's another side to the story, and you are completely uninterested in trying to understand it. No matter which narrative you support, you are turning a wilful blind eye to the facts which don't prop up your position. This is dangerous and provocative--but it's not the bombast that offends me so much as the smug hypocrisy. We are better than this.

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