How fear undermines peace

For Israelis and Palestinians alike, fear plagues every day.

December 16, 2017 22:00
4 minute read.
A Palestinian hurls stones toward Israeli troops in response to US recognition of Jerusalem

A Palestinian protester hurls stones towards Israeli troops during clashes as Palestinians respond to US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)


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On July 28, 2015, I flew out of Dayton International Airport to study in Tel Aviv. I went to study peace and conflict resolution in the heart of one of the most intractable conflicts of the modern age. Virtually no one I spoke with in the United States could understand why I would want to come to this place. “Isn’t it dangerous? Aren’t you afraid?” Without hesitation, I invariably answered no.

You see, I served in the US military for more than five years and in 2007, was deployed for 15 months to Ramadi, Iraq, where my unit saw its fair share of combat. I knew men who died and watched as the blood drained out from my fellow soldiers. I have discharged my weapon in anger. I’ve shaken hands with men, only to be shot at by them not five minutes later. No, I am neither scared by violence nor by the threat of it, but I was sorely under-prepared for what awaited me in Israel.

During my year studying in Israel, the so-called “Stabbing Intifada” reached its peak. That was enough to put most people on edge, particularly foreigners. Yet, I wasn’t terribly concerned. I knew well enough how to defend myself against a single knife-wielding opponent. The most terrifying thing I encountered was the check-point on my return to Israel from Bethlehem.

Having an American passport has its benefits. One, is being able to go into the West Bank without too much trouble. Indeed, getting into Bethlehem was not difficult at all. You walk past a few barriers – I think I flashed my passport – and then you are through. Once on the other side, with the exception of the wall, it is a fairly typical Arab hamlet. Getting back to Israel proper, however, is a harrowing experience.

I traveled to Bethlehem on a weekend, so the transit center was literally deserted, save for myself, my traveling companion and Israeli security. One thing you learn in combat is to always have a method of egress, and if that is impossible, be ready to use your surroundings to fight as best you can. I have always remembered this and – unfortunately – have never been able to forget it.

Let me tell you, the transit center, meant to serve thousands of Palestinians daily as they cross from the West Bank into work, is a soldier’s nightmare. There is no advantageous position for establishing a defense, in any meaningful sense of the word. It is a labyrinth of serpentine stiles, blacked-out windows and concrete. It is even designed to minimize the concussive effects of an explosive detonated inside the structure.

None of this is to say that the experience would be particularly traumatizing to the casual tourist, but honestly, that is because the average person is a dullard when it comes to security. If you don’t know that you are trapped, how can you be afraid? Needless to say, I made it back into Israel without any hoopla. The guards were, for the most part, quite pleasant. Then again, I am a white male with blue eyes and a respectable beard. I even remember talking to one of the guards about Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Still, the control and power that the Israelis hold in that facility is absolute. It was, without exception, the closest to scared I have been my entire adult life. I can only imagine the cumulative effects of the stress and anger generated by having to wait in those lines for hours with the addition of automatically being viewed with suspicion.

But before you react by going off the deep end, the Israelis have plenty of reason to be cautious. The previous Intifadas had devastating effects on Israeli society. While there are no burned-out buses to serve as memorials to those who perished, there is a prominent reminder on the Tel Aviv beachfront. The Dolphinarium attack in 2001 saw 21 people killed, mostly teenaged girls. The abandoned discotheque remains – part abandoned property, part memorial – something which would look more at home on the beaches of Normandy than in the heart of Tel Aviv.

I will not presume to adjudicate the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. My own opinions are so mixed, I couldn’t rightly tell you who I believe to be in the right. I sympathize deeply with both sides, for reasons far too numerous and far too ephemeral to explain.

I am also highly critical of both sides. What I will say is that the impasse, which has plagued the peace process for decades, will not be broken by the cold logic of negotiations.

Pervading both societies is an undercurrent of fear, specifically fear of the other – fear of their violence, their beliefs, their culture and simply fear itself. The human psyche has almost an unlimited capacity to reason, but fear has a peculiar way of subverting this capacity.

While I view President Trump’s decision not to waive the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act as an unnecessary provocation, it is not, as Manuel Hassassian has termed it, “the kiss of death for the peace process.” It is merely the most recent nail in the coffin.

The author holds a BA in Philosophy from Wright State University and an MA in Public Policy from Tel Aviv University. He is a 31 year old American who is currently living in Germany.

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