After some 50 years of fighting, Palestinians and Israelis seem to have finally found the one thing that can get the other side really angry. This became crystal clear as Israelis went berserk because of their inability to return their captured soldiers and ordinary Palestinians felt completely helpless to stop the collective punishments that Israel has meted against them.
Palestinians and Israelis are more polarized these past two weeks than at any time that I can recall.
Talk to an average well-educated Israeli or a like-minded Palestinian (this writer included) and you will get entirely opposite points of view, narrated passionately.
What is it that makes each side blinded to understand the other? Why are we unable to have any empathy for the other?
One answer must be in our respective attitudes toward individualism versus collectivism.
Israelis, like many in the West, give priority to the individual over the collective. At times this laudable defense of the individual goes too far, and becomes an obsession.
No logical explanation can defend the Israeli attacks in Gaza that has cost tens of Palestinian lives, cost the Israelis a public relations black eye and in the end is unlikely to bring about the return of the captured Israeli.
Palestinians, on the other hand, while not as vulnerable regarding individual rights, have a strong collective feeling that makes them very angry when they are targeted as a collective. The thousands of Palestinians caught outside the Gaza Strip when the present cycle began believe that preventing them from returning home is a form of a collective punishment - and that drives Palestinians crazy. Blowing up bridges, power plants, preventing Palestinian civil servants from being paid, these anger Palestinians, who see them as a violation of the large family, community, tribe and nation.
Palestinians as a community are very upset when travel from the West Bank to Jordan is a nightmare, when Palestinian-Americans are not allowed into the West Bank.
YOU HEAR the public statements of Ehud Olmert, and you get the impression that he is keen on preserving Palestinians' humanitarian needs and to avoid targeting the civilian population.
Palestinians from Hamas talk repeatedly of democracy and being duly elected in free and fair elections. You ask Israelis, and they can't understand why Palestinians are so angry with them over Israel's actions against the Hamas-led PA.
Another problem in these opposing narratives is the issue of time. If you ask either side to explain its narrative, each begins at a particularly advantageous time.
For the Israelis the attack that led to the capture of their soldier and the attack against the troops in the north of Israel was unprovoked. You ask Palestinians, and they point out that these same soldiers are part of an army that has been shelling Palestinians, assassinating their leaders and holding nearly 10,000 of their prisoners. But, of course, the Israelis would say that they were assassinating "terrorists" and responding to Kassams.
You ask Israelis, and time for them begins with the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. "How could you do that to us after we uprooted the settlements and left Gaza?" they would ask.
Palestinians would point out that the settlements were illegal anyway, and that the occupation was declared unacceptable by the international community.
SOME TAKE the issue of time in a larger context. To them the occupation occurred because the Arabs attacked first in 1967. Arabs respond that the Israelis are in reality the ones who attacked first. The Israelis go back in time a month or so before, and point out that the Egyptians are the ones who blocked the Straights of Hormuz.
Ask older Israelis, and they would say we were the victims of seven Arab armies attacking us in 1948. Palestinian Arabs say that Israelis' underground militants had before that ethnically cleansed Palestinian Arabs out of their homes and lands.
WHILE THE issue of time is often seen in the past, it can also be seen in the future. Once the Palestinians or the Hizbullah had captured the Israeli soldiers I would have loved to have the ability to fast-forward time.
Because everyone knows that the Israeli army would not immediately agree to an exchange. They would have to, as they say "reestablish their deterrent power," which means, in reality, beating the heck out of the other side.
If we could skip this part and fast-forward time, we could bypass all this and move into the time when a decision of some sort exchange will be made. Time is somehow needed for the pride of the Israeli army, and Israeli politicians who clearly will not be able to eat humble pie and accept with humility the realities that everyone knows has to be dealt with.
Palestinians and Israelis clearly know what angers the other side, and have the ability to finesse whatever they want using the narratives, timelines and justifications their public understands.
Will the time come when we can go past this self-serving process? Can we skip the need to wait another few months, or years, before we come to terms with what everyone knows is needed to make peace in the region?
The writer is founder and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Kuds University in Ramallah. www.daoudkuttab.com