Encountering Peace: A question of honor

The enmity and fear that have deepened with the conflict have dehumanized the way that Israelis and Palestinians view each other. Almost no human contacts exist between them.

Mourners carry the body of Palestinian assailant Hamza Zamarah, during his funeral in Halhoul, in the West Bank February 17, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/MUSSA QAWASMA)
Mourners carry the body of Palestinian assailant Hamza Zamarah, during his funeral in Halhoul, in the West Bank February 17, 2018.
Honor. Respect. Dignity. A lot of what is going on now between Israel and the Palestinians centers around honor – national honor. A lot of what is going on inside of Israel is linked to how different parts of the public relate to the need for honor and for recognition of respect from others. The Gaza Great March of Return on the Israel-Gaza border was about respect – honoring the Nakba and the desire for return – one that we Jews should have no problem understanding, and yet it threatens the sense of well-being of many Israelis.
The incendiary balloons and kites – a demand to recognize the siege on Gaza and the suffering of two million people – a suffering of 70 years, a demand for dignity. Also the Israeli demand to the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people – all about honor, respect and dignity of the connection of the Jewish people to this land. The Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people – directly connected to the demand for respect and honor of the Palestinian people’s connection to this land. The refusal of Israel and Hamas to recognize each other and to negotiate directly with each other – connected to the cost in loss of honor and respect that each side believes that such recognition would cause. Even the battle over Al Aqsa/The Temple Mount – respecting the religion, spiritual and divine claims to a sacred site, which should be holy to all but instead is poisoned by the lack of mutual respect and honor.
Israel and Fatah (the Palestinian Authority) remain locked in a battle of (dis)honor and (dis)respect. President Abbas’s recent speeches demonstrated dramatically how the sense of attack of the honor and respect to the Palestinian people and their narrative can impact the psyche of leaders and their people. The passage of the National Law in Israel is very connected to the attitude “if they didn’t recognize us as the Jewish nation-state, we will shove it down their throats.” This was definitely an “in your face moment” – the impact on the psyche of Israel’s leaders of their sense of Israel’s national honor being respected by the Palestinians and their supporters, even though this law is an attack against Israel’s democracy and its chances of building a shared society between the Jewish majority of 80% (!) and the Palestinian minority of 20% (!). But similar to Abbas’s own downslide into the danger zone of national insanity, Netanyahu’s sense of not being honored and respected as the Jewish people, the Jewish Nation Law became so urgent and so necessary that he has pushed through legislation that endangers Israel’s democracy and delicate internal social fabric. The expressions of the need for honor, respect and dignity have limits and need to be checked.
Israel is respected, honored and treated by most of the world with great dignity for its many amazing achievements over its short 70 years. Most of the nations of the world, including the 28 countries of the European Union, have deep respect for Israel. They do not, however agree with Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, which in their opinion show a deep disrespect for the rights of the Palestinian people. The support for Palestinian honor, respect and dignity by the nations of the world causes many Israelis, led by Israel’s unbalanced prime minister and politically right-winged and fanatic government, to perceive the world’s support of Palestinian rights as a de-legitimization of Israel itself. It is not. But the Israeli response is to shrink democratic space for criticism against Israel’s policies, not only from the outside, but also against its own citizens.
The issues are quite complex, both politically and psychologically. Part of the problem is that the post-traumatic effects of so many years of persecution of the Jewish people – which have become such a central element of many Israelis’ identity, especially among Israel’s national-Zionist population – cause the unrelenting need for approval and legitimation. It leads to the need to take action, such as legislating the Nation-State Law and flexing other nationalistic muscles and symbols of power and control.
The key to unlocking the mess that we are all in is in finding the way to grant honor and respect without detracting from each side’s own honor and respect. Israel-Hamas cease-fire, keeping Jerusalem safe and sacred, renewing a chance for peace and eventually reconciliation, making true peace with the states and peoples of the region (and not just regimes) is all about finding and using that key of honor, respect and dignity. We will not settle anything in Gaza without also addressing the West Bank and the Palestinians’ need for national respect, honor and dignity. The Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and around the world will never achieve their national rights without respecting and honoring the Jewish national rights. We will never achieve peace in Jerusalem without respecting that the Muslims have been on Al Aqsa/The Temple Mount for 1,381 years and honoring and respecting that the Jews were there before them. Being there before them does not mean replacing them there now. It means understanding and respecting that both Jews and Muslims have a deep spiritual and religious connection to the same space. That is not an adjudication of rights, it is a recognition of the holiness of the same space to all of us.
One responsible adult in the area today, the United Nations (which also provided the foundation stones for mutual recognition and mutual respect back in 1947), is deeply involved in circumventing the respect issue by focusing on pragmatism. The refusal of Hamas to link the cease-fire arrangement to the issue of the bodies of the soldiers and the two Israeli alive civilians goes back to respect and honor, which Hamas demands while thousands of Palestinians remain in Israeli prisons. Israel’s refusal to release a lot of Palestinians in a new prisoners exchange is linked to the direct attack on Israel’s respect and honor of the Gilad Schalit deal, in which 1,027 Palestinians were released in exchange for one Israeli soldier. For many Israelis, particularly on the right, the memory of that deal is filled with a sense of national humiliation, particularly after witnessing Palestinian jubilation with the release of their prisoners.
Another responsible adult in the area is Jordan, which has successfully managed to keep Al Aqsa/ the Temple Mount from inflaming the area once again during a volatile period that is likely to get even more volatile as the Jewish holiday season returns. And of course Egypt, which while putting extreme pressure on Hamas to enter into cease-fire arrangement with Israel, is also providing a constant supply of benefits to Gaza – particularly regarding the regular opening of the Rafah crossing for people and goods. Egypt used its leverage on Hamas to extract significant concessions from them, but in the end, without treating Hamas with respect honor and dignity, a deal could not be reached. That is what seems to be happening now.
The enmity and fear that have deepened with the conflict have dehumanized the way that Israelis and Palestinians view each other. Almost no human contacts exist between them. These are two peoples who have become hyper-sensitive to the importance of their national honor and respect. This conflict will never be resolved without according people on both sides of the conflict the personal and national dignity that we all demand. There is so much of a mirror image of each other that it is quite amazing how difficult it is for each see to look at the other – we are in so many ways looking at images of ourselves.
The author is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and its neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.