This week, the long captured soldier Gilad Shalit will be released in exchange for nearly 1,000 Palestinian prisoners convicted – in Israeli courts – for list of crimes of varying degrees of violence. While the five-year saga is certainly a relief for his family and perhaps a positive point in the ability of negotiations to bring about results (albeit greatly belated and not exactly game-changing or inspiring), a lot that can be extracted from this ordeal toward understanding conflict in the Middle East. The most glaring point is that both sides engage in a dual system of morality – one for their friends and one for their foes. Rationalizing their actions, both sides uncritically accept their actions’ validity. There are two important factors influencing both: a revenge and retaliation component that is mutual and an ideological component specific to each. Creating a depressing view of the conflict, these two factors offer slim prospects for peace. It is in this episode, this microcosm of the conflict, that these dual moralities are most clearly visible.
Some of the prisoners being released in exchange for Shalit have been tried and convicted (in Israeli courts) of violent crimes, that vary in magnitude, against soldiers and citizens. It is not fair to treat them as innocents –neither to their victims, nor to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are actually innocent, that sit in Israeli prisons without due process. When the major grievance of the Palestinian cause is Israel’s role in occupying, displacing, impoverishing and killing civilians, any lenient treatment toward the attack of civilians is not helpful to their own cause, since it gives more excuse for violence.
Yet on the other side, Shalit is a soldier; he was not a civilian, although the outpouring of grief, anger, and political fury does not even hint that. Yes, his ordeal was certainly a tragedy to his family, and the wasted years, not to mention the possibility of death, of any young person is a tragedy. But kidnapping Shalit is not more egregious than the sequestering of civilians who sit in Israeli jails, or the often indiscriminate, highly disproportional killing of young people by Israeli soldiers in retaliation for attacks that pose little threat to Israel. Shalit being a soldier, and thus a military target, makes his kidnapping less egregious.
When Hezbollah seized two soldiers in 2006, Israel’s response of launching the War of Lebanon resulted in 1,200 Lebanese civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian power plants, roads, bridges, airports, and infrastructure. It seems the common reaction to attacks on civilians by militants has been an outcry against targeting non-combatants, yet when soldiers are attacked the policy of the Israeli military machine has been to respond indiscriminately, often directly targeting civilians. This is cynical and ethically hypocritical, not to mention counterproductive if the goal is to reduce enemy attacks on civilians.
Though both sides have very real grievances, they continue to commit the same exact crimes for which they criticize their enemies. If the reason for this were merely revenge and retaliation for previous violence, the cycle would have ended after some pause in violence. Their actions’ intransigence and apparent inexorability stem from the fact that both sides are able to legitimize their violence through their worldviews. For the Palestinians, an outside aggressor came to their land, forcibly or implicitly dislocated them, and through a system of occupation, resource-diversion and force has kept them politically, legally and economically subjugated ever since. Yet the more strongly they pine for their lands, the more they tighten their grasp around the last shreds of hope for justice, the more dangerous they become and the more they must suffer the pain of sacrificing another child to pursuit of a dream and a goal which has long since moved on. For the Israelis, the mentality of David and Goliath demands overwhelming force in every retaliation and an endless wartime mentality in which every Palestinian is a potential terrorist, a strong or prosperous Palestinian state is a dangerous one and any proportional or less than proportional response is a sign of weakness. This mentality induces harshness where it need not be, amplifies grievances and worsens the situation by creating more hatred than before and necessitating a wartime mentality; thus it perpetuates itself and threatening Israel’s security.
Both sides are hypocritical, both sides are violent, and the Gilad Shalit episode is not entirely encouraging. Yet perhaps the most important lesson from this is that for many reasons, the Palestinians and Israelis share their gravest enemy in common – themselves.