Israelis & Palestinians Disregard Each Others’ Suffering

Dec. 26, 2023 — Commenting on the war in Gaza, Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Cabinet minister and peace negotiator, said he “couldn’t recall a time when each side was so unwilling to consider the pain of the other… Previously, there were people that were interested in seeing from the two perspectives. Now, each side is closed to its own narrative, its own information, rules, and perspective.”

As a result, each side has strikingly different perspectives on the deaths and victimization of the other side’s civilians.

The Palestinian Narrative

Soon after the Hamas offensive in southern Israel on October 7th, Israeli and international media were blasting out reports and videos recounting the murders of Israeli children in front of their parents, rapes, beheadings, the kidnapping of elderly people and little kids and young concertgoers, and other horrors. 

Unfortunately, most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza endorsed these attacks, according to a poll by the Arab World For Research and Development. The survey, released on November 14th, showed “the majority (59%) strongly supported or (16%) supported to some extent the October 7th attacks carried by the Hamas-led factions.“ 

A month later, another, larger survey of Palestinians also showed that a majority of Palestinians supported the offensive. That poll, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), dug deeper into Palestinian attitudes and found other distressing results: most Palestinians said they didn’t believe that Hamas committed the atrocities on October 7th. Moreover, most professed ignorance of well-documented evidence that the atrocities occurred.

According to the PCPSR, the majority agreed that, according to international law, “attacking or killing civilians in their homes is not permissible. The majority (except in the Gaza Strip) also believed that taking civilians as hostages or prisoners of war is also not permissible.” However, “when asked if Hamas did commit these atrocities, the overwhelming majority said no while 95% say Israel did commit war crimes.

How is this possible? Didn’t everyone who followed the news see and hear the accounts of what the Hamas attackers did to innocent people? Apparently not, at least according to this survey, which revealed that “85% say they did not see videos, shown by international news outlets, showing acts committed by Hamas against Israeli civilians, such as the killing of women and children in their homes.”

Were they lying to the pollsters?  Were they lying to themselves? It’s impossible to know. Of course, some Palestinians in the territories confronted the truth. Huda Abuarquob, a civil society activist, discussed Palestinians’ reactions to October 7th in a phone conversation with Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst. According to Scheindlin, Abuarquob “recalled that in those early hours, people didn’t internalize that it was about ‘killing human beings,’ she said; they thought it was the start of liberation. When they realized what was happening, she said, ‘in closed circles, in family, partners, friends, no one supports the atrocities, which are against our values.’”

However, Abuarquob also described Palestinians who tried to distance themselves from what happened:

In order to feel that we are not part of [the atrocities], we tried to find ways to explain it by saying these people are not Hamas. These guys who went to homes and killed people and their families, [some Palestinians believed] they are from Egypt, from tribes in Sinai, who helped [Hamas] attack the Egyptian army in Sinai.

Adding it all up, it’s clear that many Palestinians hadn’t confronted evidence of Hamas’ war crimes, or doubted Hamas’ responsibility for them, or willfully ignored them. This confirms the insights of the New Yorker’s David Remnick, reporting from the region in early November:

There were, of course, facts—many of them unknown—but the narratives came first, all infused with histories and counter-histories, grievances and fifty varieties of fury, all rushing in at the speed of social media. People were going to believe what they needed to believe.

The Israeli Narrative

What do Israelis need to believe? Rather than denying the civilian casualties and humanitarian crisis in Gaza outright, Israelis just haven’t paid much attention to them. “The Israeli public has not been fully exposed to the death and destruction on the other side,” opined a Haaretz editorial on December 4th. “Those who get their information about what is happening only from the Israeli media have only a partial picture, enabling them to give little thought to the need to reduce harm to civilians, including children and babies.”

“Israelis do not see the same images of what is happening in Gaza as does the rest of the world,” says Uriel Abulof, political science professor at Tel Aviv University.  While the plight of Gazans isn’t ignored, Israel’s mainstream media and social media influencers are much more concerned about the remaining Israeli hostages, the campaign by their relatives to prioritize their release, reports from the front lines about combat, the political impact of the war on Netanyahu and many other matters.

But there’s more to this lack of focus on Gaza’s non-combatants than a paucity of media coverage. According to Abulof, “the vast majority consider the number of civilian victims ‘bearable,’ given the importance they award to the mission, compared to `a small minority who are happy to see them.’”

Some left-wing commentators attribute this attitude to the widespread “othering” and dehumanization of Arabs under occupation.  They may well be right. But they ignore the fact that, while the suffering in Israel obviously pales in comparison to the suffering in the Gaza Strip, Israelis are also traumatized.  Presently, more than a hundred hostages are still held by Hamas, about 150,000 people have been displaced from southern and northern Israel, many soldiers are risking their lives fighting on the ground and in the tunnels of Gaza, and there continue to be fears of another war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Erin Halperin, a psychology professor at Hebrew University, explained that . . .

the Oct. 7 attack . . . caused trauma and humiliation for Israelis in a way that hasn’t happened before. . . . When people feel like their individual and collective existence is under threat, they don’t have the mental capacity to empathize or apply the moral rulings when thinking about the enemy. 

My Narrative

I believe Israel needs to protect its citizens and severely degrade Hamas’ military capacity. From the comfort of my American home, it would be presumptuous for me to declare that Israelis in the midst of a harrowing war should care more about Gaza’s civilians.

But I care. Depriving innocent Gazans of food and water for no discernable reason except collective revenge was and is unconscionable. So is the fact that almost half of the Israeli munitions used in Gaza have been unguided “dumb bombs,” which have wiped out entire neighborhoods and contributed to the inordinately high civilian death toll.

That’s why I support J Street’s call for the Biden Administration to use more of its leverage and press Israel harder for a humanitarian truce, and then a shift to lower-intensity warfire that uses more precise munitions and special operations forces.

And that’s why I long for the days when Israelis’ moral compass gave its leaders the latitude to say what Golda Meir famously told Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1976, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”