Hazem Saghieh

The horrors of war and death evoke habits that, given their long history, it would be more precise to call traditions. Those who practice the first habit are usually seen as utopian and preachers, as their honorable insistence on putting an end to the deaths comes with a neglect of the political conditions needed to ensure that this demand is met.

More often than not, their impulse, which is humanitarian and noble, prevents them from weighing the current balance of power and the conditions for and against the realization of their demand as they are.

Another habit is that of people who try to combine their demand for putting an end to the deaths as quickly as possible with the need to heed political and other considerations, such that the actualization of the demand is made practically feasible.

However, there is also a third habit which is quite detrimental, and it is the loudest in times of war. It uses war to incite for more of it and promotes the pain we seek to end to the rank of a headmaster that tells us how we are to proceed in the future. One feature of this habit is drawing excessive inspiration from the past, which is by definition conflictual, and relentlessly digging for memories, real, imagined, mythologized. The fact is that the present and future cannot be reached through the bloody gateway of the past, which only leads to more killing and bigger vendettas, and thus to bigoted zealotry among, in our case, Jews and Muslims and Israelis and Arabs, that begins with killing individuals and ends in collective suicide or similar conclusions.

In fact, blending memory, which is always selective and manipulable, with a degree of forgetfulness would not be harmful if the objective were to go from violence and hostility to peace. In contrast, however, this bad habit makes an art out of depicting hostility and revealing hidden dimensions of the conflict that had gone “unnoticed.”

We know that the load of hatred inherent to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict holds all the negativity and discord we need, meaning that no one benefits from reinforcing it with epithets that add negativity and discord, thereby making it impossible to resolve the conflict, neither tomorrow nor the day after. God did not promise Palestine to the Jews, nor is Palestine the stage of a universal struggle against imperialism being played out. Moreover, what happened between the Hebrews and the Arameans is not important, nor is how the Jews were exiled to Babylon or how they were liberated by Cyrus of Persia, nor is how, on the other side of this coin, Saladin liberated Jerusalem.

These “additions,” whether they deploy ancient history and modernize it or build on modern theories, are like a snake with many heads: if they don’t find what they are looking for in religion, they look for it in archaeology, if it is not found there, they search in literature, then in economics, and when the hatred spewed by living politicians does not suffice, they dig up and dust off the enmity of the deceased ones.

The habit in question, whether directly or circuitously, affirms the political myth that all rights should be granted to everyone denied them, immediately and in one go. This “all or nothing” approach usually leaves us with nothing. Securing rights, even when they are recognized by the conflicting parties, is not so much an event as it is a process. This process involves and comes with a lot of mutual trust-building – and, of course, what we now have is mutual mistrust – generating shared interests, getting to know one another, and continuously working on the cultivation a culture of universal values that develops gradually, and through a similarly gradual progress, it takes on the task of cleansing the public sphere of cultures of hatred.

This bad habit also encourages siding with the factions engaged in battle merely because they are fighting and are “our own.” Otherwise, shame lurks in the background, and anyone who tries to introduce a new idea, or to question preconceived notions of right and wrong or victimhood and perpetration is disgraced. These words, no more than twenty, should be the axis around which our (whether Palestinians and Arabs or Israelis) lives and thought revolve.

Regarding the war on Gaza and the preceding wars of the Middle East, the myth in question is unique in that it has two sides, Israeli and Arab. The Israeli side assumes that the Jewish state is exempt from the duality of rights and responsibilities and from its duty to abide by the laws that other states in the world are expected to abide by. Neither the Nazi Holocaust nor Israel’s minority status in the region grant it absolute discretion over how to behave that translates into fields of killing Palestinian civilians and children. On the Arab side, we find a failure to recognize that the effort to force Israel to follow laws will remain futile so long as it is facing militias that share this disregard for the law.

This detrimental path also suggests that wars are only fought and won by the side that is more unhinged and more vociferous in espousing some myth, be it that of the superiority of Western civilization pushed by Israel, Islamic resistance, or any other myth.

Under the likes of Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, however, we are on track to remain bogged down in perpetual conflict. Shifting to a durable and fair peace that can be expanded requires moderate leadership that subordinates its ideological views to the interests of human beings, their living conditions, and the requisites for sustaining and improving their lives.

We need leadership that is flexible, open to the outside world and its influence, has the capacity to give and take, compromises, and believes in negotiated settlements. That requires rationality above all else. Fair accounts of history written after ultra-violent events like those we are experiencing today have said only this: The warriors had very bad habits.