With the murder of the four teens, followed by Hamas rockets and Israeli missile strikes, regional players and interested parties outside Israel and Palestine are understandably looking to make sense of the tragic mess, both in its short-term and long-term variants. And in the age of social media, sound bites rule. One 5-minute video that has been circulating on Facebook purports to explain the overall Arab-Israeli conflict simply and concretely. Those who’ve posted it praise its concrete and “unemotional” tone. It is indeed simple and unsensational. The problem is, the explanation put forth is anything but supported by the evidence.
Called The Middle East Problem (and tagged by the Israel Video Network as “The Most Important Video About Israel Ever Made,”), the video has Dennis Prager asserting that the Middle East Conflict is the “easiest in the world to explain.” His explanation? “One side wants the other side dead.” Israel wants to live in peace, he continues, and even recognizes the right of the Palestinians to a state. (Ignore pesky detail revealing Bibi’s recent revelation that he has no intention of allowing this to happen.) But “most Palestinians, and many other Muslims and Arabs,” Prager stresses, “do not recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist.”
The assumption that “they want us dead” (also known as the “they hate us” theory) is a key cause of what Israeli psychologists have described as a siege mentality characterizing Israeli society. Suggesting that “they hate us” also serves to trivialize the actual concerns and claims of the other side. Claiming that “they” do not recognize the right of Israel to exist ignores the mutual letters of recognition exchanged between Israel and the PLO in 1993. Most importantly, such “they hate us” statements are important motivators for keeping powerful actors stuck to the status quo.
But let’s hypothesize for a moment that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is due to Palestinian hatred. How might we test this hypothesis? Right now the best data we have is polling, and the closest polling question I have seen in the last year or so is one that asked about mutual attitudes. What emerged is something quite different from mutual hatred and genocidal tendencies. Instead, what is really going on is a story of mutual fear, but especially on the part of Palestinians towards Israel.
Consider this: From a December 2013 survey conducted jointly by the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, most Palestinians (60%) believe that Israel’s goals are to conquer all of the land between the river of the sea and expel the Arabs. An additional 24% believe Israel wants to annex the West Bank without granting the Palestinians political rights. A minority on each side (37% of Israelis, and only 15% of Palestinians) considers the other’s territorial aims to be limited in scope.
It is easy to say that the other’s acts of protest — sometimes violent, other times in the form of boycott and divestment or general civil disobedience — stem from hatred. It is much harder to sit and listen to the fears of the other and to examine one’s own actions to see how they shape those perceptions.
In sum, when watching videos that may be “unemotional” in tone, but are certainly inflammatory in content, we need to think more soberly about what is hatred, and what might actually, instead, be fear. And we all know from everyday life that the solution to fear is not heel-digging and head-in-the-sand burying, but rather confidence-building and reassurance — in the form of meaningful negotiation leading to a dignified solution for all.