The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has, over its prolonged life, been fraught with competing narratives. Perhaps these days the two sides are simply expressing their narratives more loudly.
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For each of us, the conflict has become an existential one, where each party’s respective national, religious, moral and even cultural narratives are seen as necessarily threatening those of the other. Competing voices are being stated more vehemently and passionately than ever before.
As political inaction and the paralysis of negotiations persist, the political positions of the parties grow further apart. The zero-sum clash of narratives that we are constantly told to perceive has, in the midst of this persistent inaction, led both sides to take unilateral steps, the effects of which have been further polarization of political divisions. The resulting entrenchment of these zero-sum interpretations of our narratives has made them even more powerful tools for promoting both action and inaction to the detriment of peace.
What should become even clearer, then, is that this conflict cannot begin to end until both sides are willing to acknowledge the other’s religious, cultural, existential and national narratives. Peace on just terms will not be remotely possible until both sides desire it more than to adhere to these zero-sum narratives.
Belief in victimhood
With an eye toward facilitating this type of gradual recognition, it must be understood that our respective narratives, both the central and supporting components, have evolved over time. For Palestinians, historic Palestine is the land where they have lived as a people for generations; it is the Jewish immigrants who have established themselves among Palestinians and created their homeland on Palestinian soil.
As such, the Palestinian narrative holds that Palestinians have the right to this land and, following from that, the right to fight for their homeland and against the injustice of its forceful taking. Thus, Palestinians feel robbed of their land and their national rights. National understandings of the Nakba in 1948 and the inherent and constantly demonstrated injustices of the Israeli occupation support and feed this national narrative.
For Israeli Jews, Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people. Their return after a long expulsion is an exclusive right of and a necessity for the Jewish people, given the historic struggle they have endured throughout history. Israeli national understanding regarding the Holocaust, as well as narratives surrounding numerous international documents, offer strong support for this narrative.
We as citizens and nationals of either side hear these narratives – as well as countless additional supporting narratives – retold on a daily basis through media, political speeches and in everyday conversation. National narratives are extremely potent, yet in some ways rightly so. They represent our identity as peoples and, in many ways, address our very legitimacy. However, they can also distract us from our own reality and, at times, take on a life of their own.
In the case of our respective Palestinian and Israeli narratives, the overarching theme is unmistakably one of victimization. This strongly held belief in our own victimhood leads to strong biases that only perpetuate our shared conflict. We see our efforts at compromise as being attributable to our own good nature and just cause, while with our negative acts our hand was forced by the conduct of our enemy. Politicians and rhetoric perpetuate the cycle, emphasizing hard lines, making unfounded claims, and extolling the zero-sum nature of our reality.
As a result, these hardened narratives have become so ingrained in both Israeli and Palestinian societies that I have little hope that even an objectively just solution to our conflict, one that sought to respect the core of both narratives, could be accepted by either party today. Meanwhile, these hard-line narratives, while purporting to represent our national rights, add nothing of value to our narratives or identities as people.
Conflicts based on such strongly held and entrenched national identities, understood by both parties to negate the other, are extremely difficult if not impossible to resolve. Yet they have come to characterize this conflict.
One thing is clear. If our two sides are to achieve attainable peace, we must first bring ourselves to a point where the legitimacy of our own narrative is not dependent on our negation of the other’s. Reaching that point will require us to reflect critically on the true cores of our own narratives, question the claims of those who purport to dictate narrative and reexamine the true importance of specific facts and concessions that we have come to accept, blindly or otherwise, as necessary parts of that whole.
Indeed, in the midst of the current unrest and the prevailing political trajectories, such critical reexamination seems highly unlikely – yet it is more essential than ever. It is never too late to start cleansing and healing our respective intoxications. We can do this at the individual, collective and national levels, focusing on what we ourselves say, what we teach our children, and what we are willing to allow our politicians to say and do on our behalf.
The writer is managing partner of the Husseini & Husseini law firm in Ramallah, Palestine. She has been a legal practitioner in Palestine and legal adviser on matters related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1994.