When conflicts arise, as they inevitably will, we should maintain perspective. When I attack you in order to take your money or your land, it is clear who the enemy is, and you have a legitimate claim to self defense. But not all conflicts are that simple. In many cases, the attack that riles us is a case of revenge. Revenge can be considered justified by anyone who believes they have been wronged in the past. If you took my land five years ago, I might take revenge on you today. Many nationalists believe that revenge can take place hundreds of years after the initial wrong, as the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Our memory of the wrongs of others is comprehensive, and we tally the score of every misdemeanor to prove our enemy is our enemy. However, our memory of our own wrongs is highly selective. To us, any action taken against us or our national groups is an inexcusable act of aggression. If we keep in mind our mental limitations, we can control our reactions and reduce the severity of the conflicts in which we find ourselves embroiled. This week, an incident in southern Israel sparked a dangerous conflict that can only be understood with calmness.
It is difficult to know what has happened, as we rely purely on official Egyptian and Israeli accounts. Many people who would agree that we cannot simply believe everything governments tell us do not think critically about every government press release, especially when emotions run hot. Some media assume government information is true and present it as such, instead of doing the journalism themselves. We should not claim to know anything for sure. As far as one can determine, some Palestinians attacked a bus in southern Israel, killing eight Israelis, mostly civilians, and wounding more, in a coordinated terrorist attack. (Regular readers of this blog will know I do not throw around the word “terrorist”. It is appropriate in this case. And saying “the Israelis are the real terrorists” may have some truth to it, but it does not help our understanding of the situation.) The attack came from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and was blamed on the Popular Resistance Committees, a Palestinian terrorist group operating from Gaza. How did they get into Egypt?
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chased the militants into Egypt. Egyptians are calling this a violation of Egyptian sovereignty and of the Camp David Accord, which it was. But what were the terrorists doing in Egypt? The IDF then killed and wounded some Egyptian soldiers (the number of which depends on the source). Did the Israelis target the Egyptians? Did the Palestinians use the Egyptians as cover? Or were the Egyptians covering for the Palestinians? If so, they violated the spirit of the Accord as well. These questions will probably never be answered to anyone’s satisfaction, except in the minds of those who are willing to accept arguments that justify their prejudices. How can we fairly apportion blame under such conditions?
That evening, the Israeli Air Force bombed the homes of the leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees and killed five of them, plus a boy. Assuming this information is correct, the killings were targeted, thereby minimising civilian deaths, and legitimate, in response to terrorism. Dozens of rockets have hit southern Israel since Thursday. For all its faults, Israel sometimes acts purely in self defense.
What should be done? Demanding official apologies, as Egyptians have done of Israel, will help nothing. The dead will not come back to life, nor will there be fewer deaths in future. The attitude that accompanies the demand for an apology is one of blame: it is entirely their fault. Assigning blame paints others into a corner, making them more self righteous and defiant. It tends to reduce conflict only if employed after the conflict is over and when there is a clear aggressor, as when Germany and Poland coordinated efforts to educate schoolchildren on the Second World War.
Should we hate the other? History shows that hate, like revenge, keeps conflicts going until one side is dead, unless the hate can be suppressed long enough to see the long-term benefits of peace. It does not help us as individuals, either, as it consumes and destroys us, making us neither safer nor wiser.
Some Egyptians say their government should reject the Camp David Accord, a treaty that has brought peace to Egypt for three decades. Why would they want to reject it? To go to war with Israel again? The IDF is perhaps the sleekest and deadliest military in the Middle East. I hope Egyptians are not so angry they become suicidal. As I have written elsewhere, the ending of a peace treaty (like the recalling of an official envoy, which Egypt did yesterday) does not mean war is inevitable or even desirable. It is more like an insult. Nonetheless, the existence of a treaty lends legal legitimacy to the state of peace and its violation by any party would mean international condemnation. I am not accusing Egyptians of wanting war; indeed, I would be surprised if more than a few people truly wanted it. But war is not usually a sudden action in response to something small, as it is when swatting a fly. Rather, it tends to come at the end of a spiral of conflict propelled by anger, accusation and propaganda.
Besides, while Israel is not likely to attack Egypt any time soon, it could well wreak havoc on the Gaza Strip again. Provocation from Egypt, whether in the form of young Egyptians’ attacking Israeli embassies or perceived Egyptian complicity in terrorism against Israel, will make the task easier. Like Operation Cast Lead, any major assault on Gaza will be a signal to the surrounding states that Israel can hit hard and fast, suffer minimal casualties and experience little guilt.
Times are tense in the Middle East. Israelis have seen polls of Egyptians indicating that most of the latter would like to rescind the peace treaty between the two countries. Israelis are afraid that the attack on its embassy and its borders could mean it is under greater threat internationally than any time since the international terrorist attacks of the 1970s. And the (supposed) opening of the Rafah crossing of the Gaza Strip could mean Gazan militants pouring into Egypt and attacking Israel from there. Egyptians have no love for Israelis, whom they see as the occupiers of Palestine, the oppressors of Palestinians and the murderers of Egyptians. These attitudes are not helpful.
The best way to prevent the escalation of this conflict is to remain calm, and work to understand one another. This is easier said than done. Governments and their multimillion-dollar communications budgets are adept at making us think we are thinking for ourselves when we are, in fact, being fed information and told how to think. We need to learn to think critically and listen to our enemies. We must avoid giving in to anger and hatred and fear, and instead choose our actions carefully. Otherwise, we will drag ourselves and innocent others into endless conflict.