[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Since Israel started its brutal onslaught in Gaza, I have been receiving dozens of emails everyday about the nature of the conflict and the parties involved. Most of these fall into two distinct narratives that are 180 degrees opposite.
My Muslim friends are telling me that Israel is “the real terrorist,” that its goal is to annihilate or enslave the Palestinian people, and it is responsible for not just the current bloodshed but also the 60-year-old tragedy in the Holy Land. My American or Israeli friends, on the other hand, are telling me the exact opposite. The problem is Arabs, they say, who never accepted Israel’s right to exist. Hamas, for them, is responsible for the carnage in Gaza. Israel, they argue, is only defending itself against this fanatic group.
These totally opposite points of view are not just in my email inbox, to be sure, but also in the media. In a piece titled “Why Israel Can’t Make Peace With Hamas,” Jeffrey Goldberg was boldly expressing one of them in the New York Times last Tuesday. “Hamas cannot be cajoled into moderation,” he was arguing, adding that the Islamist group believed in the destruction of Israel as an article of faith.
It Is Their Religion, Stupid
Interestingly enough, I have been reading the mirror image of that argument — that Israel cannot be cajoled into moderation — in the Islamic side of the Turkish media as well. Several columnists in conservative Istanbul papers have noted that Israel will unavoidably continue to occupy Palestinian lands, because the Jews believe that this is their “God-given” land. And like Jeffrey Goldberg, who quoted Hamas militants who had sworn to destroy Israel, these pessimistic Turks quoted militant Israelis who had sworn to keep “Judea and Samaria” in their hands and topple those stand in their way.
These totally opposite but actually very similar arguments cover not just matters of politics, but also violence. In the past few weeks, I have received several emails showing horrific photos of Palestinian mothers crying for their children killed by Israeli bombs and then quoting an Old Testament verse: “Their infants shall be dashed in pieces before their eyes” (Ishaah, 13:16).
This method of explaining the aggression of your enemy with a passage in its scripture is something I also see in Islamophobic (and very often strongly pro-Israel) Web sites: They present images of Islamist militants who kill people and then relate it to some Koranic verse about waging jihad. The message, in both cases, is the same: “It is their religion, stupid. They are killing us because their God says so.”
The conclusion is the same, too: “The other side is not like us. They don’t have the same human values we have. Thus, to believe that we can make peace with them is a dangerous illusion. The only way is to fight.”
To be sure, both sides find plenty of facts about the other side that support their verdicts. Hamas is on the record for calling Jews, out of a twisted interpretation of the Koran, “apes and pigs.” On the other side, Israel’s former prime minister, Mehahem Begin, is reported to have called the Palestinians “two-legged animals,” and Rafael Eytan, former military chief of staff, is quoted to refer to them as “cockroaches.”
Moreover, each side interprets the events within their own prism. “Look what happened when we pulled back from Gaza,” the pro-Israeli side says, “they continued to send rockets to us.” “Look what happened to Arafat,” the pro-Hamas people remind, “he made peace with the Jews, but they besieged his headquarters.”
When I receive such emails, I sometimes write back and try to explain that neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli side is that black and white, and that peace is possible when both sides refrain from their deadly mistakes and decide to make concessions. The common response I get is that I am too naive and that I have been fooled by the other side’s propaganda.
Now, these contradictory narratives and the state of cognitive dissonance they almost put me in may sound like my personal problem. But unfortunately it is the problem of our very world. When we have conflicting parties which both think that the other side is evil, their war becomes perpetual, and it dooms all of us. â¨â¨So, something needs to be done. And it can be summarized with a single word: dialogue. â¨â¨
Talking To The Other Side
But please be careful: When I say dialogue, I don’t mean a process of finding “moderates” on both sides and bringing them together in nice venues so that they can all smile to the cameras. That is dialogue for the appearance of dialogue. What we really needed is to bring the less moderate people to the table. They are the ones who are dedicated to fight and thus they are the ones who need to be convinced for peace.
And that’s why Hamas must be reached out. One of the greatest mistakes that the United States did in the recent years — ah, there are so many of them — was to refuse to talk to this party when it came to power in January 2006 via free and fair elections. Instead of dialogue, the United States and Israel, preferred bullying. They harassed not only Hamas, but even Turkey, when the Turkish government tried to talk to them in order to advise them moderation. “If the Hamas leadership was not isolated, it could have been transformed,” suggests political scientist BÃ¼lent Aras, an expert on the region. “These people are trapped in their small world.”
In fact, most of us are trapped in our small worlds. And if we open up, we will realize that the enemies which we see as evil incarnate are actually humans like us.