Syndicate content

I Can’t See You

Nigel Roberts's picture

Jerusalem, January 15. 2010

“War…yes, everyone knows what war is like. But occupation is more terrible in a way, because people get used to one another. We tell ourselves, ‘They’re just like us, after all’, but they’re not at all the same. We’re two different species, irreconcilable, enemies forever.” Irene Nemirovsky, 1942, on the attitudes of the occupied French.

    The controversial wall separating Israel from Palestinian administered areas, is further limits access and movement. Photos © Natalia Cieslik.

So-called dialogue

In 2005, at the time of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, I became involved in a series of discussions between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Government of Israel (GOI). This involvement stemmed from World Bank analytical work: we had argued that a healthy Palestinian economy was an essential part of the confidence-building needed if Palestinians were to ‘invest’ in reconciliation, and that Israeli restrictions on movement and access were crippling any such possibility. What’s more, we believed that it was possible to greatly reduce these restrictions without destabilizing Israeli securityor rather, that a pursuit of day-to-day ‘absolute security’ risked the achievement of any longer-term ‘sustainable security’, and that improved methods of managing the flow of goods and people could be used to the benefit of both parties.

This argument had some resonance in Israel, and subsequently with the PLO and Palestinian Authority (PA), and was adopted as a core part of the Wolfensohn Quartet Mission’s terms of reference. A series of negotiations took place and culminated in the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) brokered by US Secretary of Sate Condoleezza Rice in November 2005.

Despite its high profile, the AMA was never implemented. That’s a longer story.

What I observed during the sessions I was asked to assist with, though, opened a new window on the conflict for me. We were discussing the technicalities of how border crossings could be reorganized so that goods would enter and exit Gaza, or the West Bank, with a minimum of delays. Despite my expectations, the Israeli team was strangely uncompromising on issues I knew it was in principle flexible over. The Palestinians for their part seemed more intent on reminding the Israelis about the facts of occupation than in discussing the details of our agenda, in spite of the constructive discussions I’d been having with them.

Hall of mirrors

I began to talk off-line to colleagues on each side about the dynamic I was witnessing. An Israeli friend explained to me that it was important that Israel not show weakness in its dealings with the PLO, as this could set dangerous precedents. But he also admitted that his instinct in such situations was to project a greater sense of strength than he really felt. In contrast, a Palestinian friend explained to me that their team had two issues. One was straightforward enough: there was a deliberate lack of clarity in their instructions; this would protect their leaders from anything that might come to be seen as some sort of betrayal of Palestinian national interests. But she also told me that the team couldn’t bring itself to believe it would get anything out of the meetings because the Israelis always wonso the important thing was to assert dignity in the face of pressure.

It seemed to me that at some level the teams weren’t talking to one another, but rather to themselves.

Why should this be so? Where did these apparent fears come from? This conflict has been underway for well over a hundred years, and both sides see it as a struggle not only for land, but for their collective survival and identity.  Both Jews and Palestinians have felt intensely threatened within living memory, in ways that are well beyond my experience and that of most of you reading this blog.  Perhaps I was witnessing a small instance of the impact that trauma can have on vision and behavior.  In all of our emphasis on the material aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we donors didn’t think much about such things, or dwell on their possible ramifications.

One thing that is evident to most people who come and work in Israel and the Palestinian Territories is the binary nature of popular feelings about the conflict – how few Palestinians sympathize with the position of Israelis, and vice-versa. An exception that seems to me to prove this rule is the profound connection created between individuals on both sides who have lost family memberspeople like Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad, who travel the world urging understanding and reconciliation. It is tragic that it sometimes takes a shattering personal experience to appreciate one’s common humanity, and shared destiny.

One of the areas we are looking at in the WDR is the traumatic legacies of conflict.  They can act as powerful drivers of social dysfunction, sour communal relations and prolong the propensity for violence. We are looking at examples of countries that attempted reconciliation initiatives and broad-based programming to deal with trauma, and at cases where societal trauma has received less attention.

To me, this is one of the most important areas of our research.


Submitted by John Larcombe on
Nigel - I enjoy your blog. I have always wondered about this conflict and how amazing it is that both sides are so concerned about the conflict but have so little sympathy for each others' position as you describe. Perhaps this comes in part from the asymmetry of the power relationship. They are at opposite ends of the scale in terms of power and this may have affected their responses to the situation. Israel believes its power will keep it safe and Palestine has given up thinking they have any power to achieve a solution. Maybe this has contributed to the trauma that each community experiences. Regards from Sydney

Add new comment