“The Middle East conflict is complicated” – a statement that is often mentioned in current statements, something that cannot be denied. In times of social media and breaking news, however, complexity is an annoying category: It requires more intensive research, requires all the more extensive analyzes, takes up time and makes it difficult to form opinions. How can we deal with that kind of complexity?
If the regular picture of a religious war or an incompatibility of cultures seems plausible, if the rockets in the Israeli-Palestinian night sky lead to technology-loving military analyzes, if simple hateful slogans suggest absolute conclusions, then two categories almost or always fall by the wayside: chronology and power.
The journalistic Israel-Palestine discourse is dominated by day-to-day politics. It is true that every now and then asked “why”, i.e. the reasons for the escalation, the answers all too often focus on the “what”, i.e. the current description of the situation. Instead of a classifying review – even if it was only for a few days – part of the German reporting can no longer be distinguished from the cold number of victims live tickers.
The massive rocket bombardment of Israel from the Gaza Strip is a fact. Israel’s bombing of Gaza is a reaction to this use of force by Hamas. This is where the element of chronology comes into play: Without it, without any form of temporal classification, action and reaction, violence and counter-violence simply cannot be distinguished from one another.
Analyzes that try to explain the current escalation of violence, but ignore Sheikh Jarrah, overlook the logic and dynamics of violence and counter-violence, simplify and underestimate the power of historical contexts. Without going into the long history of the Middle East conflict, a look back a few days goes back to the beginning of May.
It has now been almost forgotten that the repressive evictions by the Israeli police and settler movement against Palestinian families in East Jerusalem were the starting point for the current violence. When the Israeli security forces approached, Palestinian demonstrators also threw stones on the grounds of the Al-Aqsa mosque. The Israeli security forces reacted with a calculated provocation: Knowing about the effect, armed units stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque on May 10, in the middle of Ramadan, with stun grenades and rubber bullets.
What is the qualitative difference between violence and counter-violence, if in the end people die anyway on both sides?
Only then did Hamas in Gaza, which had given Israel an ultimatum by 7 p.m. on the same Monday, use the opportunity to pose as the perfidious savior of the Palestinians and fired rockets at Israel. For Netanyahu it was a welcome opportunity to make himself popular with the right-wing forces in the country and to bomb the trapped metropolis.
And again: the logic behind violence, which provokes counter-violence, neither makes it legitimate, nor does it give it a moral free pass. It is just as condemnable, just as wrong. The logic of action and reaction keeps the conflict going and is cynically exploited by both the Islamist Hamas and the right-wing Israeli government. But what is the qualitative difference between violence and counterviolence if, in the end, people die anyway on both sides?
“Let’s talk about power inequality”: Trevor Noah, the South African presenter of the “Daily Show”, opened one of his programs with this sentence, which was viewed more than 9 million times on Instagram alone. The question of power hits the core of the conflict and can help to better classify the never-ending spiral of violence.
There is often talk of extremism, hatred and countless victims “on both sides”. Only the question of power sheds light on these ineffective analyzes, which are often crammed into a few minutes. The question of power regulates the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor, the occupied and the occupier, the victims and the perpetrators. It does not always create final clarity, but it should be asked first.
In most cases, the Israeli police intervened to protect their compatriots from the Palestinian mob; in many cases it did not do so for the Palestinians
The generalized “Both Sides” framing is so problematic because on the one hand it shortens the balance of power and on the other it conceals the balance of power: The systematic oppression of the Palestinians is mostly not mentioned, although institutions like Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and the EU are concerned in this regard, criticizing the Israeli government again and again.
In the recent past, lynching attacks on people on both sides – both Israelis and Palestinians – have occurred in many parts of Israel. Now the differentiation of violence on both sides appears insoluble and senseless, almost reprehensible, but a critical view reveals the fundamental difference: In most cases the Israeli police intervened to protect their compatriots from the Palestinian mob; for the Palestinians – that is, Arabs with Israeli citizenship – it did not in many cases; the police accompanied or even partly participated in the excesses of violence. A sober inventory with tremendous impact and exemplary quality: There is a power imbalance between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Finally, we come to the rocket fire at Hamas and the Israeli bombing of Gaza. At this point one could argue about motives, calculations or forecasts, but that’s not the point. Consequently, the question of power must also be asked here. When German media summarize Hamas as “extremist”, “militant” (Tagesschau, May 11/17) and “radical Islamic Palestinian organization” (Frankfurter Rundschau, May 17), they suggest that Hamas represents all Palestinians with its violence – a racist essentialism.
In the scientific, especially Anglophone literature, there is often talk of an asymmetrical conflict. This is expressed, for example, in the fact that Israel has the “Iron Dome” mobile missile defense system, while Gaza does not. The divergent proportion of the number of victims underscores the asymmetry of this conflict: on the Palestinian side, almost 200 people have died so far, including 58 children – in Gaza alone. So far, Israel has lost ten people, including two children (as of May 17, 2021).
Ideological camp thinking, polarizing catchwords and polemical hostility are gaining momentum
The Gaza Strip has been cordoned off from Israel since 2006, with dramatic consequences for medical care, the education system and the entire infrastructure. As the occupying power, Israel controls the entry and exit of all people and goods, such as food or urgently needed medicines.
Especially in times of war (2008, 2008/9, 2012, 2014) or during the Covid pandemic, these circumstances led to particularly high death rates. This pattern can be observed again now. Even without the current bombing, Gaza’s people are in an ongoing state of imprisonment.
In relation to Israel and Palestine, the “Both Sides” rhetoric avoids critical examination of a chronology of escalation and the power structures behind it. This not only affects the correct analysis of the political situation, but also the objective discourse: ideological camp thinking, polarizing catchwords and polemical hostility are thus gaining momentum.
It is time to focus on the categories of chronology and power in a non-judgmental way in order to create the basis for a target-oriented culture of discourse on the Israel/Palestine issue.