Binary thinking in the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict / by Matthew Hennessey

Today I woke up to the loudest sound I have ever heard.  A rocket just hit Beit Sahour, a town in West Bank, Palestine, just two streets from where I was staying.  I have been living in Israel and Palestine for two months and have been on both sides of the border during the bombings and missile attacks, but this one has been the closest yet.  Today is the day I’m supposed to meet my friend in Bethlehem so that we can travel to the Palestinian farm we volunteered to work on for the next week. As I compose myself and step outside life seems normal.  Everyone is going about their day as usual.  I have been slowly learning that when war is part of everyday life then it is seen as a normal thing.  I try to go about my day as “normal” too, but on the car ride to the farm with my American friend I mention that I’m a little shaken by the morning’s events.  She turns to me, already having faced a few bombings in Tel Aviv, and tells me, “It’s just one missile.” She looks at me, noticing my wide eyes and quickly apologizes for her statement.  “It’s funny how quickly this becomes normal,” she says. 

This story and many others that I experienced while in Israel and Palestine have raised a question that I want to explore: How do we break the cycle of conflict? Particularly the Israeli/Palestinian conflict which has been going on in the modern state since 1947. There are many narratives that tell the story of this conflict and summarizing only a few of them would be complicated and only encourage the one­narrative thinking that this article intends to discourage.   

A clear issue that has appeared in the many years of the conflict is the one­sided thinking on both sides of the border.  The name given to two opposing views that are in conflict with each other is binary thinking.  This is the type of thinking that says there are only two views on a

certain issue and those two views are opposite and irreconcilable; we are invited to choose only one or the other.  This type of thinking polarizes people against each other and has an overall detrimental effect on society.   

According to Dr. Daniel Feierstein in the book, idden Genocides, Binary thinking 

“Requires each case of genocide to have one and only one victim and one and only one perpetrator”  It seems that we are trained to look for a “good guy” and a “bad guy” in conflict. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict cannot be put into a binary model of thinking due to the multiple narratives in the conflict.  There is simply not one story depicting one side as good and the other as bad, there are many stories that express good and bad on both sides of the wall; expressing these narratives in a respectful way can lead to empathy and reconciliation between individuals on both sides. 

Binary thinking is a large contributor to the rise of conflicts in general, and specifically the inability to have lasting peace in Israel and Palestine, due to the complex, multifaceted nature of the conflict. It cannot be evaluated through the lens of a binary; doing so only contributes to the nature of the conflict.   

For example, while living in Israel and Palestine in the summer of 2014, three Jewish teenage boys were kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank, Palestine.  The Israeli government blamed Hamas, the elected political party in Palestine, for this kidnapping and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) began searching door to door in the West Bank to find the boys.  The boys were found murdered in a field in Hebron, Palestine.  This led to a series of actions that escalated the already tense relationship between Israel and Palestine, including the kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teenager by Israeli Nationalists in East Jerusalem.  Tensions kept escalating, involving both Israeli and Palestinian deaths, until Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge” and a state of war was declared between Israel and Hamas’ Military Wing.  In the end, 66 Israeli soldiers and 5 Israeli Civilians were killed, while about 1600 Palestinian civilians and 700 Hamas military members were killed.   

Of course, as is the very nature of binary thinking, the story is different depending on which side you ask.  According to Israeli Security, only 712 Palestinian civilians and 886 militants were killed.  The story of these events are different depending on which side of the border someone happens to come from, or where they were when these events took place.  Israel has been accused of targeting civilians in Gaza during bombing raids, Hamas has been accused of terrorism, and both sides have lost loved ones due to attacks from the other. 

One way to encourage the sharing of multiple narratives is through conversation.  This kind of conversation could start at a civilian level and include dialogue from both sides of the wall.  The goal of these conversations would be to focus on the similarities between both sides. It is easy to find reasons to conflict and differences in each other, especially in a land that is literally divided by a wall.  Division is not a point that needs to be proven.  What needs to be focused on are the things that unite instead of divide.   

This could start between citizens on both sides that have lost loved ones to the conflict, as they could unite in the knowledge of the pain and loss and come together in supporting each other.  This support, for the shared loss of loved ones, could help unite them against the conflict in general instead of uniting them against each other, thus breaking the “us versus them” inary.   

A quote from the Jewish author Naomi Wolf sums it up perfectly, "I am mourning genocide in Gaza. I mourn genocide in Gaza because I am the granddaughter of a family half wiped out in a holocaust and I know genocide when I see it. People are asking why I am taking this ‘side.’ There are no sides. I mourn all victims. But every law of war and international law is being broken in the targeting of civilians in Gaza. I stand with the people of Gaza exactly because things might have turned out differently if more people had stood with the Jews in Germany.”   

A perspective like this breaks down the binary through empathy.  This is a process that requires the expression of multiple narratives, in dialogue with each other, in order to break down the “us vs. them” binary into a “we” mindset. 

Bridging the gap of the “us versus them” binary with conversation that promotes empathy  unites groups of people, bringing about love where there used to be fear.  There are already some  conversations like this occurring such as the Parent’s Circle, a group formed by Israelis and  Palestinians that have lost loved ones during the war and seek to support each other.  Even at a  grassroots level these conversations have the ability to affect change in the region because they  choose to focus on the disease instead of the symptoms, changing the “us/them” binary into a  “we” mentality, and acknowledge the need to express multiple narratives.  If families on both  sides of the border can respect and recognize the many narratives, they can learn to respect and  recognize each other as human.  Lasting peace in the hearts of the citizens unites them against the conflict instead of against each other, tearing down walls and building bridges in their place.