If 2022 will be remembered as the year of the invasion of Ukraine, 2023 will be seared in our minds for the renewed bloodshed in the Middle East. The conflict has already claimed more civilian lives than the Ukraine war and proved far more polarising. Divides have opened up in families, friendships, political parties, churches, charities. At times it feels impossible to acknowledge the reality of the appalling suffering on both sides without accusations being flung around of collusion in terror and genocide.
While the wider world variously wrings its hands, sells its weapons, and weighs its options, there’s one feature of the conflict that prompts fuller reflection. Both Israeli and Palestinian advocates repeatedly complain that the media representation of the war is slanted against them. We can of course blandly conclude that the media is getting it about right. But that isn’t quite the point. The fury, bitterness and absolutism of both sides is rooted in the one thing they most deeply share – a sense of abandonment.
Israel rightly believes its long-term future is not that high a priority among global powers. Even with the (so far) unqualified support of the USA, it’s conscious of being surrounded by neighbours who are at best unfriendly, and at worst committed to its annihilation. Its lasting security is not guaranteed to outbid everything else on the geopolitical agenda. No one in Israel is going to forget that the Jewish population of Europe was allowed to go to the extermination camps, with blind eyes being turned even by Nazi Germany’s fiercest opponents. No one is going to forget Israel’s lonely wars for survival in the decades since its establishment. Modern Israel is regularly seen as an overwhelmingly powerful regional player, but its self-perception is of constant existential threat, and its internal political reality is dangerously fragile and divided.
The fury, bitterness and absolutism of both sides is rooted in a sense of abandonment
And Palestine? It’s hard for us in the West to understand what it must be like to be part of a community so comprehensively displaced. A huge proportion of this community consists of third- and fourth-generation refugees scattered across the region, while those still living on the land of their forebears experience daily insecurity and risk. Who has been remembering them, working for their safety and civic liberties? Advocacy groups and NGOs perhaps; but there’s been little sustained support from the so-called international community, therefore little effective strategy about their future. The Oslo Accords came and went; President Obama overpromised and failed to deliver. The Arab world is often happy to brandish the Palestinian cause as a stick with which to beat Israel and the West in general, but less happy to take any steps to build possibilities. Investment in the creation of an accountable and competent Palestinian leadership has been in short supply, leaving just the dangerous void that Hamas’ murderous nihilism seeks to fill.
And so both Israel and Palestine are equally convinced that they’re on their own, that no one is listening or understanding – and, worst of all – that they have nothing to lose. Our own experience tells us that dramatically self-destructive violence is regularly the response of those who have no reason to trust the environment they live in, who cannot see anyone looking out for them or tackling their collective vulnerability. It’s no good protesting that we read the reports and feel their tensions and fears; the lack of tangible investment in the mutual security of two vulnerable populations is, for those on the ground, palpable. If we really know the seriousness of the issues – both Israelis and Palestinians might ask – why does nothing change?
Some of us will soon be listening again to the Christmas narratives. One striking feature of those stories is the way in which they sharply and very deliberately redirect our attention. They begin with Herod and Caesar Augustus, the rulers who dictate the terms of their own stories by the exercise of violent coercion. And then the spotlight swings dramatically to those whose identity matters not at all to these geopolitical figures: to a cluster of obscure workers and peasants in provincial towns. The Christmas story says that they are remembered – and more, that they are vehicles of change and of hope.
So how do we effect that same change of focus and let people know that they can be drawn into making sense and making something new? Those who still (like the Bereaved Families Forum in Israel and Palestine) try to witness the reality of suffering on both sides, often at enormous personal cost, remind us that creative work goes on at levels beyond that of high-level, high-visibility negotiation. But it’s a vision that needs international affirmation and practical support to survive. Above all, we must find a way of countering that fear of being forgotten, shared by Israelis and Palestinians, by using actions and words that embody a commitment to security and freedom, without the spectre of one – or both – communities facing destruction.
Rowan Williams is former Archbishop of Canterbury