Tuesday, 2 September 2014

What War Can Do

From the bedroom, I could hear loud bangs from the open window. On looking outside, the sky occasionally lit up with whitish light. Car horns honked in symphony in the distance. I heard movement in the front room and found myself drawn to the circle of my host family that had gathered around the TV set. I asked Dana, the mother of the house, whether she’d heard the fireworks, ‘’yes, you know why?’’, a smile beaming from ear to ear. She told me that an Israeli soldier had been kidnapped by Hamas close to the border with Gaza, ‘’maybe even two!’’ she joyously exclaimed. Meanwhile, in the distance, the news channel had exploded into a slideshow of images showing charred Gazan bodies, framed with the graphics of the missing soldier’s ID.

In something of a muted enthusiasm, the family dragged chairs onto their balcony. We watched in anticipation as Palestinian Authority police lined up on a nearby street corner, preparing to quell the inevitable group of youth protesters. Cars drove excitedly through the dusty street below. An old sedan sped past our vantage point with children hanging out of its window, cheering in celebration. The internationals amongst us stood confused, watching on as the West Bank spiraled into a hurtling frenzy of macabre celebration.

Yet despite being a foreign observer, it was difficult to not share in this buzz of excitement. In fact, it took this piece of news to bring all of my host family together in the same room, and with it a unique atmosphere of camaraderie and togetherness. However, when the heady atmosphere began to fade, only then did I begin to think about exactly what had stimulated this reaction. When a soldier is kidnapped, he immediately becomes a trophy of war, nothing more than a bargaining chip. However, somewhere a family was grieving while mine celebrated. The euphoria of both those in the living room and on the streets outside only came at the expense of another human being- someone else’s misery and grief was fuelling the party.  That soldier was perhaps a father, a husband or someone’s son.  The hangover from that initial excitement I felt deteriorated into feelings of guilt and nausea.

Israeli soldiers at a demonstration in Al Masra, perhaps a similar age to the kidnapped soldier. Interestingly some engaged in conversation with protesters, showing glimpses of human understanding too often hidden underneath their combat dress. Considering Israel's compulsory national service, how many actually want to be there and agree with the IDF at large?

Momentarily I had found myself sharing in that party, seduced by the tribalism that the conflict around me was reinvigorating. What was it inside all of us there that allowed us to at least temporarily forget the humans behind all these headlines? I tried to find justification for that intense feeling of celebration. I had seen Palestinian homes demolished by the Israeli army, children disabled as a consequence of conflict and I had even been moved to tears at seeing state-backed discrimination first hand. 

Yet no amount of horrendous anecdotes of Israeli oppression could shift those feelings of regret for the taken soldier. The oft-used Gandhi quote ‘’an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’’ felt eerily fitting in the circumstances. For just a moment, I had forgotten who I thought I was, had indulged in taking sides and was ultimately blind to the devastation unfolding. More worrying than all of that was the ease at which I could let it happen.

However, this made me think about a true tragedy of the conflict. Such is the complexity of the situation that people there see themselves in distinctly ‘’them’’ and ‘us’’ terms. Each side can sometimes dehumanize an ‘’other’’ to the extent that their enemy’s misfortune is reason to celebrate. The hatred and fear surrounding this ‘’other’’ draws stark and seemingly everlasting divisions between sets of people, so much so that they appear desensitized to stories of their suffering. For me, it had happened only temporarily but it was easy to see why this attitude could become embedded in this apparently Holy Land.

Indeed, there seems to be a particularly stubborn quality to identity in the context of this war. Conflict allows a cover for the relegation of common humanity, to make way for exaggerated priorities given to, for instance, nationality. Instead of considering the human in the soldier’s uniform, by applying a label of ‘’Israeli’’, it becomes easier to shut off natural compassion and keep on fighting them. Likewise, those Israelis who reportedly dragged sofas to hillsides in order to watch air strikes pummel Gaza in some kind of open-air cinema can be seen as doing a similar thing. The Palestinians they saw dying before them were considered enemies deserving of punishment before they were humans just like themselves.

More than this, the kidnapping episode seemed to irradiate the sheer anger and frustration just under the surface of those around me. While those I spoke to were often respectful and balanced in telling their humbling stories of tragic loss, that night provided an undisguised glimpse of how people can respond to conflict in a different way. Like many of my other experiences in Palestine, this event acted as another turn of the kaleidoscope through which to view people in conflict. Essentially, the many inspiring stories of human sacrifice, friendship and resilience were only ever one turn away from themes of retribution and the normalisation of violence.

In a way, I feel privileged to have been privy to such raw emotions on a night like this. It brought into a sharp and unforgiving focus the effects of conflict at the (in)human level. Whether one can blame the Palestinians for such a reaction given the context to that night is, of course, a debate for another time. Indeed, I recognise the generalisations and sweeping opinions I have had to make to try to articulate the feelings I experienced on that occasion.

For the vast number of emotions and complicated thoughts that night stirred within me, I won’t ever forget it. This is admittedly a wholly inadequate and biased attempt to at least report some of those feelings back. Most importantly, I don’t aim to pass judgment here on the attitudes or behavior of a particular set of people, for ultimately I will never be able to fully understand their experience or motivations.

Instead, I think it’s important to recognize the devastating effect that war can have on the human condition. The phenomenon of conflict can undoubtedly bring out some of the best aspects to humanity we will probably ever see. Yet of course paradoxically it can also encourage some of the worst. In a region where one people are driven to revel in the torment and torture of another, on both sides of the bloody division, humanity along with even the slimmest chance of peace appears lost to the chaotic abyss of war with which people in this area are all too familiar.

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