A perception of the conflict from the middle

An Orthodox Jew travels between Jerusalem’s Jewish and Muslim quarters. Credit: Gareth Axenderrie

by Olly Davies

Writing from suburban England, enjoying the summer break from university, it is immediately apparent that I am not qualified to comment in any authoritative manner on the Israel-Palestine conflict; and yet, it appears that is precisely what I am about to do.

I was fortunate enough to visit Israel and Palestine this summer, but I am still arguably too largely removed from the emotional aspect of this debate to have a proper appreciation of the nuances it provides. My heart breaks when I hear the stories of human tragedy and I am appalled by the reports of violence and suffering on both sides; but, unlike the occupants of both Israel and Palestine, I do not have to live with the daily realities of this conflict. There is not the same type of existential threat to my national identity, so how can I possibly understand what is going on there?

That is exactly my point; I, and others like me, cannot hope to fully comprehend the situation. So, when we condemn the actions taken by the players in this struggle, it is the air of moral superiority which belies our ignorance. We are often chided when criticising the Palestinian rebels with the cliché “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, but this phrase is also applicable to the criticism of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Ultimately their actions are seen by many people as necessary for the existence of the State of Israel; both sides are fighting for their survival.

I am sure many people will disagree with the idea that Israel is fighting for its survival. Especially in comparison to the challenges faced by Palestine, both in Gaza and the West Bank, but this is because of our distance. As someone who is not Jewish nor a citizen of Israel, I do not have an experience of the isolation they feel in the region. Nor am I a Palestinian. I do not understand the cultural milieu. Whilst there is a drastic power imbalance between the two states, it does not mean they do not feel the same threats.

A noticeable feature of most debates, especially those concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict, is the insistence of one side being right and the other wrong. There is no longer space for a spectrum. In this context, the phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is no longer a reminder of subjectivity. Its meaning transgresses this simple reminder. It becomes an assertion that those deemed as “terrorists” are in actual fact “freedom fighters”; in other words, it is a euphemism for “I am right, you are wrong”. But who are we to make such a judgement? Can we really condone attacks on innocent civilians on either side? And if we are willing to make some allowances, surely these must be made for both sides?

This pathological desire to have our opinions validated as correct has led us to create dichotomies when a more pluralistic approach would be better. This is something which took time for me to understand.

When I was in the West Bank, I was lucky enough to speak to two Palestinian politicians, Dr Amal Jadou, Assistant Minister on European Affairs, and Vera Baboun, the former Mayor of Bethlehem. The talks were dominated by the topic of Palestinian militancy, painted in terms of terrorism and freedom fighting. During the talk with Dr Jadou, she reiterated “the Palestinian Authorities did not condone acts of violence” with mechanical intransigence, but her tone suggested this was not her personal opinion. At the time this saddened me. Vera Baboun’s talk featured a more direct confrontation on the topic of terrorism and there arose an air of hostility in the room. Immediately afterwards, I remember finding it all a little confusing because I had placed these people into a dichotomy which left no room for human understanding.

After these two talks, discussion amongst the group occurred. Instead of recounting what we had just listened to, people began to investigate the context in which these two incredible women lived. Dr Jadou had recalled the humiliation she felt when interrogated at check-points and the feeling of invasion due to Israeli construction in Zone C of the West Bank and the implications this had for the Palestinian Government and economy. I was also informed, “Vera’s husband had died carrying out a terror attack”. Both politicians felt the Israeli West Bank Barrier was a symbol of apartheid in the region. Given this context, I began to understand why they felt sympathy for those who carried out acts of violence.

Later in the trip, at a talk held in a Kibbutz near the Gaza border, a similar experience occurred. To begin with, I was perturbed by the support our guide had for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). It was a Friday afternoon; we had already seen smoke billowing in the distance as well as a warning that we were close enough to the Friday protests to feel the effects of tear gas. I had recently watched Louis Theroux’s documentary, ‘The Ultra Zionists’, and was disturbed by the level of aggression shown to non-violent protesters. As the talk continued, we were shown a simple incendiary device which had been flown over from Gaza. The device had landed near the primary school and it dawned on me that perhaps this support for the IDF was rooted in a fear for our guide’s children. It makes sense to support the organisation which is in charge of protecting you at a time when you feel under attack, especially against an enemy which can wreak havoc not just on your life, but the lives of your children.

I came away from all three talks with the words of Atticus Finch ringing in my ears, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”; a task I would be hard-pressed to do. I have never had to face their injustices or experience their fear. I realised that my judgement of them was unfair. All I could do was listen. Thinking about this in logical abstraction ignores the human element. We need to consider the thoughts and feelings of those who live this reality day in day out.

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  • I think this is an honest attempt to understand the situation from the basis of universal principles and the limited experience of a tour organised by the Union of Jewish Students.

    I agree that we cannot condone random terrorist attacks on civilians but you seem to have missed the point that an occupied people has the right to protest and resist.

    When Palestinian society tries to exert peaceful pressure on its oppressor by calling for selective Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS), anyone who supports this call is labelled as ‘anti-Semitic’.

    I also agree that the” two sides”, “zero-game” mentality will never produce a just settlement. And both Israeli and Palestinian societies include a wide range of opinions. And absolutely, those are the people who must resolve matters, not outsiders.

    But that doesn’t mean we can’t apply our principles to overseas situations without having to live there. I never visited Burma, Vietnam or apartheid-era South Africa, but I know that the expulsion of the Rohingya by the Burmese/Myanmar Army (which has multiple arms and training agreements with Israel, by the way), the American war on Indo-China and white rule in south Africa were all evils that had to be opposed.

    I’ll say more under the ‘solution’ article.


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Why Did Gair Rhydd Visit Israel and Palestine?

• To hear from people on the ground about the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

•To encourage greater understanding of the complexities of the conflict to help us facilitate discussion about the situation upon returning home outside of the traditional media narrative.

•To prompt us to begin considering how discussions can move forward in the hopes of one day finding a solution to the conflict.

•To show us first-hand how fragile Israeli-Palestinian relations are to broaden our understanding of the struggles faced by all who are intimately affected by the conflict.

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This trip was facilitated by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS). They have been around since 1919, addressing the concerns of 8,500 Jewish Students in Universities. They aim to lead campaigns fighting prejudice, creating inclusive environments, and educating people on divisive issues. To find out more about the work UJS do, head over to their website.