The horrendous murder of a family from the West Bank settlement of Itamar is a terrible event of itself. But the event also represents a descent into madness and inhumanity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that, at least for me, underscores inevitable and deep pessimism about the peace process.
The conflict is shot through with immorality by this point. Consider how the Israelis and Palestinians have reacted. There are reports of West Bank settlers responding as viciously and threateningly as they do when the government dismantles their outposts, as a "price tag" from the Palestinians in the area. The Israeli government itself has decided to construct 400 units in West Bank settlements to demonstrate its support for the settlers and show it will not be coerced into withdrawal. Ariel mayor Ron Nachman blamed left-wing journalists in Israel for contributing to delegitimization of the settlements and therefore setting the stage for such attacks.
Many Palestinians, for their part, continue to follow a longstanding tradition of condemning terrorist attacks on Israelis but in the same breath referencing the "cause" of the terrorism -- Israeli occupation policies -- thus mitigating the ghastly nature of terrorism itself. Others from the left in Israel condemn the violence but, put off by the reactions of right-wingers, prefer to focus on the evils of the occupation and Jewish violence to make sure a minimum of moral equivalency is maintained.
No less important is how supporters of Israel and of the Palestinians have reacted. The blogosphere, Facebook, and the wider Internet is suffused with blame, accusations and justifications. Just look at the comments that follow any media or Internet posting about the murder and its aftermath (including this one?). Those few groups that have outright condemned the murders on their own -- which is the right thing to do -- then become subject to attack by opposing parties, forcing the original condemners to have to defend themselves from such spurious and shameful attacks.
Yes, the Israeli occupation leads to immoral actions. Yes, Palestinian rhetoric and tactics lead to immoral actions. Of course all of these negative reactions are expected, perhaps even understandable. But is there no room for compassion anymore? Is it too idealistic or naïve to expect empathy when it comes to the suffering of individuals just like us?
This problem is magnified in many ways for scholars studying the conflict. There is a tendency to view the violence with what is lauded as dispassionate and objective analysis, or with a close ideological or personal identification with one side over the other. Neither reaction is appropriate or helpful.
What we need, if we are to retain any shred of hope for the future, is closer people-to-people contact. This is of course difficult: peace camps that bring Arabs and Jews together to share their pain and discuss the future often break apart when intense violence occurs and each participant rushes back to his or her side. Academics and regional specialists can contribute here by pushing their contacts and friends and scholarly collaborators in the region toward such an end. Others should do the same. It may not be much, but it is something.
Our humanity shines through when we restrain what might be our natural reactions (dependent on our position on the ideological-political spectrum) and instead acknowledge the pain and torment on an individual level. If we can't do that, what possible hope is there for any broader resolution of the conflict?
Note: reports are already circulating that the murders at Itamar may not even have been carried out by Palestinians, but by foreign workers angry at a lack of pay. If true, that only makes the furious reactions that much worse, since they point to unthinking consequences that represent the worst of us.