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Remember your Humanity: How Can the Cycle of Violence in Gaza Ever End?

Arnd Jurgensen teaches international relations at the University of Toronto and is a director on the Science for Peace board.

Contributed article for the Nonviolent Resistance Working Group.

Tapdıq Fərhadoğlu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gandhi, in response to the cycle of violence accelerating during India’s struggle for independence, stated that the logic of an “eye for an eye” that was driving the violence (in that case between Hindus and Muslims) would eventually leave everyone blind. The current catastrophe playing itself out in Israel/Palestine is born of such rage and lust for revenge, fuelled by a lethal inability on both sides to recognize the humanity of their victims.

This was evident in the horrific attack on Israeli civilians in small villages, kibbutzes, and a music festival. The attackers, devoid of any sense of common humanity, carried out their murderous project tanked up on a fury generated from the conditions imposed upon them by the occupation over the last several decades. Such conditions included the periodic “mowing of the lawn”, air raids by Israel to punish any signs of resistance, killing and maiming enormous numbers of civilians including women, children and the elderly.

The current Israeli response to the horrific violence of October 7 demonstrates the equivalent poisonous moral failure within Israel’s national security institutions.

The language being used by some on the side of Israel is outright genocidal, referring to the population of Gaza as “human animals” that must be treated accordingly. The wholesale destruction of entire neighbourhoods that has already taken place, with at least a third of the victims children, demonstrates that many in the government of Israel and its supporters are operating out of the same rage and lust for revenge. Where this spiral of inhumanity and violence will take us is not yet clear but all the signs point to disaster, especially for the Palestinian population of Gaza, but with the real possibility of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and particularly the West Bank being drawn into a much wider conflagration.

What can we at Science for Peace say and do in regard to this war on the other side of the planet? As the name of our organization suggests: Peace! Simply stated, there is no military solution to this or any other problem we are facing on this dying planet. The only sane policy is an immediate halt to all hostilities and a return to negotiations to settle the legitimate grievances on all sides.

As understandable as the anger of the citizens of Israel and its supporters is, the best advice we can give is: “don’t just do something, stand there!” If Israel is indeed more committed to morality and human values than their counterparts in Hamas, demonstrate this by refusing to be sucked into the logic of an eye for an eye. Re-establish the border that was breached last week and then address the underlying conditions that produced this disaster.

The knee jerk response to indiscriminately punish and possibly reoccupy the Gaza Strip is a recipe for disaster, not just for the Palestinian population that has nowhere to run and to hide, but also for the occupying forces of Israel. It will put Israel into the position of deciding between the use of indiscriminate air power, killing large numbers of Palestinian civilians and a ground invasion that could be more discriminating toward civilians but will predictably result in enormous losses on the Israeli side. The siege imposed on Gaza, cutting the entire population off from supplies of food, medicines, power and even water is a policy that in a very short time will begin to result in mass death. The advice offered by Mr. Netanyahu, to leave, begs the question how and to where? It is precisely the policies of blockade and periodic bombardment of Gaza that created the blind rage that led to the attacks Oct 7. Will more of the same have different results this time or will it further undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel in the eyes of its critics, and encourage even more desperate attempts at “resistance”?

With respect to the attack by Hamas, although the rage felt by many Palestinian youths that has caused them to look to Hamas as a means of resisting their daily humiliation is understandable, it is no justification for the kind of atrocity we saw on Oct 7. Indeed, Hamas bears enormous responsibility for the current crisis. While “resistance” may be amply justified, there is nothing that sanctions the kind of violence unleashed last week, even if it were to result in some improvements to the conditions of the population of Gaza, which of course it won’t.

The clear reality is that every step of violent resistance by Hamas, in the form of rocket attacks has resulted in bringing down on the population of Gaza the wrath of the IDF, and with it thousands of dead Palestinians. This time around it promises to be many times worse. The fact that Hamas has repeatedly engaged in this futile tactic at the enormous cost to those they claim to represent should make us all very sceptical of that claim.

The only viable option for the population of Gaza as well as the larger Palestinian population around the world to advance their interests is non-violent resistance. It must however be acknowledged that the attempt by Palestinian groups and their supporters around the world to advance the cause by non-violent means in the form of the “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” movement was met with extreme hostility, not just by the government of Israel, but by numerous western governments some of which outlawed the campaign on the basis of accusations of antisemitism.

When the road to change by peaceful means is slammed shut it should surprise no-one that violence follows.

The per capita GDP of Israel is in the neighbourhood of $50,000 per year. The per capita GDP of Gaza is approximately $1000, with well over half the population unemployed. Worse, many of the 2.2 million people crammed into the most densely populated territory on the planet can look across the fence at the villages and olive groves that used to be their homes. This is not a situation that can be maintained indefinitely. Pushing the population across the border into Egypt (assuming Egypt would accept such a thing) will not end the crisis. Rockets would instead be launched from Egyptian territory and keeping track of militant organizations would be even more difficult.

So is it all hopeless? No. Instead of deliberately limiting economic development in Gaza and putting its population on a starvation diet, Israel and the international community could be investing in expanding the infrastructure in Gaza to create livable conditions. Some of the enormous funds poured into the military could be funding educational institutions to create a high skill base among Palestinians, which in turn could attract investment by tech firms etc. and over time a reasonable standard of living and opportunities for young Palestinians. As partly demonstrated by places like Singapore and Hong Kong, it is not impossible to build a thriving society even in the absence of large amounts of arable land and natural resources. As bleak as the situation of Gaza looks, the strip has extensive fisheries and natural gas reserves off their coast. Peace and coexistence is possible if the logic of an eye for an eye can be avoided.

Aside from Chimpanzees, humans appear to be the only species of mammals that regularly kill members of their own species, and the historical record seems to indicate the capacity for horrendous violence is hard wired into the human psyche. The reality however is that the vast majority of humans go from cradle to grave without ever harming another human being. To get people to engage in the kind of violence we witnessed October 7 and are witnessing, as we speak in Gaza, requires overcoming the natural inclination of humans to see themselves in the other and to cooperate with them. The dehumanization of the “other” is a social process of which all human groups are capable, made possible by the propagandization of the public and the production of enemy images that deprive the victims of their humanity. The actors capable of stimulating such a process of dehumanization have invariably been states and their national security institutions that profit from armed conflict. They are the true “enemy” of humanity, responsible in countless contexts of generating and feeding the kind of fury that makes possible the horrors of the current crisis.


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