19th Jun 2021


Israel/Palestine: how victims became aggressors

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians are mounting. There are a number of lessons to be learned from this flare-up of violence. The most obvious observation concerns Israel's enormous supremacy of power.

Warplanes circle unapproachably over the Gaza Strip.

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  • 'It's an uncomfortable consideration, but sometimes the people we have compassion for today are the masters of tomorrow'

Of the missiles fired by the Palestinian resistance organisation Hamas, barely 15 percent got past Israeli anti-aircraft defences.

Each anti-missile missile costs about €50,000. The Israeli defence budget is €17bn; two hundred times more than what Hamas has at its disposal. This is David against Goliath.

That dominance of power is growing. Military, but also political.

Israel is in no way impressed by the urges from the United States to slow down and is ostentatiously ignoring international agreements.

Never before have so many new settlements been built as in previous years. The vast majority are contrary to international agreements and about ten percent of the new constructions are located in a far-distant area.

More and more Palestinian families in the eastern part of Jerusalem are being forced to leave. Israel is on an offensive.

Another observation concerns the lingering attitude of the Palestinians' traditional allies. There is a lot of noise and horror at the Israeli actions. But it doesn't get any further than formal disapproval.

The pan-Arab and Islamic solidarity of yesteryear seems dead. Realpolitik rules the Middle East.

For the Saudis, Israel has become an indispensable ally against Iran. The regime in Egypt is counting on Israeli intelligence to keep its own dissidents, including the Muslim Brothers, under wraps.

In the United Arab Emirates, prominent influencers express their understanding of the Israeli fight against terror. These regimes aim for stability and they can miss out on troublemakers.

These are obvious lessons.

But it becomes especially intriguing when we put the issue in a historical perspective. Then there is a much more fundamental and inconvenient conclusion to be drawn about the nature of power politics.

The relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is actually an oversized Stanford prison experiment. That 1970s experiment showed that if you give people power, they start to abuse that power very quickly.

In the case of Israel, it is especially dramatic how the once oppressed people have evolved, thanks to their immense power, to the oppressor, the persecuted to the persecutor, the victim to the aggressor.

In our prosperous society, it is tempting to consider it compassionate that those who have lived in deprivation and oppression are inclined towards reconciliation and gentleness after recovery.

But bad experiences often lead to negative socialisation, to hatred, revenge, chauvinism and assertiveness. All it takes to express that is a shift in the balance of power, as the Zionists managed to bring about in the past century.

It's an uncomfortable consideration, but sometimes the people we have compassion for today are the masters of tomorrow.

And although we crave a better world, it seems difficult to break through that negative socialisation.

Rwanda, South Africa

In addition to Israel, there are several other recent examples. Look at Rwanda.

The victims of the 1994 genocide, the Tutsis, are in power today and are relentless in the oppression of the Hutus - even abroad.

Or consider South Africa. Despite the late Nelson Mandela's plea to avoid such a scenario, the country is sliding into reverse apartheid against whites.

Recently, a teacher of mixed origin was denied a job because he refused to register as "coloured" or "white". White supremacism is replaced by black supremacism. No mercy. As we go further in history, the examples only become more numerous.

Misunderstanding, chauvinism, racism and hatred are everywhere. And it is not the case that the one culture, the one people, or the one race has more or less talent for it.

What determines the persistence and impact of the phenomena is the distribution of power. And that balance of power is always in motion.

The inferiority complex of the present sometimes contains the seeds of tomorrow's urge to assert itself; and a liberator can perfectly emerge as a new ruler.

"We don't discriminate between people and religion makes no difference." This is how the Zionist ideologue Theodor Herzl sounded. A lot can change in 100 years and we must not be blind to these deep shifts if we want to understand the world.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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