Breaking the cycle of violence in Gaza will require a major rethink

Death may be the ultimate tragedy of war, but fear and terror are the unwanted side effects of exposure to conflict.

I recall a peaceful Sunday afternoon with my family in the summer of 1994 in southern Lebanon. My then three-year old younger brother and I accompanied my mother for a family holiday to Lebanon that year. Over 20 family members crowded the small backyard of my grandparents’ house. A few were manning the barbecue and the rest of were fanning away the heat, playing cards and backgammon.

Then it happened. A sudden thumping noise that started off in the distance and got closer and louder overhead. I instantly looked up to the sky. A black helicopter zoomed above our heads. It was flying at such low altitude that it triggered a ducking response from most of us. I panicked.

I immediately looked up to my uncle and asked what was going on. In an effort to calm me down, he said it was an Israeli helicopter carrying out a routine patrol.

Before he could finish his sentence, the helicopter was back, this time firing a missile. The sound of the explosion was deafening. My heart pounded with fear. Everyone immediately huddled inside the house in one of the bedrooms.

There were several explosions. Each time, the noise got louder as the explosions got closer. At this point, my brother was crying at the top of his lungs, my tears were flowing and my mother was overtaken by panic.

By the time the Israeli helicopter fired its 14th missile – I was counting – it was so close that part of the wall in our backyard was hit, and rubble was all over the place.

Watching the Israeli onslaught on the West Bank and Gaza brought back these memories of fear and terror.

And, as it happened, I was reading through a discussion that advocated for both parties to cease engaging in the blame game and pointing fingers at one another. The writer wanted both parties to change, to end their inner urge for revenge and to choose to forgive.

These are indeed honourable points. The reality, however, is that the desire for revenge is a built-in feature of human nature. Social and biological research confirms that every “neurologically intact human being has the biological hardware to seek revenge”. It’s what early humans tapped into to survive.

But revenge is not the only authentic feature of human nature. That same research concludes that the capacity to forgive is an equally authentic feature of our species. And in our quest to make the world a more forgiving, less vengeful place, we should not try to change human nature, we should aim to change the world around us.

Human nature is extremely sensitive to its context. Our behaviours depend on our surrounding circumstances. The same holds for our capacity to seek revenge or forgive. Individuals living in societies with high crime rates, disorder, poor governance and high degrees of threat revert to seeking revenge. It’s a means to discourage, deter and punish. But if we create societies with real accountability, reliable institutions and just systems, then forgiveness will prevail. And that sits at the core of peace.

It is difficult not to despair as we watch the bodies of the young wrapped in cloth being carried to their final resting place. It is difficult to hold peace among the angry chants demanding that blood be spilt. It is difficult to ask those who lost so much to let go of the brewing hatred and ignore the thirst for vengeance. But it is exactly at this very time that we need to fight for accountability, for justice, for illegal settlements to stop, for blockades to be lifted, for hunger to end and for economies to be allowed to thrive.

Nelson Mandela once said on achieving peace: “Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all”. That’s where it all needs to start.

Rana Askoul is a Dubai-based writer

On Twitter: @RanaAskoul

Published: July 17, 2014 04:00 AM

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