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Enemy Images

One of the factors that contributes to the perpetuation of conflict is our image of the ‘enemy’ as inherently evil. In any situation of protracted conflict people become convinced that the other side is ‘bad.’ Perceptions of the enemy form mirror images of each other – that is, each side attributes to itself the same virtues and projects the same vices onto the other side. Thus, “‘we’ are trustworthy, peace-loving, honorable and humanitarian; ‘they’ are treacherous, warlike, immoral and cruel,” whoever “we” and “they” happen to be. Consider for a moment the following description and ask yourself about whom it was said – and hazard a guess before you glance down to see where it came from:

“(They are) utterly lacking in any ability to understand the principles of humanity. Whatever may be the state of their material civilization, they are nothing but lawless savages in spirit who are ruled by fiendish passions and unrestrained lust for blood. Against such enemies of decency and humanity, the civilized world must rise up in protest and back up protest with punitive force. Only through the complete chastisement of such behaviour can the world be made safe for civilization.” [1]

Our image of the Palestinians as less moral than us, as an enemy with whom we cannot negotiate because they insist on choosing violence over peace, this image is a consequence of the ongoing conflict, rather than an accurate picture of Palestinian society. They think exactly the same about us. If we are going to make progress and resolve the conflict, we have to put these images aside, and talk. Throughout the split between Fatah and Hamas, we said there was no point in talking to Fatah because they don’t really represent the people and have no power. Now that there are signs that the political leadership is getting together, in however shaky a coalition, we won’t talk to them because we don’t negotiate with terrorists. Israel has consistently taken actions that strengthen extremism in the Palestinian world. We need to think strategically before Hamas begin to look like the boy next door because Al-Qaeda has taken over in the Gaza strip.

Abu-Mazen insists that the new government will adhere to his authority and will follow the lines laid down by him. Obviously, to a certain extent we will have to wait and see – but now is the time to try and strengthen the moderate forces in the Palestinian world and put something on the table. It’s time to look the Palestinians in the eye and see beyond the image that the conflict has created in our minds and hearts.


[1] Nippon Times of Tokyo, March 29, 1945 in response to the firebombing of Tokyo that killed around 100,000 people. Quoted in D.W. Shriver Jr., “The long road to reconciliation: some moral stepping stones,” in R.L. Rothstein, After the peace: resistance and reconciliation, (Boulder, Lynne Rienner, 1999)

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