Getting out of the hole

Clem McCartney

Seven weeks have passed in the current heightened phase of the conflict in Israel/Palestine – seven, often seen as a special number. The level of death and destruction that has occurred during this time might have given those involved and their supporters pause for thought but there is little sign of it.  Calls from humanitarian agencies for compassion and respect for life seem to be falling on deaf ears, notwithstanding the just ended truce and exchange of hostages held by Hamas for Palestinians held by Israel. There have been some violations of the truce and every sign that the death and destruction will return, and even intensify.  One might have thought that, confronted by the enormity of the consequences of the violence, those supporting and perpetrating military action on either side might be asking themselves if their stance is really acceptable? How could it result in meaningful peace? What can we do to bring the violence to an end?  How can we explain this rejection of all that we know about how to resolve conflicts by peaceful, humane, effective and sustainable means?  Because we do have that knowledge.  

The challenge to the International Order

Right in the middle of the last seven weeks, violence, death and destruction were running alongside the Geneva Peace Week 2023, with the title “Building Trust, Building Peace”.  Geneva is synonymous with international humanitarian norms, including the Geneva Conventions which were strengthened in 1949 in reaction to the horrors of the Second World War.  In stark contrast we now face the irony that new horrors are being committed and humanitarian law is being reinterpreted to justify the actions that are leading to this new tragedy. The assumption long held by the protagonists and their supporters on both sides of this conflict is that trust is not the way to build peace, and even questioning whether trust is ever possible and if peace is a desirable goal.  They apply Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum “speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”, though there is not much soft speaking going on.  If we are to move beyond this conflict, or any other, we have to look again at why peace is not seen as a desirable goal and how it might be possible for the protagonists to begin to consider putting down the stick and finding ways to engage and dialogue with opponents to create the conditions for positive peaceful relations.

This article looks at this challenge.  If we can learn from the appalling tragedies in Israel and Gaza, then we may be on the road to creating a safer world that works for us all. It is the latest in a long series of conflicts where parties have attempted to reshape humanitarian law to fit their strategic interests.  How the current confrontation pans out will determine if the international system will be farther weakened, and so far the prospects do not look good.  Do we want to see a world where accepted norms are no longer respected?  Do we want to see a world in which differences are settled by force and the stronger subjugates the weaker?   Or do we want to see a world where peoples can find ways to live in harmony in spite of all the traumas that have gone before?  Do we want to see a world where people can find ways to find solutions to apparently intractable conflicts by understanding the needs and concerns of each other and crafting a way forward based on accommodating those needs and concerns even though they may seem irreconcilable?  

Much has been said about what has happened in Israel and Gaza in recent weeks.  The actions of Hamas and the Israeli Government have been described in moral, legal, military and emotional terms, but whatever terms are used they are designed by each party and their supporters to condemn the other and justify themselves.  There has been less pragmatic consideration of what will be the consequences of those actions whether in terms of loss of life and destruction, effectiveness in achieving the desired outcomes, impact on attitudes not only within each society but also in the wider world, and the effect on the international order.  There is a battle to control the language and the narrative of the conflict with conflicting claims and counter claims, and in that battle every word and term matters.  It is as intense as the physical attacks and equally deadly because by controlling that narrative one gives oneself licence to continue current strategies.

Fixed world views as self-fulfilling prophecies

Whichever way one describes the current situation there seems little doubt that both Hamas and the Israel government are in a trap.  It may be a trap of their own choosing as they act out their world view, but that in itself makes it harder to see a way out.  They may not recognise that they are in a trap and may have no interest in getting out, but that in itself makes it harder.  So, everyone suffers and the norms of international humanitarian law are further eroded.  So, what can the parties do?  What can their supporters do?  Can their external allies help and in what way?  And crucially what can each of us do to help?  Before finding answers to those questions, we need to understand the nature of the traps that the parties in the conflict are in and the traps that the rest of us may be in which hinders us finding a way to help rather than hinder. 

The dominant discourse within the Government of Israel and its supporters on how to promote and protect their interests, and the dominant discourse within Hamas and its supporters on how to promote and protect their interests are based on very different world views. Together, they result in what is happening at present, and has been happening for many years, as they lead to incompatible strategies which nevertheless convince the opposing parties of the rightness of their world views and as justification of their strategy.

When Hamas began its bombardment of Southern Israel on 14 October, I immediately thought, like many others, that Hamas must know that this will lead to reprisals on a much greater scale. What can they possibly hope to achieve? But perhaps they had no expectations of being able to achieve anything, and it was an expression of hopelessness, in spite of their rationalisations about their motivation. I was reminded, as I often am in such situations, of Fritz Glasl’s description of the final stage of descent into conflict.  He called it “together into the abyss”. It is a graphic image in which one or both parties conclude that all that they believe in is lost, but at least they will pull their opponent into the abyss with them: mutually assured destruction.  It shows the danger of leaving opponents with no hope of any kind.

The default position of the Israeli Government and its supporters is to adopt and seek to justify an unyielding and uncompromising position, not only in response to atrocities carried out against it, and also more generally in its reluctance to accept the two-state solution already agreed, or its support for settlements in the West Bank territory which have been declared and established illegally.  I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s reporting of the Eichmann Trial.  You will remember that in 1960 Israel captured Adolf Eichmann in a clandestine operation in Argentina and took him back to Israel to face trial for his part in the Holocaust.  Hannah Arendt, a political theorist born and educated in Germany, who had to flee from the Holocaust and ended up in New York, wanted to go and report on the trial.  It has been described as a show trial with a special courtroom constructed with extensive facilities for reporters.  She describes how it was used to articulate and confirm a public discourse and a narrative in Israel that the Jewish people were constantly under threat and had to be constantly vigilant, resolute and uncompromising.  They had tried compromise through the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust, and the trial showed how the leaders of the Jewish communities in Germany, and other territories controlled by the Nazis, had worked with the authorities hoping to mitigate the impact of the Holocaust, with no effect.  “Never again”.   

Built into those world views is the importance of solidarity and the danger of questioning the resulting strategies, though in the process they may be destroying the very things they believe in and stand for.  In fact, the current political leaderships have no incentive to rethink, as they gain more support, albeit also more opposition, if they can demonstrate that a more accommodating approach does not work.  Even though their existing stances and strategies contribute to the current situation, what is happening proves to Hamas and their supporters that there are no grounds for hope on which it could build and share with their community.  Israel could offer some hope but it is caught in a double bind.  Some Israelis want their Government to offer gestures of good will and they may take personal steps in that direction, but the reliance on a policy of vigilance and resolute resistance to compromise requires refusal to countenance any questioning or rethinking, as that would be seen to weaken resolve and be traitorous.  Hannah Arendt herself faced much criticism from old friends in Israel and in New York when she published and spoke of her conclusions about the Eichmann trial and her analysis of what it indicated about the direction in which Israeli public discourse was being shaped.  But her analysis still seems to make sense.  

Nor can any doubts be allowed about tactics, however unpleasant and distasteful they may be, if they are considered necessary to deter opponents.  This is based on a cold and clear calculus of what is required to instil fear in them:  if a choice has to be made, it is assumed that it safer to be feared than liked.  Otherwise, the Jewish people may be walking into a trap which will lead to their destruction.  But being feared is not a good basis for security. From this perspective, President Biden’s call for them to avoid being consumed by rage is probably misplaced. Some Jews are no doubt filled with rage and the desire for vengeance, as are some gentiles, and that might be partly assuaged by the current targeting of Gaza.  But the greater concern, which shapes strategy and tactics is security, and being seen to be in control and impervious to external or internal pressure.

These patterns are not unusual in conflict situations, particularly when parties feel beleaguered.  I see it to a degree in our own communities in Northern Ireland, where the actions of each side, based on their world view, confirmed the world view of the others.  For example Catholic republicans wanted the United Kingdom to withdraw from Ireland.  Believing it would do so when it was no longer in its material interest to remain, they carried out a bombing campaign to damage the UK’s economic interests.  This confirmed for the UK that the republicans were nihilistic terrorists just wanting to cause death and destruction with no political goals that could be negotiated.  Protestant unionists shared that view.  So the UK tried to repress and destroy the republicans, repressing the whole catholic community in the process, while protestant paramilitaries also attacked that community. This confirmed for the republicans and large sections of the Catholic community that the UK and the Protestant community were uninterested in Catholic aspirations and rights, and intensified the bombing campaign.  This vicious circle maintained itself until, after many years, circumstances and some “critical friends” led them to begin to question their own assumptions and try to understand the assumptions of their opponents.   The experience of appropriating the lands of the native Americans inculcated such thinking in the early settlers in the “Wild West” and it is noteworthy that the Neocons in the 1960s wanted to reinvigorate the frontier spirit as shown in “cowboy and Indian” Western films when it came to facing up to the Cold War.  However, the Israeli discourse may be uniquely intense because it arose out of the extreme experience of the Holocaust.  

Problems to every solution 

Wherever and whenever this dynamic and discourse are dominant, how can one recreate the possibility for finding a new basis for relationships?  Proposals are being offered on how the civil population of Gaza could be moved elsewhere, either in the Sinai or in Southern Israel, though the logistics are difficult to comprehend.  Others have suggested reviving the Middle East Quartet as a means to open new negotiations though that would create challenges for two of its members – Russia and the United States of America. Looking to the future, it is also being argued that without a long-term sustainable solution, tensions and violence will continue and while President Biden has been referring to a Two-States Solution, that is not on the agenda of the protagonists. 

While there are practical problems with these ideas, and any others that have been proposed, the real difficulty is that they do not address the parties’ underlying mindsets which do not countenance accommodation or any process of engagement apart from the military.  For them, the only solution is victory.  Albert Einstein said “Stay away from negative people.  They have a problem for every solution”, reversing the popular saying.  He also said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  Social psychologists have described the phenomenon of groupthink, where a group which shares a similar mindset will make bad decisions because their desire to maintain that unity and conformity in the group is more important than taking account of information or perspectives that show the real consequences of their strategy, including the danger of proceeding. If we are in a trap, we have to shift our mindset if we are to get out of it.

How is that to happen, particularly in the fog of war when militancy is in the ascendant?  It is said that a good militant keeps going forward.  To stop and question is to risk doubt and confusion.  Che Guevara, himself a militant in other struggles, made a chilling remark about the militant: “the months or years of the war strengthen his revolutionary convictions, making him more radical as the potency of arms is demonstrated”.   But without an aware assessment of one’s situation, it is possible, even likely, that one could be on the wrong path and creating new problems for oneself and one’s people, not to mention others who are affected.  And, paradoxically, the middle of a hot conflict is a good time to reflect because the consequences of one’s actions, especially the unintended consequences, are more evident and immediate, if one is willing to look.

A critical friend

So, if the current carnage is to end, the parties need to question themselves and their mindset and check if what is happening is what they really want. And that is not easy. It probably has to be done away from the public eye.  It is a lonely situation.  Colleagues will see this kind of questioning as a sign of weakness and, if opponents are aware, they will try to take advantage of any signs of division and dissent.  Nonetheless there are many examples of parties in conflict making this kind of reassessment.  A critical friend can help.  Telling people what they should do and what they should want is unlikely to encourage new thinking.  It is more likely to be resisted.   Praising one party and condemn the other is likely to confirm and entrench the commitment to existing assumptions. A true friend will raise critical issues when necessary. 

I am reminded of an image that was offered many years ago by the social care educator Alan Keith Lucas in an article on “The Art and Science of Helping” in order to distinguish sympathy from empathy.   What he says is also very relevant in conflicts.  He said if we think of someone trapped in a deep hole, there are three possible responses: pity, sympathy or empathy.  We can look at the people in the hole, say “how dreadful”, and walk on by.  He characterises this as pity and does nothing to change the situation.  It has been the default position for far too long in Israel/Palestine and many other places.  Secondly, when we see someone in a hole we can again say “how terrible” but this time jump in beside them and try to identify with their situation.  Keith Lucas considers this is be pity and unhelpful.  Now two people are in the hole but it does not solve the problem.  Thirdly we can see someone in a hole and say “I see you are in a difficult situation.  Let us work together to find how we can get you out of this situation.  Perhaps I can go and try to find a ladder or a rope and get you out that way.”  That is empathy, constructively working together to solve the problem, and we have not seen much evidence of that over the last few weeks, though it may be going on in private.  Of course, the first thing is to realise that we and our opponents are stuck together in a hole or in a cul de sac, and we will probably also need help to recognise that is the reality, and its implications in the short term and the long term.

A good example of a critical friend at work is Clem Sunter in South Africa.  In the 1980s he worked on scenario planning to help future commercial planning for the South African mining conglomerate, Anglo American, a strong supporter of the National Party in the apartheid era.  He developed a presentation entitled ‘The World and South Africa in the 1990s’, which offered two scenarios for South Africa: the ‘High Road’ of negotiation leading to a political settlement and the ‘Low Road’ of confrontation leading to a civil war and a wasteland.   He conceded at the time that the ‘High Road’ might be improbable, but ‘the whole point of our process is to put on the table improbable futures’.  He was able to present it to President FW de Klerk and his cabinet in 1986 – a time when negotiations seemed particularly far-fetched, and a state of emergency had been in place since 1985.  He did not say what should be done.   A participant in the meeting said that it had a major impact on the members of the government and the President, helping them to start thinking differently: “It might have been pragmatic thinking, but at least they listened.”   The fact that the presentation was developed by a pillar of the business establishment that had supported the National Party government in resisting international sanctions may well have influenced its reception. The ‘messengers’ were trusted even if one future they were envisaging would take into account the interests of the whole population, not just the white minority.  He was also able to visit Nelson Mandela in prison to discuss the future a month before his release.  

If third parties, such as the United States of America and Iran in this case, are unwilling to assume the role of critical friends, and balance expressions of support with taking a clear position on actions that are considered unacceptable, they become complicit in the tragedy that is the consequence of those actions.  They may be concerned that they will look weak if any such criticisms are rebuffed, but they also look weak when they do not seem able to take a clear position on what is happening.  Civil society in those countries can also encourage their governments to play a constructive role as a critical friend through lobbying and protest, but the protests in that regard will be more effective if they are asking questions of governments and encouraging them to reflect.  While there is a place for condemning and calling for the solution that we prefer, which have to also be aware that it is likely to provoke resistance and close down discussion: “there is a problem to every solution”.  The same is true of the media.  The public at large will also be more effective if they too ask themselves critical questions as may have invested a lot in their support for one or both sides.  It may be more difficult for civil society to raise questions in countries in the conflict where there is little room for alternative voices, but we have been seeing it happening in the present situation and in other earlier conflicts

Questions to stimulate fresh thinking

What are the questions which would encourage sober reflection on the assumptions and world view that are driving the conflict, both in the parties in conflict and in their allies and supporters, and indeed in the global community?  Some of them have been aired already, if drowned out by more polarised statements and the sound of guns.

Critical awareness?

Are we able to critically assess our basic assumptions and strategic choices?  If not, might that lead us to make bad decisions?  What factors make it difficult to use our critical facilities and how can they be overcome?


What do we really want?  What is important?  What is our vision for our people in the future?  Do we want a society that is at peace with itself and its neighbours?  Would we prefer a society which is secure because there are no threats or animosity towards us or a society which is secure because we are vigilant and ready to meet any of the threats that surround us?  Is it possible to achieve that vision by current means?  If we “succeed” will it be a pyrrhic victory leaving our children a waste land and continuing bitterness and hostility rather than a sustainable peace?   Is there a better way to achieve that vision?


To pursue the conflict are we compromising on our fundamental principles, even if we feel that is justifiable?  If we move away from our fundamental principles what is left of our identity?


What are the negative consequences of our current actions?   How can they be avoided?  Do our actions encourage an increasing level of violence and an acceptance and tolerance of a higher level of violence, death and destruction?  What are the consequences of the acceptability of greater levels of violence for our societies and for the world as a whole?

A rules-based system? 

Do we value the possibility of a rules based international order which governs human relations at the personal, community and global level?  Who interprets those rules? If each party in conflict interprets the rules to justify their own actions, do the rules continue to have any meaning or are they just an expression of the will of the most powerful?  What happens if other parties interpret the rules to justify their actions against us?  Do we need a consensus or an independent arbitration body?  If the common consensus or an arbitration body does not agree with us, can we accept that it is not a sign that they are biased, but perhaps they may be right and we may have to think again?

Use of force?

Do we want to have a system that is based on the application of force and imposes the will of the more powerful?  If at this point we can achieve our aims because we are more powerful, then what will happen if another party becomes more powerful and imposes its will on us or our allies?


Do we feel we are exceptional in some ways? History? Religious beliefs? Success?  That may be valuable in building internal solidarity, but how do we contain that exceptionalism so that it does not impinge on others that do not recognise our exceptionalism, and who may feel they too are exceptional in other ways?  Does our sense of our exceptionalism impede our capacity to assess our world view and strategic choices.

Unique conflict?

Do we believe that our conflict is unique?  Do we recognise that studies of conflict that they are only are resolved when the parties accept that similar dynamics recur in all conflicts, including our own, even though each conflict has unique features?  Are we willing to learn from those conflicts where the parties have been able to move away from their sense of uniqueness, and resolve their conflicts in positive ways?

Rethinking Security?

Is our current approach providing real security?  Are we willing to rethink security to find other sources of security?  Could it be based on positive relations with former enemies and/or the approach of non-violent civic resistance advocated by writers such as Gene Sharp which build a confident resilient society that would be futile to attack?

These kind of questions go to the heart of the well-defended assumptions on which current strategies are based.  They are well defended because, as noted already, in a conflict situation any re-examine of the community’s world view and the assumptions that surround it might lead to doubt and uncertainty, and create an opportunity for hostile parties.  But if the course of action being pursued is misguided and counter productive, it may create more and deeper problems and therefore be even more dangerous.  So, though it may be difficult, it is important that parties in conflict, and third parties supporting them, do reflect and are encouraged to reflect on the assumptions they are making and where those assumptions are taking them, perhaps far from where they want to be and in the process undermining the community rather than strengthening it.  These questions can help in this process.

Ideas about the exceptionalism of the community and the uniqueness of the conflict allow parties to believe that normal rules of behaviour do not apply to them.  They used to justify taking actions which are in breach of international norms and which they would condemn if parties in other conflicts were to use them.  Not only are such ideas used to justify such actions, but they become an imperative that such actions are necessary and unavoidable.  Both the leadership of the Government of Israel and Hamas can claim they are exceptional because of a history of suffering and persecution, or the level of threat they perceive,  and on the basis of religious beliefs, but that does not give them the right to impose their exceptionalism on others who do not share those beliefs.

On the other hand in a conflict it is easy to lose sight of the ultimate vision that we seek to achieve and the fundamental principles we claim to uphold.  Winning the immediate confrontation becomes paramount.  The ends are used to justify the means.  For example the leadership of the Israeli Government and the leadership of Hamas subscribe to a commitment to shalom or salam, but in the current situation they are selective about its application.   In fact it is hard to envisage one having shalom if the other does not have salam.

Parties may also need to remind themselves about the consequences of their choices, especially the impact of the use of force, and measure that against their vision and principles.  At this point both the Government of Israel and the leaders of Hamas are making unilateral choices and interpreting the norms of international relations in their own way to justify their actions, thereby undermining the norms of a rule-based system and encouraging their opponents to do likewise.  If an opponent does not observe humanitarian norms that does not give permission to other parties to also ignore them.  Even if at this stage they find it convenient to ignore that system, at some point they may need it to protect them against a more powerful opponent who is imposing its will on them.   A world without restraints on the use of force is not a pleasant prospect for anyone.  They also seem to ignore the negative consequences of the use of force.  Not only is it a blunt instrument which may not achieve the desired goal, but it is generating counter-force and potentially alienating those whose co-operation they might need in the future. 

These kinds of reflections can help the parties to rethink security, not reliant on weapons and deterrence, which always leaves the possibility that a future attack may succeed, but builds a sustainable peace based on meeting the interests of all parties so there is no wish to resort to violence.  That process starts with the willingness to be self-critical and question the basic assumptions which are driving current strategies, but which may be false assumptions that not only cause harm but are ineffective and counterproductive.  

Addressing these questions will not resolve the current conflict in Israel and Gaza, or anywhere else, but they might help to open up mind-sets in order to be ready to look for a resolution that satisfies all sides. It can also be the basis for a more constructive public discourse which can provide a context for the management of disputes. That public discourse needs to start right now. To patch up a humanitarian pause, a truce, a ceasefire or even an agreement, without addressing these fundamental questions, would leave the underlying dynamics festering under the surface, ready to break out again, and condemning the people on all sides to restricted lives, governed by fear, hostility and unfulfilled potential.


Clem McCartney has been an independent research consultant on conflict and community issues for the last 40 years, working in many parts of the world with organizations such as Conciliation Resources, Berghof Foundation and the World Leadership Alliance/Club de Madrid.

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