Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Why Discussions Over the Israel-Palestine Conflict Go Wrong

"From the Pulpit" by Danny Hammontree

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” – Joshua 5:13-14[1]

The world has looked on over the past week as Israeli military forces and Gazan militants have exchanged fire across the border. At the time of writing, at least 133 Palestinians have been killed and 950 injured, many of them civilians. It seems like another episode in the ongoing conflict in which neither side are willing to make concessions to ensure peace.

But there’s another battle going on a different front: social media. My newsfeed has been ablaze with impassioned posts of people who have chosen their side and are willing to fight to the virtual death to defend it.

The problem is that the cyberwar produces what I call the “highlights reel” of the conflict. Instead of getting a nuanced understanding of the conflict we end with a virtual one-upping of each other as both sides try to show that other side is worse. Pro-Palestine posters post pictures of children who have been injured by bombs, pro-Israel posters claim that the pictures are from other conflicts and that these posts are the work of “Pallywood” (all the while ignoring that whether these are photos are of actual Gazan children is irrelevant when children are actually dying in the conflict). It ends up being a case of whoever can argue the loudest “wins”.

Of course the Israel-Palestine conflict is not the only episode in history to fall victim to oversimplification. The ethno-nationalist conflict in Ireland is due to “Protestants and Catholics naturally hating each other”. Science and religion “have always been opposed”.[2] The Japanese tokkĊtai (kamikaze) pilots in World War 2 were “fanatical suicide bombers”. The problem with these oversimplifications is that they do a great disservice to the parties involved by ignoring the complex geopolitical and socioeconomic factors that lead to conflict and in doing so leave us with a wholly inaccurate picture of the nature of the conflict.

The popular narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict amongst evangelicals these days is that it’s a centuries-old conflict that is exists today because “the Palestinians hate Israel and want all the Jews dead”.[3] In this video which has been making the rounds on Facebook, Dennis Prager explains that “the conflict is the easiest in the world to explain”. He states that “in a nutshell, one side wants the other side dead (accompanied by a graphic of an Arab standing over the grave of a Jew)”. What follows is a very one-sided retelling of the history of the conflict that is very reminiscent in tone of ancient Hellenistic descriptions of the so-called “barbarians”.

The problem with one-sided narratives is that they demonize and dehumanise the “other”. But as Christians we are not called to dehumanize each other because we are all made in the Image of God.[4] One of the wisest things I have ever read about the conflict is that there are not two sides, but four sides. There are Palestinians who want Israel destroyed, Palestinians who want to live in peace with Israel, Israelis who want Palestine destroyed, and Israelis who want to live in peace with Palestine.

N.T. Wright writes in his latest book Surprised by Scripture: “How do we shape a generation through which the Spirit will convict the world of sin (in the face of Western arrogance and assumed moral superiority), of justice (in a world where biblical meaning, justice for the poor, has been obliterated in the shape of state-sanctioned violence), and of judgement (in a culture that acts as if it were the arbiter of truth)? That is the challenge”[5] [emphasis added]

To say that “peace is not the absence of war” has almost become something of an unexciting and banal platitude these days, but it carries a lesson that we do not learn if we are simply content to view the “highlights reel” of the conflict. We assume that just because one side is not launching ordnance at another there is “peace”. But while one lives in fear of the other there is no peace. While one controls the other there is no peace. Huge amounts of injustice and pain has been enacted on both sides of the conflict. Enacting Biblical justice means realising that neither side is blameless and both sides have legitimate grievances that must be addressed before peace can be established. Giving Israel carte blanche in how it deals with Palestinians is not the Biblical mandate of Christians as many have tried to argue (one only need to read the Old Testament prophets to realise this!). Neither is it to justify the actions of Palestinian militants when they target civilians. I think Brandon Robertson of Revangelical said it best: “The Church of Jesus Christ has no allegiance to any nation. Not America, Not England, Not Rome, Not Israel. No one. We are a body of people united in common faith to see the world transformed by the Gospel.

Until Christ returns we live in expectation of the Kingdom of God and are servants of the Prince of Peace called to shine the light of the Gospel to all people.


[1] Many Christian theologians identify the mysterious man as Jesus Christ.
[2] This characterisation is often referred to as the “Draper-White conflict thesis” and has largely been discredited by historians.
[3] Conversely, I was watching the evening news the other night which had an interview with a Gazan community leader who said that he believed that the conflict was because “the Israelis hate us and want to see all the Palestinians dead.” I found this quite thought provoking that both sides attributed the same (and opposite) motives to each other’s actions. 
[5] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (HarperOne, 2014), loc 2885.


  1. Thanks Micah, good read. I purposely haven't engaged with this issue, it seems too media orientated and would involve too much digging for the truth. (And I'm lazy!) It is important to have a Christian approach to conflict, especially in our society which loves to polarise and dehumanise. As an aside the light blue links in your post are really hard to read, worth changing them to a darker colour in the CSS. Thanks again for the read!