Hazem Saghieh

Fear: A Shared and Taboo Sentiment in Our Region

Decades of occupation, oppression, and conflict over land and victimhood are the background to the heart-wrenching scenes in Gaza. However, so are other elements that have resulted from occupation, and resistance to it, to the same extent that they have shaped them.

Fear, one of those elements, has played a key role in leading us to this miserable state of affairs and aggravating it, not only in the main stage in Gaza, but also in several other countries and regions of the Middle East. Having said that, the concept of fear has only rarely been integrated into our understanding of what is happening and has thus not been given the same analytical significance that other conflict terms have.

Indeed, this neglect of fear, which is shared by the warring parties, is reinforced by the patriarchal, nationalist, and religious cultures of all parties. The fearful do not show their fear; even when presenting themselves as the sole victims, they must blend that image with one of strength. For instance, while Palestinians fear the Israeli war machine that has killed and continues to kill them, they affirm their strength by underlining their insistence on remaining steadfast and stressing the support of Arabs, Muslims, and allies. As for the righteousness of their cause and struggle, it is sufficient for ensuring victory.

Similarly, while the Israelis - on whom the memory of the Holocaust and pogroms weigh heavily - fear neighbors they consider hostile, they are confident of victory due to their strong army, international alliances, and their claims to righteousness.

Everyone who lives in the Middle East understands the fear common to its communities, and that each of these communities has an almost epic history replete with battles, expulsion, and displacement. Political thought, on the other hand, exposes the lengths that are taken to circumvent fear and replace it with claims to strength.

Both Palestinians and Israelis have a right to be afraid. Palestinians, who have lost the prospect of a state since 1948 - as every country in the area was emerging or gaining independence - are indeed afraid of a vicious and technologically advanced army that has previously defeated several Arab armies that had been thought to be strong; and that was before settlers became an additional armed force instilling fear and encroaching on their territory.

Recalling how readily the security-obsessed Israelis resort to violence in response to the slightest challenge by Palestinians, and how easily their response turns into collective punishment, helps us grasp aspects of this fear. Recent Palestinian history is brimming with reasons to be fearful, including forced expulsion, statelessness, and difficult living and working conditions, especially for those who have ended up in refugee camps and were subsequently left with no choice but to reside in neighboring countries among communities that are plagued, for their part, by demographic fears.

Haunted by their painful history in Europe and apprehensions of its recurrence, the Israelis find themselves in a region in which they are a different and unliked minority. Openly or implicitly, most of them operate under the assumption that peace and normalization are not sufficient guarantees against hatred and rejection. Their peace with Egypt, which dates back to 1978, only established a "cold peace," and the same is true for their peace deal with Jordan, which is now three decades old.

Nothing amplifies this fear like the increasing attachment to identities and the compulsion to dig up historical grievances that come with it. We know that recent decades have turned Muslims more Islamic and Jews more Jewish, making it more difficult to build bridges than ever. Diplomatic reconciliations from above between governments do little to change that.

There is no single template for alleviating the fears of the fearful in the Levant, especially after the collapse of the Lebanese model, which had often been described as an incubator of Muslim-Christian coexistence. Recently, we saw mass revolutions degenerate into sectarian and ethnic conflicts, giving rise to massive waves of refugees, as well as ISIS and the plight of the Yazidis and others who were subjected to its rule. As the long-standing and transnational question of injustice against the Kurds remains unresolved, and Türkiye continues to refuse to apologize to the Armenians, calls for federalism or secession are growing among the Christians of Lebanon.

It is difficult to leap over the major role that the Iranian revolution has played in this regard, laying the most robust groundwork for the transition toward the era of closed identities. Meanwhile, the figures most associated with peace, Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, met their ends at the hands of extremists from their own peoples. As for Yasser Arafat, whom the Israelis directly humiliated at several junctures, Hamas took control of Gaza after his death, expelling the Palestinian Authority he had established.

Fear explains the Israeli obsession with security, as well as Israel’s outright rejection of a return of the Palestinians and the establishment of a single state, especially since there is no geographic buffer separating them from the Palestinians like that separating the French and the Algerians or the Portuguese and the Angolans. The Israelis have ultimately shown no appetite for embarking on the adventure of peace, and peace does remain an adventure in some sense.

Similarly, it is not reassuring to Palestinians that the Israelis who sympathize with their rights are too weak to influence the zeitgeist in their country or the policies of their state. After the "peace camp" had once been vigorous and robust, and the principle of withdrawing from occupied territories had held sway, this camp has disintegrated and eroded. The withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza in 2000 and 2005 afforded those who had been saying that withdrawal would not bring peace with arguments to reinforce their claim, and that was before Hamas, which does not recognize Israel and the Oslo Accords in the first place, took over Gaza.

The frightened tend to instill fear in the other that lives in fear, driven by the illusion that by doing so, he dispels his own fear. This was multiplied a hundred times over by the Al-Aqsa Flood and Israel’s collective punishment.

There seems to be little reason to doubt that fear and the attempt to dispel it by scaring the other will become the norm in our region unless a third party, one that has the strength and capacity to impose a feasible settlement, intervenes to reassure both fearful sides.