How to Talk About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Tania F. Cohen

The discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and 2014 war in Gaza was one of the most analyzed parts of the New York Democratic debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Although the subject's importance in American foreign policy and the uniqueness of Sanders' statements among American politicians make it newsworthy, it is more important because it highlights the oversimplification of the subject in media coverage and political rhetoric.

Too often, the conflict is reduced to a "war of perception" in which politicians, journalists, and activists present compelling evidence supporting their beliefs while omitting equally compelling evidence to the contrary. Simply put, reports and analyses of the conflict tend to be either staunchly pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. These dichotomized opinions are also reflected in the responses to Sanders' remarks, when the reality is probably closer to Harriet Sherwood's statement in The Guardian: "The truth is lost amid the propaganda battle being waged alongside the shells, bombs, guns and rockets. What is certain is that the picture is more complicated than either side claims."

Discussions regarding Israel's right to exist and defend itself, or Palestinians' human rights, should not be constrained by political polarization. Instead, politicians and the media should accurately portray the policies, intentions, and obligations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

As Sanders said during the debate, "Israel has a right to defend itself, but long term there will never be peace ... unless the United States plays ... an even-handed role ... to bring people together and [recognize] the serious problems that exist among the Palestinian people." Indeed, Israel must be held accountable to its values as a democracy and refuge for Jews, and respect the dignity and rights of Palestinians. Likewise, it is vital to recognize the Palestinian government's faults, including corruption and failure to build the infrastructure necessary to function like a country worthy of recognition. Both groups must prioritize cross-cultural understanding.

Sanders' remarks also call attention to a reexamination of the 2014 war in Gaza. Tensions had been high earlier in 2014, and abductions and murders by Hamas fighters and Israeli extremists brought them to a boil that summer. Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8, which consisted of both airstrikes and a ground invasion of Gaza. By August 27, 4,591 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel, and Israel had retaliated with 5,226 air strikes on Gaza. A November 2014 United Nations (UN) report describing the human costs of the war cited 1,523 Palestinian civilian casualties, and an earlier BBC article reported 2,104 total Palestinian casualties. Other articles cite similar statistics, though the final numbers are unclear. Israel suffered far fewer casualties; the same BBC article reported 72 Israeli deaths.

Israel experienced international criticism as a result of the vast difference in casualties, specifically regarding the number of Palestinian civilians killed during attacks on UN-run schools where they had sought shelter. The UN determined that the statistics represented "an unacceptably high ration" of civilian fatalities. However, it also found that the Hamas government in Gaza - whose charter makes clear that it is anti-Semitic and committed to the destruction of Israel - hid weapons in and near UN facilities multiple times. This practice is condemnable, but that does not abdicate Israel's responsibility to minimize civilian casualties. Ultimately, an Amnesty International report concluded that "both Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, and likely war crimes, during the hostilities."

Israel argues that the hidden weapons were intended to provoke attacks on locations with large civilian populations - the so-called "civilian shield" strategy. This reasoning is highly touted in right-leaning media, while left-leaning media emphasizes the responsibility to keep civilian casualties proportionate to the threat presented. More than likely, there is truth on both sides. Whether you believe Israel violated international law by attacking those sites or that the hidden weapons and danger presented by nearby Hamas fighters provided legal justification for the civilian casualties depends on your interpretation of the relevant clauses of the Geneva Conventions.

Discursive balance is crucial to understanding conflicts. Although a presidential debate is the last place one would expect to find a 'no spin zone,' we should note Bernie Sanders' remarks for their substance and for their inherent recognition that there are multiple sides to every story. They are a shining example of how we can stop treating the rhetoric around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as antithetical, and instead acknowledge the humanity and flaws on both sides.

Tania F. Cohen is employed by the American Society of International Law and is a Campaigns Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Her interests include domestic civic engagement, refugee and migration policy, and the influence of history on contemporary policy development and foreign relations. Any views expressed are those of the author and not those of the American Society of International Law.