Seth Freedman
The Guardian (Opinion)
October 1, 2010 - 12:00am

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the outbreak of the second intifada, an event that continues to have profound repercussions for millions on both sides of the Israel-Palestine divide. According to statistics released by B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, 6,371 Palestinians and 1,083 Israelis were killed during hostilities in the last decade, but on top of the list of casualties is the unquantifiable toll taken on the psyches of ordinary citizens throughout the region.

Each generation has its own battle which shapes its political outlook: the second intifada joins a 60-year-old list, spanning the Lebanon war of the 1980s, the six-day war of 1967, all the way to the war of independence in 1948. Young Israelis and Palestinians who grew up in the shadow of the second intifada will be the soldiers, politicians and voters of the coming decades, and their future decisions will owe much to the effect the violence had on their formative years.

Almost every Israeli knows someone killed during the conflict, whether in uniform during their compulsory service in the IDF or as a civilian during the wave of terror attacks by Palestinian militants. Dismissing their harrowing and horrific experiences, as many outsiders tend to do in their rush to lay all blame for the conflict at Israelis' feet, is both unfair and unwise, given that Israelis have as much right to live in peace and security as their neighbours.

Likewise, assuming that Palestinians' resistance to Israeli occupation is born out of an inherent hatred for Jews, rather than being a direct and understandable reaction to decades of oppression is a dishonest stance to take. Especially during periods of intense conflict – such as the years following the September 2000 uprising – life for ordinary Palestinians has been a cycle of trauma, violence and aggression, leading inevitably to another generation devoted to resisting their occupiers and fighting tooth and nail for freedom.

The tentacles of the intifada spread far further than Israeli and Palestinian soil, drawing in supporters and opponents from around the world, as was the case with me during my previous life in England. As I watched the second intifada unfold on the television news from the comfort of my London home, I felt the piercing stare of an Israeli Lord Kitchener penetrate the veneer of contentment behind which I dwelt. My country needed me, I knew, and with every bus that exploded in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the feeling grew stronger that I should be playing my part in defending my people from the murderous militants who strove to destroy them.

Watching impotently from the sidelines as the country went up in flames during 2002 was not an option I could bear much longer, and the belief grew that I too could "do something" for my people, linking me historically to the warriors of King David's army and all who came in between.

And so it was that, in November 2004, I found myself in a barracks on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, struggling to pull on eight-holed combat boots and staring wide-eyed at my olive-clad reflection in the mirror of an army changing room. Within a matter of months, I would be on my first tour of duty in the heart of the West Bank, just another foot-soldier in the regiments of Israeli infantry, doing my damnedest to convince myself that this was the only way to ensure the survival of the Jewish people in their minuscule Mediterranean refuge.

I was by no means alone in believing fighting fire with fire was the only way to defend Israel from its enemies: scores of foreign volunteers join the IDF each year with the same thoughts in mind, not to mention the thousands of native-born Israelis conscripted annually and taught to believe the only way to win peace is through power and conquest. Right or wrong (and it took me years to realise it was wrong), such irons are forged in the white heat of extreme hostilities such as the second intifada – and the price is still being paid by citizens on both sides.

Similarly, of the dozens of Palestinians my age who I've met and interviewed over the last four years, almost all speak of a mirror-image desire to fight for their country in the same way my peers and I took up arms for ours. Watching the continuing expropriation of their land, witnessing the daily humiliations suffered by their elders and betters at the hands of teenage soldiers, burying wave after wave of dead militants and civilians alike – regardless of the political decisions behind both sides' intransigence, it would take superhuman strength not to be devastatingly affected by such brutal experiences.

As part of the presentation of the 10-year anniversary statistics, B'Tselem's executive director commented:

"Palestinian and Israeli civilians have paid a terrible price due to the conflict. At the close of the decade, we hope to start a new chapter, in which both sides do all they can to adhere to their obligations and protect civilians from the impact of hostilities."

Her statement makes for an inoffensive and tamely upbeat soundbite, but there is little real likelihood of rapprochement any time soon.

Given that the prospects for peace today are as bleak as they were a decade ago, it is almost inevitable that the cycle will continue long into the future, affecting untold numbers of Israelis and Palestinians for generations to come. This latest milestone only serves to remind all connected parties – young and old, Jewish and Muslim, rightwing or leftwing – that the only variables now are time and place. The conflict is embedded far too deeply for cosmetic actions to have any real, lasting effect at ground level. The best that can be hoped for is a delay until the outbreak of the next intifada. That it will erupt at some point is all but set in stone.


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