On ritualized conflict: Why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a poor guide for understanding other conflicts

EPA/ABED AL HASHLAMOUN

Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron protest by throwing stones against Israeli soldiers and security forces, 18 November 2012. 

On ritualized conflict: Why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a poor guide for understanding other conflicts


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This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

Israel-Jerusalem – The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in many ways regarded as the mother of all contemporary conflicts. Virtually everybody has an opinion about it, it focuses global media attention and mobilizes public opinion like no other conflict – and even in politics, proposing another plan to resolve the intractable conflict is considered the coronation of diplomatic efforts.

Also in research, the ongoing confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians has received a disproportionate amount of attention: Reliably providing readily accessible ground for studying conflict to generations of academics, no little amount of what we know about conflict derives from this unusually rich and well-documented case study.

Also within the research of the INFOCORE project, which set out to put conflict research on a more solid, comparative footing, the Israeli-Palestinian case plays a prominent role. Alas, comparing data from this conflict to five other ongoing confrontations (in Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Macedonia and Kosovo), we found several consequential differences in the underlying dynamics. How instructive, then, can the insights gained from the Middle East conflict be for our understanding and policy regarding other conflicts?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, unlike most other contemporary confrontations, a ritualized conflict. Having long accepted that either victory or a mutually satisfactory solution appears unlikely, both sides maintain the confrontation through a targeted use of violence that serves symbolic purposes as much as it pursues actual conflict objectives. In cyclically recurring episodes of escalation, they reaffirm their claims to victory and legitimacy, but stop short of unleashing the disproportionate effort that might more than superficially alter the conflict situation.

However, most other conflicts are not like this. Even those confrontations looking back on long historical legacies rarely follow predefined scripts and roles, and generate new conflict narratives with each escalation. Where the Israeli-Palestinian experience leads us to expect reasonably clearly defined, separate collectives with strong shared identities and purpose, most other conflicts are characterized by a messy mesh of overlapping and cross-cutting conflict lines. Struggling to redefine current conflict issues, conflict actors foreground different combinations of ethnic, religious, political, and other divisions. Are Albanians and Macedonians on one side in Macedonia’s protests against the authoritarian government, and what role do ethnic ties play in the Burundian coup d’etat? In the confusion of fast-moving conflict, numerous actors reshape the outlines of opposing groups and form variable alliances – often leaving fuzzy edges and sizeable groups without unique affiliation. Also widely recognized conflict elites ready to provide definite mission statements or commit their respective constituencies in diplomatic negotiations are the exception much more than the rule.

Outside the Israeli-Palestinian case, conflicts thus rarely lend themselves to being described as a collision of two, well-structured and antagonistic perspectives. On the one hand, stable, ongoing conflict narratives pre-organize journalists’ and others’ interpretations and enable them to rapidly comprehend and even anticipate new events in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. A host of permanent Tel Aviv correspondents and diplomats stand ready to provide informed coverage and analysis of every new development, enabling confident, simple and often polarized evaluations. On the other hand, this is not true for any other conflict. As journalists laboriously collect unreliable information from often remote locations and disorganized sources, the multiplicity and fluidity of perspectives characterizing other conflicts leads their attempts at balancing “both” sides ad absurdum. Defining the position of “the” Syrian secular rebels, or identifying the key issues in “the” conflict in the DR Congo fails simply because both conflicts are deeply fragmented, and each possible source has a somewhat different view on these matters. Lacking a clear framework for evaluating and making sense of recent events, reports often struggle to make sense of ongoing developments, and provide little guidance for policy or public concern: Supporting or criticizing Israel is considerably easier than condemning or endorsing any specific party in the DR Congo, despite the often gruesome violence. In place of another episode in a well-formed conflict narrative, whose continuation we can easily extrapolate, we obtain a delayed patchwork of interpretations that may or may not reflect conflict actors’ actual understandings of the current confrontation. Viewing other conflicts through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian template tends to impose an amount of structure that is not redeemed by the actual, messy and in large parts unclear situation.

Inversely, also insights from other conflicts bear the potential to raise important misperceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Recurring fears of unchecked escalation – such as a third Intifada or reoccupation of Gaza – overlook that actors are generally unwilling to incur major risks as long as the intractable conflict removes the prospect of decisive victory. Focusing violence on limited objectives with symbolic value, the understanding that actual victory is unattainable effectively contains escalation. Also efforts at halting ongoing escalation – through appeals, international pressure or attempts at mediation, which may successfully alter the fluid dynamics of other conflicts – underestimate the momentum exerted by the familiar scripts of mutual overreactions designed to assert either side’s determination to uphold its cause.

As long as both sides act out their scripted parts, attempts at affecting the course of events may prove difficult if not futile. At the same time, breaking out of the ritual risks also removing the safety catches of the bounded escalation, inviting either side to try and violently redefine the situation. The challenge consists in finding ways to shift the narrative underlying the ritualized confrontation without reintroducing the unpredictable dynamics of other conflicts to the powder keg of the Israeli-Palestinian case. Especially as other conflicts in the region – from the ongoing Kurdish struggle to the retreating but hardly disheartened democratic and Islamist rebels in Syria – increasingly sprout elements of ritualized, intractable violence, distinguishing the very different dynamics of conflicts should be a priority for both research and politics.

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