No, most people in Gaza are not ‘just like us’

According to the mantras of peace activists, the way to end wars—and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular—is by recognizing that the people on the other side are “just like us.” Students in university peace studies programs are taught that conflicts end by bringing individuals from opposing sides together, to discover shared values and overcome stereotypes about “the other.” Based on this seemingly indisputable truth, millions of dollars are provided every year for women’s reconciliation dialogues, summer peace camps and similar frameworks. 

The articles of faith are also passionately repeated by Western diplomats. Speaking to the Israeli public on Feb. 7, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that most people in Gaza “are just like our families…The overwhelming majority of the people in Gaza had nothing to do with Oct. 7. Their mothers and fathers want to earn a decent living, send their kids to school and have a normal life…We cannot, we must not lose sight of our common humanity.”

But is this belief reflected in reality? Is Palestinian society “just like” Israeli society, or is this a comforting but very dangerous illusion?

When Israelis look at the evidence from Gaza, we see that many supported the horrendous brutality in the Hamas atrocities of Oct. 7. Large crowds in Gaza turned out to cheer the terrorists returning from their heinous spree of torture, murder, rape and kidnapping. When some Israeli hostages in Gaza were transferred to the International Red Cross after weeks of torture, mobs harassed and intimidated them. 

Long before Oct. 7, everyone living in Gaza (including United Nations Relief And Works Agency employees) knew that Hamas was stealing international aid to build a massive underground terror infrastructure that could be used to attack Israelis. Some of these “ordinary civilians” who saw the horrendous pogrom ran immediately to join in the looting. No Palestinian has expressed human empathy for the Israeli victims. But Secretary Blinken did not lecture Palestinians on the theme that Israelis are “just like” them. 

In the face of this overwhelming evidence, what leads Western liberals to cling to the myths of “common humanity” and a universal society?  One explanation is “mirror imaging,” which is a mindset that erases obvious and fundamental societal differences. This filter removes the disturbing fact that, in contrast to the majority of Israelis, many Palestinian mothers repeatedly encourage their children to become “martyrs” and express pride when they are killed while murdering and brutalizing Jews. No, they are not “just like us.”

Another major difference is cultural—particularly what professor Richard Landes calls “honor-shame cultures,” in which humiliation (such as defeat in an aggressive war) leads to unbounded determination to exact revenge. This is the essence of the Palestinian nakba—the ongoing humiliation of the Arab armies’ loss of the 1948 war. If Palestinians were “just like us,” they would instead examine their own shortcomings. In contrast to the Palestinian textbooks and those in many Arab countries, in which Jews and Israelis are depicted as monsters, Israeli children are not systematically raised on hate and incitement. The fundamental differences in our identities are deeply embedded in cultural values, taught to children from generation to generation. 

Another key difference is that for some groups (Christians and Muslims, in particular), affirmation of their identity and beliefs requires the conversion of others, often through coercion and humiliation. The Islamic world relegates Christians and Jews to second-class status (dhimmis). In contrast, Jews have nothing comparable—we are content to be “a nation that dwells alone” and a “light unto the nations,” neither of which leads to mass murder. 

At the same time, those who believe that people on the other side are “just like us” need different explanations for wars and terror. These include conspiracy theories that blame a small group of evil manipulators, often painted with classical antisemitic symbols, who gain power illicitly and create conflict. For example, instead of blaming Hamas and its allies for the Oct. 7 slaughter and the war that followed, the myth spinners refer to “Netanyahu’s war” against the presumably innocent civilians in Gaza. 

These illusions carry a very high cost. The “Oslo disaster” was the product of good intentions and myths, but instead of expected cooperation toward shared goals, Arafat and the Palestinians interpreted Israel’s decision to give up territory as weakness. Similarly, the hopes and illusions accompanying Israeli withdrawals from southern Lebanon in 2000—and from Gaza in 2005—quickly turned to dust. Even after the Hamas takeover and escalating attacks that followed, Israel’s leaders continued to avoid a full-force response, and this mistake culminated in the Oct. 7 slaughter. 

To avoid more disasters, Israelis must firmly reject the temptations of mirror imaging, “common humanity” and other messianic illusions. Instead, we need to return to the unfiltered political realism of Ben-Gurion, Begin, Meir and others. As long as the goal of the Palestinians, Iran and their allies is the elimination of Israel, sufficient military power must be available and displayed so that they understand that attacks on Israel will result in their own destruction. A strong and what might be falsely denounced as “disproportionate” deterrent force is the best option for survival.

Hopefully in the future, Palestinians and their allies will begin to view Israelis as “like us” enough to end generations of hate and terror. But until that happens, we cannot afford to entrust our survival to illusions and myths.

Originally published by The Jewish Journal.

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