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Breaking the cycle of humiliation and retribution in the Middle East

Although 20 years have passed, I still hold a grudge against the United States for spoiling my 57th birthday

By: EBR - Posted: Monday, January 29, 2024

Indeed, humiliation — or its mirror image, honor — plays a big role in the Middle East in general and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular
Indeed, humiliation — or its mirror image, honor — plays a big role in the Middle East in general and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular

by Uri Dromi*

Although 20 years have passed, I still hold a grudge against the United States for spoiling my 57th birthday. It was December 13, 2003, when I saw on the TV screen the sight of Saddam Hussein being caught by the Americans after a long manhunt. Watching a military doctor checking his mouth and then his hair (probably for lice), I said to myself: This is wrong. You don’t do such things in public in the Middle East, even if you hate the dictators. This is humiliating.

Indeed, humiliation — or its mirror image, honor — plays a big role in the Middle East in general and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. In the aftermath of the murderous Hamas attack last October, many in Israel could have easily identify with this assessmentby Frank Summers, a psychiatry professor at Northwestern University, of America after 9/11: “the country experienced a sense of vulnerability that was perhaps unprecedented. The ability of an adversary with primitive resources to penetrate the boundaries of a nation that long regarded itself as impenetrable was a humiliating injury as well as a devastating loss of life and national resources.”

The knee-jerk reaction of President George W. Bush to the humiliation inflicted on America by al-Qaida was to take revenge. As he told Bob Woodward, the attack had made his blood boil — so much so, that he set out to conquer Iraq, hardly the cure for the problem of jihadist terrorism.

Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli leadership, supported by most Israelis, reacted to the Hamas attack with the same sort of anger. Looking back, we should have perhaps swallowed our pride and first brought our abductees home via a painful prisoner exchange deal, and in the meantime developed, with the backing of the U.S. and others, a well-considered strategic plan to critically weaken and marginalize Hamas.

That, however, was easier said than done, when the humiliating attack, much like in the case of President Bush and Americans after 9/11, made our blood boil. Therefore, our leaders unleashed the mighty IDF at Gaza, vowing not to stop until reaching “total victory,” without specifying what exactly that meant and what happens the day after. The result is that Israel is now entangled in a bloody, protracted battle with Hamas, which is exacerbated by the fact that Hamas holds 136 Israelis as hostages, whose families are now pressing the government to forget about the initial war aims, stop the fighting and bring their loved ones home.

Where, in the history of the Middle East, does humiliation start? Arabs, who tend more often than Israelis to feel humiliated, would go as far back as the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which recognized the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland in what was called then Palestine. Trying to throw the Jews into the sea in 1948, the Arabs were humiliated again when their defeat — the Nakba (catastrophe) — resulted in 650,000 Palestinians becoming refugees and in the establishment of the State of Israel. The next humiliation — this time called the Naksa (setback) — occurred in 1967, with Israel’s smashing victory in the Six Day War over the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and the conquest of Sinai, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

It was Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, who managed to break the cycle of humiliation. He ingeniously devised a surprise attack on Israel, on Yom Kippur in 1973, and his reasoning for that was telling: “First to go would be the humiliation we had endured since the 1967 defeat,” he wrote later, “for, to cross into Sinai and hold on to any territory recaptured would restore our self-confidence.”

Both Israelis and Americans failed to understand this. As Henry Kissinger admitted in his memoirs, “our definition of rationality did not take seriously the notion of starting an unwinnable war to restore self-respect.”

Did Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, following Sadat’s example, also start an unwinnable war against Israel to restore self-respect to the Palestinians? Maybe just taking Israel by surprise and inflicting pain on Israelis was more important for him than the dire consequences his actions unleashed on the poor people of Gaza.

There is, however, a huge difference between Sadat and Sinwar. After regaining Egyptian honor, Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1977 and made peace with Israel. Sinwar, on the other hand, sticks to the Hamas Charter, which advocates a jihad aimed at destroying Israel. Therefore he will not accept the proposal floated recently, to leave Gaza and go to exile. He is not like the double-talker Yasser Arafat, who, when kicked out by the Israelis from Lebanon in August 1982, boldly declared that this was “a symbol of heroic victories” that heralded “a new dawn” in the Arab world. My guess, then, is that Sinwar would rather die as a martyr than suffer the humiliation of being seen exiled from Gaza.

I wish that we Israelis might perhaps give more thought about this issue of humiliation, and ask ourselves whether there is something we could do to harness honor to our political goals. In the meantime, I hope that if and when Sinwar is finally caught, he will not get the Saddam Hussein treatment. While many in the Middle East are secretly praying for his downfall, they would not appreciate him being humiliated.

*spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments (1992-1996)
**first published in: The Hill 

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