I came across some photographs in one of the archive boxes I was working in the other day. Normally, anything that isn’t a telegram, airgram, memorandum of conversation or – always a favourite – a letter to the president from a desperate housewife, is welcome. However, these weren’t photographs you were supposed to enjoy.
They showed the remains of some villages at the West Bank in (at the time) Jordan, destroyed in one of the many “border incidents” between Jordan and Israel. What mostly got to me when watching these pictures, however, was not the horridness of the photographs themselves – demolished houses; the remains of a child’s bed (I don’t want to know what happened to the child); sad-looking people outside what used to be their homes. No, what really struck me was the realization that nothing has changed. These pictures were taken in 1966, but aside from the fact that they were black-and-white, they might as well have been taken yesterday. It illustrates a tragic side effect to living in constant conflict for more than 60 years: these areas have next to no chance of any development – politically, financially or otherwise. It makes me terribly angry and equally sad that the conflict that back then already had been going on for almost a generation is still hindering the development today.
As a historian it is important to try to keep one’s distance to the material one studies; and above all, to try to not be prejudiced in ones findings (the historian’s task is more complex than what I depict here, but I’m conveniently skipping any methodological or theoretical debate since a) I don’t think it belongs here; b) I know for a fact it would bore you all; and c) it would also bore me). However, seeing pictures like these; reading hundreds upon hundreds of documents about the “border incidents” of various gravity; and knowing that after the events of which I am currently reading followed more than 40 years of equal or worse – with no imminent prospects of improvement even today – it is hard not to draw at least one conclusion: there must be a lot of people whose intentions are to avoid peace in the Middle East. Otherwise, why would the parties in the conflict continue, doing the same things they have been doing for decades? Continuous attacks – from either side – with the inevitable retaliations, will not lead to peace. Falsely claiming to want negotiations to win political victories, internally or externally, will not lead to peace. The conflict in the Middle East will not go away if we stop paying attention to it, just as it will not go away if we pay attention merely by distributing blame.
It can be depressing, to say the least, to study the quagmire that is the Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition, my time-frame spans a eleven years when the patterns that were to dominate the conflict the following decades were forming. I can see – quite clearly – that it goes wrong, but I cannot do anything about it. Unfortunately, it seems that taking a step back in order to reset those patterns does not appear to be an option for the parties involved – today, as it wasn’t forty or fifty or sixty years ago. It’s out of fashion for historians to believe we can “learn from history”, but nevertheless – wouldn’t it be worth trying?