Arab-Israel Conflict: Symmetries and Asymmetries

This was my final paper for the Brown University course “JUDS 0980 P: The Arab-Israel Conflict”

The Arab-Israel-Palestine conflict can be characterized by both symmetries and asymmetries, and I think it would be an oversimplification to classify the entire conflict as being “symmetrical” or “asymmetrical.”  It is important to look at each aspect or accusation, whether it be historical, ideological, or related to the current situation, and analyze it to see what the equivalent on the other side is.  Some aspects, such as the two nationalisms and competing claims to the land, are clearly symmetrical, whereas others, such as the power imbalance, are clearly asymmetrical.  Using this lens as an analytical tool can help clarify the nature of the conflict, and reveal its moral ambiguities.

First, I will discuss the symmetries.  Both Zionism and Arab local nationalism (al-wataniyya) began in the late 1800s, ideologically inheriting 19th century European romantic nationalism (class notes).  Muhammad Muslih writes that local Arab nationalism “was the product of the impact of Western civilization upon the Arabs of Asia… the more powerful force that shaped the course of Arab politics after the war” (Muslih, 192).  Both were “movements in a hurry,” desperate to reclaim the land that had been controlled by others so long.  The Peel Commission Report of 1937 recognized the legitimacy of the competing claims for the territory, establishing the conflict as one of “right against right”: “Partition offers a possibility of finding a way through [the difficulties], a possibility of obtaining a final solution of the problem which does justice to the rights and aspirations of both the Arabs and the Jews” (Palestine Royal Commission Report, 26).

Unfortunately, there has also been a long symmetric history of delegitimizing each other’s national aspirations.  Even today many Jews and many people in the West think that the concept of “Palestinians” was created as a political ploy to attack Israel, and many Palestinians believe that since Judaism is a religion, it should not have its own nationalism.  Larry Miller, a Jewish political comedian, wrote in the Weekly Standard, “The Palestinians want their own country. There’s just one thing about that: There are no Palestinians. It’s a made up word… As soon as the Jews took over and started growing oranges as big as basketballs, what do you know, say hello to the ‘Palestinians,’ weeping for their deep bond with their lost ‘land’ and ‘nation’” (Miller, The Weekly Standard).  Similarly deplorable is the Palestinian National Covenant, which states, “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong” (Palestinian National Covenant, article 20).  The covenant is supposedly in the process of being redrafted to remove the denials of Israel’s legitimacy. [Edit 10/10/2015: It still hasn’t been changed.]

Another parallel between the Israeli and Palestinian narratives is what I call the “Victimization Olympics.”  By focusing on the wrongs done to them in the past, they try to “out-pity” each other in the fight for international sympathy.  The Jewish narrative tells a story of constant oppression, culminating in the Holocaust.  Dennis Ross writes, “Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jews had been dispersed and without a homeland… Weakness had become a way of life” (Ross, 15).  Even after Israel was created, it was constantly under attack from its Arab neighbors.  Similarly, the Palestinian narrative is one of constant subjugation, from the Ottoman Empire to Israel, Palestinians have never been allowed self-rule, and their Arab brethren have done more to worsen the situation than to help.  Ross writes, “Dispossession became a national symbol and driving force of the Arabs of Palestine” (Ross, 33).  Interestingly, both Jews and Palestinians see their rivals as the stronger party.  I know from the experience of receiving a Jewish education that Jews tend to see Palestinians as part of the greater Arab world, which is numerically and economically superior.  Palestinians, on the other hand, often see the Arab world as working against their interests, as Musa Alami, the fierce Palestinian nationalist, wrote in 1949: “What concerned [the Arab states] most and guided their policy was not to win the war and save Palestine from the enemy, but what would happen after the struggle, who would be predominant in Palestine, or annex it to themselves, and how they could achieve their own ambitions” (Alami, 385).  The Palestinians have their own bad habit of lumping Israel together with America and the West.  In this way, both sides see themselves as David and their rival as Goliath.  They use their history of oppression to justify the wrongs they commit in the present, steeping themselves in conflict over the land of Israel/Palestine.  So, in the Victimization Olympics, everybody gets a gold medal, but nobody truly wins.

Additionally, mutual hatred is strong on both sides, especially among the more radical elements.  I once met a young Israeli man named Eli, who had fought in the recent war with Lebanon.  Although I barely knew this man, having met him at the mall, when the conversation turned to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he told me and my 14-year-old sister, in all seriousness, “the only good Arab is a dead Arab.”  It is scary for me to think that this is the kind of man the IDF would give a gun to and send into the heart of an Arab country.  Unfortunately, it is not very hard to find Palestinian or Arab anti-Semitism, either.  Dr. Ahmad Abu Halabiya, a Hamas MP, in a mosque in Gaza, said in a statement broadcast on PA television: “O brother believers, the criminals, the terrorists – are the Jews… They are the ones who must be butchered and killed” (Jewish Virtual Library, PA Sermons).  This hatred is as much of a cause of the conflict as it is a result of it.

The asymmetries are also numerous, and they begin with the most obvious one: power.  In the Arab-Israel conflict, Israeli military power rivals that of the Arab world, but in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Israel is clearly the more powerful actor.  I suspect that the reason the Jews were able to become the more powerful party and with the 1948 war is that Jews were more unified than Arabs, and had lived in the more developed Western countries, bringing education and technology with them to the land of Palestine.  One of the consequences of this power imbalance is that Israel commits more injustices against the Palestinians than vice versa.  In the Second Intifada, Israel has killed over 4,500 Palestinians, whereas Palestinians have killed slightly more than 1,000 Israelis (B’Tselem, “Casualties”).  However, one cannot interpret this fact to mean that Israelis are more “evil” than Palestinians; it only shows that Israel is more capable of defending itself from attacks and more capable of carrying them out.  However, with power comes the abuse of power, and there are many instances of this: detentions of Palestinians without evidence or for minor crimes, house demolitions, restriction of movement, and of course, impunity.

There is also a huge socioeconomic gap between Israelis and Palestinians.  Many Palestinians still live in refugee camps, with limited access to basic necessities, whereas Israel has seen economic prosperity and has adopted a middle-class lifestyle.  For example, Israelis use on average 250 liters of water per day, whereas Palestinians use only 60 (class notes).  This gap helps explain the desperation of the Palestinians and their feelings of helplessness, which lead to the use of terrorism as a political tactic.  During the mandate period, when Jews were weak and poor, they also resorted to terrorism, such as retaliatory attacks on Palestinian villages, and political attacks against the British, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel.  I strongly condemn all terrorism, but there is an element of symmetry in this, too.

In addition to these asymmetries that have to do with the current situation, there are ideological asymmetries between the Israelis, and the Palestinians and Arabs.  Perhaps the first of these historically was cultural.  Jews came to Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as idealistic Chalutzim (pioneers), believing in efficiency, change, and Communism/socialism.  The Arabs, however, valued tradition, social order, and lived in a stratified society led by aristocracy (class notes).  This cultural dissonance sowed the seeds of distrust that grew into the conflict as we know it today.

There is currently an asymmetry, I believe, in the way Arabs and Jews educate their children about the conflict.  Speaking from experience, I cannot say that I was ever taught to sympathize with Arabs, to understand their point of view, or to even care about their deaths and injustices they have suffered, but what I can say is that I was always taught that peace was the goal, and that my teachers never demonized Arabs.  I was taught songs of peace, such as “עוֹד יַבוֹא שָׁלוֹם עַלֵינוּ” (“peace will come”) and “שיר לשלום” (“song for peace”).  The earliest memories I have of learning about the conflict are from second grade when my Hebrew teacher criticized Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli far right for being unwilling to exchange land for peace.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Arab or Palestinian schools.  There have been many reports of teaching hatred, from the infamous Hamas “Mickey Mouse,” to songs about the glory of shuhada, to a 9th grade textbook published by the PA which states,  “One must beware of the Jews, for they are treacherous and disloyal” (Marcus and Cook, Palestinian Media Watch).  Although my experience is typical of Jewish education, I must qualify my statement because I am aware that there are less tolerant Jewish schools.  A friend of mine, who went to elementary and middle school at a yeshiva in New York, reports being taught that Palestinians only want to take Israel away from the Jews, and that they do not seriously care about having their own state.  However, even in this extreme case, violence was not glorified, and as I have stated previously, mutual delegitimization is a symmetry.  There is still major asymmetry in how children are educated about the conflict.

Another asymmetry exists in the movement for peace.  Israel has Peace Now and Gush Shalom, but there is no Palestinian equivalent (class notes), although there are some joint initiatives.  Although Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel, their publics are largely opposed to closer ties with Israel.  Shlomo Avineri writes, “Egyptian professional organizations — of lawyers, doctors, journalists, artists — continue to boycott Israel. Any member of any of these organizations visiting Israel is immediately expelled” (Avineri, International Herald Tribune).  On the other hand, a poll from Israel in 2001 showed that 85% of Israelis supported the peace treaty with Egypt (Ronen, Jerusalem Post).  It is unfortunate that Arabs have not shown the same enthusiasm for peace as members of the Israeli peace camp have, but it is also important to note that part of the reason for this is that their societies and governments are not as tolerant of dissent, and advocating closer ties with Israel often means risking physical safety and societal acceptance.

There is also an asymmetry in how people are targeted in the conflict.  By and large, the IDF targets militants, and Palestinian terrorists target civilians, but this statement will require many qualifications.  Although Israel kills more civilians than the Palestinians do, there is a difference in the ratios: almost half of Palestinians killed by the IDF (for whom it is known whether they were combatants or civilians) were combatants, whereas less than a third of Israelis killed by Palestinians were soldiers (B’Tselem, “Statistics”).*  Additionally, Israel publicly claims to target combatants, whereas Palestinian terror groups openly admit to targeting all Israelis.  Just last week, Ehud Olmert publicly apologized for the death of five innocent Palestinians: “The state of Israel and the government deeply regret that civilians not involved [in the violence] are affected and even more so when it concerns a mother and her four children” (Middle East Times).  However, I do not wish to claim that Israel takes due diligence in preventing Palestinian casualties, and there have been numerous incidents of Israelis intentionally attacking Palestinian civilians.  Still, it is not the policy of the IDF to target civilians, whereas it is the explicit policy of Hamas.

In conclusion, the Arab-Israel-Palestinian conflict is so complex and multifaceted that it would be reductionist to label it as “symmetric” or “asymmetric.”  What I have intended to show is that there are a large number of striking similarities between the parties, and also significant differences between them.  There are many moral ambiguities in this conflict, and although it is not my goal to resolve them here, I believe that analyzing the various symmetries and asymmetries can be a helpful strategy to accomplish that goal.  More important, though, than making judgments, is coming up with solutions to achieve peace, and that will entail dealing with the symmetries of mutual delegitimization and the asymmetries of power and tactics.



Alami, Musa. “The Lesson of Palestine.” Middle East Journal, 3(4), Oct. 1949.

Avineri, Shlomo. “The Arab summit II: Normalization? Israel has seen it, and it doesn’t work.”
International Herald Tribune 27 Mar 2002. Accessed: 5 May 2008

B’Tselem, “Casualties.”  Accessed: 2 May 2008.

Marcus, Itamar, and Cook, Barbara. “PA Schoolbooks.” Palestinian Media Watch. 17 Oct 2004.
Accessed: 5 May 2008 <>.

Middle East Times. “Olmert says Israel ‘deeply’ regrets Palestinian civilian deaths.” 29 Apr 2008.
Accessed: 5 May 2008 < _says_israel_             deeply_regrets_palestinian_civilian_deaths/afp/>.

Miller, Larry. “Whosoever Blesses Them.” The Weekly Standard 22 Apr 2002.  Accessed: 05 May 2008 <>.

Muslih, Muhammad Y. The Origins Of Palestinian Nationalism, 1988.

Palestine National Covenant (1964).

Peel, Earl, et al. Palestine Royal Commission Report (1937).

Ronen, Joshua. “Poll: 58% of Israelis back Oslo process.” The Jerusalem Post 07 Jun 2001.
Accessed: 5 May 2008 <>.

Ross, Dennis. The Missing Peace, 2004.

Stalinsky, Steven. “Palestinian Authority Sermons 2000-2003.” Jewish Virtual Library 26 Dec 2003.
Accessed: 5 May 2008 <>.


*     I use B’Tselem’s statistics intentionally, knowing that they are biased.  Other sources, such as the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, would show a wider gap, but I feel that if the argument can be made with sources that are biased against it, it strengthens the argument.

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