Palestinian puzzle: Could low-stakes compassion be dangerous?

In 2014, when Israeli bombardment in Gaza killed several children, there was massive global anger against Israel.
In 2014, when Israeli bombardment in Gaza killed several children, there was massive global anger against Israel.


  • It’s a hard question to answer but Hamas’s human shield tactics in Gaza force us to confront it.

Hamas has the most sophisticated defence system. It uses Palestinian civilians as a shield. David Brooks, in his column in the New York Times, wrote, “Hamas’s goal is to maximize the number of Palestinians who die… Hamas’s survival depends on support in the court of international opinion." This was always the strategy of Hamas. If terrorists have powerful uses for our compassion, then the question arises whether it is dangerous to have the sort of compassion they want.

But then, we can argue that we are not always in control of our compassion. It may be used for tactical purposes, but human compassion itself is a natural resource of the world, like air and the oceans. And, it cannot be just turned on or off just because the wrong sort of people mine it. In that case, does a natural resource contain within it great dangers for the very people it cares for?

Fast-forming global compassion for far-away issues is new to human nature. The history of how the world has felt sorry for Palestine is brief. The point I began to witness this history was in the mid-80s, as an average Indian boy. Israel appeared to be a valiant small nation surrounded by dangerous foes. And a man called Yasser Arafat was somehow one of the most recognizable men in the world. But it was hard to figure out why they were fighting. In the 80s, if you did not understand something, you had to read a whole book. Actually, even today that is the only way, but there are illusory options like “10 things you should know about Palestine" and so on. Outside the Levant, very few knew much about the Palestine conflict.

Then, with the advent of the internet, everybody skipped a step. It was not information that flowed, but a peculiar mix of information and the emotion of its source. Since then, the region has been erupting every now and then, usually because an Israeli attack has killed civilians. And the world has erupted in rage against Israel. It is every generation’s introduction to proxy outrage.

Until a year ago, nobody fully accepted the view that Hamas hid behind and beneath civilians. It was dismissed as Israeli propaganda. In 2014, when Israeli bombardment in Gaza killed several children, there was massive global anger against Israel. Palestinians were always good with their propaganda, as it was a part of their defence mechanism. The internet was filled with images of Israelis on comfortable sofas, watching Gaza being bombed from vantage points. People shared images with comments like “disgusting" on social media, probably sitting on comfortable sofas themselves.

People who live far away from a conflict zone develop simple views of ‘victims’ and ‘villains’. In 2014, if you tried to point this out, or the fact that Hamas hid among the civilians not just in defence but also to get civilians killed, you were quickly disgraced as heartless.

Compassion for far-away people is a feature of modernity. Imagine a time in ancient India, in Magadha perhaps. A group of young people are having boiled asparagus and mild tea, when a messenger walks in to say that in Kosala there has been a massacre of civilians in a market. Magadhans are outraged. “Sick," someone says. And they engrave slogans on a bronze plate and march with them in protest against the massacre. I don’t think this ever happened. I cannot substantiate it, but I suspect that in antiquity, there was no long-distance compassion for people who did not belong to one’s race, region or caste. Even today, the most visible outrage is in the West, which is not only a physical place, but also a way of being. I don’t think most Indians, for example, are outraged by much outside what directly concerns them.

Just because a human feeling did not come from antiquity, it does not mean it is not human nature. Modernity might be the name of a time, but it is also the character of a time. And the character of our age is that the elite among us feel strongly for people far away, especially when the cost of feeling sorry is low. Hamas always knew that. The world would have been a wonderful place if people felt this level of compassion for those much closer to them. But the way of the world is that people feel more compassion for Palestinians than for their spouses.

I know a person who has very strong views about Islam in India, but about five years ago when he visited Palestine, he was enraged by Israel, by “what they are doing to the poor Palestinians." Time and again we see that there is no such thing as a global right-wing. People are ‘logical’ about the oppression of minorities at home, but compassionate about what is going on far away.

So what? What are people expected to do when they read that scores of children have died in a school or a hospital because Israel was hunting some terrorists underneath? How can we not feel the pain of those people? So this is ultimately another way of asking how must we be? How should we be?

The answer is in the people who have not easily shown their feelings for Palestinians. Not counting Jews, Muslims and others who have stakes in the conflict, I feel there are broadly three kinds of people who are not easily outraged by Israel. One, people who dislike or fear Islam. Two, people who instinctively side with the strong. The third group should interest us. They are people who are helplessly objective, who demonstrate that this is a personality type. Wary of global emotions, they know every conflict has two sides, and only one side makes for great photojournalism. They know their emotions are valuable and never give it away cheap. I think this is a good way to be.

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