How do we bear witness to the truth of this moment?
As violence and tensions escalate in the holy land, it’s easy to lose track of how we got stuck here, and how we might get unstuck.
Where to begin? Literally.
When a situation is so hypersensitive, every statement becomes a political act, and risks inflaming tensions.
And that begins at the beginning: October 7.
Ambush, abduction, death.
Violence. Mayhem. Terror.
All valid. All horrible.
But beginning the story on October 7 conceals the conditions that created this situation. It conceals the conditions of a desperation so dire, that to a ragtag bunch of armed men, ambushing the region’s most heavily armed state seemed more logical than not.
Palestinians have been adamant about giving greater context to the attacks of October 7 specifically, and to the conflict in general. They point to the ‘56 years of suffocating occupation’, or the 75 years since the mass displacement of Palestinians, which is mourned annually as the ‘Great Catastrophe’.
It helps Palestinians understand their victimhood relative to the aggression of an occupying state and its policies of apartheid. It helps them explain why waiting patiently under these conditions for an international community to get its act together is the greater violence.
It helps cover some wounds.
But it doesn’t help Israelis understand their own sense of victimhood and fear. It doesn’t help Jews to feel safe that they have a right to live in the world without the constant threat of extermination.
That requires greater context still.
Israelis have been quick to link the October 7 attacks to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. They point to the fact that this is the largest killing of Jews since those traumatic events revealed the depravity of human potential.
This also helps.
It helps Jews understand their victimhood relative to the historical oppressions they’ve continuously suffered. It helps build the resolve of a people fighting for survival, so that ‘never again’ becomes a reality and not an ideal.
It helps cover some wounds.
But it doesn’t help Palestinians understand why they’re paying the price for Europe’s crimes. It doesn’t help Muslims to feel safe in their right to simply be in the world without the constant reality of occupation and dispossession.
But there’s more context yet.
Because there’s an invisible hand that’s been central to this conflict from day one.
Westerners have been careful to disconnect themselves from this conflict and present themselves instead as concerned mediators. They point to the cultural and religious nature of a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Jews, who simply don’t know how to live together in peace.
Again, this helps.
It helps Westerners understand themselves as civilised peacemakers in a hostile world. It helps them mask the burden of shame they’ve inherited for their historical crimes against Jews, and deflect their own uncomfortable reflections about their role in this conflict.
It helps cover some wounds.
But it doesn’t help Jews understand why Westerners are standing with Israel in public, but sitting with Palestine in private. And it doesn’t help Muslims understand why Westerners are supplying Israeli bullets but lecturing Palestinians about peace.
Amid all of the conflicting claims to the truth of the matter, it’s easy to get lost in a cloud of confusion and despair.
Regardless of where the original blame lies, what can be said of this trauma trinity is that it consistently produces a dynamic within which cycles of violence, retaliation, blame and despair are not simply expected, but inevitable. The noxious enmeshment of the three parties also means that a peaceful resolution within this same dynamic is not only unlikely, but outright impossible, with each partner to the trinity insisting on the right to frame the conflict on their terms.
The impossibility of this situation is captured in what Gayatri Spivak describes as a double bind: ‘When we find ourselves in the subject position of two determinate decisions, both right (or wrong), one of which cancels the other.’
The double bind is not simply a matter of complexity—which could technically be resolved with some difficulty—but a matter of impossibility. Spivak again: ‘Yet it is not possible to remain in … a double bind. It is not a logical or philosophical problem like a contradiction… It can only be described as an experience… For, as we know every day, even by supposedly not deciding, one of those two right or wrong decisions gets taken, and the … double bind remains.’
The double bind is an impossible position precisely because, as our current predicament demonstrates, it takes place at the crossroads of completely different and even contradictory experiences of the same reality. Each group in question has arrived at this historical juncture through a quite different formative trajectory. Each has brought their own experience of reality to bear on this conflict. And each is insisting on their experience as the shared reality.
Nowhere is the impossibility of this double bind more pronounced than in the subtle accusation constantly posed as a question to Palestinians: Do you condemn Hamas?
For the Western mediator, whose own relation to the oppression of Jews still looms large, the question reads closer to Do you condemn terrorism? The shock and disbelief in seeing Palestinians hesitate and obfuscate when answering this question is therefore understandable.
Why can’t they just say yes?
For the Israeli survivor, whose relation to being oppressed means a greater need for reassurance, the question is heard closer to Do Jews have a right to live? The horror and disbelief in seeing Palestinians squirm under the weight of this question is therefore valid.
See, they want us all dead!
For the Palestinian survivor, whose relation to occupation is that Hamas is the only material entity standing between them and total annihilation, the question is translated closer to: Do you support the occupation? The betrayal and disbelief in seeing Westerners pose this question and Israelis support it is therefore justifiable.
How could they ask such a thing?!
For the Palestinian respondent, this is an impossible position to hold, a true double bind. They must somehow demonstrate their humanity by morally opposing their own survival by whatever means necessary. And yet the Israeli needs reassurance that their life is worth protecting—that should they drop their guard for a moment, they won’t be ambushed and destroyed.
To our Western mediator, we might pose the question, Of what mediative value is an intervention that triggers both sides, and to which an ethical answer is impossible?
There is no neutrality within a double bind, particularly not one of this magnitude. It remains impossible, for ‘even by not deciding, one of those two right or wrong decisions gets taken.’
Israel continues expanding. Palestine continues shrinking. The West continues hiding. And the violence continues continuing.
Neutrality is only an answer if the question is one about blame and judgement. But the double bind is neither. As an experience, it can be approached only through a question of ethics, a question of what it means to carry oneself through an impossible situation with the greatest integrity relative to one’s position.
Or, as Spivak formulates it, ‘what is to be done here, now, with what we are as agents?’
This approach honours the unique experience of each actor within the conflicting reality that is this double bind. It draws out a reflective rather than reflexive approach, one which takes into account the relativity of each position in relation to the conflict, and asks what this unique position obliges of them as far as ethical conduct is concerned. Importantly, it paves the way for a shared experience of reality that does not rely on the imposition of one experience at the direct expense of another.
The mediator, commentator, fighter, victim, narrator, medic and intellectual each have an ethic to uphold—a form of conduct to hold themselves accountable to.
Such an ethic might ask the Westerner to reflect on the fact that, after seven decades of mediation, it might be time to concede that they are better at war than they are at peace. It may ask the Palestinian and Israeli to reflect on the fact that, after decades of fighting alien monsters, it might be time to accept that Ahmed and Amit are closer to each other than they would like to believe.
These may not be ideal reflections for any of the parties involved, particularly within the intensity of this moment. The double bind is, after all, an uncomfortable threshold to cross. But they may well be the seeds for a shared, ethical reality—one in which the inevitable production of the relationship is no longer violence, but peace.
Mohamad Tabbaa is a criminologist based in Sydney. He is the founder of Elemental Reflection Therapy and the Muslim Advocacy Project.
 Spivak, An Aesthetic Education, pp. 104-105.