Colleagues' Thoughts about the Israel/Hamas War - Part 1

Uncertainty Graphic

Newsletter 171 - November 3, 2023


From the Directors Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

On October 16, Guy and I published our first article on the Israel/Hamas war of 2023, which we followed by a Colleague and Context Post on Israel,  a report from our friend and Israeli peacebuilder, Julia Chaitin, and additional related links in our latest Colleague and Context Newsletter.  At the end of all of these, we asked for readers' comments. The first installment of those are included here. We welcome more! 

Ken Cloke

I want to congratulate you both on your latest issue.  You've written about some very complex and divisive issues and raised important issues for mediators and conflict resolvers to grapple with.  I don't have much time right now, but would like to suggest a couple of new ways of thinking about these issues.  First, you are right that there are indeed "bad actors" in the world who are not impossible to reach, but nearly so.  The label "bad actor," however, can be an excuse for not even trying, and a justification for the other side refusing to participate.  The label is also frozen and permanent, yet "bad acting" is usually contingent and evolving. 

Second, in my experience, it describes the top leaders of impassioned groups, who use it to bludgeon their followers into support or silence, yet those who support them are more open to listening and realizing, as in Northern Ireland, where it suddenly became clear to many, after decades, that these rigid and brutal responses to grief, guilt, trauma, pain, etc. only replicate them in the other side, inviting the process to turn in a circle and creating never-ending vendettas.  At a certain point, "bad actors" below the top level can become open to ending their support for endless war.  As mediators, we need to understand how and why, and be ready to assist them when they do, which the "bad actor" label can excuse us from doing. 

Third, there are questions and processes that make it more and less difficult to act badly, both in small-scale mediations and mid- or large scale dialogues and consensus building processes, where we stop rewarding these destructive behaviors and design preventative systems to channel them in the direction of problem solving and collaborative, empathetic solutions.  Yet the courage it takes to fight is nothing compared to the courage it takes to refuse to treat the other side as an enemy and openly empathize with their suffering.  Yet doing so automatically undermines the justifications for acting badly.  So instead of labeling the other side, it is possible to ask each side to list the things they have done that encouraged the other side to behave badly in response, ask the other side if they got it right, and mutually agree to stop those behaviors, without using the label of "bad actor," which both sides can use to refuse kindness, empathy, and dialogue to others, and start behaving badly themselves.  I hope this helps - my best to you both.  Ken. [1]

The Burgess's Response to Ken: 

Your observation that labeling people "as bad-faith actors" can be an excuse to not deal with them is an important one. But sometimes, actors really do act in bad-faith or in otherwise bad ways repeatedly enough that they cannot and should not be trusted, at least until they can demonstrate that they've adopted a new, more positive approach. Hamas has not. Hamas has made it extremely clear what their intent is.  Their charter calls for the elimination of Israel and Jews from the entire Arab region. It always has, and when pressed to change it, they did not.  Israel unilaterally returned Gaza to Palestinian rule in 2005, hoping that giving land would "bring peace." It did not. It almost instantaneously brought rockets instead. The pace of the attacks picked up when Hamas took power in 2007, and culminated (so far at least) in the horrific attacks on October 7. 

We now realize that we should have labeled Hamas differently than we did in our first article. Arafat and Abbas have negotiated with the Israelis and then backed out of agreements — in ways that strongly suggest that they were, indeed, not negotiating in good-faith (the definition of "bad-faith actors).

Hamas hasn't even pretended to negotiate, at least not about borders. They just attack and kill. With relish and glee. For them, the term "bad-faith" or even "bad-actor" actually seems far too mild. I can't imagine looking at what they did on October 7, and come up with any name softer than "evil actors." We might be able to negotiate little things with them —hostages for prisoner swaps, hostage releases for humanitarian aid, but they don't want a two-state solution. They want a Palestinian land "from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea." We don't mean to imply that ALL Palestinians are evil actors. Most, likely, are not, although the gleeful dancing in the streets when Israeli hostages were paraded by gives one pause, at least.  But it is very dangerous to live in Gaza and oppose Hamas. They kill their own with as much impunity as they kill Israelis.  So as long as they are in control, these killing rampages (of both Palestinians and Jews) most likely will continue. 

In the past, many Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilders and peacemakers (i.e. mediators) avoided addressing this issue by hoping and assuming that, at some point, the Palestinians would figure out that this crusade to exterminate Israel and Jews wasn't worth it, and that they would finally sit down and negotiate a two-state solution.  But Israel (and the international community) has tried to do this 5 times — the first being the British Peel Commission's plan of 1936, the last being Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert's offer in 2008 to create, in exchange for peace, an independent Palestinian state composed of all of the Gaza Strip and 94% of the West Bank plus compensatory land from Israel.  All five times they were rewarded with terror attacks or war.  When Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, hoping to exchange land for peace, they were again rewarded with with an endless series of rocket attacks launched from Gaza into Israel. 

More important than these missed opportunities, however, was is the fact that Hamas (and many of Israel's other adversaries) have never accepted Israel's right to exist. We do not mean to suggest that Israel should assume that all Palestinians believe this, and hence all peacemaking efforts are pointless. However, we do believe that Israel (and other outside actors) should develop a new and more robust strategy for either living with this reality or finding some more realistic way of changing it.

Consequently, we are really having a hard time answering the question of how Israel should respond to this attack.  What they are currently doing is, no doubt, creating more enemies — in Gaza and all around the world. And, they are causing terrible suffering both for themselves and for Gazans. 

But doing nothing, or reaching out and being empathetic to Gazans, offering, once again, to sit down and negotiate a two-state solution — which they have made very clear that they have no interest in doing unless that final status is no Israel — seems to us as showing that you are too weak to fight them off and they can continue to attack you with impunity, until, indeed, there is no Israel.  It is hard to see how Israel's high-tech global economy can survive over the long term under constant threat of assaults like this. And we certainly don't want to set a precedent that would suggest to people in difficult conflict situations that the way to get concessions from the other side is to commit a massive act of grotesque, inhumane violence. 

We are still looking for people with ideas on how to put an end to Hamas' barbarous brutality in ways that quickly put an end to Gaza's suffering. The best we've heard thus far is this set of ideas for drafting a cease-fire agreement that might be acceptable to Israel. While this, as the authors, say may be "Mission Impossible," they are at least trying to come up with a realistic plan.

The bigger question is how do you (using your words) ask "questions and [design] processes that make it more difficult to act badly" and "design preventative systems to channel them [Hamas and their supporters] in the direction of problem solving and collaborative, empathetic solutions," when the people you are addressing are determined to destroy you and your country just because you are a Jew?  Track II diplomats have been doing dialogues and problem solving workshops with grassroots, midlevel, and even leaders of Israel and the Palestinians for at least 30 if not 40 or 50 years. We've probably run more such processes there than anywhere else in the world. Track I diplomats have negotiated at least five versions of the two state solution. As we said before, all have ended in war or increased terror attacks. It seems very clear to us that we (the peacebuilding community) and they (Israel and the international community) have to find a more effective approach. 

Another obvious challenge confronting efforts like the one you propose is that, sadly, there isn't any sort of ongoing negotiation process in which your techniques might be tried. This is a society-wide conflict that is being played out on the battlefield and through mass media.  And, even if negotiators were able to come up with a workable two-state solution, it seems doubtful that the public (after 75+ years of hate-filled propaganda) would support it. That's likely a big part of why earlier peacebuilding efforts failed.  Also complicating things is the fact that Hamas' control over the people of Gaza is so absolute and so violent that anyone who dares question Hamas' sadistic and suicidal policies is likely to be killed, along with their families.  (This is why we describe them as an extreme manifestation of the bad-faith actor problem — what we are now calling "evil actors.") We're eager to hear more of your ideas of how to address these issues!

Jay Rothman (and Ned Lazarus by reference)

We have exchanged several emails with Jay. In the first he observed that our post was "gutsy," and he expected that not all of our mail would be "fan mail." (He was right, but some was!) But, he observed that our piece provided important challenges and correctives, while he had some "quibbles" that he said he'd follow up about. He also shared an article that he wrote in 2015 which he refers to as "a third-way primer," entitled A New View of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: From Needs and Narratives to Negotiation. We'll pull several of those ideas out here:

[B]efore we can get to a resolution over who gets what, we must first recognize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a prime and tragic example of the way two nations competing over the same territory struggle not only over conflicting political and economic interests but also with competing mythologies, cultures, and historical narratives. ...

[E]ach side needs to recognize how and why these historical narratives have become “true” for them. Reconciling the “competing mythologies” is essential if the next Arab-Israeli peace process, with the Palestinian question at its core, has any chance to succeed.

Before the details of peace can be worked out, each side needs to acknowledge more fully how the identity of the other side has developed over generations and been shaped by the conflict itself.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—like so many other protracted and existential conflicts where so many demands are stated in mutually exclusive terms—only when the other side’s fundamental needs are met can its own be fulfilled.

Traditional diplomacy and endless fights over who gets what, how, and when have not solved this problem. The suffering continues.

It is time for a different approach. [2]

The different approach he suggests is what he calls analytic empathy:

The concept of analytic empathy, to be distinguished from emotional empathy, is used to summarize constructive insight that may be gained by parties about their adversaries’ motivations in a conflict. It is insight that just as one’s own side must have its needs fulfilled and will not cease pursuing those needs despite external resistance, so the other side too will not rest until it achieves such needs.

Thus a hardheaded realism about the necessity of cooperation for the fulfillment of each side’s respective needs, not at the expense of the other, but rather achieved in part through gains for them as well,  for the sake of self, may evolve.

Based on such realism, parties may begin to seek solutions developed to address the concrete interests and underlying needs of each side—cooperatively. [3]

Now, this suggestion was written at an earlier time, when the situation was not nearly as grim as it is now. But ultimately, if we're ever going to move beyond this tragedy, both sides will have to come to such a realization.  Though we know many would disagree with us, we believe that many (and at times most) Israelis used to believe that cooperation was the best "way out." Given the brutality of the recent attack, many, from what we read, no longer do. But it is also clear that Hamas never believed that and likely never will (though some other Palestinians likely did, at least before the latest round of fighting).  As always happens, this episode is going to make peace even harder to reach.  But the dimensions of such a peace — one that does, indeed, meet the identity, security, and recognition (human needs) of both sides — remains the same.

Jay's promised follow up to his first email was addressed both to us and to Ned Lazarus, who had recently published (what we think) was an excellent article in the Atlantic entitled I Don't See a Better Way Out. Ned worked with Seeds of Peace in Jerusalem for eight years, starting in 1996.  In his article, he explained that he "dedicated much of [his] professional life to seeking peaceful change in this conflict, trying to listen to and understand Israelis and Palestinians and find ways to work toward peace or justice or coexistence or mutual understanding or anything better than what there is now." [4] Yet after the October 7 attack, he did not see continued talking as a solution. He wrote:

There are those who see a nonviolent way forward in Gaza right now: A cease-fire, an exchange of prisoners for hostages, a UN protectorate. I envy them, whatever clear answer they might have to how Israel should respond to the massacre of more than 1,400 Israelis and the kidnapping of more than 200 others by a fundamentalist terrorist organization that rules over and hides among an impoverished civilian population of 2 million people. I envy those who know exactly how Hamas can be stopped without any more killing, any more suffering, for any more people in Israel and Gaza.

Because I don’t. [5]

Ned went on to say 

All of the violence and suffering and abuse that Israelis and Palestinians have inflicted on each other over generations has led only to more hatred, more violence, and more suffering. All I have ever dreamed of, prayed for, worked for, in this context, is an end to it all.

And that’s the problem. I don’t see how the cycle of hatred, killing, and suffering ends while there is a fundamentalist terrorist organization explicitly dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews — read its 1988 founding charter; the message is not subtle — equipped with legions of fighters ready to kill and die to achieve its goals, an arsenal of missiles, and a powerful state sponsor, Iran, that enables its violence and shares its explicitly genocidal agenda. [6]

While Ned admits "there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," ...he goes on to say "the only way to avoid an [Israeli] ground offensive is to provide a realistic strategy for removing Hamas's ability to attack Israel on this scale again." ... "If anything is clear in hindsight, it is that cease-fires do not provide sustainable security: Hamas used the years since the 2021 cease-fire to prepare its 2023 assault." [7]

Jay responded both to Ned and us by saying:

This situation is crushing so many of our aspirations. And yet, isn’t our job as peace pursuers to continue to have a wider vision of possibility that would suggest we spend most of our capital on the day after - even now? Every effect has a cause and the causes of the current crisis are deep, infuriating and now new causes are currently conditioning the next disaster (even if we escape this one without further tens of thousands dead or even a world war).

My hopefulness comes out of a deep sense of ultimate pessimism. While I understand theories of deterrence, I think I still come down on Burton’s side when he says in existential conflicts deterrence doesn’t deter. (But perhaps an ultimate irony is that the only “effective” destruction of a liberation movement may have been in Sri Lanka, and the Tamil Tigers, which was once Ceylon where Burton was Ambassador and gave it up in despair for academia). This kind of deterrence (“if power doesn’t work, use more”),  just empowers the next even more vicious (if it’s possible) “freedom fighter.” But as Ezra Klein says, “It can’t be costless to slaughter innocent Israelis…” So, what can, should a peace seeker do? Scenario Planning.  Post-war preparation. Envisioning new, inclusive, realistic trajectories. Getting beyond Us/Them framings as you both have done. In short Ned, while I don’t agree with you, I also don’t really disagree either. Rather, to fall back to third way thinking, I suggest we should be putting our focus and energy where others are not: on Peace.[8]

Addressing just us, Jay went on to say

I fail to find many "third way" presentations beyond side-choosing and blame.  I know those on all sides will see this as disingenuous: in such a war, sides must be chosen and arms borne. Perhaps. But what about thinking now of the day after? Decades back, after I  gave a lecture about Middle East conflict resolution efforts to pilots from the Maxwell Air-War College, who were about to go in to the first Iraq war, the General summarized my talk as follows: "We do our work in war-fighting so Dr. Rothman and other peace-seekers like him can do theirs." I was ambivalent about his statement; but appreciated his sentiment. This war will end. Those of us in the peace-seeking "business" need to start now thinking about how to help support a more successful and decades-to-come peace process. [9]  

We agree, but we also think that this peace process must indeed be really new.  It can't just be the needs-focused problem solving workshops and dialogues and camps for youngsters that we've done in the past.  We've been doing those for at least 30, maybe 50 years, and nothing has changed. So it really is time for our field to come up with some new ideas, particularly ideas about how to deal with extreme bad-faith, bad, and even evil actors who have no intention of making peace. 

Madeline Taylor

Thank you so much for this important history lesson. The sentence that stood out to me maps onto my own thinking: "We peacebuilders need to augment our ability to help good-faith actors work through complex problems and do much more to figure out how to delegitimize, isolate, and disempower bad-faith actors wherever they are."

I wonder if groups like Hamas who use terror tactics, can be likened to abusive men who have no interest in going to therapy, and "working things out." The women and children living in homes with abusive men need to be rescued and the men tried, convicted and sentenced to prison. I use this analogy because it is similar to your concept of "bad faith actors." So far, it doesn't seem like the world has any way of disarming terrorist groups who retain power through one means alone, and that is terror. The world acts as if we have to just throw up our hands and deal with them. But these groups are outlaws and criminals, making it impossible for the other people in the "house," so to speak, to live their lives in peace.  If there is no peacekeeping force that can arrest and bring these groups to the Hague, then at the very least we need to mount a campaign that does exactly what you described…discrediting, condemning their actions, and making it plain that they are the problem because other people are ready to make a deal, and move towards non-violent, mutually agreed-upon solutions. [10]

A few days before she wrote that (before we published our piece on Israel, but after the Hamas attack had occurred, Madeline sent us another thought that we'd said we'd share:

As a psychotherapist, educator, and a peace and justice advocate since my early 20s it seems to me that there's something profoundly missing at decision-making tables from the small and local all the way up through the United Nations. And that is the minority of female voices and the absence, entirely, of children's voices.

Since women and children are affected by conflict, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and even economically... since women and children are massively traumatized by the violence of men, they should be equally represented at decision-making tables everywhere. They bring different perspectives, they articulate different needs, and they have a right to equally influence how conflicts get resolved in our interconnected, human family.

Typically, women and children are not as entrenched in the paradigm of domination as are men. They have more experience in the paradigm of partnership and in solving conflicts through dialogue and sharing. The presence of women and children at decision-making tables, including the boards of directors of global corporations, will make it more likely that partnership-minded men will feel more empowered to resist the paradigm of domination being articulated by other men at the table.

Obviously not all men are dominators and not all women and children embody a partnership paradigm. But studies have shown that when more women are at the table there are different ideas floating around and that leads to more creative solutions for resolving conflicts of all kinds. With respect and admiration for the work you are doing…Madeline Taylor, PhD [11]

From another reader who asked to remain anonymous

I have to say that I am shocked at your latest newsletter. For people who claim to be going beyond intractability you have taken a startlingly one-sided view of this situation. Not counting the colleague activities, every article you have gathered to share takes a pro-Israel stance. And the language you yourselves use is extreme.

I'm afraid to say that it has undermined my confidence in your ability to look at the whole picture, to take a historically informed view, and to try to go beyond polarization. Is your intention with your work to advocate in such a strong way for positions on issues? I thought you were endeavoring to present a range of views and support people in exploring them and de-polarizing. What you've shared here suggests the former. I feel very disappointed. [12]

The Burgess's Response: 

Yes, we are taking a different approach to this than we usually do, because many of the voices we highlight are being widely ignored, misinterpreted and misrepresented, and we are trying to do what we can to explain what we think and why. We read many pro-Palestinian materials.   But, as we wrote in our article on Hamas in October 7, we didn't find their efforts to justify the attack persuasive, and we were trying to explain how we came to the conclusions that we did.  As the war has unfolded and as the tragedies have compounded themselves, we have found ourselves highlighting more Palestinian voices including, especially those willing to challenge Hamas tactics.

There are rights and wrongs in the world, and here are bad-faith and evil actors. We are deeply bothered by those (particularly in the peacebuilding community, but outside it as well) who choose to ignore the facts about Hamas. Hamas has made it exceedingly clear that their goal is to wipe out Israel and Jews entirely. Why is this promised genocide okay with so many?  No other genocide is.

Also alarming, Israel's attempt to defend itself is also being called a genocide and, as such, is being strongly denounced. But, in large part, these charges are based on the casualties reported by the "Gaza Ministry of Health" which is a propaganda tool of Hamas. They claimed, for instance, that Israel bombed the al-Ahli Hospital, killing about 500 Palestinians. This story was quickly picked up and spread around the world by the New York Times and the Washington Post (among other "trustworthy" news sources. The news caused riots and protests around the world and resulted in the cancelling of President Biden's meetings with several Arab leaders, which might have helped to contain the danger of this situation. Of course, it was proven a bit later that the deaths were caused by a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket and that were were likely below 50 deaths.

More routinely, the Gaza Health Ministry does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths. In past wars, twenty-year old men were the most over-represented among the dead, suggesting that Israel was, actually, successfully targeting combatants, despite Hamas's penchant for using civilians as human shields and killing those civilians if they try to escape. It is also not clear whether Hamas attackers killed in Israel are being counted among the casualties. Why is defense and the unintentional killing of civilians being denounced as "genocide" when clearly intentional grotesque butchering of civilians and the avowed goals of killing all Jews and destroying Israel is being called legitimate "freedom fighting?" And, why in what is become a global information war, are statistics from the terrorist organization that committed the atrocities in Israel being considered by so many to be reliable?

Now, this is a very complex situation and there is right and wrong on both sides, and each side is feeding upon the wrongs of the other, something that we probably should have emphasized more emphatically. (And we will in a coming post, as there are lessons there for many other parts of the world, including the U.S. and Canada). One lesson we want to emphasize more is that uncontrolled polarization and escalation is extraordinarily dangerous. It seems likely that Israeli political dysfunction and hyperpolarization (which closely parallels that in the United States) may have led Hamas to conclude that Israel would be  defenseless in the face of such an attack.

We will continue to  post opposing views on this and other issues. Still, this is an issue on which we, personally, felt a need to take a stand and we will continue to do so, although we are very open to changing our stand as we learn more. As we have said many times before, "conflict is the engine of social learning." I hope you and others who disagree with us will at least consider what we write seriously, as we promise to do for you. Hopefully, together, Israel, the Palestinians, their supporters, and the international community can finally come up with an innovative way to end the immediate suffering and the long-term stand off. The danger and the suffering is far too high. 

Richard Rubenstein

We got the following email from Richard Rubenstein a former colleague at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University:

I have written an article for CounterPunch magazine that is quite critical of your piece on Gaza and the "bad actor" problem.  It can be found at  

I wanted you to know that despite our disagreement about this, I continue to admire what you have done in Beyond Intractability, and appreciate your putting your views of the Gaza conflict out there for everyone to discuss.  [13]

We very much appreciate the time and effort that Rich put into this lengthy and extensively referenced article and the important questions he raises. While we don't have time or space to respond in this newsletter, we will be considering his arguments as we continue refine our thinking about this tragic situation for next week's newsletter on this topic. 


[1] Ken Cloke email to Heidi and Guy Burgess. October 25, 2023.

[2-7] Ned Lazarus "I Don't See a Better Way Out" The Atlantic Oct. 24, 2023.

[8-9]  Email from Jay Rothman to Heidi and Guy Burgess and Ned Lazarus on October 23, 2023.

[10] Email from Madeline Taylor to Heidi and Guy Burgess, October 29, 2023

[11] Email from Madeline Taylor to Heidi and Guy Burgess, October 22, 2023

[12] Anonymous email to Heidi and Guy Burgess, October 26, 2023

[13] Email from Richard Rubenstein to Heidi and Guy Burgess on October 27, 2023.

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