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The Normalization of Conflict and the Impact on the Citizen

From May 25 through June 3 I was on a trip to Israel with the University of South Florida’s Program in National and Competitive Intelligence. I shared in many interesting experiences while in Israel and came away from the trip with new viewpoints on the Jewish state. One particular insight that shocked me during my time in Israel was how normalized conflict was within the public.

The first time this fact hit me was during a trip to the Israel-Lebanon demilitarized zone (DMZ). The DMZ was established in 2000 after Israel removed its occupying force from southern Lebanon. Objections have been registered by the Lebanese regarding the placement of this DMZ, with Hezbollah claiming that Israel is violating Lebanon’s territorial integrity due to the placement of this line. In fact, this claim was used to justify Hezbollah’s cross border raid in 2000.

Yet, during my visit to the Israeli side of the DMZ I encountered a tourist attraction. There was a site where tourists could park their vehicles upon a mountain side and look out to the sea. Opposing this picturesque view, looking inland, was a barbwire fence interspersed with gunner outposts. To me, this was a site of danger and vulnerability. It was a reminder that there is no peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon and therefore hostility is still in the air. To the Israelis it was a tourist attraction. Literally hugging the DMZ was a restaurant and bar. If one so chose, they could enjoy a brew and then take a picture in front of the DMZ. Then after enjoying photo opportunities, visitors to the site could take a cable car ride down alongside the DMZ to visit an underground cavern. At this site the visitor forgets about the danger of war and instead experiences the adventure of exploration. The perversity of a DMZ as a tourist attraction is apparently lost by all due to conflict being so normalized in Israel.

Another site in which conflict was normalized was at the Sea of Galilee. This site was recaptured by the Israelis during the 1967 6-Day War. Peace negotiations between Syria and Israel have centered upon the return of the Sea, wherein Syria wants to return to the shores of the Sea while Israel wants a buffer zone around the Sea.  Thus, the territorial control of the Sea between the two neighbors is still disputed, and as such, both states remain in a state of war.

During my time at the Sea of Galilee I witnessed people picnicking, swimming, and shopping. These people were impervious to the civil war that was occurring less than 17 miles away.  No one mentioned, or seemed to take notice, that a stray missile could land in their midst. Rather, it seemed as though people had internalized the idea that conflict happens over “there,” beyond Israeli borders. Within Israeli borders people enjoy the accessories of modern life, such as the jet skis and sailing boats which could be seen on the Sea. Conversely, on the other side of the Sea, the people of Syria were fighting with outdated weaponry, in the hopes of enjoying the pleasures that Israelis take for granted.

Finally, during my trip to Jerusalem, I heard a loud siren going off and witnessed a police car speeding down the street. Yet, I seemed to be the only one alarmed. Everyone else went about their day, picking out souvenirs in the local shops or enjoying their café brunch. Only later did I find out that the Israelis had prepared a drill on how to handle a chemical weapons attack from Syria. Due to this reaction I am led to believe that a drill of this sort in preparation for such a horrible possibility is commonplace in Israel.

Moreover, these observations lead me to believe that conflict is so ingrained into Israeli society that the people do not even notice their perpetual state of insecurity. Put another way, insecurity is the norm in Israel rather than the exception. This has implications not only for state preparedness and security but also on the psyche of the citizen. When an entire state does not flinch during a chemical weapons drill or when a DMZ becomes a tourist attraction, the citizenry has become cowed to the point that the state can act with impunity as long as it is in the name of security.

One of the main purposes of the state, providing security for the citizen, becomes moot if the citizen normalizes insecurity. This implies that security is the deviant, allowing the state to perpetuate, or at the least remain ambivalent to pursuing peace. When the state is allowed to propagate this mentality, the citizen becomes increasingly submissive to state authority, allowing normally drastic government actions in the name of security.  Further, this mentality does not pave the way for peaceful outcomes and security. The citizen is kept in a state of distrust of the other. As long as a conflict is kept over “there” and on the other side of the security state, the citizen remains safe and can go about a normalized life. This means that there cannot be peace with the other, as it will bring this instability into the normalized lives of the citizen. In this normalized security environment, the security state needs fear to survive, which allows it to protect but also control the population. This is the case in Israel where the state maintains both the external enemy while providing internal security. Therefore, the greatest security threat to Israel is the state which has provided them with a false notion of safety. The dangers abroad are real. However, when the freedom on how to confront those dangers is stripped away in the name of security, the difference between the Israelis and its totalitarian neighbors becomes less evident.

Mark Grzegorzewski is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of South Florida.

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