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Resist, Rest, Resist: Surviving a distant conflict

The Israel-Palestine conflict is not ending anytime soon. Here's how to stay involved, but still conserve energy for the long run.  

October 28 2023, 14.01pm
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Faced with a night like last night in the Gaza Strip, it’s easy to go into full emergency mode even if you’re not in the region. You stay up into the small hours, hunting for updates, even though you know communications have been cut. You urgently retweet calls for help, calls for ceasefire, and condemnations of inert and inept political leaderships in your home country. You catch a few hours of sleep, and then you’re back at it, trying to draw out the reality of the conflict from under the unbearable safety of wherever else you happen to be. 

This is understandable, human, and in many ways, important. But it’s also a recipe for vicarious trauma and for burnout in the short run - depleting our energy and resilience for the long haul. And in case this wasn’t obvious: this is going to be a long haul. There will be more nights like last night, and more rounds of appalling violence. Whatever your vision is to end this conflict, it won’t be accomplished overnight. 

Speaking purely from personal experience: After three weeks of following the war back home, I can’t look at a Camden tower block without imagining it imploding like the residential blocks my government is toppling in Gaza. It’s not even imagining, as such: I see the implosion before I blink and see the real-life apartment building, lights peacefully aglow. As I scroll through my Facebook feed, I catch my breath every time I see the picture of a baby; as one colleague put it, you never know if the pic is there because the baby has been killed, abducted, or just had a birthday. 

And I have it easy: I grew up in central Israel, meaning that despite the first days of the horrific Hamas onslaught in the south and the rockets in the north, my friends and family are - very relatively - safe, at least for as long as a regional war doesn’t erupt. (One degree of separation out, things are considerably worse.) Travel is possible and the people I love could, theoretically, leave at any point (my dad’s a doctor, so they won’t, but they could.) Israeli comms, water, electricity are on. Israeli hospitals are working. Palestinian friends and colleagues - especially those with families in Gaza - are living in the same London but inhabit a completely different circle of hell to mine. 

Nevertheless, at one level or another, we’re all feeling the war depleting us. So partly from personal experience, partly from the conflict journalist’s toolbox, here is some advice on how to survive this and save your energy for the very long slog to come. Needless to say, this advice is best suited for those not directly and personally affected. 

1. Stop looking at graphic images.

With every new burst of conflict, unfiltered footage becomes more and more accessible to the everyday news consumer. What was once hardly photographed, and almost never published, is a careless scroll away - especially on Twitter (thanks, Elon.) But truth be told, many of us concerned by what’s going on aren’t just ambushed by these pics: we look at them because we feel we cannot, or should not, look away. We look at the images, listen to the audio and scrutinise the footage to compensate for our distance, to push back the normality where we exist while our families, friends and political allies are caught in an escalating nightmare. 

We also do this to assuage guilt: we can’t help, but at least we can remember; we’re not there with you, but we see you. And we get into Twitter fights (guilty) for the same reason, saying things we would never say quite in the same way to a person’s face and scrolling, aghast, past people justifying the unjustifiable; forgetting, perhaps, that many of them are feeling the same way. 

At the same time, we know full well that what we’re doing is not helping us, or loved ones caught up in the conflict. All we’re doing is acquiring vicarious trauma. Our brains are set up in such a way that merely seeing a traumatic event makes us relive it (this is why action and horror movies are so effective) and our inability to take action makes it worse. The effects of this add up, and if you’re not saving lives, fact-checking or looking for a missing friend or loved one in those pictures, there is no reason you should do it to yourself. Just stop. Leave those Telegram channels and Whatsapp groups, and turn off the auto-download on your Facebook and Twitter apps. Also, don’t send graphic pictures to people justifying the atrocities, even if you’re badly tempted to smack them in the face with the horrors they support. I guarantee you this will not change anybody’s mind, and it’ll only make them resent you and the victims more. 

2. If you must consume graphic content, limit your exposure.

As mentioned, some of us might have a legitimate, purposeful reason for looking at these images. If this is you, there are ways to soften the vicarious trauma. Put a timer on and take frequent breaks to avoid sinking into the horror on your screen or in your headphones. Don’t put the footage full-screen - keep it to a small window with unrelated material in the background, to contextualise it as not immediately real. Don’t look at unfiltered Telegram channels before you’ve gotten out of bed, had breakfast and taken a walk. Don’t look at them right before you go to bed. In fact, unless you’re in close contact with someone in the conflict zone or otherwise need your phone within reach, charge it far away from your bed and, if possible, in another room. This is generally good advice for a better night’s sleep, but it’s doubly valuable when your phone is a conduit of horrors. 

3. Take action. 

Trauma is exacerbated by helplessness. In times like these, everything and anything you might do from a distance might feel completely useless. It’s not. You might not be able to physically stop the war (or win it), but you can support people on the ground materially, you can help build pressure on politicians to make a more decisive intervention for a ceasefire, you can call out damaging or dangerous discourse. 

Protests might feel almost homoeopathic, but they do help. Us from Israel-Palesitne might sometimes resent everyone and their cat having an opinion or a claim to our conflict, but the truth is, without this attention we’d all be far worse off; there would be even less scrutiny, and we’d end up like Chechnya. So keep it up. If you are put off by the main Palestine marches in central London every weekend, Women in Black stage a simple vigil commemorating the dead and calling from an end to the conflict. From experience, especially after living on social media for a week, it’s incredibly healing to go and spend an hour with people who broadly agree enough people have died. 

4. Read up on other conflicts. 

The Israel-Palestine conflict might seem uniquely cruel, intractable and hopeless. It is not. Nelson Mandela was 17 when he joined the ANC and 73 when he came out of prison; but South Africa saw it through. The Northern Ireland conflict began centuries before the Israel-Palestine one and, in its most recent convulsion, killed considerably more people per capita in 40 years than were killed in Israel-Palestine in a century; still, it ended in a remarkably robust settlement that looks like a gnarly utopia to visiting Israelis and Palestinians, and is still largely working 25 years on. Even Lebanon, economic shitshow and playground for foreign interests it might be, is in a better place now than it was during its civil war - not least thanks to community diplomacy. Our conflict is not unique, and if hope fails you looking at this week’s news, look for hope elsewhere. And bring some back to us - God knows we’ll need new, fresh ideas on how to move onward after this is over. 

5. Stop resenting your privilege and put it to use. 

It might be survivors' guilt or it might be progressive self-abasement that tells you to not indulge in even the simplest pleasures while people you care about are suffering. Acknowledge that feeling; then, gently let it go. On a political level, your distance from the conflict and proximity to other power centres mean you have an important role to play. You have the privilege to think more calmly and strategically. You can afford not just to scream, but to think about how you can be heard. As Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi put it in an interview recently: “If you believe this theoretical construct — the colony and the metropole — then what activists do here in the metropole counts. You have to win people over. You can’t just show that you are the most pure or the most revolutionary or can say the most extreme things and demonstrate your revolutionary credentials. You have to be doing something toward a clear political end.” This doubly applies if the postcolonial lens is not how you read this conflict. 

On a personal level, normality can be deeply jarring, and hanging out with people for whom your tragedy is just another news item can feel insufferable. It’s ok, and probably wise, to cut back on social engagements during this time. At the same time, do meet - in real life, not on the screen - with people who know what you are going through; and make time to see the closest among your friends, even if they don’t. Their concerns might seem remote and trivial, compared to what’s unfolding in the conflict zone; but in a way, that is a blessing, and having to care a little bit about the more manageable human situations gives you a break from caring about things you can’t control. Plus, they’re your friends. Neither the Jewish people nor Palestine gain anything from you letting that ball drop. 

And beyond that: take walks. Swim. See an exhibition. Go to a cafe or a pub. Live.

You’re needed for the long run, not just for the sprint.