Guest author: Oliver Fink, University of Basel

The problem with Intractable Conflicts is that they are really messy – and therefore become intractable.

The academic definition says, “Intractable conflicts are high-intensity, prolonged, violent conflicts that are perceived as irresolvable by the parties involved” (otherwise they would have been solved many years ago). In a way, we have to respect this intractability. Unfortunately, there are real people and life stories behind this definition.

Recently I met with one of our Palestinian friends and we had a long talk about his life – a difficult childhood, the “usual” Intifada involvement, a short spell in prison, permit restrictions. But also, a great family, a successful business and an amazingly positive attitude towards Israel.

On the Israeli side, friends are voicing their deep frustration about “45 years not being able to figure things out”, turning away due to the complexities involved or suggesting the cynical experiment of giving people the newspaper from 15 years ago to find out how long it will take them before they realize that this is an old issue…

The really scary side are the outbursts of extreme violence that we see in the news and the “normality” of this violence in each society. Some days ago for example, we have been at an event in Palestine that had nothing to do with politics. Nevertheless, there was a minute of silence for the “martyrs of the conflict”.

The intractability of this conflict can be completely overwhelming. Most of the time I feel like the wise man (usually a Rabbi or Sheik) in the well-known story about the settlement of a village dispute. The first party poured out their complaints, and when they were finished, the wise man said, “You’re right.” Then it was the second side’s turn. When they finished, the wise man said, “You’re right.” A disciple of the wise man standing next to him, said incredulously, “But this is crazy, they can’t both be right!” The wise man thought for a few moments, and then replied, “You’re right.”

But maybe we have found after all an angle that has been overlooked for the most part but might prove quite useful – instead of trying to solve the dispute directly, rather looking at the anger, frustration, hatred, hope… all the emotions linked to living in intractable conflict trying to understand the psychological reality behind the intractable facts. We’re still just at the beginning but already learning so much…