The Moral Answer

A Palestinian refugee woman and her child caught in sniper fire during the camp wars of the Lebanese Civil War. Beirut, Lebanon. 

A Palestinian refugee woman and her child caught in sniper fire during the camp wars of the Lebanese Civil War. Beirut, Lebanon. 

How’s this for a pitch to join a cause: “Hey, there’s a huge humanitarian need here, and we want you to partner with us to meet it, and…oh, right…uh, just talkingabout the situation around and history behind it is bound to make someone viscerally angry with you. You could lose the respect of friends, maybe lose some relationships entirely. And probably almost no one will be happy with the stand you take.  It’s that charged. Also, people will want to talk about everything related to your cause…but far less about the cause itself.” 

If you’re reading this, you probably know that at Beirut and Beyond, our cause is serving the needs of Palestinian refugees and doing our best to be stewards of their stories here in the United States.  The dynamic above is one we see play out time after time when we talk about addressing the profound humanitarian needs in Palestinian refugee camps. There’s just something about human nature that draws the attention to a conflict rather than the people it has disenfranchised.  Society encourages us to pledge our loyalty to a large group identity and never look back.  We are expected to fit in a narrow pattern that looks only this way or that.  But now, more than ever, I am convinced that doing right by Palestinian refugees requires being willing to step out of that paradigm.

In any conflict of significance, the two sides will develop a condition called conflict neurosis. One of the characteristics of this phenomenon is that people who do not completely and utterly condemn their group’s opponents are viewed with distrust and suspicion, and any admission that the other side’s position has even the smallest amount of legitimacy is deemed tantamount to betrayal. I’ve long been convinced that this dynamic goes to eleven when it comes to matters surrounding the plight of Palestinians.  

Say one thing that doesn’t match the team narrative, and suddenly you are one of them. But are you? The problem you face is, if you’re not joined at the hip with one side or the other, how far are you, then, from being designated an opponent by both sides

I’ve listened to an American Christian in the peace movement freely opine on how she wouldn’t condemn Palestinian terrorists for stabbing random Israelis.  But if I condemn stabbing people, then I am judged to be another apologist for the occupation and an enabler of Israeli colonial aggression.

I’ve listened to a Lebanese-American Christian talk amusedly about how his family pulled up chairs to watch and celebrate as Israeli planes bombed Palestinian neighborhoods in Beirut. But if I condemn the loss of civilian lives in a densely-packed urban refugee camp, then I am judged to be a terrorist sympathizer and a threat to the security of the state of Israel

These are the kinds of mindsets we are invited to give in to. 

Us and Them.

And just by questioning these narratives, we invite the bitter condemnation of both sides. But we must reject the notion that all that we have is a binary choice in this matter – especially in a conflict where neither side has clean hands.  

Everyone should be able to condemn the unlawful use of force by Israeli troops and to condemn Mahmoud Abbas’ reprehensible blaming of European Jews for the Holocaust. Both are unconscionable. But all too often, we see the impulse to defend a preferred side wins the day, and we argue away. And all the while, the refugees are forgotten.  Because it’s more important to us to support our side against the other than to ask who is suffering because the conflict remains unresolved?

Amidst the cacophony of partisan rancor, the situation of Palestinian refugees is simply nowhere to be found.  We can argue all day about the righteousness of this and evil of that. But what about those trodden under the foot of the conflict?

If you have a television, you’ve seen footage of clashes in the West Bank and Gaza more times than you can count. When was the last time you saw the evening news do a story on how millions of Palestinians outside those areas still remain multigenerational refugees without citizenship and full human rights after seventy years?  You maybe had a school project or a few hours of class in college debating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  But I’m sure you never were asked to think about the plight of the refugees that conflict created. Instead, Palestinian refugees are forgotten, ignored, and if mentioned at all, often blamed for their own suffering.  

Such is the fruit of a binary, group-association mindset:  It demands that we dehumanize others.

Even so, when I consider the situation of Palestinian refugees and the very real needs that exist in the refugee camps where Beirut and Beyond works, I often find myself thinking, “No matter which side people identify with in the larger conflict, can’t we agree that the consignment of millions of people across multiple generations to such a fate is morally wrong?

A humanitarian need is a humanitarian need.

When it comes to choosing to offer relief, should we care that this side or that one has done terrible things to the other? Should we care about helping refugee communities that are denied citizenship and basic human rights? Should we do unto others as we would have them do unto us?

The moral answer is not it depends on whether others of their nationality have done things I strongly disagree with.  

The moral answer is not popular.  It does not fit the neat, partisan categorization that tempts us daily.

The moral answer is yes.


Steve Phillips is geopolitical, foreign affairs, and news junkie who loves the wilderness, and especially multi-day whitewater river trips.  He formerly lived in Egypt, where he published the first English guide to Cairo's public transportation system. A civil litigator by trade, he has a mild obsession with constitutional jurisprudence.