(GENEVA) — Like Cornell, Switzerland is populated with students from all sorts of backgrounds, ethnicities and religions; students who collaborate with one another on a daily basis and foster constructive dialogue on many subjects. With strong ties to the international community, however, Cornell is not immune to conflict, as is evident in the ongoing controversy and recent debates related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Though Switzerland is renowned for being a bastion for open discussion and tolerance, it has recently witnessed numerous demonstrations concerning global economic equality, lack of aid to war-torn countries and Israel’s response to the rockets that were launched by Hamas into Israel.
Many Swiss residents were angered by the intensity of Israel’s actions, saying Israel was not justified in making such a disproportionately aggressive response. According to Marion Aporta, an intern at the International Labour Organization raised in Geneva, Switzerland, many Swiss citizens developed this perception by comparing the number of Israeli victims of the Hamas attacks to the Palestinian victims of the Israeli response.
Aporta said that discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult for many Swiss residents because some examine the entire history of it, starting with Israel’s creation in 1948 and others isolate this most recent escalation in violence. Many Swiss people argue over whether Israel has the right to employ aggressive military action on the grounds that it has been persecuted in the past.
“I don’t think it’s a good argument [to say that Israel is justified in their actions] because we can’t compare number of victims now to those in the past. If we constantly keep going back, then there’s no limit. Each situation has specific circumstances that make it different,” Aporta said.
While Hamas violated the cease fire in December, many people in Switzerland came out to protest against Israel’s defensive measures. According to the Associated Press, Israel’s 22-day offensive in Gaza to stop Hamas rocket fire into Israel left more than 1,330 Palestinians dead and caused significant destruction in the strip. Of these deaths, 580 were members of Hamas or other militant groups. By comparison, Israel claimed it lost 10 soldiers and three civilians by the time Hamas announced a cease-fire on Jan. 18.
Despite the pro-Palestinian tilt, some Swiss residents feel that both sides have too much blood on their hands and cannot be fully absolved of their actions, regardless of any justification they may have for their actions.
One intern working at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said, “The two sides of the conflict point fingers but fail to realize that they have more in common with one another than they’d like to acknowledge.”
Additionally, many Swiss people are angered by more than just the recent Israeli rocket attacks into Gaza. They disagreed with the Israel-imposed sanctions on Gaza last year as well as the alleged use of illegal weapons such as white phosphorous bombs.
The U.N. has criticized Israel’s use of sanctions in Gaza in the past, namely because of Israel’s block of fuel and food from entering into the territory.
Aporta said, “Swiss people want the embargos to stop. It’s not just the war [they are upset about]. It’s that the people in Gaza are essentially in a jail and lots of people here want Palestine to be its own separate state but with a better government.”
The intern working at the UNHCR agreed, saying, “I am a bit disappointed that the Israelis don’t have more compassion towards the people they have displaced.”
The UNHCR intern also stated that many Swiss people are against Israel because it is supported by America. While the anti-American sentiment is subdued compared to other parts of Europe, the feeling is still there. The intern indicated that some Swiss people see America as too domineering.
But not all people living in Switzerland express pro-Palestinian sentiment. Ludovic Labbé, who is originally from France and now resides in Geneva, voiced a position more in favor of Israel.
“I am more pro-Israeli because I think they are the main group trying to achieve peace and trying to get along [with the Palestinians],” Labbé said. “Israel has the right to protect itself. If France dropped bombs on Switzerland, then the Swiss have the right to defend themselves by whatever means necessary.”
One Swiss woman believed that Israel had the right to defend herself in this situation, but that Israelis should be more careful in avoiding hitting civilian populations. Israel has accused Hamas of using human shields, claiming that this was an intentional effort by Hamas to make it more difficult for the Israeli army to avoid civilians.
Another intern at the World Health Organization, originally from Uzbekistan, who wished to remain anonymous, observed little conflict when she was studying in Israel last year, very close to the Gaza strip.
Having lived in the area for a year, she was able to interact frequently with both Palestinians and Israelis. She remembers one encounter very vividly with a Palestinian cab driver. She said that the cab driver wanted his children to go school in Israel because there is no infrastructure or education in Gaza.
She explained that the lack of education in the area contributes to a climate that is conducive to violence and social unrest.
“Without Israel, Palestine would be nothing,” she said.
Even though Switzerland has tried to shy away from the conflict in the past, with large populations of Arabic, Israeli and Jewish people, conflict and tensions between Swiss residents was almost inevitable.
However, Aporta said, “For the most part, people get along here all the time. Rarely ever do you see problems rise.”