They say there’s a special type of peacefulness preceding storms. That felt true of the atmosphere in Israel and Palestine during the spring and summer of 2000, just before the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

I spent that time working with a group of young people, the members of which came from many different backgrounds. Some were Catholics from Northern Ireland, others Protestants from the same area, some were Palestinians, and some Israelis. Add to that a bunch of Swedes, and you had a motley crew.

They were all teenagers, all eager to expand their horizons beyond the known world. Yet, they were far from blue-eyed. It’s hard to be naive when you’ve been born into a perpetual conflict. (I’ll make an exception for the Swedes, who were literally and perhaps also figuratively blue-eyed).

We spent most of our time together talking. We didn’t try to get to the bottom of anything; we just shared stories and asked each other questions. What did it feel like when your mother/father/cousin got killed? Or when you were drafted into military service, or when you got lost in a hostile part of town and narrowly escaped from getting beaten up by that angry crowd?

Weeks and then months passed. Little by little, the members of our group started to build empathy for each other. A sense of togetherness slowly emerged.

And as unlikely as that might seem, I had actually witnessed similar things take place many times before. In the hot spots of the Balkans, in Northern Ireland, in Rwanda and Burundi. Even in the gang-infested suburbs of Stockholm. Given the right conditions, it’s entirely possible for sworn enemies to start seeing each other as human beings again.

Not easy, just possible without violating the laws of physics.

I thought of this the other day as I listened to Lex Fridman’s podcast. If you’re not familiar, it’s a rich source of great long-form interviews with some of the savviest scientists and technologists in the world (Fridman is a research engineer at MIT).

This particular episode, however, called simply “Israel-Palestine Debate”, was an intense verbal battle between two historians, a Middle East analyst, and a popular political livestreamer. Their views seemed to cover the whole spectrum of standpoints possible to have when it comes to the situation in the Middle East.

Which meant, unsurprisingly, that it wasn’t long before everyone started shouting at each other.

That went on for quite some time; in fact, the full episode is more than five hours long. I lingered for about half of that, hoping that there’d be light at the end of the tunnel.

As I eventually gave up, I realised there was something wrong with the fundamental premise: that you—evidently—can’t put people in a room and expect them to be able to hash something like this out just by force of rational argument. It doesn’t matter how many books they’ve written, they’ll just get locked in a clinch.

Could these middle-aged men have learnt something from that youth group of long ago?

If so, I think it would have to do with emotions.

Emotions are tricky. It might seem like you’re either emotional or not, but reality is more complicated. The intensity of the anger you feel in a row with your partner can be every bit as strong as the anger you feel when you read a column in the newspaper written by some complete stranger. Yet the characteristics of the emotions couldn’t be further apart. One you can work with; the other is a dead end.

Any given emotion has a spectrum of its own (– just like light has, where some wavelengths give rise to life while others can destroy the fabric of our cells). Anger comes in many destructive flavours, but it’s also absolutely necessary for people to be able to feel and express anger, and to have that anger be witnessed by other human beings. Something that’s obvious to any parent.

The same is true of all emotions. Even love has a dark side to it. Even shame can be constructive.

So yes, there’s probably some kind of important takeaway here, even though I’m not up to the task of formulating a coherent theory based on scattered first-hand experience.

But then again, peace in the Middle East was never supposed to be easy.