The Psychology of Conflict in Gaza Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen

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The Psychology of Conflict in Gaza


Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen


A unique study from the University of Haifa and Tel Aviv University in Israel, and Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, USA, has uncovered how psychological resilience is possible in the face of overwhelming adversity produced by war.


The research, examining two comparable representative samples of Israelis and Palestinians residing in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, may also help resolve the puzzle of why experiencing catastrophic violence doesn’t generate more willingness to pursue peace.


It appears that severe war trauma creates mental conditions which ultimately escalate aggression. Outsiders watching unbearable suffering in the current Middle East conflict, may not see the crucial deeper psychological dimension of how communities facing these kinds of catastrophic losses, survive mentally in the longer term.


Failing to grasp properly this buried mental element means what is really going on in Gaza and elsewhere in the region won’t be properly understood by never-ending TV pictures of vivid anguish.


This latest psychological research suggests that those who are more likely to endure and survive the current kinds of terrible war violence, deploy psychological coping responses which include deeper hatred for the enemy, thus serving to perpetuate the violence in the longer term.


This new study also appears to explain a deeply puzzling paradox – exposure to violence and catastrophic losses highlights terrible costs of such conflicts. This should ordinarily increase motivation to seek peaceful resolution.


However, this latest psychological analysis finds that embedded coping mechanisms facilitate negative emotions toward the opponent, contributing to further ferocity, reducing the chances of peaceful conflict resolution.


The study, published in February 2014 in the prestigious academic journal, ‘Journal of Conflict Resolution’, examined the psychological effects of personal exposure to death and catastrophic losses, such as the kind of bombardment both communities have faced recently.


The authors uncovered key emotional mechanisms for mental survival which could also explain why the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has endured for so long.


Ominously the research suggests that the current hostilities might be likely to strengthen support for groups and ideologies who want to escalate violence, rather than negotiate a peace.


One possible implication is the argument that dismantling tunnels will protect Israel, could be a psychologically short-sighted one.


Instead,  all that happens, this new research possibly suggests, is that emotional mechanisms are dug deep into the minds of the community under siege (on both sides), which serve to produce a new generation of haters and fighters who will simply uncover new ways to wage war.


The authors of the study, Iris Lavi, Daphna Canetti, Keren Sharvit, Daniel Bar-Tal and Stevan Hobfoll, interviewed 781 Israelis and 1,196 Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.


The investigation examined a particular ideology which was referred to as ‘ethos of conflict’.


The study found that ‘ethos of conflict’ is a double-edged sword, both protecting victims, nevertheless protracting the conflict. It fuels the battle, yet also is empowering for those suffering enormous distress in the midst of an overwhelming clash.


Previous studies have shown that those who were highly committed to an ideology are less traumatised following violent events, compared to victims who were less ideologically committed.


The authors of this new study argue that Israeli and Palestinian ideologies of ‘ethos of conflict’, are mirror images.

For example, the authors contend that in the Israeli–Jewish case, Zionist ideology calling for the Jewish people’s return to the Biblical land of Israel after years of exile, and the aspiration to establish a Jewish state there, might mirror Palestinians’ belief in the justness of their national goals for a Palestinian nation, based on claims they are the indigenous people of the same territory.


The authors point out that Palestinians complain of enduring repeated foreign occupations, the latest being the formation of the Israeli state with resulting flight of refugees.


The authors further suggest that Israeli ethos represents them as victims of Arab violence. This view is based on attempts to harm Jews, block their immigration, and prevent settling in this land.


In the view of these authors, the Palestinian ideology or ‘ethos of conflict’ is very similar. It presents the Palestinians as victims of Jewish violence. This view arises, the authors of the study explain from  the 1948 and 1967 wars, in which Palestinians left their homes and land while hundreds of their villages were destroyed.


‘Ethos of conflict’ portrays the opponent group as illegitimate, inhumanely targeting well-intending victims.


Results from this study entitled, ‘Protected by Ethos in a Protracted Conflict? A Comparative Study among Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem’, provide partial support, the authors conclude, for such ideologies as emotional buffers in the face of extreme stresses.


The authors also found the impact between exposure to war trauma on one hand and negative feelings and threats on the other hand, is different for Israelis and for Palestinians. It is significantly stronger in the Palestinians.


One possible explanation for this intriguing finding, according to the authors of the study, are the differences in collective exposure to trauma between the two groups.


For the Palestinians, movement limitations and the close presence of the Jewish settlers represents constant reminders of the conflict. For the Israelis, exposure to conflict-related violent events is more sporadic. For many Israelis, Palestinians are not in sight and their presence is pushed away from consciousness.


This could explain why the link between exposure to war violence and negative emotions is more confined and weaker for Israelis, as contact with Palestinians is not rooted in high constant collective exposure.


If it is the case that chronic exposure to violence leads to a kind of collective irrationality, this psychological analysis suggests that these two sides are locked into a battle which, for deep emotional reasons, they cannot resolve left to themselves.


Once this psychological dimension is properly grasped, this could mean the rest of the world has even more responsibility to intervene. Perhaps the United Nations should send peacekeeping forces to act as a physical and psychological buffer between both sides, not just in Gaza, but perhaps the idea could be extended also to the West Bank, where potential for conflict remains.


Maybe voters all around the world could express their solidarity with the victims by pressing their representatives and governments to ensure this happens at the UN.


If both sides of a devastating fight have become psychologically trapped in a spiral of self-destruction, this would seem precisely the kind of predicament the United Nations was set up to help resolve, following previous atrocities.

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