Does Psychology predict eventual failure of Gaza ceasefire? Dr Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham

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Does Psychology predict eventual failure of Gaza ceasefire?


Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham


IMG_2036Academic psychologists based in Israel and the USA have recently published a new psychological analysis of the Middle East, elucidating powerful emotional barriers to peace-making.


Daniel Bar-Tal Branco Weiss Professor of Research in Child Development from Tel Aviv University, Eran Halperin from Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel, and Neta Oren from George Mason University in the USA, have analysed key mental obstacles to peace negotiations, in the form of emotions and beliefs embedded in the Middle East.


For example, the authors report a survey conducted in November 2007, which found 88.6% of Israeli  Jews agreed that “the Jewish people have been under existential threat throughout the history”.


The authors note similar possible detrimental psychological forces are operating on Palestinians, but their research focused on the Israeli-Jewish side of the conflict.


The study argues that it is only through an analysis of such mental obstacles to cease-fires, on both sides, can progress towards long lasting peaceable resolution to the war, ever be made.


The authors report that 70% of Israeli Jews in a 2007 survey believed that if the present combative predicament continued, Israel could hold out longer in terms of its internal fortitude than Palestinian society could.


42% in a 2009 survey thought that Israeli society would be able to endure conflict with the Palestinians “forever”. The authors of this analysis contend confidence in Israeli society’s resilience and strength might decrease their motivation to cease fighting.


The study entitled ‘Socio–Psychological Barriers to Peace Making: The Case of the Israeli Jewish Society’, suggests the two key emotions that are driving the conflict on both sides are hatred and fear; these sentiments therefore need to be addressed in any successful peace negotiations.


At one level it is surprising therefore that surveys tend to find only about one third of the Jews in Israel report hatred of Arabs, but that this relatively low frequency, as found in public opinion polls, can be explained, according to these authors, by it being a non-politically correct emotion, so results might be inaccurate.


Another study reported by Professor Daniel Bar-Tal and colleagues,  found 63.9% of Jews in Israel expressed high levels of hatred toward Palestinians, when a more indirect measure of abhorrence was used.


Daniel Bar-Tal, Eran Halperin and Neta Oren’s analysis, published in the academic journal ‘Social Issues and Policy Review’ in 2010, point out that societies involved in intractable conflicts deploy censorship and distorted reporting, to adhere to the dominant fear and hate narrative.


One of the key psychological lessons of the recent remembrances for World War 1 is that on purpose recalling the horror of the ordeal serves to inhibit violent impulses, rather than stoke up anger for the enemy.


Yet the predicament of helplessness and suffering in Gaza – or in Israel – seems to produce no inhibition of emotional drivers – hatred and fear – to continue meting out punishment on either side.


The authors argue that Israel perceives itself as a victim of the Palestinian leadership who “force” Israeli Jews to kill Palestinians. During previous Gaza Wars the idea that Israelis were “coerced” by Hamas to kill innocent Palestinians became prevalent.


The authors of the study contend that negative stereotyping of the Palestinians has become more common since 2000 amongst Israeli Jews.


In November 2000, 78% of the Jewish public agreed with the statement that Palestinians have little regard for human life and therefore persist in using violence despite the high number of their own casualties.


Public opinion polls indicate that In 2007 and 2009 only about 44% of Israeli Jews believed that the majority of Palestinians want peace, compared to 64% who thought so in 1999. Accordingly, polls indicate an increase in the percentage of respondents who think that the ultimate goal of the Arabs is to eradicate the state of Israel from 50% who thought so in 1997 to 71% who thought so in 2009.


IMG_2036These shared negative beliefs about the Palestinians and the high level of mistrust can explain why, according to the authors of this analysis, Israelis react negatively to the idea of a Palestinian state, and do not support most proposals to compromise.


Daniel Bar-Tal, Eran Halperin and Neta Oren report a recent study which found the sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in Israeli Jews was strongly positively associated with moral entitlement to hurt the Palestinians. This was also negatively associated with guilt over Israel’s actions in the occupied territories.


This self-perceived collective victimhood in Israeli Jews was also related to willingness to continue the military operations at all costs, even allowing for great losses to either the Israeli or the Palestinian side, and with the wish to continue punishing the enemy group.


Daniel Bar-Tal, Eran Halperin and Neta Oren conclude their paper by acknowledging that although they focused on the psychological barriers to peace plaguing Jewish society in Israel, this does not imply that similar mental obstacles do not operate on the Palestinian side.


Some might react by concluding this is perilously one-sided research. A huge assumption is psychology is the key way to peace. Academic psychologists could also point out there are dangers in relying on this kind of survey data as producing true insights into the minds of adversaries.


The study represents a key debate in psychology – do attitudes have to change before behaviour? But what if there is little motivation on either side to evolve?


Maybe the revolution has to be imposed from outside? For example, perhaps it was enforced legal desegregation of buses in the South of the USA which eventually produced a shift in attitudes to black people?


It’s combatants’ true motivation to pursue peace which will determine the longer term success of any cease-fire. If that desire is not there internally, then psychology suggests maybe it has to be imposed externally, suggesting a key role for the international community and the United Nations.


However, the authors of this study conclude their analysis as reflecting their extensive knowledge of Israeli Jewish society and their view that although both sides share responsibility for the long continuation of the conflict, right now, it is mostly Israel that has the resources and the supremacy to resolve the conflict peacefully.



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