Collective Trauma and Competing Naratives:Understanding Israeli-Palestinian Relations

As the fighting between Israel and Hamas continues, many may wonder why this war—and, more broadly, the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict—is so intractable

by Sededin Dedovic
Collective Trauma and Competing Naratives:Understanding Israeli-Palestinian Relations
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As the world bears witness to the protracted conflict between Israel and Hamas, the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle are becoming increasingly apparent. While geopolitical factors undoubtedly contribute to the ongoing discord, a deeper examination reveals the critical role of psychological dynamics in sustaining the conflict.

Beyond immediate conflict and political maneuvering, understanding the underlying psychological threads is essential to any meaningful solution.

Geopolitics and psychological impulses

Geopolitics, encompassing power struggles, economic interests, and ideological alliances, serve as the backdrop to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, it also has a profound effect on the psychological impulses that drive the parties involved. The interplay of geopolitical forces and psychological dynamics creates a self-perpetuating cycle of violence, impeding progress toward a lasting solution.

The concept of parochial altruism sheds light on deep-rooted in-group prejudices that pervade conflict. People are cooperative, but the problem arises when love for one's own group transforms into extreme hatred, encouraging hostility towards those who do not belong to us.

This polarization, evident on both sides of the conflict, reinforces the sense of 'us versus them' The consequences are harsh, such as the example of Israel's defense minister justifying the total siege of Gaza by dehumanizing the population and labeling them as "human animals".

Such extreme perceptions contribute to the justification for excessive violence, including the targeting of civilians.

A Palestinian protester runs past a burning barricade carrying a Palestinian flag during clashes with Israeli border© Chris McGrath / Getty Imaqes

An ideological stumbling block

A critical aspect that contributes to the longevity of conflict is the presence of sacred values, deep-rooted ideologies resistant to compromise.

For Israelis and Palestinians, the Holy Land represents a sacred space, which reinforces the ideological divide. The conflict extends beyond a mere territorial dispute; includes the conflict of values and identity. A dogmatic belief that compromise is morally repugnant obstructs diplomatic efforts and perpetuates a zero-sum mindset, impeding progress toward a mutually acceptable solution.

Maintaining the conflict is further complicated by the influence of dogmatic ideologies. Individuals who support such ideologies see compromise as a betrayal of sacred values, making negotiations difficult. The intertwining of religious and political ideologies exacerbates intransigence on both sides.

This uncompromising stance, as articulated by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, dismissing the idea of a Palestinian people as an "invention," contributes to an environment in which dialogue is increasingly challenging.

The role of international actors

While the main actors in the conflict are Israelis and Palestinians, outside players, including the UN, the US and Qatar, also play a role. International interventions achieved only minor tactical successes, such as brief exchanges of hostages and prisoners.

However, addressing the psychological dimensions of conflict requires a more comprehensive approach. International actors must deal with geopolitical considerations, but also engage in initiatives that foster empathy, understanding and dialogue between the conflicting parties and not support one particular side.

But that is enough proof for us that the most powerful countries have no real desire to solve this long-standing conflict.

An Israeli woman holds a sign that reads Don´t make Apartheid Great Again as she protest against Israel goverments plan to an© Amir Levy / Getty Images

Peace negotiations in conflict zones often face a formidable challenge when sacred values collide with material incentives.

A study led by the New School for Social Research examined the responses of Jewish Israeli settlers and Hamas-affiliated Palestinians to the proposed two-state solution. The findings shed light on the limitations of material incentives and suggest an alternative approach to fostering peace.

Research has found that sacred values, those deeply rooted and non-negotiable, cannot be effectively challenged by profane values such as material incentives. When third-party mediators, such as the UN or the US, tried to push for a peace agreement by offering foreign aid, it backfired.

The study identified a group labeled "moral absolutists" - individuals who are strongly committed to issues such as territorial concessions and the right of return. When foreign aid was introduced as an incentive, this group reacted with increased anger, disgust, and a greater propensity to support violence against the proposed agreement.

The key insight of the study lies in the identification of an alternative approach – symbolic concessions. These include gestures such as Israel apologizing for historical mistakes or Palestinians recognizing the legitimacy of Jewish claims to the land.

Surprisingly, when symbolic concessions were offered, those with sacred values showed less anger and disgust, and support for violent opposition declined. This suggests that addressing social-emotional needs before engaging in material issues is key to successful negotiations.

Collective trauma in society

In addition to sacred values, the study examined the role of collective trauma in sustaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Historical traumas, such as the Nakba for Palestinians and memories of pogroms for Israelis, contribute to a narrative that influences each group's perspective.

The phenomenon of competitive victimization, where each side competes for the victim, further complicates the resolution process by continuing the cycle of historical grievances. Addressing collective trauma, researchers from Tel Aviv University have conducted studies that highlight the importance of mutual recognition of historical suffering.

Recognizing and acknowledging the traumas experienced by both Israelis and Palestinians has the potential to reduce competing victimization and pave the way for increased reconciliation. Symbolic concessions and recognition of collective traumas appear as promising avenues for fostering understanding and compromise in the challenging context of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

These lessons have broader implications for conflict resolution efforts around the world because in 90 percent of cases, all conflicts in the world have the same basis. The final agreement and the end of the war will start a new era of human history and create the world political scene for the future.