How Trauma Drives the Politics of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Overwhelming individual experiences and collective remembrance of atrocities provide fertile ground for divisive extremists

How Trauma Drives the Politics of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Rowan El Saidan, aged 11, sits alone during a music workshop for traumatized children in Gaza City. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

When it comes to the multigenerational Israeli-Palestinian conflict, trauma is the background scream in the echo chamber. Although the conflict is primarily about land and political identity, the demons of past and present suffering cast a long shadow over individual and collective perceptions. The ghosts of the Holocaust and the Nakba, of multiple Arab-Israeli wars, of a violent occupation and of violent resistance to it, haunt the collective and individual consciousnesses of Palestinians and Israelis.

The resulting trauma deepens mutual distrust, warps interpretations of the other side’s intentions, distorts the real power dynamic at play and empowers extremists and opportunists to take advantage of public fears to advance their own agendas, at the expense of the long-term good of ordinary people. Trauma also perpetuates the conflict by elevating the value of land over human life and by investing violence with a hypnotic redemptive value.

There are two types of interrelated and intertwined trauma at play in the Israeli-Palestinian context: individual and collective trauma.

That people grieve their dead similarly and experience profound suffering, regardless of their political views or enemy status, was plain to see from the onset of this latest painful chapter.

By far the largest site and incubator of individual trauma is Gaza, whose population endures a cyclical succession of wars and violent flare-ups as well as the continuous low-intensity warfare of a blockade of the territory, which has been in place in various forms since 2005.

There is barely a soul living in the besieged territory who is not traumatized many times over. “Gaza has endured multiple losses, what we call multi-traumatic losses,” Hasan Zeyada, a veteran psychologist at the pioneering Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, explained to me when I visited Gaza in the aftermath of the destruction wrought by the 2014 war. “People in other places usually endure a single loss: the loss of a home or a family member or a job. Many Gazans have lost them all.”

The resulting psychological effect cannot even be described as post-traumatic stress, Zeyada pointed out, “because the trauma is ongoing — Gaza does not have pre and post.”

This multilayered loss is plain to see now, as Israel embarks on an onslaught against Gaza that is more brutal than even that of 2014. In the sealed-off strip, there are few places to hide from the airstrikes and bombs. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes, over 11,000 have died and an unknown number have lost everything they own, while some have lost everyone they love.

But the most painful, traumatic loss has to be that of losing children. Amid the thousands of civilians who have been killed since Israel started its onslaught on Gaza, an average of 400 children were perishing each day, according to figures released by UNICEF on Oct. 23. From Oct. 7 to Nov. 13, at least 4,609 children were killed in Gaza, according to The Washington Post. And of the 1,400 Israelis who were killed during the initial Hamas attack on southern Israel, about 20 were children.

An unintentional moment of poetic injustice occurred when two 4-year-old boys, one Israeli and one Palestinian, died within a few days of each other. The two preschoolers, who lived just 14 miles away from each other but a world apart, not only shared a passion for playing outdoors but had (almost) the same first name: Omer Siman-Tov and Omar Bilal al-Banna.

Omer and his two older sisters died when their house, in the Nir Oz kibbutz, was set on fire during the Hamas attack, while his parents were shot dead, according to the BBC, though some reports say that the entire family was shot dead in their safe room. Omar had been playing outdoors when, on Oct. 12, an Israeli missile hit a neighboring building in Zeitoun (east of Gaza City); the falling rubble killed the boy and injured his older brother.

Under different circumstances, Omar and Omer may even have been friends. Another thing the two boys have in common is that partisans on the other side have denied that their deaths ever took place, delivering an additional indignity beyond the grave and multiplying the distress for their families.

These innocent kids have paid with their lives for the adult world of hubris and vengeance into which they were born, where the voices of the young go unheard and even their cries and screams are lost in an unforgiving void.

Social media has been full of images of the sweet, innocent faces of girls and boys who are no longer with us because they were so cruelly robbed of their most fundamental right, the right to life.

As a parent myself, I hope never to experience the hell of losing a child so cruelly and wantonly. The pain must be unendurable, the scars unhealing, the trauma lifelong.

And for the children who survive, especially in war-torn Gaza, the psychological effects are deep and lasting. “Children are the most sensitive group and they are the most likely to be affected by sociopolitical reality,” Zeyada observed when I met him. “You have children who have motor problems, academic issues, attention disorders, sleep disorders and nightmares, and their ability to endure shocks has weakened. … A child feels this world is not safe, it is frightening and terrifying.”

I can only begin to imagine how powerless and impotent parents caught in this situation must feel, unable to protect their children from danger and powerless to build the sense of security every child needs while growing up.

Fight or flight is a natural reaction. But when you are a defenseless civilian, the choice is starker — it is flight or fright. Sadly, in Gaza, especially at this violent moment in time, fleeing far from the fighting is not an option.

A Gazan friend who works in the humanitarian sector had long struggled with this dilemma: flee and protect his family or stay, serve his community and be part of the society he loves. During all the previous wars and the hardship in between, he and his family had refused to leave, despite their doubts.

In the early days of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, they decided that they would seek temporary refuge in Egypt. But fortune decided otherwise. As they waited in the bus at the Rafah border, Israel bombed the crossing on the Palestinian side, leaving them shaken and stranded in Gaza.

On the Israeli side of the fence, grief and trauma also play a major role, though they are less intense and concentrated than in Gaza. This is especially the case in the areas adjoining the Palestinian enclave. It is visible in the pain expressed by survivors of the Hamas killings in southern Israel, and the relatives and friends of those who perished or were taken hostage, not to mention those who were evacuated from their homes.

Widespread individual trauma is compounded by collective and historical trauma. In the case of Israelis, the central, pivotal collective trauma is the Holocaust (or Shoah, the Hebrew for “catastrophic destruction”), and the pogroms that preceded it. Although the Palestinians were not responsible for the persecution and genocide of the Jews, many Israelis have grafted the face of their former tormentors and persecutors on to the Palestinians, seeing Palestinians as aggressors driven by irrational hatred for Jews rather than a people primarily motivated by the loss of their land and rights. This is partly a product of trauma and partly the result of a desire to escape responsibility for the occupation and its ugly underbelly.

Almost every Ashkenazi Jew I have encountered has a family member who was persecuted or perished during the Shoah. This is unsurprising, given the fact that the Nazis managed to wipe out two-thirds of European Jews before they were stopped.

For many Zionists, this existential threat was just the most extreme and deadly manifestation of what they perceive as an uninterrupted line of persecution, stretching back to ancient times. Decades before the Holocaust, Theodor Herzl, the founding father of political Zionism, wrote in “Der Judenstaat” (1896): “We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us. … No nation on earth has endured such struggles and sufferings as we have.”

This historical trauma is a major factor in what you might call Israel’s power dysmorphia: Despite possessing the most powerful army in the region and controlling almost every aspect of Palestinian life, many Israelis do genuinely believe that they are the weaker or more vulnerable party in the conflict.

This sense of fragility and vulnerability goes back decades. “Information about the Holocaust was beginning to reach Jerusalem,” the late Amos Oz, the celebrated Israeli novelist who grew up in Jerusalem in 1940s Palestine, told me at his home in Arad in the Negev in 2012. “At the same time, there was a real fear of another impending holocaust in Jerusalem. There was a feeling that the British would leave one day and then the Arabs would come and slaughter all of us.”

Despite the genuineness of these fears, the situations were vastly different. In 1940s Europe, Jews were a defenseless minority persecuted by a powerful, totalitarian state bent on exterminating them. In 1940s Palestine, Zionist Jews were part of a colonizing project facilitated by the superpower of the time, Britain, and backed by well-armed and well-trained militias pitted against a badly armed and largely untrained local Palestinian population.

This existential angst led the young Oz to dream of escape. “I wanted to grow up and become a book, not a man, because, as a book, I would have a better chance of survival,” he admitted to me.

Interestingly, this dream of literary metamorphosis reached across enemy lines and was also coincidentally expressed by the groundbreaking Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who was convinced that becoming a book would enable him to better survive exile. “Passed from hand to hand, land to land, place to place, time to time, I could remain my own true self,” he wrote in his memoir, “Out of Place.”

A similar existential panic overtook Israeli society in the build-up to the 1967 war, the most decisive military victory Israel would score against the Arabs, and again in 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack that almost led to the Jewish state’s first-ever military defeat.

The carnage left behind by Hamas’ ruthless incursion into Israel evoked, yet again, comparisons with the Shoah, with many Israelis and Jews genuinely fearful of another genocide, despite Israel’s overwhelming military might and the clear differences between the two situations.

The trauma of the Holocaust lives on in the collective consciousness of Israelis. This is symbolically reflected in the proximity on the calendar of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) to Israel’s Independence Day, an expression of the Israeli state’s perceived role as the protector and savior of Jews. Another indication of this centrality is Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the moving memorial to and museum for the victims of the Holocaust.

My most memorable visit to Yad Vashem was when I joined a group of young Israelis and Palestinians who went together as an exercise in building greater understanding. The joint group wandered through Nazism’s hall of shame. They saw it all, including Hitler’s rise, the Warsaw Ghetto and the death camps. For the young Palestinians who were being exposed to the full extent of Nazi atrocities for the first time, even though some had learned the basics at school, their attempts to grasp the enormity of this crime against humanity led them to wonder such things as why a well-integrated minority was killed off like this, why nobody stopped the slaughter and why Europe and America refused to take in more Jewish refugees.

Ironically, Yad Vashem overlooks, across a valley, one of the most poignantly symbolic sites of Palestinian collective trauma: Deir Yassin. This quaint and tranquil village, which had declared its neutrality during the 1947-8 civil war in Palestine, was attacked by extreme right-wing Jewish paramilitary groups, the Irgun and the Stern Gang, and many of its residents were massacred, while the village itself was wiped off the map.

“On [the Yad Vashem] side of the valley the world is taught to ‘Never Forget.’ On the Deir Yassin side the world is urged to ‘Never Mind,’” says the website of Zochrot, an Israeli nongovernmental organization dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the Palestinians expelled during the founding of Israel.

Deir Yassin proved to be a pivotal moment in the annals of the Palestinian struggle. News of the execution of over 100 villagers out of a population of 600 and the parading of survivors through the streets of Jerusalem led to mass panic among the Arab civilian population, helping to trigger the exodus of the majority of Palestine’s Arab population, who genuinely feared further massacres and believed they could return after the fighting ended.

Around 700,000 Palestinians fled in fear or were driven out, most of them never to be allowed back to their homes. This marks the start of what came to be known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” which, in the minds of Palestinians, is an ongoing and lived disaster.

The offspring of these Palestinian refugees number between 6 and 7 million today. They have been condemned to the kind of perpetual exile that would, ironically, be familiar to the forebears of the Jews who replaced them in their homeland and to diaspora Jews, with the main difference being that diaspora Palestinians belong to the world’s two largest religions.

Mahmoud Darwish, widely regarded as the national poet of Palestine, expressed this sense of banishment in one of his later poems, “Without exile, who am I?”:

… and we are now loosened
from the gravity of identity’s land. What will we do … what
will we do without exile, and a long night
that stares at the water?

Echoing Jewish mysticism and the portable nature of traditional Jewish identity, the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti once observed that Israel “took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land.”

While Palestinians in the diaspora have little to no chance of moving to their ancestral land without significant political change, those Palestinians who still live in historic Palestine feel that a slow-burning Nakba is still in progress. In Jerusalem and the West Bank this is manifested in the form of land grabs, evictions and home demolitions, with violence and land confiscations escalating since the latest war in Gaza began. Since Oct. 7, at least 183 Palestinians have reportedly died in the West Bank at the hands of Israeli forces or settlers. The Jenin refugee camp alone has endured five raids by the Israeli army.

In Gaza it takes the form of a constant cycle of wars and the gradual transformation of the territory into an uninhabitable no man’s land, evoking renewed fears of ethnic cleansing.

The wholesale destruction of Arab Palestine and the erasure of Jewish communities in Europe — from the cosmopolitan intellectual salons of Vienna to the impoverished shtetls of Eastern Europe, not to mention the later disappearance of most of the Middle East’s Jewish communities — have led to the land’s taking on a glorified, mystical quality in both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism.

Since the majority of Palestinians at the time of the Nakba were farmers, the land took on a romantic aura. “As the women walked back with the oranges, the sound of their sobs reached us,” wrote the celebrated Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani in his classic 1958 collection of short stories, “Land of the Sad Oranges.” “Only then did oranges seem to me something dear, that each of these big, clean fruits was something to be cherished.”

In the view of early Zionists, a land to call their own would anchor the Jewish people and protect them against the vulnerability of being a perpetual minority, while working the land would supposedly construct a tough and resilient new Jew who would never be anybody’s victim.

The perceived redemptive power of the land is such that maximalists on both sides believe that possession of Israel/Palestine is more important than flesh-and-blood Israelis and Palestinians, no matter how many generations of suffering it inflicts on them.

To advance this agenda and to perpetuate the conflict, extremists prey on the historic collective trauma of the Jews and the ongoing lived trauma of the Palestinians as well as the fear and distrust this engenders. In a form of unspoken insecurity coordination and peace-breaking, they feed off each other’s atrocities to undermine shaky trust and to shoot down any doves before they can take wing.

For decades, Palestinian Islamists had this unspoken symbiotic relationship with the Israeli right and settlers. In fact, just as America had earlier backed Islamists against secular, nonaligned Arab regimes during the Cold War, Israel discreetly tolerated and even supported the emergence of Hamas’ precursor as a counterbalance against the hated PLO, despite the latter’s eventual willingness to find a negotiated solution to the conflict.

During the highly flawed Oslo peace process, Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s suicide bombings, coupled with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a religious Zionist zealot named Yigal Amir, helped propel the self-serving Benjamin Netanyahu to power. Likewise, Netanyahu, Likud and their far-right settler allies helped strengthen Hamas’ position in the eyes of the Palestinian electorate, by killing off the peace process, discrediting the Palestinian Authority’s quest for peace and building facts on the ground designed to ensure that a Palestinian state would never become a reality.

Ever since Hamas’ rise to power in Gaza, Netanyahu has regarded the Islamic Resistance Movement both as an enemy and as a de facto ally with a mutual foe: the peace process, the peace camp and the two-state solution. Despite or because of the fear Hamas and its rockets inflict in the hearts of Israeli citizens, he saw in the movement a useful tool for both personal and ideological gain.

“Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas,” he reportedly told Knesset members of his Likud party in March 2019. “This is part of our strategy — to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”

“The conception,” the name Netanyahu gave for this strategy to thwart Palestinian aspirations while managing the conflict to the advantage of the Israeli settler movement, blew up in his face on Oct. 7, when the security he had boasted to the electorate of guaranteeing by besieging Gaza shattered.

Now Netanyahu and his government are responding in the only language they seem to be able to speak and the only language they believe the Palestinians understand: extreme, disproportionate, deadly force.

The historical collective trauma that Netanyahu has exploited to keep himself in power, to try to evade prosecution and to advance the agenda of his settler allies is underpinned by a fundamental overestimation of what violence can achieve in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a fundamental underestimation of the resolve of the other side and the increased steadfastness violence engenders.

Israel cannot destroy Hamas. This is not because Hamas is invincible or that Israel lacks the firepower. It is because “Hamas” is an idea, and you cannot kill an idea on the battlefield.

In fact, what Israel is doing now in Gaza runs the risk of creating the conditions for even more radical movements to emerge from the rubble, especially as the social pillars holding the community together crumble amid the destruction. The intense grief and trauma caused by the ongoing destruction of Gaza could provide a new cadre of extremists with willing or reluctant recruits.

Israel’s extreme militarism and its overreliance on military might is partly a byproduct of historical trauma, exploited by hawks and extremists to keep the public supportive of, or hostage to, the settlement project and the continued disempowerment of the Palestinians. The power, machismo and swagger of the region’s most powerful army partially compensates in the collective psyche for a sense of past powerlessness and weakness.

A not dissimilar dynamic of overestimating the utility of violence and underestimating the resolve and determination of the other side is at play amongst Palestinians too, but for contemporary rather than historical reasons. The continuing collective trauma of dispossession has created not just deep wells of pain but profound reservoirs of impotent shame at the collective weakness of the Palestinian people and their inability to defend themselves.

This has had the paradoxical effect on the armed Palestinian factions of making the allure of violence grow, even as its futility is repeatedly and painfully demonstrated. Hamas’ bloody incursion on Oct. 7 is a case in point. There is no way that Hamas could not have foreseen the ferocity of Israel’s current military campaign, but it went ahead anyway.

So long as violence remains the path of least resistance, tragedy will compound tragedy and catastrophe will succeed catastrophe. There is no military or armed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and those who say that there is are either lying or engaging in (self-)deception.

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