The Psychology of the Intractable Israel-Palestine Conflict

When a community is under threat, the result is an inevitable retreat into identity — and yet more violence

The Psychology of the Intractable Israel-Palestine Conflict
A pro-Palestinian rally outside the constituency office of Canada’s deputy prime minister in Toronto in October 2023. (Mert Alper Dervis/Anadolu via Getty Images)

As images from the Gaza-Israel border filtered through on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, my social media feed filled with conflicting emotions. Many saw Hamas making a bid for freedom against all odds as a breakthrough against the might of Israeli military and intelligence control. In this David and Goliath framing, Hamas were heroes, striking out at an unjust tyrant who had been controlling their lives for decades, limiting their options for action, until violence was the only method of resistance. But others were stricken with fear, especially when the statistic emerged that more Jews died that day than on any other since the Holocaust, and when stories of the killing and kidnapping of children and old people began to circulate. Antisemitism, already growing in recent decades, has been fueled by Israel’s punitive retaliation against the whole population of Gaza, with attacks on synagogues from Berlin to Tunisia. For many Jews around the world, the attack feels like a precursor to the pogroms against them throughout the centuries, a feeling accentuated by the belief that a homeland was meant to protect them from precisely this happening again.

These twin emotions are both accompanied by rage against the other, thereby reinforcing the entrenched identities, hardened by trauma, which have contributed to the intractability of this conflict. Many researchers have been pointing out for years that societies are becoming more polarized, meaning that more people are reaching a point of complete identification with a single group, leading to demonization and, in extreme cases, dehumanization of those outside their group, and a corresponding inability to communicate with those outside of their community. Polarization essentially describes a situation where a middle ground, vital for dialogue, has been lost.

In my research into extremism, I have probed such situations across the world, exploring when people will kill, risk death and even risk the lives of their own families for the sake of a wider group united by religion, political ideology, ethnicity or an abstract conception of nation or homeland. What my colleagues and others have found helps to explain the inflamed emotions this particular conflict provokes, not just in the countries suffering the violence but also in the wider region and around the world. Emotions drive behavior, and extreme psychological states drive extreme behavior, including violence. The question becomes what to do with these insights, when violent responses to violence produce ever stronger emotional states stemming from fear and rage. The long history of this particular conflict ensures that there are now generations of traumatic memories to reinforce large-group identities based on shared feelings of vulnerability and victimization, creating an intractable cycle.

It is a human need to belong, and most of us gain our sense of belonging through a variety of groups we interact with on a daily or weekly basis — our families, friends, colleagues, sports teams or groups based around other hobbies and interests. But in addition to these groups that we experience in person through shared activities, we all have larger-group affiliations, which can vary in strength from one person to another. These can include our country of birth or residence, a political party, a wider religious group that includes people from other countries and cultures, an ethnicity, a language group or an identity based on shared passions, such as being a music or sports fan. There are many parts to a typical identity, but sometimes, if rarely, one comes to dominate above all others, leading to specific psychological states and associated behaviors, including violence.

I was part of a team exploring the question of when people make the most extreme sacrifices for a cause, asking the same set of questions to fighters, ex-fighters and families, friends and teachers of fighters in Iraq, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and other countries that have experienced social conflict. We drew on fusion theory, developed by the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse and psychologist Bill Swann. I used a flash card with a set of overlapping circles, the same flashcard all over the world, merely shifting the groups I was asking about. “The small circle represents you,” I would begin, “and the large circle represents a group I will ask you about.” On the far left of the card, the circles do not touch, representing alienation from the group; on the far right, the small circle is nested inside the big circle, representing what we call “fusion,” total identification with the group. The remaining four have a different amount of overlap between the individual and the group.

I would begin with family, and people would mostly choose something between fused or nearly fused. I moved on to close friends, and then asked about groups specific to the situation: For Kurds on the front line, that was their political party, fighting unit, Kurdistan, Iraq, Islam and so on. For Islamic State group fighters, it included their nationality, ethnicity and Islam. In Northern Ireland, it was their town, region, religion, “Britishness” and “Irishness.” And so on.

Whitehouse and Swann describe the fully fused state, when commitment to one group dominates over all others, as a “form of alignment with groups that entails a visceral feeling of oneness with the group. This feeling is associated with unusually porous, highly permeable borders between the personal and social self.” In other words, an insult, a compliment or an injury to the group or another member of the group is perceived as an insult, a compliment or an injury to the self, as most people can recognize when someone from outside the family insults a family member. The Pope himself used this analogy to show some understanding of the Islamist shooting of the Charlie Hebdo offices. “If someone insults your mother, you want to punch them,” he said. It would have been more beneficial to the reduction of violence if he had differentiated between a punch and a bullet, but nevertheless, the point remains: An insult to another member of a group that you are fused to feels like an insult directed at yourself.

On the front line between the Kurdish army and the Islamic State, where risking their lives was a daily reality for soldiers, Kurds, unsurprisingly, were most fused to Kurdistan as well as their immediate fighting group, reliant as they all were on each other for survival. The Islamic State fighters I interviewed in prisons and police stations distanced themselves from the Islamic State itself (to be expected, given their imprisoned status), but all were fused to Islam. In Northern Ireland, sectarianism showed very clearly with the flashcards, with Catholic respondents only just touching, or separate from, the United Kingdom, but Protestants almost or fully fused with their nationality. In Jordan, no one I interviewed ever put their nationality in the top three, but rather chose family, tribe or region, religion or “Arabness.” (There was one exception, and it turned out he was working for the security services.)

The boundary may be porous between the fused individual and their in-group, but it is accompanied by a conversely extreme hardening of the psychological boundary between the in-group and the out-group. Belonging is necessary for human well-being but, as with every other human emotion, it’s a double-edged sword. Extreme states of belonging to a single group have enabled the most extreme violence seen throughout history and around the world, from suicide bombings to kamikaze attacks during times of war. Individuals who lack belonging, who experience feelings of marginalization and alienation, are most vulnerable to recruitment by organizations that offer such belonging, such as terrorist groups, gangs or cults. And once an individual is fully fused to an identity, all positive and negative experiences serve to reinforce that single identity, with ever more rigid policing of the boundaries of “us” and “them,” and ever-shrinking spaces for communicating with the “other.” These hardened psychological boundaries limit an individual’s willingness to empathize with the out-group, especially one seen as causing their pain. And limited empathy, of course, is a prerequisite for dehumanization, seen very literally in Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s statement that “We are fighting human animals, and we act accordingly.”

There are many contributory factors to becoming fully fused to a large-group identity, which paves the way for equally large-scale conflict. Perhaps most obvious in this particular conflict is the part that trauma plays, particularly intergenerational trauma. In a prescient article from 2020, the psychotherapist Gerard Fromm wrote of the historic trauma on both sides. “The Holocaust for Israelis and the Nakba for Palestinians condense into two words a multitude of horrific experiences suffered by millions of people,” he wrote, describing a trauma not only for those who experienced them directly but also for their descendants; both are just within living memory. “When members of the victimized group are unable to bear the humiliation, reverse their helplessness, or mourn their losses, they pass on to their children powerful, emotionally charged images of their injured selves.”

The Palestinian intellectual Iyad al-Baghdadi has powerfully portrayed this in a long thread about the current situation on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Our grief and our deep triggers aren’t because of any single incident,” he wrote. “We are a nation of refugees, survivors of erasure, of relentless violence. We carry not only our own wounds but the wounds of our ancestors. All of our wounds are open and bleeding now.” Baghdadi points out that the “openly genocidal statements,” supported by Western leaders, have not just emerged since the latest Hamas attack but have been going on for 75 years, with both Palestinians’ history and what is being said today priming them to expect and fear the worst. Israeli communications have told the world that everyone is a target, with no distinction between combatants and civilians; even hospitals are legitimate targets. As Baghdadi says: “All of this was in our psyche *before* the news broke. … For Palestinians the triggers are intergenerational. We grew up seeing our people getting blown up or humiliated or subjugated or shot or beaten. Our parents grew up with that. Our grandparents. All of our trauma is exploding.” And, of course, the same is true of familial memories of the Holocaust, despite the differences of today’s situation, with the 2023 victims living in a homeland with an army rather than at the mercy of a state and society set against them; traumatic memories do not account for such rational qualifications.

Inherited trauma comes with the burden of reversing such humiliation. As Fromm points out, “Never again” contributes to an Israeli identity, while “Never surrender” does the same for Palestinian identity. Thus attitudes are hardened, the two identities in some respects defined against the other, and ever more extreme behavior becomes justified, even normalized. Israel’s occupation causes daily, ongoing fear and humiliation among the Palestinian population, as well as challenges to everyday existence that dampen the energy to act. But, as Fromm writes, “Young people may succumb to apathy temporarily but a return to rage is always a possibility, in part as a vitalizing alternative to helplessness or despair.” That is, the violence we have witnessed from Palestinians is a natural response to Israel’s occupations when framed in terms of psychology; as an Israeli colleague of mine put it back in 2019, “There is no chance for peace without first ending the occupation.”

Palestinians are not only dealing with their own trauma but have also become standard-bearers for the suffering of all Arabs. But one drawback of this common cause is the conflicting feelings around a negatively perceived identity. “Such an identity — for example, as a victimized people or a dishonored people or an occupied people — is not ‘wanted’ by the members of a society,” Fromm writes. “Nor do Israelis want to think of themselves as either victims or aggressors.” And so the Arab world has shown ambivalence to Palestinians over the years, supporting them with rhetoric but doing little to advance their cause in recent decades. Thus they have come to feel that no one is coming to their rescue, a feeling reinforced by the example of Syria: Not only did the world not act to prevent Syrian deaths, but the world — including Arabs — also ignored President Bashar al-Assad’s brutality against his own Palestinian population.

And so Hamas’ attack was greeted across the world with amazement, pride and even joy, and demonstrations against Western embassies erupted: For these people, Hamas’ actions symbolized a reassertion of dignity and pride in an Arab identity against an unjust oppressor. This single massacre, which included whole families shot in their beds, has prompted more demonstrations of support for the Palestinian cause than any other occasion in the past few decades. In Jordan, pro-Palestinian protesters only dispersed from the Israeli border after the Jordanian army used tear gas.

At the same time, Jews have been given concrete reasons to fear violence.

Both are following the logic of what the psychologist Charles Strozier has called an “apocalyptic mindset,” seen in a wide range of extremist movements and detailed in “The Fundamentalist Mindset,” a book he co-authored with David Terman and James Jones. “The goal of Hamas violence seems to be apocalyptic and in line with much of terrorism in recent decades,” Strozier writes of the group’s aims in a response to the recent events. “They want … to have Israel … unleash the full force of one of the best militaries in the world against fighters with rifles and hang gliders and cheap drones.”

This, of course, is classic asymmetric warfare, laid out in an al Qaeda manual taken up by the Islamic State, “The Management of Savagery,” which advocates baiting the enemy’s military into wars they cannot afford and depleting them — as was achieved by 9/11 at a financial cost of mere hundreds of thousands of dollars, compared to the trillions spent on the subsequent 20-year “war on terror.” When Saladin defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin, the author asserts, the victory was not the sole result of that battle. Instead, it was the cumulative result of small, negligible acts of banditry and warfare that may not register in history books. The other salient point in the book is that war has to be brutal, and not adhere to Islam’s principles of mercy, leniency and compassion that would apply in other contexts. As Strozier writes about Hamas, “The overreaction is the goal,” a trap outlined by many in recent days, from the pages of The Atlantic to The New York Times. Hussein Ibish echoed Strozier when he wrote, “Like almost all other acts of spectacularly bloodthirsty terrorism, Hamas’s assault on southern Israel was designed to provoke an emotional and equally or even more outrageous response by the targeted society.” Strozier writes of the apocalyptic narrative on both sides, both expressing existential fears and corresponding goals: to wipe each other off the map.

In some situations, retreating into a hardened, single identity might have no adverse effects on the wider world, for example, when cults cut themselves off from the rest of society. In times of low stress, even a hardened identity does not fear the other and can exhibit curiosity, or at least a lack of animosity, toward an out-group. But this retreat isn’t available to groups whose security is at risk. Fully fused large-group identities, with psychological boundaries hardened by both inherited trauma and daily fear, have another damaging implication for the prospects of peace. This is the perceived threat of reaching across the divide, including gestures of reconciliation. It is felt as betrayal to build bridges with the other and is experienced as a psychological wound. This is most starkly seen in the assassinations of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, both of whom were attempting to negotiate peace and were murdered by their own people. Their willingness to cross the boundary triggered feelings of treachery at breaking the group.

“In psychological terms, this is an extreme splitting dynamic,” writes Fromm, “in which all good is here, all bad is there, and no mixing of these absolutes can occur.” Sadat and Rabin paid the price for mixing these absolutes. “Within this mindset … any questioning of one’s own virtue and the other’s vices — a questioning that would actually reflect a mature capacity to own one’s shortcomings and to see the action of both sides as making sense somehow — is unacceptable.”

I see this all over the world right now. To call Hamas terrorists is to lose friends, as is stating aloud that the occupation laid the foundations for Palestinian violence. I pointed out to a friend on WhatsApp how I feel media coverage in the West has changed, with far more Palestinian representation than previously, and in response was told I was an apologist for the West. When I sent quotes expressing the horror of actions on both sides, I was told I was justifying genocide. In both cases, a hint of criticism or praise for the wrong side was enough to cast me as the enemy, part of the problem.

The editor of Jewish Currents, Arielle Angel, wrote: “I watched the image of the bulldozer destroying the Gaza fence again and again and cried tears of hope. I watched Palestinian teenagers seemingly out joyriding in a place half a mile away that they’d never been; a Gazan blogger suddenly reporting from Israel.” But Angel’s emotional response to the situation changed as events unfolded. The portrayal of the atrocities, we now know, was fueled by large amounts of disinformation, unwittingly amplified by a frenzy on social media. But even discarding the worst of the reported stories, Hamas’ actions count as war crimes, hunting down civilians at a rave or in bed, killing children and old people, whole families perishing in their homes. Angel wrote: “I wanted desperately to keep these images separate — to hold close the liberatory metaphor and banish the violent reality. By the time I began to accept that these were pictures of the same event, I was distraught, and contending with a rising alienation from those who did not seem to share my grief, especially as the scope of the massacre came into view.”

Angel’s essay has felt closest to my own experience of this conflict, and it seems that we are in a minority, with a multitude of people stuck with one set of images or the other. As Israel inevitably responded, with the full force of its sophisticated weaponry indiscriminately applied to the entire Gaza strip, it was equally difficult to hear excuses made for the atrocities. What I am describing is more extreme than cheering on one side or the other. We are now seeing mass hardening of psychological barriers in the region and globally, with many unable to see faults on their side or, conversely, laudable elements on the other. And it is not just rhetoric. A 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy was killed by his landlord in a hate attack in Illinois, and antisemitic attacks and threats are on the rise, globally.

Framing the conflict this way, seeing the psychological similarities of retreating into rigid mindsets and identities, is not to equate the injustice on each side, for one is far stronger, militarily and politically, than the other, and the resulting deaths and destruction are consequently far from equal. What it does give us is an understanding of the dynamics of protest and violence, and the uncomfortable insight that there is a shrinking space for empathy and dialogue.

Conflict resolution in such a situation seems meaningless: Neither side wants nor can even conceive of a relationship with the other, so what is the possible basis for negotiation, let alone peaceful coexistence? As many analysts and researchers have been warning for years, violence is the natural response to the occupation on the ground, which is enforced through violence. The scale of the current conflict in Israel and Palestine warrants that overused word, “unprecedented,” but the underlying structures that shape the violence have remained the same for decades.

One set of questions our research asked was about perceived victimhood, and all around the world people have told me a version of “No one has suffered as we have suffered.” Victimhood limits our ability to see others also as victims, to everyone’s detriment, for violence is then justifiable, and this is what fuels ongoing wars. It is unclear who can address the intergenerational wounds of the past, but without that work, nothing can improve.

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