Exploring the Hidden Roots of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict


Exploring the Hidden Roots of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict


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The Current State of Palestinian - Israeli Relations

By Gary L. Rubin

"One can argue the justice of Arab claims on Palestine, just as one can argue the justice of Jewish claims."

– Akiva ben Canaan, EXODUS (1960)

On May 14, 1948, after a vote six months earlier, the United Nations granted official recognition of a Jewish free state. It was on this date that the tiny strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea known as Palestine was partitioned between Jews and Arabs, creating the State of Israel and ushering in the modern-day era of hatred and violence between the two peoples.

Why is this land so hotly contested? Both groups lay claim to this land for historical and religious reasons going back thousands of years. One might hope that after all these years, they would have learned to live together peacefully. However, theirs is a fragile coexistence most often fraught with localized violence, fighting, shooting, bombing, arson and more recently, suicide bombers. The violence ebbs and flows like an ocean's tide – escalating at times to near war and falling at other times to periods of protest or active non-violence.

In order to better understand the current state of Palestinian-Israeli relations, we need to ask how Palestinian and Israeli belief systems affect their relationship. We must also try to be aware of the psychological and social mindsets of both groups in order to gain a better understanding of the conflict.

Arab psychology and culture is vastly different from our own Western views. Political Psychologist Dr. Avner Falk (2004) asks, "Can non-Arabs understand the emotional make-up of the Arabs? Can the Israeli Jews understand the Palestinian Arabs – and vice versa" (p. 138)?

Honor is of paramount importance in Arab culture. Many years of observation have shown that nothing must get in the way of the preservation of honor. Arab males have performed honor-killings within their own families in an attempt to preserve their honor. For example, the killing of a sister or daughter who became pregnant out of wedlock, followed by the killing of the male responsible for the pregnancy, is not unheard of and accepted as a valid method of preserving honor in the family. Honor is the glue that binds them.

Falk goes on to say that, "…what the Palestinian Arabs see as their naqba (catastrophe) of 1948 [the creation of Israel] is to them a perennial source of loss of honor, shame and need for vengeance (p. 141)." The restoration of honor and self-respect does not come easily. Anyone causing shame does not go unpunished in the Arab mind. To restore honor, the Arab will hurl back an insult greater than the one sustained (Patai, 2002, p. 101).

Shame and honor are very much intertwined in Arab culture and are more pronounced than in Western culture. Shame is the utmost intolerable emotion, both personally and collectively. Anything perceived as causing shame is unbearable and vengeful. Psychologist Raphael Patai states, "What pressures the Arab to behave in an honorable manner is…the psychological drive to escape or prevent negative judgment by others (p. 113)."

Over the years, shame has been ingrained into their personalities. It's not just the men who are doing the fighting anymore. Women and children have developed a deep hatred of Israelis. While they may not necessarily be doing any physical fighting, they generally refuse to interact socially with the Israelis. For many of the children, however, it is probably safe to say that they really have no idea why they hate Israel or Israelis; it's sufficient to simply know that they do. The following represents the prevailing feeling among a vast majority of Palestinians today.

    "I have always rejected normalizing relations with (Israeli) women…. They always invite me to their functions and I categorically refuse because I hate Israel."
    -- Suha Arafat, wife of Yasser Arafat,

Saudi Arabian women's magazine, Sayidaty, quoted by AP, May 3, 2001.

(as cited by Bard in "Arab/Muslim Attitudes Toward Israel", 2006)

Palestinians have shown a tendency toward extremes in emotion and the ability to harbor thoughts of exacting revenge for long periods of time. In the Arab mind, in the case of their naqba, honor can not be restored until the Palestinians have regained control of Palestine. As illustrated by the following quotes, they will not have avenged their shame until they undertake the destruction of the Israeli state.

    "Our position is clear: all of Palestine. Every inch of Palestine belongs to the Muslims."
    -- Mahmoud Zahar, senior leader of Hamas,

Quoted in the Jerusalem Post, November 14, 2003.

(as cited by Bard in "Arab/Muslim Attitudes Toward Israel", 2006)

    "We will continue our martyrdom operations inside Israel until all our lands are liberated, by God's will…. We won't lay down our weapons as long as Jerusalem and the West Bank are under occupation."
    -- Muhamemd Hijazi, commander of a Fatah-affiliated militias in the Gaza Strip

    Quoted in the Jerusalem Post, September 12, 2005.

    (as cited by Bard in "Arab/Muslim Attitudes Toward Israel", 2006)

Much has been said over the years about the Arab psyche and the chances for peace in the Middle East, especially because of the Arab tendency toward violent actions in lieu of more diplomatic means. What, however, of the Jewish or Israeli psyche? How does the Israeli mindset impact the chances for a peaceful outcome and normalized relations with the Palestinians?

Raphael Patai, in his book, The Jewish Mind, talks about Jewish feelings of collective guilt and collective excellence. He says that Jews view their exile from Israel fundamentally as divine punishment for their sins, and that the Messiah's failure to appear and their persistent suffering is proof of Jewish guilt. Their collective guilt, however, is offset by a strong collective excellence or superiority. That is to say, "Despite its national sin, Israel has remained God's Chosen People." (1977, p.461)

Throughout the centuries, Jews have been an oppressed people. From the loss of Israel in 721 B.C.E. to the Holocaust in World War II and on through the present day, Jews have felt themselves to be a persecuted people. Dr. Falk (2004) declared, "Israeli society is not emotionally healthy. Daily life in Israel is full of aggression, pressure, tension, and strife…. Palestinian Arab terrorists have added external fears to [their] anxieties (p. 176)." They fear annihilation and it is this fear that leads to their aggression, which is merely an attempt at denying or repressing their fear. Israeli psychologist, Ofer Grosbard, discusses his people's fear of annihilation.

    We are repressing the feeling that our own existence is a bluff, that we are living on borrowed time, that the dream is about to vanish with us, that our true weakness will be revealed, and that [that] will be the end. …we will let a Palestinian state be established; …we are splintered and divided; so what is left [for us to hope for]? …Some say Israel lives on the assumption that "everything stays the same." That is an inductive proof that says that if we existed yesterday and the day before, we will probably exist tomorrow. …Our fears demand recognition and containment, as in therapy, so they do not turn into undesirable actions. …we call it "acting out" – acts of aggression manifested toward others that stem from anxiety and distress…. That is…the reason why we distort reality and why we cannot see the other (as cited by Falk, 2004, pp 176-7).

In addition to the constant fear of annihilation, Israelis have lost confidence in their collective identity. The Israeli Diaspora had been going on for centuries. Exiled and spread out around the globe, Jewish culture had splintered. When they were finally allowed to return home to Israel in 1947, they did so without the confidence of a single Israeli identity on which to build.

To compensate, the new Israelis live in the glory of their past greatness. As a result, they have repeatedly shown their willingness to fight for their existence. Examples of this would be the Six Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and countless other strikes & counter-strikes. However, it is their fear of annihilation, the fear of losing Israel altogether, which gives the Israelis a tendency to offer concessions and compromises to the Palestinians.

Israel's willingness to concede land to the Palestinians rather than face possible annihilation has been referred to as Oslo Syndrome, named for the Oslo Accord of 1993. The Oslo Accord ended what is known as The First Intifada, a series of violent attacks against Israel, occurring from 1987-1993, by the Palestinians. As part of the settlement, Israel agreed to let the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) inhabit the Gaza Strip and West Bank, despite the fact of PLO leader Yasser Arafat's continued support of terrorism against Israel and his assurances that the destruction of Israel remained his number one priority.

Dr. Kenneth Levin, a clinical psychiatrist, has extensively studied Arab-Israeli relations and recently published his findings in an extraordinary book called The Oslo Syndrome – Delusions of a People Under Siege. Levin (2005) refers to Oslo as "a delusional 'peace' process" (p. ix). Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and nearly all of Israel for that matter, thought they were dealing with a legitimate peace partner in Arafat. Instead, Arafat was following his Plan of Phases, in which the Palestinians would agree to negotiate with Israel to acquire land piece by piece, all the while building up their weapons cache and using the land as a base from which they would launch an attack assuring the final and total destruction of Israel.

From their point of view, the Palestinians do not acknowledge that Israel has a right – legally, morally, ethically, religiously, or historically to even exist. It is for this reason that they have been unwilling, until Oslo, to accept any concessions from Israel. Also, as discussed earlier, the Arabs believe there is no honor in accepting concessions for something which is believed to be theirs to begin with. Oslo, in essence, was nothing more than a smokescreen concealing the truth about Arafat's scheme from Rabin.

For over 30 years, Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon have played starring roles in the on-again, off-again peace process between the PLO and the State of Israel. Sharon, an instrumental figure in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, remained active in Israeli politics and went on to become Israel's Foreign Minister from 1998-1999. He was elected Prime Minister in 2001, overwhelmingly reelected in 2003, and served until his incapacitation from a major stroke earlier this year.

Under Sharon, Israel became an agent of destruction, no longer seeking a peaceful resolution with the PLO. Not only its foreign policy, but its domestic policy as well, was geared toward the politicide or "dissolution of the Palestinian people's existence as a legitimate social, political and economic entity (Kimmerling, 2003, pp. 3-4)." Baruch Kimmerling, a research professor of Sociology, argues that this policy of politicide will not only result in the end of the Palestinian entity, but the Jewish entity as well, posing "a considerable danger to the stability and the very survival of [Israel] (p.4)."

Years of fighting without an end in sight caused Sharon to see the errors of politicide policy. In 2002, Sharon softened his stance and adopted a policy of seeking a partner in peace with the Palestinians, while at the same time, not altogether abandoning his fight against terrorism. On June 9, 2002, Sharon, quoted by the New York Times, said, "Israel must defeat terrorism; it cannot negotiate under fire. Israel has made painful concessions for peace before and will demonstrate diplomatic flexibility to make peace again, but it requires first and foremost a reliable partner for peace (as cited in Dudley, 2004, p. 152)."

As previously mentioned, Israel assumed that they had found a reliable partner for peace in PLO Leader Yasser Arafat. Arafat had nearly everyone fooled, so much so, that as a result of 1993's Oslo Accord, he, along with Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres & Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, won a one third share of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1994.

Arafat's Plan of Phases, initially begun in 1974, was in full force with the Oslo agreement. Despite all outward appearances toward a peaceful solution, Arafat had no intentions of settling anything with the Israelis in a peaceful manner. The following quote, attributed to Arafat, exemplifies his desire to establish a Palestinian nation and follow through with the complete and utter destruction of Israel, no matter the cost.

    Within five years, we will have 6 to 7 million Arabs living on the West Bank and in Jerusalem….We plan to eliminate the state of Israel and establish a Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare and population explosion. Jews will not want to live among Arabs. I have no use for Jews….We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem.
    -- Yasser Arafat, Stockholm, 30 January, 1996, as reported by an attendee of the closed meeting, and printed in the Washington Times, March 3, 1996, by Cal Thomas.

The Second Intifada began in 2000 and brought an increasing incidence of suicide bombings against Israeli citizens, followed by retaliatory bombings against Palestinian settlements. Arafat passed away on November 11, 2004. With Arafat's death, Sharon felt that the impediment to peace between the two people was removed. The Intifada seemingly ended when Sharon agreed to the complete withdrawal of Israeli settlements and military outposts in the West Bank and Gaza territories.

Instead of peace, however, uncertainty once again developed in the region as a result of both Arafat's death and the subsequent incapacitation of Sharon late last year from a stroke. Mahmoud Abbas, a founding member of the Fatah party and second only to Arafat, was elected President of the Palestinian Authority, but is contending with the radical Islamic Hamas (also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement) leadership. Hamas won a sweeping legislative victory in January and insists on the total destruction of Israel (McGirk, 2006).

Having been involved in previous negotiations, Abbas is a known figure to Israel. His election was welcomed by Sharon and all of Israel is waiting to see if he will allow the peace process to proceed. Abbas is, however, fighting an uphill battle with Hamas. For example, on May 17, 2006, Abbas deployed thousands of Palestinian police in Gaza. At the same time, Hamas was challenging Abbas' authority by posting its own armed militia (al-Mughrabi, 2006a). Until Abbas is able to establish his power and influence within the Palestinian government, discussions of peace with Israel will remain out of his reach.

Despite Abbas' seemingly peaceful intentions, Israel should proceed with caution when and if it comes time to negotiate with him. During the first few days Abbas was in office, there continued to be terrorist attacks against Israel. It is not clear if these attacks were a challenge to his presidency or a sign that Abbas is continuing with Arafat's policy of negotiating peace while planning further attacks on Israel. It must be noted, however, that Abbas has been conducting talks with Hamas leaders in order to achieve a cease-fire and he has also ordered his security forces to stop militant attacks against Israel (Bard, "The Peace Process", 2006).

Just as Abbas and Hamas leaders struggle for control of the Palestinian Authority government, so too is Ehud Olmert, former Minister of Trade, Deputy Prime Minister and political heir to Sharon, struggling for control of the Israeli government with members of the Israeli Knesset (Senate). Olmert has been Interim Prime Minister since Sharon suffered a massive stroke in January and continues to serve in that capacity, without the interim tag, since April, when Sharon, due to his continued incapacitation, was formally relieved of his duties. Olmert's Kadima party, however, only won 29 of 120 seats in the recent general elections. Without a clear majority to support him, Olmert has been powerless in his efforts to seek an end to the conflict.

On April 30, 2006, the prognosis began looking up for Olmert as he reached an agreement between his centrist Kadima party and Shas, the ultra-religious Jewish party, to form a coalition. He has also brought on board the Labor party and their 19 seats, and is trying to bring in another Orthodox party and a Russian-immigrant faction. Should he succeed, Olmert will control 80 of the 120 seats in Knesset. Even without them, the agreements with Shas and Labor give him a clear majority with 67 seats.

With this coalition in place, Olmert can now move forward with his plans for peace. He is waiting and hoping that Hamas will soften its stance and become a true partner in peace, but he will not wait for long. Olmert has promised to unilaterally set Israel's borders by 2010, with or without Palestinian agreement. He has also proposed abandoning isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank and strengthening major settlements should there be no further peace talks (Yates, 2006).

Will Abbas and Olmert be able to gain enough control of their governments and curb the violence enough so that they can sit down together to discuss an agreement? As stated on page one, theirs is a fragile and often volatile coexistence. In recent weeks, there has been much movement on both sides of the dispute – some of it diplomatic and some of it militant or terroristic.

When Hamas won a majority government, many countries, led by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations (the Quartet of international mediators) began a boycott of aid payments to the Palestinian Authority until they softened their stance on Israel. The net effect of the boycott nearly crippled the Palestinian economy.

As a show of good faith, the Quartet announced a decision, with Israel's approval, to resume certain aid payments to the Palestinians on May 10, 2006, in order to ease some of the burden on their economy. Israel's approval was contingent on the aid bypassing Hamas and instead going directly to President Abbas. Israel is also considering releasing some of the tax money it collects on behalf of the Palestinian government "on condition it reaches needy Palestinians, not their government... [but] for humanitarian ends", said Israel's Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni (Baker, 2006).

Just ten days later, however, an Israeli air strike killed four Palestinians, among them an Islamic Jihad militant, in what Abbas has called an assassination bid on General Intelligence chief Tareq Abu Rajab. This strike was the latest in a series of dozens of traded attacks between Islamic Jihad militants and Israelis occurring since 2000.

Jihad spokesman Abu Ahmed said, "the Zionist enemy should hurry to evacuate the settlers from (the Israeli city of) Ashkelon because our rockets…will hunt them day and night" (al-Mughrabi, 2006b).

In a dramatic turnaround to the air strike four days earlier, Justice Minister Haim Ramon said on May 24, 2006, "Israel will try diplomacy with the Palestinians until the end of the year before turning to a plan to set a border unilaterally in the occupied West Bank…. We will devote this year sincerely, with a real and strong desire, to see if we can conduct negotiations with [Abbas]." However, unless Hamas meets certain conditions – disavowing violence, recognizing Israel and abiding by interim peace deals, no formal peace talks will be held (Fisher-Ilan, 2006).

President Abbas responded on May 25, 2006, with a challenge to Hamas to back a Palestinian proposal which recognizes and seeks a settlement with Israel. "If you do not reach an agreement (in 10 days), I would like to tell you frankly that I will put this document to a referendum," he told the Hamas delegates (Amr, 2006).

What is the solution and is peace even possible? Should there be only an Israeli state? Many Israelis would like that, but the Palestinians would never agree to a pact that does not contain provisions for a Palestinian state. Similarly, a solution providing for only a Palestinian state would not sit well with Israelis. Is a two state solution possible? One can only hope. If recent events prove to be sincere and in good faith, there is the basis for a good beginning toward peace in the Middle East.

There is little question, though, that the civilian populations of both peoples would embrace peace. Daniel Gavron, in his book, The Other Side of Despair, interviewed both Israeli and Palestinian parents for perspectives from both sides of the dispute. Yitzhak Frankenthal, a religious Jew, had to bury his son, a victim of a Hamas attack. After observing shiva, the period of mourning, Mr. Frankenthal wrote letters to both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres urging their continued quest for peace (Gavron, 2004, pp 115-116).

Tariq Essawi is a Palestinian bereaved parent. His son was killed during a 1994 protest. Essawi has lost several other members of his family fighting against Israel, including both his parents and a brother. Despite all that he has lost, he revealed to Gavron that he has come to believe in the inevitability of Palestinian-Israeli peace (pp. 127-128).

Still, there is much work to be done to achieve any kind of stable peace in the region. One major sticking point is each side's claim on Jerusalem. Both Israelis and Palestinians firmly believe that an undivided Jerusalem should be the capital of their state. Given agreements on all other issues, this could, in fact, end up becoming a deal-breaker. Dr. Levin believes that

    genuine peace will come to the Middle East when the Arab world, by far the dominant party in the region, perceives such a peace as in its interest….Israeli policies have…very little impact on Arab perceptions in this regard….Some Israelis are so pained by [this] that they prefer to take refuge in delusions of Israeli culpability, the subtext of which is that proper self-reforms and concessions by Israel can and would suffice to win peace, despite all evidence to the contrary (Levin, 2005, p. xv).

    In recent weeks, the situation in the Middle East has been rapidly changing. Reports are being filed with breaking news from the region daily, if not hourly. The entire world waits in hope that, sooner rather than later, a true and viable peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis is reached.


    from the July 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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