by Rebecca Horton
Conflict resolution and eventual reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians are dependent upon the ability of both sides to make changes in their collective narratives. Since the mid-1930s, Israeli-Palestinian relations have been shaped and strengthened by their respective cultures of fear (of the other) and the effects of collective memory resulting in the negative interdependence of the two sides. Each side's being has come to depend on rejection of the other.
There are various social and cultural influences in Israeli and Palestinian societies perpetuating the cycle of fear that need to be acknowledged. Once both sides are able to challenge their own collective memories, there are minimal, yet existing positive interdependencies with potential that can initiate dialogue and informal negotiations between the two sides.
Palestinians and Israelis are locked together in a struggle, entangled and enveloped by historical complexities, fundamental disagreement and prevailing misperceptions of each others' motives. They view identical events, compiled into a historical narrative, from entirely opposing angles. Daniel Bar-Tal, a leading political psychologist in the region, defines narrative as a “people’s symbolically constructed shared identity” (Rotberg 5).
In the case of Israelis and Palestinians, the narratives are constructed around a dispute over the same piece of land. Each side is consumed by the struggle for national identity and has become certain that accepting the identity of the other inherently negates its right to exist. Since the early years of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, the views of both sides have been that of a zero-sum reality in the fight over a jointly inhabited territory. An examination of both sides' narratives reveals that these narratives exist as a sort of coping mechanism in a situation of perpetual conflict sustained by fear. This culture of fear and collective memory within each group serves to provide an immutable “truth” that maintains the group’s existence. The nature of narratives themselves limits the ability of a group to be open to new perceptions of the situation.
Collective fear is easily perpetuated in societies existing in a state of intractable conflict. Psychologically fear overrides hope. Fear occurs automatically, unconsciously, and often on the basis of past memorized experiences as “an evolutionary safeguard that ensures survival in view of potential threats and dangers” (Bar-Tal 605). Societies are capable of providing the contexts, information and models that influence its members (Bar-Tal 605), enabling fear to morph from an individual emotion to a collective experience. Thus, societal beliefs including fear and the influence on the narratives provide the lens through which members of a society view and relate to their world.
The perpetuation of such socially constructed beliefs and behaviors result in mistrust, reliance on past assumptions and views and acceptance of the ethos of the conflict. Overall, the narrative of intractable conflict serves to close minds and prolong the conflict itself, which is why conflict resolution depends on changes in collective narratives of both Palestinians and Israelis.
Israelis and Palestinians both perceive the very existence of the other to be a threat to their own existence and status as a nation.
At a deep level, despite the initiation of a peace process, the perceived intentions of the other, institutionalized by the collective narratives, still produce fear in each group about its own existence and the real motives of the other side (Kelman 589). The zero-sum view of national identity, collective fear and memories and the negative interdependence of the Israeli and Palestinian identities have played a pivotal role in the escalation and perpetuation of the conflict over the decades, contributing impermeable obstacles to its resolution.
Both sides face the reality of two separate national movements destined to share the same small land and its limited resources, land that both Palestinians and Israelis regard as their national homeland. Given the facts, it is important to examine both the Palestinian and Israeli narratives in an attempt to “bridge the gap” between the seemingly polar opposite co-inhabitants of Israel and Palestine. Both narratives are derived from and exhibited in stereotypes of the other, the educational system, and terminology used to discuss historical events. These deep-rooted beliefs have permeated all aspects of life in Israel and Palestine.
So the question becomes, is reconciliation possible? Can a legacy of fear be abandoned and replaced by a belief in a safe, secure and cooperative future? It will take great strength from both sides to look toward the future. This requires bottom-up action, people-to-people exchanges and a shift in facts on the ground that prove peace is possible. If this will not happen, the two peoples will tragically continue to live in fear, making no advances towards a new, innovative and more hope-filled future.
Bar-Tal, Daniel. "Why Does Fear Override Hope in Societies Engulfed by Intractable Conflict, as It Does in the Israeli Society?" Political Psychology 22 (2001): 601-627.
Rotberg, Robert I. "Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict-History's Double Helix." Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2006.