The Psychological Impact of the Second Intifada on Israeli Society
This paper examines Jewish Israeli society at the present stage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The second Intifada started in September 2000, following the breakdown of the Oslo peace negotiations. During this period, the Israeli tendency to believe in, and rely on, power has intensified to a toxic level. Israel's enormous military arsenal (endlessly renewed by the US) reinforces this reliance on the use of force. Politically, excessive use of force does not work: Both national security and personal safety are deteriorating in Israel. This is destabilizing for the Israeli psyche, both at the individual and collective level. Psychological disturbances that are becoming apparent include the avoidance of historical awareness, splitting, an image of oneself as a victim, increased aggression within society, cognitive dissonance, a sense of personal uncertainty, manifestations of psychological trauma, and the prevalence of dehumanization, demonization and antisocial behavior.
The Israeli leadership manipulates the public to justify its excessive use of force, which is psychologically harmful for Israelis. On the one hand, s/he is eager to agree that the Palestinians are a permanent and cruel enemy and that overpowering them is the only option. On the other hand s/he sees with her/his own eyes that, in spite of the excessive use of force, the situation is getting steadily worse. This leads to confusion, disorientation and fear in the Israeli public.
The complexity of these psychological disturbances prevents the individual Israeli from developing an insight and understanding of their situation, which is essential for good mental health. Such insight would contradict what the Israeli militaristic hegemony wants and dictates. It might enable critical thinking about the principle of relying on the use of force alone, and the destruction caused to the Palestinians and within Israel.
The Avoidance of Historical Awareness

Conflict avoidance "arises from the simultaneous presence of two or more equal threats..." (Colman, p73)*. In the Israeli case, the two threats are: perceptions of the past, and perceptions of the future. Seeing the past accurately implies recognizing Israel's role in precipitating violent Palestinian reactions in the present. This is threatening, as it would make Israel largely responsible for the present terror. Having a vision for the future requires the vision of a just peace. This is threatening, as a just peace would involve returning the occupied lands to the Palestinians. The vision of any return of territories falsely presented by all Israeli governments as "safety zones" is saturated with fear because it is seen as the beginning of the end of the Jewish state. By avoiding both past and future, Israelis reduce their historical vision to zero. The dominant Israeli assumption is that relations between Israelis and Palestinians began when Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered his "generous" plan to President Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians reacted with a violent uprising.
Reducing the historical perspective goes hand in hand with reduced thinking in general, particularly critical thinking. Avoiding historical analysis obliterates the potential for insight, and silences public political discourse: No voices of political opposition are heard. Refusing to look into the past is refusing to take responsibility for one's actions in the past. In the same way, the incapacity to envision the future amounts to refusing to take responsibility for one's actions in the present. If a state of war is to be preserved, as the present government desires, it is useful to avoid recognition of the ways in which Israeli actions played a part in causing current catastrophes.


In Kleinian analysis, splitting is "the most primitive of all defense mechanisms, in which instinctual objects that evoke ambivalence and therefore anxiety are dealt with by compartmentalizing positive and negative emotions, leading to images of self and others that are not integrated" (Colman, p700).
The Israeli worldview is sharply divided into "us"- Israelis, right and just - and "them" - Palestinians, wrong and evil. From a developmental perspective this is an infantile dichotomy. Leading Israeli figures, such as the prime minister, chief of staff, etc., say the IDF is the purest, most ethical army in the world, while the Palestinians are murderous liars and terrorists. This distorted binary of good and evil obstructs a coherent perception of reality. Anything inconsistent with this distorted reality is not recognized; no comprehensive causality can exist in that frame of mind.
Splitting means large parts of reality can remain unseen. The suffering of the Palestinians can be ignored, since it is attributed to their evil nature. This makes any public discussion of the situation superfluous. Those who oppose the war against the Palestinians become outcasts. Above all, splitting is necessary to maintain basic Israeli assumptions that we are good, just, righteous, victims and always united.

Self-Image as a Victim

Self-evaluation (self-image) is "one's attitude toward oneself or one's opinion or evaluation of oneself, which may be positive (favorable or high), neutral, or negative (unfavorable or low)" (Colman, p660). The image of oneself as the victim is, in this context, both negative and positive. On the negative side, a victim is helpless, powerless and unfortunate. On the positive side the victim is, by definition, free of responsibility and blame; perceiving oneself as victim can serve as a justification for wrongdoing.
Israelis have held on to their historical victim status long past its salient historical time. The State of Israel is the strongest military power in the Middle East and possesses nuclear capacities, the strongest air force and many other sophisticated weapons. Israel occupies Palestine and controls the lives and movement of Palestinians, as well as their natural resources and economy. In spite of all this, Israelis maintain they are the Palestinians' victims.
I see this psycho-dynamic in individuals in therapy: When perceiving oneself as a victim, a person feels entitled to be cruel and unjust, deriving his/her energy from fear, anger and hate, and creating similar feelings in his/her partner. A vicious cycle is set in motion. Death and destruction caused by Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel fuels these feelings.

Increased Aggression and Violence within Israeli Society

"Aggression is behavior whose primary or sole purpose or function is to injure another person or organism, whether physically or psychologically" (Colman p. 18). Socialization limits and restrains aggression, directing people toward respecting the lives, dignity and property of others. Society ascertains these goals by exacting a high price for behavior which violates it. In Israel today, the lives of others are held to be cheap. Compassion, tolerance and respect for others is lacking. There is no universal standard for the value of human life. The lives of Jewish Israelis are considered more valuable than those of Palestinian Israeli citizens, or of migrant workers and sex workers. Palestinians from the Occupied Territories are at the bottom of the scale, their land confiscated, their houses demolished, and their lives extinguished through indiscriminate murders and killings. Palestinians' dignity is shattered on a daily basis at the Israeli army checkpoints placed in every village, town and city.
One should also think about a connection between serving in the Israeli army in the Occupied Territories and the sharp increase in violence inside Israel. During the past two years, Israel has had the highest rates of juvenile violence in the world. Moreover, according to Haaretz journalist Vered Levi-Barzilai (Haaretz, November 7, 2003), "In the past two or three years, dozens of cases of murder or serious violence as a result of minor arguments have accumulated. Attackers and victims vary in age and social background. They have no typical characteristics except one: They are all men."
A clear indicator of the mounting aggression is the rise in domestic violence. The number of women murdered by family members has more than doubled over the past three years, and the number of rapes has increased. The scale of organized crime in the form of murder, "protection" and trafficking in women has risen to a level previously unknown in Israel. An army can be seen as the bank in which citizens of a nation deposit a portion of their aggression, in the belief that it will be managed wisely for the protection of the group. In Israel's case, the army has unwisely refunded too much of the use of this aggression to the depositors. Other parts of the Israeli system, such as the government and the Supreme Court, do not do their part in supervising and controlling the use of aggression. No wonder, then, that aggression rules - not only in the Occupied Territories but also within Israel - within the family, on the street and everywhere.

Cognitive Dissonance

Two cognitions (items of knowledge or belief) where one psychologically follows from the converse of the other are considered dissonant. "The dissonance relation is a motivating state of tension that tends to generate ... dissonance-reducing behaviors" (Colman, p141).
Since the outbreak of the second Intifada, a new kind of fear has emerged in the Jewish Israeli public, in addition to the normal personal fear of being killed. This new fear stems from a cognitive dissonance. Two cognitions that Israelis hold are the converse of each other. One belief is that the use of force will guarantee Israel's national survival, and assure Israelis' individual safety. This agrees with the Israeli assumption that "the Palestinians only understand force." The other cognition, based in reality, is that the greater the military force applied by Israel, the greater the danger: Every time the Israeli army assassinates "wanted" persons and other Palestinian civilians, more Israelis are killed by Palestinian suicide bombers.
Palestinian "terrorist" actions unmask the fragility of the feeling of safety based on the image of Palestinian submission and on the total belief that using force against them is the ultimate answer to the "Palestinian problem." The demand for more power against Palestinians took the form of the slogan, "Let the IDF win," which brought Ariel Sharon to power. But this has not worked, as could be expected. The Palestinian uprising has not stopped. On the contrary, it is getting worse. Therefore, even greater use of force is demanded, but without success. This loop aggravates the cognitive dissonance.
The mechanism of cognitive dissonance demands dissonance-reducing behaviors. Israelis cannot give up the belief that force is essential: This might destroy Israel's military character and policies. On the other hand, Israelis cannot ignore the overwhelming reality of children, women and men torn apart by explosives detonated in buses and restaurants. They choose, therefore, to turn a blind eye to the causal connection between excessive Israeli military power and the Palestinians' violent actions. This dissonance-reducing solution leads to feelings of loss of control and helplessness. Despite all the power in their hands, Israelis feel frightened, threatened and unprotected.


Israel's continued use of excessive force, in spite of its failure to achieve the expected outcomes, creates not only cognitive dissonance, but serves as a foundation for another psychological disturbance: personal uncertainty. Uncertainty is "[t]he situation that exists when the outcome that will result from an action is not known with certainty" (Colman, p765). A sense of personal certainty is based on perceiving connections between one's actions and one's life. The sense of safety, which is an outcome of one's ability to predict the future, has been broken and has given way to a painful sense of uncertainty. Prevented from seeing coherent connections between action and results, Israelis do not see that humiliating and killing Palestinians does not result in their surrender, but rather in increased anger and hate. This is why violent Palestinian actions always catch Israelis by surprise and leave them shocked, scared and confused.

Psychological Trauma

When confidence in certainty is broken, psychological trauma appears, expressed in disorientation, anxiety and fear. Other symptoms might be an obsessive need for information expressed through, for example, listening to the news constantly. There might be excessive worry and fears, dysphoria or depression, rage, loss of confidence in oneself and of trust in others, intolerance, blaming others, or turning to mysticism, religion and extreme political and social ideologies. All of these symptoms describe psychological patterns currently prevalent in Israeli society.

The Prevalence of Hate

This state of psychological trauma might be translated into hatred and aggression, and/or into withdrawal and despair. Hate is the inverted energy of love. It can serve the ego as a source of energy, and might turn into an addiction. Hate nourishes angry feelings and actions. Hate and anger will usually serve the ego with a sense of righteousness, efficacy and self-preservation. As in many addictions, comprehension of reality is very poor or even absent. For the sake of a sense of well-being and self-preservation, a person and/or a collective ridden with hate are capable of destroying the environment, the other, and also themselves.
Israeli self-hatred arose out of the (real and interpreted) Jewish experience of being victims during World War II. The hatred of Israel toward the image and the reality of Jews as victims was so agonizingly deep and extensive that it could not be contained. It was therefore projected onto the Palestinian "other." The more the Palestinians' misery and passivity increased over the years, the more they became, for Israelis, the object of their displaced feelings of contempt and hatred. Being so close, both within the borders of Israel and across the Green Line, they served as a convenient repository for hatred.
On the one hand, the Palestinians were derided and hated for their weakness. On the other, the Jewish experience of the Nazis as an horrendous enemy was preserved and the Palestinians were seen as a mythical extension of the Nazis as an overpowering enemy. Hatred of the Palestinians thus serves an existential emotional need of Jewish society. Israeli depersonalizing of Palestinians into faceless enemies and the labeling of all Palestinians as terrorists are mechanisms that sustain hate. The projection of hatred onto the Palestinians enables the preservation of the self-righteous Israeli Zionist self-image as morally pure, and serves as a cohesive force in Jewish Israeli society. Perceiving the Palestinians as a hated and mighty enemy (in spite of their evident weakness) provides Israelis with the sense that their energies are invested in self-preservation. Hatred towards the Palestinians functions as the outlet of Israeli fear of inner fragmentation: The price paid for inner peace is avoiding peace with the Palestinians.
Hatred becomes an addiction, a dominant guideline of Israeli behavior. The pattern of violence toward the Palestinian enemy is reproduced in patterns of violence, both between the different groups within Israeli society and between individuals. The only solidarity encouraged is the solidarity of hate.

Antisocial Behavior and the Policy of Separation

"Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others ... manifested by repeated unlawful behavior ... irritability and aggressiveness involving frequent assaults or fights ... and lack of remorse for the mistreatment of others, as indicated by indifference and rationalization" (Colman, p45).
In reaction to the second Intifada, Israel has attempted to deal with its psychological trauma through the supposedly magical tactic of "separation" from the Palestinians. This tactic is being applied one-sidedly, with brutal force, without regard for, or consultation with, the Palestinians. The new forms of "separation with control" allow hatred to flourish. When viable human contacts are prevented, the dehumanizing and even demonizing of the Palestinians can prevail. The benefits of the previous period of contact, which allowed for some mutual human awareness and dialogue with the other side through commerce, labor, tourism and human rights activity, have become a distant memory. The numerous military checkpoints that control Palestinian movement are presented by Israel as "temporary security measures." This is a blatant rationalization for the deliberate attempt to destroy the fabric of Palestinian civil society. Today's most extreme manifestation of Israeli government's policy is the multi-million dollar "separation wall" currently under construction within the Palestinian territories. This monstrous barrier surrounds cities and groups of villages, isolating and dividing them, with indifference to Palestinian suffering the rule.
A lack of remorse for the mistreatment of others is characteristic of antisocial personality disorder. The more extreme this mistreatment, the more remarkable the lack of remorse for it. For example, in the process of assassinating Salah Shehadeh in Gaza (without due process), the Israeli air-force deployed a massive bomb, killing 15 innocent victims (Amos Harel, Haaretz. November 11, 2003). The Air Force Commander-in-Chief Dan Chalutz's reply to criticism for this action was that, in his view, the attack was justified and it does not prevent him sleeping well at night.

In Conclusion: The Trauma of Peace

In early 1982, I analyzed the psycho-political condition of Israeli society under the title "The trauma of peace", saying the severe fragmentation of Israeli society into various sectors that took place at the time required a war as a remedy for social disintegration. Therefore the impending peace in the north, in Lebanon, following the peace treaty signed with Egypt in the south, brought up an inner threat of fragmentation and disintegration to the degree that it produced psychological trauma. I predicted a war that would "save" Israel from the trauma of the peace.
Now, more than ever, on the emotional level, Israeli society is in need of an enemy that would let it continue avoiding its internal conflicts. An enemy can solve the problem of Israel's need to create and maintain its own cohesiveness and internal borders. Only an external enemy will provide the necessary glue to overcome the internal hatred between secular and Orthodox, between Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories and the Zionist left, between the haves and the have-nots, and the different ethnic groups. It might also keep Israeli Palestinians from demanding their share of the collective cake.
On one part of the separation barrier on the road to Jerusalem, a concrete divide blocks the view of Palestinian villages from Israelis traveling along the road. Uncomfortable with the grayness of the military concrete, some enterprising people have painted a pastoral view on the wall: painted trees and houses, a painted sky, a painted landscape empty of people. This act represents more than ever the process Israeli society has undergone: Rather than accepting the presence of another people on these lands, they forcibly block them out - and block them in - and wishfully paint a fake image of a land empty of people.
This virtual reality serves as a substitute for insight. I am afraid that only a huge shock can bring about a change in Israeli public opinion and in its policy-makers. Israelis might then invest in a just peace with the Palestinians instead of justifying the occupation and investing in it so much of their resources and their peace of mind.

*All definitions cited in this paper are from Andrew M. Colman (2001) "Dictionary of Psychology", Oxford University Press.

I am grateful to Prof. Nira Reiss for her help in composing this paper.