Man's perception of reality is a product of a long process of a dynamic interaction between himself and his universe.
To understand how one construes reality and reacts to it, I will attempt in this short paper to present a construct, i.e., a cognitive system, to explain how we, Palestinians, may have perceived and responded to an environment of conflict throughout the years.
From birth on, man is in vigorous interaction with his physical, cultural, political, psychosocial and _economic environment. The results of these interactions determine the nature of his experience. These special interactions and experience lead to an accumulation of knowledge about the world and the formation of a value system upon which one appraises the worth of things and events in one's life. Man's experience, knowledge and value system will inevitably influence his attitudes toward his environment. Though each one of us has a unique cognitive system through which we choose how to adapt to reality, people living within the same environment are exposed to the same external factors, and this is the source of shared cultural values and group consciousness.
So what are the features of the Palestinian experience which have determined our shared perception of reality and molded our group consciousness?
The population of Palestine has suffered from the anguish of countless wars of invasion and conquest going as far back as the Canaanite era, around 2500 B.C. But it is the immediacy of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the trauma of the wars of 1948 and 1967, and our subsequent displacement and oppression which have had the most important impact on the Palestinian psyche.
Although all previous wars and aggressions have been stressful, the peculiar characteristics of the Israeli retaliation against the Intifada made this special event inevitably very bloody, resulting in unexpectedly high casualties.
For one thing, the Intifada was the boldest attempt on the part of the Palestinian people to resist the Israeli occupation since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The number of Palestinian people who were killed, injured, jailed and deported during the Intifada was exceedingly high in comparison with previous years of occupation. In addition, the first two years of the Intifada were marked by the closure of all institutions of learning. There were also other measures taken by the Israeli authorities, such as the demolition and sealing of houses and the uprooting of olive and fruit trees.
The Intifada was also very stressful because the unarmed Palestinian stone-throwers were facing alone a very well-armed, well-trained and powerful army which had defeated the combined armies of three Arab countries in the 1967 war. And, until recently, those civilians have been living in a combat/war condition. These violent conditions have made the risks of death, injury, disability and imprisonment very high. Inevitably, the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) casualties has increased.
During the Intifada, most Palestinians, especially those residing in villages and refugee camps, were exposed to life-threatening situations. The violent and unpredictable nature of the combat situation, such as sudden house-┬Čto-house searches, smashing of furniture, exposure to direct verbal and physical abuse and interrogations from the army during the early hours of the morning, produced a sense of fear, disorientation and estrangement. The protracted nature of the conflict and the constant exposure to such appalling conditions caused traumatic stress reactions in many Palestinians similar to those of soldiers involved in long periods of combat.
In addition, the traumatic nature of Palestinian stress reactions are severe, reinforced and reactivated daily by Israeli soldiers since the Intifada; this makes recovery problematic, even impossible.
Finally, since the beginning of the Intifada, the Palestinian people have been experiencing psychologically traumatic events that go beyond their range of usual experience and tolerance. These stressful experiences are also perceived by the Palestinians as unjustified suffering because they believe
they are struggling to obtain their freedom, self-determination and legitimate rights. Consequently, the Palestinian people, who daily experience traumatic events, have no opportunity to process traumatic experiences or to adjust to dramatic life-style changes.
It is hardly surprising, then, that a Palestinian's perception of Israelis is strongly affected by the experience of his own traumatic condition. Interpretations and understanding of the actions of the Israelis are made by Palestinians based upon that basic system of inferences and assumptions. In other words, Palestinians and Israelis do not share the same field or cognitive system base with which to comprehend major distressful events in their lives, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, though they are living within the boundaries of the same world. Both enemies have different aims when they make each other suffer. To use Nietzsche's words: "He who has a 'why' to live for, can bear with almost any 'how'." It seems that the leaders of the Arabs and the Israelis have succeeded in providing a "why" for every war and aggression toward the other. They have also provided their people during the years of the conflict with reason, with purpose, with aim, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible "how" of their existence. Those who lost sight of the purpose of their struggle saw no point in carrying on.
Today, what is the psychological impact of the peace process on the people of both nations? Is this process consistent with their cognitive systems? Do constructs such as sacrifice, commitment to struggle, loyalty to group, hatred
of the enemy and martyrdom have an effect on Palestinians' perception of the Israelis now that the peace process is under way?
Of course, the answers to such questions need an empirical investigation because any assumption or prediction made by the writer is subjective. Nevertheless, according to Kelly (A Theory, 1963), "constructs are used for prediction of things to come, and the world keeps rolling along and revealing these predictions to be either correct or misleading. This fact provides the basis for revision of constructs and, eventually, of the whole construction systems." Again, as during the conflict era, and now during the peace talks, Arab, Palestinian and Israeli leaders alike have been able to find a "why" for tolerance, for mutual understanding, forgiveness and empathy, for reconciliation and for the construction of a new cognitive system. But since man is in a continuous interaction with his own environment, the creation of such wonderful constructs and the erection of a new system based on peace constructs will be in jeopardy, unless huge amounts of effort and concrete achievement on the ground are implemented soon for the common interest of both nations. <