Despite seventy-five years of effort, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has proven stubbornly immune to progress and reconciliation. The latest round of violence has once again dashed hopes for peace and justice for the region’s beleaguered people. Why is this the case? Why, among all the world’s horrible conflicts, has this one persisted from generation to generation?
Political psychology can help answer these questions for confused outsiders. This conflict endures because it contains a defining characteristic that makes it nearly unique: For quite good historical reasons, both sides are convinced that they are history’s victims. Deep, abiding narratives of victimhood lay at the core of the Palestinian and Israeli national identities. And though these narratives are well-grounded in historical fact, they produce profoundly pathological intergroup relations.
The October 7 attacks by Hamas merely reminded Israelis of the centuries of suffering and oppression experienced by the Jewish people, from medieval scapegoating and pogroms through the Holocaust. More recently, they have had to deal with incessant terrorism and rocket fire from their neighbors. Palestinians discuss 1948 and 1967, the years in which their land was lost as if they were yesterday. Decades of suffering in exile, in refugee camps and squalid cities, have marked their national experience since.
Rarely, if ever, have two opposing sides been able to make such compelling, convincing cases to support narratives of victimhood. Conversations between them inevitably deteriorate into contests over which group has suffered more and, therefore, occupies the highest moral high ground. There is only room for one group on that summit; all claims by the other side for recognition of its hardships must be proven illegitimate. Posters of Israeli victims are torn down by Palestinian victims, and vice-versa. The game of victimhood is zero-sum.
Victimhood is ennobling. It brings meaning and solace to suffering, allowing people to rationalize their current problems. Victimhood can even become a source of pride, a unifying element to a society upon which members can draw inspiration and liberation from the standard rules of moral behavior. Outsiders often sympathize with the actions of those who have been wronged.
That sympathy allows victims to operate under a different set of rules than the rest of us. They rarely feel the need to compromise, for one thing, since they have suffered enough already. They pursue justice, not vengeance; their actions and excesses are understandable or even excusable. Who, after all, denounces liberated concentration camp inmates for tearing their SS tormentors to shreds?
Extreme actions of victims can be justified once put in “proper context.” Both Israelis and Palestinians routinely demand that the atrocities their side regrettably perpetrates be put into historical perspective. Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad, for example, recently told Lebanese TV that, “We are the victims of the occupation. Period. Therefore, nobody should blame us for the things we do … everything we do is justified.” Many Israelis feel the same about the bombing of Gaza.
Sometimes, the passage of generations can mitigate perceptions of victimhood, but this seems less likely in these cases since the narrative is inculcated early and consistently in both Israeli and Palestinian education. The Holocaust is a ubiquitous presence in Israeli schools, where many believe that only keeping memories of the horror alive can prevent a recurrence. Palestinian youngsters are reminded daily of the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948, and their continuing mistreatment by the occupiers. Children on both sides are urged to remember the wrongs committed against their parents and grandparents.
This mutual claim to victimhood is a nearly insurmountable impediment to peace. Although the newest round of violence in the Middle East is shocking for its intensity and barbarity, it should not be surprising. History, or rather how people choose to remember their history, prevents any meaningful resolution to the region’s problems.
The carnage will continue until both sides decide that the future matters more than the past and that their children are more important than their ancestors. Victimhood has inertia and will remain in place unless acted upon by a force.
Christopher J. Fettweis is a professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans. His latest book is The Pursuit of Dominance: 2000 Years of Superpower Grand Strategy.
Image: Marwan Hamouu / Shutterstock.com