The Clash of Emotions at the Heart of Palestinian-Israeli Violence

"There remained another wall... a psychological barrier between us. ... A barrier of cautious and erroneous interpretations of all and every event ... representing 70 percent of the whole problem."

-Anwar Sadat, address to the Israeli Parliament, Nov. 20, 1977.

Why do Palestinian groups and individuals continue to use violence against civilians? It's the billion-dollar question at the heart of the conflict that no one is seriously addressing. And it might hold the key to peace.

In the last few weeks, Palestinian assailants have committed over 70 stabbing and car-ramming attacks on Israelis - often targeting children or the elderly and in cities far removed from the West Bank. The pundits are scratching their heads as to the cause of these seemingly pointless attacks. John Kerry theorized that it was "frustration" (then recanted.) And Israel blames the torrent of terrorism promotion coming from Palestinian media. So who's right?

It's tempting to rationalize terrorism as an expression despair. But while Palestinian suffering is very real, it does not explain regular explosions of violence against civilians. Palestinian GDP per capita is higher than that of the Philippines, Vietnam and India. Palestinians have a higher life expectancy than Russians, Ukrainians and Fijians. They have a better sanitation infrastructure than Ireland. Their literacy rate is 96%, superior to Mexico, Turkey and Brazil. Enrollment in tertiary education is far higher among Palestinians (~50%) than in China, Bermuda and Kuwait. Palestinians enjoy more broadband connectivity than South Africa. And, to Palestinians' credit, these indicators (which include Gaza) have generally improved in recent years. It's not poverty that's making young Palestinians stab random Israelis. If it were, random stabbings would be rampant in dozens of countries and American neighborhoods.

So might the cause simply be Israel's 48-year military grip on the West Bank? It's an alluring answer, but unlikely. While Israel has often poured fuel on the fire, many peoples have long lived under occupation - in some cases, brutal -- yet never engage in such terrorism (Cypriots, Tibetans, West Saharans, Azeris, and others.) Much more significantly, Palestinian leaders since 2000 rejected three peace offers that would have given them all or near all the land they demand - without making counter offers. If terrorism was driven by Palestinians' desire for independence, it would by now target Palestinian leaders.

Indeed, Palestinian terrorism against Israelis has repeatedly hurt the Palestinian cause. The Second Intifada's incessant suicide bombings caused harsh military incursions and a security barrier - not withdrawal. Israel planned to pull back from the West Bank as it did from Gaza in 2005 but stayed because of violence. And Hamas' rain of rockets on Israeli towns earned it a blockade and air strikes. Using terrorism to gain independence has been as effective as punching a cop to get out of a speeding ticket.

So why the does it continue?

Palestinian official Jibril Rajoub's recent revelation of why Palestinian groups no longer carry out suicide bombings might hold the answer: "The international community does not accept buses blowing up in Tel Aviv," Rajoub said, "[b]ut when a settler or soldier is stabbed while on occupied land, nobody asks any questions. We must struggle in a way that keeps the world with us."

That is, Palestinian groups dropped terrorism that was shamed. They can keep using terrorism that the world condones.

The reason is honor. Like other Mideast societies, Palestinian society is largely organized around extended and tightly knit kin-groups - what the 2004 Arab Human Development Report referred to as "clannism" ("al-'asabiya"). These clans historically provided security to their members, and are still very influential in Palestinian politics. Relations between these rival clans were regulated by rules of honor. Historically, one critical way to defend a clan's honor was to avenge affronts to it. To not respond to a perceived humiliation (physical or verbal) was to project weakness and invite danger. And, like in the U.S. south, the emotional need to avenge offenses therefore became deeply ingrained in the local psychology. It is why the stabbings continue.

Terrorism is in many ways a type of honor killing: contained violence meant to punish Israelis for a perceived humiliation (for example, Jewish policemen entering the Al Aqsa mosque) in order to restore honor and deterrence. Restoring honor through violent attacks is indeed a prominent theme in many Palestinian speeches and media. In fact, restoring Palestinian honor through terrorist attacks often is seen as an end in itself, regardless of the high cost. Palestinian terrorism is not so much an Islamic problem as it is a problem of honor, enabled and amplified by poisoned religious spin.

Israelis, too, have their unique psychology. While westerners instinctively associate personal security with material success, for Jews, that was never really true. Indeed, Jews' wealth was often a cause of anti-Semitism. So, while Arab society often equates honor with security, Jews seek security in acceptance. This is one reason why Israel, though it is much stronger in material terms, has been asking for Palestinians to recognize its legitimacy.

Rather than shaming Palestinian terrorism- which, according to Rajoub, would stop it -- the West's press and diplomats have explained it, ennobled it, and thus effectively encouraged it. Rather than assuaging Israeli fears to encourage Israel to take risks for peace, the West is increasingly isolating, boycotting and condemning Israelis. But excusing Palestinian terrorism and isolating Israel means more Israeli fear and, therefore, retrenchment and military actions. That, in turn, means more perceived humiliations for militant Palestinians to avenge. If there is a "cycle" of violence, as we so often hear, then it is the West's cluelessness that keeps it spinning.

Evidently, when it comes to this painful conflict, emotion trumps hard logic. But that can be as much a source of hope as a barrier to progress. My doctoral research strives to bring Jews and Arabs closer to peace by identifying and seeking to address the (culturally-rooted) emotions that are fueling the conflict on both sides. Results thus far suggest that Palestinian support for a peace deal might increase dramatically if the same deal is framed in a way that alleviates Palestinian anxiety about honor and religion. (A similar experiment among Israelis is being prepared.) Perhaps those of us who want peace should focus more on the clash of psychologies than lines on a map.

The West's peace initiatives -- and its tendency to pity Palestinians while pressuring Israelis -- have been as calming to the region as reminding spouses in a volatile marriage of a recent affair. For things to improve, Palestinian terrorism must be shamed by Westerners and - this is crucial - through their pressure, by Arab and Palestinian leaders, too. Fears on both sides - of humiliation, of isolation -- must also be assuaged, not made worse. And the West's stubborn refusal to listen to what the sides need and are actually saying must end.