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It might seem like the unfolding drama in Iraq and Syria had shoved the simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict aside. It hasn’t. In the last few days Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exchanged verbal blows in the United Nations General Assembly. Each presented his own narrative of this summer’s war in Gaza, the latest round in the century-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abbas accused Israel of launching “a war of genocide,” while Netanyahu said that the Hamas had committed “war crimes” for which Abbas was indirectly responsible thanks to his power-sharing arrangement with Hamas. Even U.S. President Barack Obama dedicated some of his September 24 speech at the assembly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, although the public zeroed in on his statements about the war in Iraq, Obama mentioned the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) only six times, compared to the nine times he referenced Israel and the Palestinians.
These leaders’ statements, coming more than a month after the conclusion of hostilities in Gaza and Israel, serve as a reminder that the effects of violence between Israel and Palestine long outlast the actual fighting. In fact, the bursts of violence make peace even less likely in the long term.
Fighting empowers those who oppose a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Polling conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed a sharp rise in support for Hamas after the fighting. In fact, in a late-August poll, for the first time more Palestinians stated that they would vote for Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, than any candidate from the more moderate Fatah party if elections were held right then. (A pre-war poll in June showed that only 41 percent would vote for Haniyeh and 53 percent would vote for Fatah’s Abbas.) Similarly, had elections for the Palestinian Parliament taken place in late-August, polls show that Hamas would have secured 46 percent of the vote and Fatah only 31 percent. (A June poll showed Hamas winning 32 percent and Fatah 40 percent.) Trends are similar on the Israeli side. A number of polls conducted after the war revealed that the more militant “Jewish Home” party was dramatically strengthened by the war. Had Israelis gone to the polls this fall, they would have made “Jewish Home” the second-largest party in the Israeli Parliament. Both publics’ tilt toward the right is not surprising. Increased militancy is a well-documented result of war and was observed in previous rounds of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Even worse, violence today breeds the next generation of radicals. An Israeli researcher, Eli Hurvitz, showed in a 1999 paper that a significant number of Hezbollah combatants that died fighting Israel in 1990s had first-hand experience of Israeli violence as minors in the 1980s. A number of other researchers, including the Palestinian psychologist Eyad al Sarraj, showed that mental scars suffered by young Palestinians during the first Intifada, led some of them to turn to violence as adults, during the second Intifada. Over 200 Palestinian minors were killed, and tens of thousands were wounded, in the first Intifada.
Further, the prolonged Israeli-Palestinian struggle profoundly affects the health and well-being of both populations. Civilians on both sides are exposed to conflict-related stressors, whether losing a family member, being displaced from their homes, witnessing the effects of bombings and rocket attacks, or even simply living in a state of unremitting high alert. Superior Israeli military force meant that Palestinians suffered more physical casualties. But the psychological casualties were on both sides. According to a Global Burden of Disease report that covered the last decade of Israeli-Palestinian violence (prior to the last round in Gaza), depression ranks among the top five causes of disability in the Palestinian Authority. We estimate the expected prevalence of post-conflict, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression to be at least ten percent for Israeli Jews, 25 percent for Israeli Palestinians, and closer to 30 percent for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. A World Health Organization official suggested recently that following the summer war, about 20 percent of Gazans suffer from some mental health issue. Panos Vostanis, a UK-based researcher, estimated that following the war, 60–70 percent of Gaza residents will suffer from PTSD.
Psychological damage can, in turn, lead to continuing support for aggressive policies among both Israelis and Palestinians. In forthcoming research to be published in the British Journal of Political Science, we have shown that exposure to increased violence and conflict-related mental-health issues is directly related to decreased willingness to negotiate and compromise. In other words, the psychological stress caused by violence perpetuates hatred and aggression. In our study, PTSD symptoms increased the perceived threat posed by the other side, leading to a hardening of attitudes.
In short, tallying airstrikes, fatalities, or damage to infrastructure on each side is not the right way to measure the war. Rather, policymakers should look at the longer-term effects of direct exposure to violence on mental health: Those whose children were killed, who lost their homes, or who spent weeks in a state of constant alertness to rocket attacks or aerial bombing will now be more likely to resist a peaceful resolution. Israeli and Palestinian leaders need to take these factors into account the next time they consider violence.
As the various rounds of violence in Gaza (2006, 2008–9, 2012, and 2014) have demonstrated, there is inherent tension between both parties’ short-term goal of pressuring the other side, and their long-term goal of stability. One way to manage this tension would be for both parties to redefine what constitutes victory by adding long-term goals into the mix. As both Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are naturally focused on short-term questions, it would be useful to include in the decision-making process a third party that would remind them of the long-term trajectories of their chosen courses of action. This could be done either by an external interlocutor, such as the United States or Egypt, or by appointing an internal participant, such as a “Commissioner for Future Effects.” This is not as naive as it may sound: Israel’s Parliament had a “Commissioner for the Future Generations” between 2001 and 2006.
Even if the parties fail to think about the long term before they fight, not all is lost. Psychological support during and after battle could mitigate at least some of the psychological-political fallout. Some programs on both sides already offer such help. The Israel Defense Force, for example, has developed and deployed a special program called “Protector,” which seeks to proactively identify combatants who suffer from psychological stress following their service in Gaza. Israeli military sources have also reported that all conscripts and most reservists that were engaged in combat underwent “Protector” training before entering Gaza. Moreover, Israel deployed dozens of mental health officers to the front lines to seek out soldiers with mental health issues. Civilians, too, get help. Israeli Trauma Coalition, a non-governmental organization, has been providing mental health support to some Israeli civilians who live near Gaza. On the Palestinian side, the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, a local non-governmental group, has been providing mental health support for Palestinians since 1990.
Both efforts are laudable, but limited in scope. Out of 1.8 million Gazans, only 20,000 or so received treatment from the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme between 1990 and 2010. Moreover, we are unaware of a comparable program for Hamas combatants. It would be worthwhile for both sides to invest more in such efforts since they are critical to both groups’ willingness to negotiate and compromise.
In the last few years, scholars have set aside traditional notions of national security in favor of the concept of human security. In fact, both notions of security should be treated as a continuum: post-conflict mental health problems are translated into bad political outcomes -- the rejection of peace and the empowerment of extremists. Therefore, any effort to settle the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians must include greater attention to the mental health needs of both populations. This year, yet another top-down effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal failed, and the region exploded just weeks later. It is time to supplement such top-down efforts with a serious bottom-up drive to deal with the personal traumas that now drive this 100-year war.