Lucy Nusseibeh and Shelley Ostroff

Fear permeates the Israeli Palestinian relationship. Both occupier and occupied experience profound fears regarding their identity, their safety and their very survival. But ironically there are also fears that arise from the prospect of ending the conflict and achieving peace.

One of the painful paradoxes of the Palestinian-Israeli dynamic is that some of the unconscious mechanisms we employ to deal with fear often tend to exacerbate it and thereby undermine moves towards peace. Recognising this, unmasking the rhetoric of fear, and also looking at the conflict as only one aspect of a relationship between two peoples bound together in one interdependent system, can help us overcome some of these fears.

Israelis and Palestinians often view each other in stark, polarised terms of “we are good, they are bad”. This is actually an expression of a mechanism we use to cope with fear whereby we project unwanted aspects of ourselves or our own group onto the other. Each side tends to attribute all the violence, inhumanity and injustice to the other, while claiming complete moral authority for itself. While this mechanism may help people feel better because it generates a sense of moral strength and clarity in the face of danger and confusion, it does not necessarily have any bearing on reality and therefore does not help alleviate the fear. In fact the opposite is true; it reinforces the fear by making the other side seem worse than it is.

Both Israelis and Palestinians see themselves as victims, albeit for different historical and current reasons. Regardless of the immense inequalities of power and control, there is little acknowledgement by either side of their roles as persecutors in the conflict.

The victim role is more complicated than it seems. While the focus might be on suffering, it also generates a profound sense of self-righteousness and a justification for excessive amounts of violence and inhumanity towards the other. Just think, how much violence is committed in the name of self-defence or security?

Sometimes, the need to preserve the sense of self-righteousness that comes with victimhood can be even more important than safety. This need has brought Israelis and Palestinians in different ways to provoke each other into intensifying the role of persecutor. The violence that is consequently provoked reinforces the “evidence” of the monstrous and inhumane nature of the enemy. When this happens we can see how the fear of violent conflict is often better tolerated than the fear of a loss of one’s moral bearings and the resulting guilt and shame that arise from an acknowledgement that one is not only a victim but also a persecutor.

Ultimately, these processes can be linked to a generally unacknowledged fear of peace. Continuing conflict where one’s own side is totally good and the other is all bad can be less frightening than the complex world that is offered by the prospect of peace with one’s neighbour. War is often recognised as a way to unite a people in fear around a common enemy. It is also a way to protect people from having to face their own dual role as persecutors and victims, and all the moral ambiguity and painful internal personal conflict that implies.

Continuing conflict also allows people to hold onto the comforting solipsistic fantasy of total control – shared by many Israelis and Palestinians alike – that if they persist enough, the enemy will disappear and they will be totally vindicated and everything will turn out exactly as they want it to.

Perhaps the prospect of peace also generates a fear of the unknown nature of the relationship that would develop within this new reality (although in different ways for the Israelis and the Palestinians), and the impact this might have on each side’s identity. In any relationship, how it is perceived and how it is described affects how people feel within it.

By now the phrase “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” has become a synonym for the relationship between the two peoples. This imposes a perspective that the relationship, by its very nature, is and has to be one of conflict.

What would happen if instead we used the phrase “the conflict within the Israeli Palestinian relationship”? This phrase suggests that there could be more to the relationship between the two peoples than just conflict. Replacing “conflict” with “relationship” offers space for less hostile and less fearful mutual perceptions. Where “conflict” inspires fear, “relationship” implies the possibility of a different way of dealing with each other; it offers space for heightened discernment and creativity, and even an invitation towards openness and constructive possibilities.

For the fears to be overcome, it is important to take an eagle’s-eye view and shift to a higher systemic perspective that acknowledges both Israelis and Palestinians as interdependent parts of a larger whole within which neither part can be eliminated, controlled or fully extricated from the other. Such a perspective would focus on how best to manage this relationship in its many dimensions and with real reciprocity. It would take the needs of all parties into account and would cultivate the well-being not only of both Israelis and Palestinians, but of the Israeli-Palestinian system as a whole.

This meta-perspective can render not only the conflict, but also the prospect of peace, less frightening. In focusing on the humanity and diversity of both interdependent parties, it calls for the exploration and discovery of new roles that each side can assume vis-à-vis the other as they work together towards creating their inevitably shared future.


Lucy Nusseibeh lives and works in East Jerusalem. She is founder-director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND) and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University.

Shelley Ostroff PhD is a consultant living in Jerusalem.

This article is part of a special series on the impact of fear on the Arab-Israeli conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Copyright permission is granted for publication.



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