Death Does Not Justify Death
Hebrew site

On Fear and Honor in the Conflict
by Dr. Marwan Dwairy, Psychologist

Spring 2002

Among Israelis and Palestinians, there is a broad public articulating positions that are anti-human. Jews call for “Death to the Arabs!” and Palestinians celebrate suicide attacks on Israeli civilians.

Beyond the condemnation of these phenomena and the legal action that may be taken to address them, an effort to understand the psychological dynamics behind such attitudes is also important. People in the respective camps encourage these attitudes for ideological reasons. On the Jewish right wing, there are people who would like to expel the Arabs and take control of all of the territories. Among Palestinians, likewise, there is a right wing that justifies suicide attacks in Israel for ideological reasons. It is crucial to understand that not all cries of “Death to the Arabs!” actually mean that, and that not everyone who looks happy about suicide attacks in Israel really supports the murder of Jews or the annihilation of the State of Israel. Among both these aroused constituencies there is a segment, perhaps a majority, that finds itself espousing these positions as a defensive response. On the Jewish side, there is a public that fears for its very existence; on the Palestinian side, there is a public whose freedom, honor and dignity have been trampled on.

The Palestinians cannot understand the existential anxiety of the Jews. They cannot understand that the stance in favor of continued occupation and control, and even the assault on them, can come about as a result of a sincere and authentic anxiety over continued Jewish survival. The sound of the Israeli tanks and aircraft in and above Palestinian cities and villages preempts the human message and the sincerity of the Jewish public that genuinely wants to live in peace and security.

Both sides need to understand this Jewish fear. The Palestinians must differentiate between the ideological Jewish right wing and a broad Jewish public that fears for its continued existence and embraces passionate stances out of that concern. They must understand that the anxiety is real and that providing security for Jews in Israel is a Palestinian interest. The voice of the Palestinians must be heard speaking out for peace – ceaselessly, unequivocally and unhesitatingly. Opposition to attacks that sow fear among the Jewish public is in the interests of Palestinians, as Palestinians and as human beings, and is not a surrender to Israeli or American demands that such attacks be denounced.

When the Palestinians demand a withdrawal to the 1967 borders or a just resolution of the Palestinian problem, they must clarify unequivocally that they recognize Israel’s right to exist with security. Palestinians need a sincere, unambiguous peace offensive that will break through the barriers of the Israeli and Arab media. Palestinians must understand that perceived ambiguity in the voice of peace on the Palestinian side leaves a space which is promptly seized by the ideological right wing on the Jewish side, who proceed to fill that vacuum with assessments of hostile Palestinian intentions that are threatening to the Jews – in order to recruit support among a broader segment of the fearful Jewish public.

And the Jews must understand that the anxiety they feel today is not realistic, but rather is imported to the present from experiences of the past. A considerable portion of this Jewish fear is post-traumatic anxiety which has its roots in the collective traumas from Jewish history. The Holocaust memories and the Holocaust mindset that the Zionist movement inculcated and perpetuated among Jews also served to perpetuate the mindset of the victimized and the persecuted. This mindset leads to distortions in the perception of reality, to the point that any opposition or injury to Jews or to Israel takes on a perceived quality of persecution and anti-Semitism. And it is this mindset that enables the Israeli occupation to be ignored rather than recognized as the central factor in the continuation of the conflict.

This same mindset casts its shadow of doubt over the sincerity of Arab and Palestinian calls for peace. The fearful Jewish public must become aware of how this mindset of the victimized and the persecuted is used by the ideological right. The right wing is interested in avoiding the negotiating table in order to continue with the occupation and the settlements. It makes cynical use of suicide attacks to justify its goals and proceed with their implementation. Otherwise, what explanation is there for a siege on Arafat but not on Sheikh Yassin, for instance, who has announced unequivocally that he is responsible for suicide attacks? The ideological right under Sharon’s leadership has not been able to bring security but has certainly managed to distance itself from any negotiation that would compel a withdrawal and the dismantling of the settlements.

Not everyone who identifies with attacks by a shaheed actually means it; a great many people find themselves taking this position as a response to the injury that has been done to Palestinian national and individual dignity and honor. The Jews need to understand the value placed on dignity and honor in Arab culture. Every child is taught the saying, “Death is preferable to humiliation.” In certain circumstances, the importance of honor in Arab culture is greater than the value of life itself.

There are a great many words in Arabic that mean “honor,” depending on the context (sharaf, karaameh, a’ardh). Honor, in Arab culture, is linked to (among other things) two principal subjects: the land, and the honor of the family. In Arabic, we say “Al ardh hiye al a’ardh” (land is honor). When land is taken away, honor is trampled underfoot and there is a greater willingness to die in order that honor be restored. In recent years, we have seen an increasing severity of humiliation. Israel’s consistent opposition to a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, comprising only 22% of Mandatory Palestine, followed by long-term closure and starvation, the siege on the elected president of the Palestinian people, and attacks with tanks and aircraft on Palestinian cities and villages – all these and a great many more Israeli actions have completely crushed Palestinian honor, and it is this which underlies the willingness of so many to sacrifice themselves. When a Palestinian reaches the point where he is willing to die in order to salvage his honor, he no longer cares whom he may murder in doing so, whether citizen, settler, or soldier. Without denying the role of brainwashing and recruitment, it is the need to defend one’s honor that provides the basic backdrop to the spread of the shaheed phenomenon to sectors that were until a short time ago not directly involved in the struggle.

Just as I argued that the security of Jews is a Palestinian interest, I argue likewise that the preservation of Palestinian honor is a Jewish interest. To continue this crushing underfoot of Palestinian honor is a recipe for continued struggle against Israel and against the Jews. Restoring Palestinian honor is not a function of the restoration of a certain area of the homeland or the return of a certain number of refugees, but is a function of attitude. Honor may be restored by putting a stop to the dehumanization of the Palestinians and their struggle, by a recognition of their suffering, and by declaring a sincere willingness to find a solution to their need for the same freedom and dignity to which every people aspires.

Both publics, the Jewish and the Palestinian, must insure that the voices of a few militant attackers are not permitted to drown out the voices of the 22 Arab nations who proclaimed in Beirut a serious peace initiative that would provide security for Jews and freedom with honor for Palestinians. The two sides must not allow planes and tanks to preempt the Jewish need for security and the Palestinian need for freedom with dignity. Seeing and acknowledging the human needs of each side can make possible many scenarios for resolving the conflict.

* Translated to English by Deb Reich, Karkur