How the Trauma of Conflict Deepens the Israel-Palestine Divide

Until Hana Tova moved to Tel Aviv as part of her Study Abroad program, she’d seen little to challenge her negative perception of Palestinians. Growing up in a “pretty conservative, Jewish-Zionist, pro-Israel” community in the US, the main message, she says, was that Palestinians are “all terrorists who want to kill us.” Challenging this narrative meant denying Israel’s right to exist or even downplaying the historical suffering of Jews. To make matters worse, her boyfriend’s best friend had been killed by a bomb blast in Israel. Now in Tel Aviv, the ongoing threat of terror attacks meant Hana herself was on constant high alert. 

It came as a shock, then, for Hana to find herself placed in student halls with a Palestinian roommate — and to be aware, all of a sudden, of her own prejudice.

“I don’t want to say I was brainwashed or anything,” she says, “but I was like, I don’t even know this person. Why am I judging?”

Then, one day when they were alone in the student apartment, her roommate opened up. When she was 14 years old, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had raided her village in Palestine and fired through the wall, shooting her in the leg. The power was cut and she lay there, bleeding out in the dark. Luckily for her, her parents — both doctors — attended to her until it was possible to get to a hospital. 

“Who do you blame?” asked Hana. Her roommate replied: “Everybody”. 

For Hana, this was the moment that something shattered; that she saw, for the first time, people on both sides of the conflict as victims. But her experience is rare. In Israel and Palestine, few people from opposite sides of the wall ever meet like this, in conversation rather than conflict. Indeed, their respective leaders strive to keep it that way. 

Israeli citizens are banned by their own government from entering Gaza and most of the West Bank — apart from roads designated for settlers, from which Palestinians are banned. Residents of Gaza are unable to leave their narrow 25-mile strip. Many West Bank residents (including some Amnesty International staff) are subjected to travel bans. The only Israelis most Palestinians will ever meet in person are the occupying soldiers manning the West Bank’s hundreds of checkpoints, patrolling villages or conducting raids. For these Israeli soldiers, most of whom are young adults undertaking mandatory military service, their primary interactions with Palestinians are in the form of dealing with protests or having stones flung at them in anger. 

A Deepening Divide

When everyday life is heavily securitized, it creates a perpetual state of stress, fear and distrust that often spirals into ever-increasing aggression. In a 2019 study, Palestinian anthropologist Rema Hamammi looked at the effect that the ubiquitous, constantly moving military checkpoints have on residents’ state of mind in the West Bank — as well as on the Israeli soldiers who work on them. Her own commute to work used to be a short drive, she wrote, but now the tense stops at different checkpoints manned by a hostile army had made the simple act of getting around “arbitrary and chaotic”. 

These mini-confrontations with power created, she says, “a constant state of uncertainty and anxiety (is it open or closed? Does this permit work or not? What’s the mood of the soldiers?)”. Coupled with the power imbalance, the stress fueled resentment, humiliation and fear — primarily on the part of Palestinian residents, but also for the jittery soldiers left to enact erratic orders in a hostile territory.

Account after account collected by researchers like Hammami, whistleblowers and the Israeli Breaking the Silence project, which interviews returning soldiers, attest that instilling humiliation and fear isn’t an accident: it’s a strategic goal. Even to an outsider, the toxic dynamic is clear each time you pass through a checkpoint and witness how these interactions play out in petty power plays and the disdain written on the faces of people who openly despise one another.

To make matters worse, Israel’s “people’s army” conscription model means its military overwhelmingly comprises teenagers and young adults. Every single Israeli soldier we came into contact with in the West Bank while reporting this story was an adolescent male — the worst-performing demographic for impulse control, ability to judge genuine threats or respond appropriately to perceived aggression. Given the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that frightened teenage boys, handed guns and left to fend for themselves in occupied territory, so often handle the pressure badly. 

Worse, the vindictive dynamic frequently escalates into revenge operations on both sides of the conflict, with harrowing consequences. In April, militants in Gaza responded to Trump’s proposed “peace” deal by releasing helium party balloons carrying explosives into Israel, some of which landed in a kindergarten. In August, Haaretz reported that a seven-year-old Palestinian boy in Quaddum was wounded after he tried to play with one of several boxes of explosives planted by Israeli solders as a crude deterrent to protesters. These continual breaches of international law deepen hatreds and undermine any progress towards peace. 

Pushing back against cycles of violence can be draining and traumatic in its own right, especially when it means urging one’s own side to exercise calm and restraint. One Israeli sergeant told Breaking the Silence that he was called a Nazi and a Jew-hater by a settler mob when he tried to protect a Palestinian child from violence in 2014.

He said, “I felt like shit. I was there to pretect the Israelis and they took me for granted and called me a traitor because I didn’t want an eight-year-old Palestinian who has nothing to do with the situation to be hurt because of something he can’t control. That’s the atmosphere — an atmosphere full of hatred and rage… it’s depressing.”

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, a tour guide described how he once made an offhand comment to a foreign journalist that he wouldn’t rule out welcoming Israelis onto his trips one day — a quote that was foregrounded in the resulting article, leaving him nervous of reprisals by compatriots. In a fight this ugly, any shift towards reconciliation is viewed by hardliners as betrayal.

The Kids Aren’t Alright

Continual exposure to the stress and violence of this protracted conflict traumatizes citizens of all ages, but children are the worst hit. 

Yoav Applebaum runs Ahava Village, a care home in Israel that started out as an orphanage for Jewish children fleeing Nazi Berlin in 1938. Today, the center looks after Israeli children from severely dysfunctional homes and a range of cultural backgrounds. Most have suffered abuse or neglect, while some have lost family members to acts of violence or terrorism. 

As Applebaum explains, children referred to his organisation experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related emotional or psychological conditions that make it difficult for them to integrate at school or in society — or simply to function properly. Children that experience trauma need extensive support, counselling and loving care to help them cope, he points out, both to prepare them for adult life and, in many cases, to steer them away from the drug abuse they were exposed to growing up. 

The children at Ahava Village are acutely vulnerable, lacking family support networks to care for them, but they certainly aren’t the only children left traumatized by the realities of life amid the protracted conflict. Research by the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma in 2015 found that 40% of children living in Sderot, an Israeli town bordering Gaza, suffered from PTSD and anxiety. Things are even worse on the other side; a recent study conducted in the Gaza Strip found that 100% of more than 1,000 Palestinian children surveyed had been exposed to three or more highly traumatic events, with 42% suffering from severe or moderate PTSD. 

Applebaum believes a permanent solution for peace would ease social tensions, leaving people “emotionally free” to focus on improving their family and social relationships. What’s more, he says, without the strain of the conflict, people on all sides would be financially better off and government spending priorities could shift from training soldiers to investing in community services and development. All of which would contribute to “raising children in an atmosphere of security, quiet, and human warmth.”

Declining Resources

If child survivors of trauma need medical care and support to recover, integrate and thrive, then neither party in the conflict has the resources to counter a crisis of this magnitude. Least of all the Palestinian side, where mental health services in Gaza and the long-term refugee camps of the West Bank are almost entirely limited to those provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Already overstretched, UNRWA suffered a major blow in 2018, when President Trump cut all US aid to the Palestinian refugee organisation. 

“Reducing the UNRWA services affects so many people, especially children, who don’t have proper playgrounds or facilities or services,” says Ahmad Tummalaih, a resident of Al-Am’ari Refugee Camp in Ramallah, in the West Bank. UNRWA runs all medical and mental health facilities relied on by families in the camp, he says. 

One of 19 camps housing around 775,000 refugees in the West Bank, Al-Am’ari is a cramped warren of concrete-block structures that were built in 1957 to replace the tents that originally populated the camp. The first wave of Palestinian refugees who ended up here in 1949, fleeing their homes in Jaffa, Haifa and around 30 other towns during the Israeli War of Independence, expected the arrangement to be temporary. 

Over 70 years later, Al-Am’ari — still squeezed into a square kilometre and unable to expand — is home to generations of people born into the camp who have never seen their ancestral land. Despite this, many hold onto the land titles and keys to the farms and homes their grandparents left behind, insisting, even now, that this is temporary. That one day, they will return. 

“We’re not hungry for food, we are hungry for freedom. We are hungry, hungry for our land,” says Tummailah, who describes his grandfather’s home in a village near Jaffa (Tummailah believes Israel has not yet built anything on that land, but the coastal area of Jaffa is prime real estate and we couldn’t find a surviving village of that name). “Here I live in a bad situation, but I have land. I dream to return to it,” he says.

If UNRWA closes down, this dream will be dashed for good. Should they move out of the camps and accept citizenship in the West Bank, these Palestinian refugees will lose the legal basis to fight for their right of return. Decades of suffering will have been for nothing. 

The Pressure Mounts

Already, life is tough, unemployment is high and prospects are few. The threat to UNRWA means, as Tummaliah points out, yet another layer of psychological pressure. As the political stalemate drags on, conditions in the camp get harsher, optimism trickles away and the walls close in on its long-suffering residents, it’s easy to imagine how frustration and despair could lead to increased social problems — and erupt into more violence. 

“If UNRWA gets completely shut down, that’s going to increase people’s problems, which can lead to extremism, to violence,” says Tummaileh. “People have lost their lives, their family members, their wealth and properties. They have little left to lose. Losing any more will lead to something worse.” 

This sense of despair seems warranted. Defunding UNRWA is symptomatic of a wider shift in US relations with Israel and Palestine that has seen Trump’s administration abandon the Palestinian side of the debate entirely. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the so-called peace plan, realistically a blueprint for full annexation of the Palestinian territories by Israel, which was proposed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner earlier this year. 

Swiftly rejected by the Palestinian side, the annexation was green-lighted by the US, although it has since been delayed by the outbreak of Covid-19 and then as a condition of Israel’s normalized relations with the UAE, formerly an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause. 

Desperate Times

The UAE isn’t the only nation to step back from Palestine in favor of improved relations with Israel; Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia have begun to distance themselves. But the US is the only country to announce their U-Turn in such a brash and (for Palestinians) humiliating manner. As Hady A. Amr, former US Deputy Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, put it: “what ordinary people see is Trump saying not one more penny for Palestine refugees. Trump is really awesome at setting up the United States to be hated around the world. It seems to me that’s his actual goal.”

If Trump succeeds in stirring up more hatred and desperation on the Palestinian side, the fallout will inevitably exacerbate the conflict, leading to trauma on both sides.

“You will kill many children. You’ll kill many families,” said Tummaliah, addressing the US president. “Until now we didn’t believe in terrorism, we believed in peace. But now young people believe in terrorists.“

Letting Off Steam

The arts provide one way to explore the trauma of this collective refugee experience through a layer of abstraction, fostering intuitive empathy rather than focusing on historical fact and culpability. Evidence of this human need to sublimate trauma into creative output is everywhere, from studios in Ramallah, to the graffiti that coats every inch of the dividing wall, to the simple fact that Israel has the most art museums per capita of any country in the world. 

“Art is a good outlet. It’s a good path to go on, in terms of trying to understand what is going on and process everything. Not only on a personal level, but also on a collective level,” explains Alaa Albaba, an artist from the Al-Am’ari refugee camp, speaking through an interpreter. Albaba is best known for his “Route of the Fish” street art series, which uses the image of tinned fish to symbolize Palestinians from the coastal town of Jaffa as plucked from their natural habitat and packed like sardines into arid, high-altitude camps. 

But with basic services under strain, it is getting harder and harder for young Palestinians to look for positive channels for  their stress and frustration. 

“If you walk around a refugee camp and you ask people, what kind of things do you need? Of course, the first thing that they would talk about in terms of their priorities is the difficulty with the economic situation, mental health issues, anxiety, psychological pressure, the difficulties on finding work and all of these things,” says Albaba. “No one will tell you, oh, we need art because this is an outlet for us. The fact that people are living in poverty and difficult economic circumstances means art remains not a priority.” 

Clearly, recovery cannot begin in earnest until a genuine peace plan is put in place. One that, in Hady’s words, “is based on freedom and dignity”. But as the hardliners gain ground and traditional mediators fall away, divisions will only deepen. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic is now exacerbating these tensions, triggering acute medical shortfalls in the Palestinian territories and threatening economic collapse in Israel, where unemployment spiked at 25% in July. As fears mount and emotions intensify, any chance of the two sides healing from the shared trauma of war seems increasingly remote.