Text size

Two attacks last month shocked Palestinians and Israelis alike. First, there was the firebombing of a taxi in the West Bank, believed to have been carried out by settlers, which injured six members of a Palestinian family, including two critically.

The second attack, widely described as a lynching, occurred just hours later in downtown West Jerusalem, where a mob set on a small group of young Palestinians, beating Jamal Julani to within an inch of his life. Some reports even suggest that Julani would have died had it not been for the intervention of an Israeli medical student, who resuscitated him.

Despite recriminations, these two tragedies have resulted in a rare moment of agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, the vast majority of whom are disgusted by the attacks, with even senior figures in the normally anti-Palestinian Likud strongly condemning the actions.

Much of the public debate has focused on whether these attacks were surprising and if they constituted “terrorism”, but one interesting aspect which has largely eluded discussion is the alleged perpetrators’ ages. In both incidents, the suspects who have been arrested so far are minors.

Although this may shock many, it is not really that surprising when one scratches a little beneath the surface. Adolescence is a tough phase to live through in the best circumstances. It is a period when the uncertainties of physical metamorphosis and identity crises lead some to take shelter in the certainties of black-and-white beliefs, and it is also when hormonal upheavals can erupt into aggression and recklessness.

Add to this a few measures of old-fashioned tribalism, stoked by deep-seated racism – as reflected by one suspect in the “lynching” claiming that Julani “could die for all I care – he’s an Arab” – and the dehumanization that decades of conflict create, and you have a highly combustible and volatile brew.

Moreover, the toxic political environment, in which young people seem to be guaranteed cradle-to-grave conflict, plays a significant role in poisoning young minds. Not only does this toxicity drive youngsters toward lashing out at the “enemy”, it might also be pushing them generally toward more aggressive and violent behaviour.

According to a new study – which was conducted by a team of American, Israeli and Palestinian researchers – there is a correlation between violent behaviour in Palestinian and Israeli children and their exposure to political violence, especially for those who witness it from a very young age. This phenomenon is “more severe” than a contagious disease, one of the American academics behind the study claimed.

“It is well known that there are victims in every war, but mostly we think of direct victims,” said Simcha Landau, one of the Israeli scientists involved. “But we found that children who are exposed to violence are indirect victims, and that exposure to violence has results on the ground.”

Other studies have revealed that, while the conflict affects Palestinian children disproportionately, neither side is immune to its psychological trauma. In fact, post-traumatic stress disorder is, sadly, far too common among children on both sides of the Green Line. PTSD is particularly aggravated by periods of increased violence or in hotspots like Gaza, where the highest incidence is reported, and its Israeli neighbour Sderot.

As someone who grew up in peaceful societies, I can hardly fathom what childhood must be like for a Gazan child who has had to live through the incomprehensible devastation and terror of invasions and incursions, blockade and bombardment, demolitions and destitution. Likewise, I can only begin to comprehend the terrifying fear and confusion a child in Sderot – where the economic destitution suffered there is not a million miles away from that in Gaza – must experience when confronted with the regular whistling of air raid sirens, the long hours spent in bomb shelters and the barrages of inaccurate Qassam rockets – which, though puny when compared to Israel’s formidable arsenal, are nonetheless traumatic.

Although I have little sympathy for their elders, life for the offspring of radical settlers must, on so many levels, be horrendous. Not only do they not, like children in general, have any say about where they are born and little chance to move away even if they want to, they find themselves, inexplicably to their young minds, living in heavily-guarded fortresses, regarded by Palestinian neighbors as unwelcome invaders, and indoctrinated to hate those very neighbours.

Despite the detrimental effects of political violence on children and its highly dubious efficacy in resolving this longstanding dispute, it remains alluring to influential groups on both sides. Why is this?

Part of the reason is the simple cyclical nature of violence – with one act begetting another, with every attack a “response” to an earlier atrocity or outrage – especially in such an apparently intractable context, where squaring the circle of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian demands has eluded all.

But beyond that there is an ideological and psychological underbelly. Although violence has been generally low intensity – the total death toll over the past century is less than a bad week in the trenches of World War I – it has been a terribly entrenched facet of the conflict, guaranteed to flare up into major confrontations at regular intervals.

This is partly because modern Jewish and Arab nationalism were born at a time when violence and militarism were glorified and fetishized, and they haven’t been able to move beyond this significantly. Even though non-violence has made significant headway, it has not yet laid down deep roots, with Israeli pacifists making 'exceptions' for futile acts of destructive violence that they regard as legitimate, such as the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and Palestinian advocates of non-violence stressing to their critics that armed resistance targeted at non-civilians, though legitimate, has become ineffective.

Perhaps paradoxically, the fixation on violence is borne out of a sense of weakness and vulnerability on both sides. Though Israel enjoys unchallenged military superiority, the historic weight of enduring regular oppression, pogroms and the Holocaust, not to mention (diminishing) regional rejection, casts a long shadow over the Israeli psyche. Ideologically, this sense of insecurity has translated into Zionism’s determination to create the muscular, tough Jew and the conviction among many Israelis that overwhelming force is the answer to everything, and those who question the wisdom of this are dismissed by hawks as weak ditherers and self-haters. In violence, there is redemption for past weakness and prevention of future catastrophe.

In a similar vein, Palestinians for centuries have lived like strangers on their own land, ruled from distant imperial capitals and controlled by often cruel governors who cared little for their well-being and treated them like chattel to be profited from, especially during the brutal death-throes of the once tolerant Ottoman Empire. When the British took over Palestine and promised it, at least in part, to the Zionists, instead of granting it independence as a Palestinian state, this led to the conviction among Palestinian radicals that “what was taken by force can only be regained by force”. The humiliating string of defeats experienced by the Arab states in conflict with Israel has made the redemptive power of force all the more alluring in the minds of extremists, especially since moderates have so far failed to deliver any significant successes.

However, these beliefs and attitudes are highly destructive. In a political conflict, only enlightened political solutions have the potential to work; violence only begets more violence, as it draws new generations into its unforgiving vortex. For the sake of the children and future generations, Israelis and Palestinians must unequivocally reject violence, not because they are cowards, but because they are brave. It takes true courage to lay down your arms and open your arms to embrace your long-time enemy in peace.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer, currently living in Jerusalem, who has spent about half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea