Every observer of protracted, blood-drenched conflicts knows that the physical confrontation is accompanied by an acute clash of narratives. Each party to the conflict tries, first and foremost, to inculcate members of its own people with its narrative and to convince the international community of its truthfulness and of the justice of its goals. At the same time, an effort is made to portray the rival society as espousing unjust goals and as being violent and immoral, by way of delegitimizing labels.
As is evident in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, each side tries to depict itself in a positive light: as humane, moral and progressive, and as the sole victim of the struggle. Each society tries to negate the adversary’s explanations, descriptions and justifications concerning the conflict, and to present them as untenable and false. These narratives are imparted to members of the society from a very early age and are sustained over time by leaders and decision makers, official institutions, school systems and media networks. The narratives are functional in wartime, but when a light appears at the end of the tunnel and there are clear signs of the possible inception of a peace process – they can become barriers that block the road to peace-making.
With the aid of this conceptual framework, it is possible to understand the events that have been taking place in the different arenas of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in the Gaza Strip in particular. For example, the mass Palestinian marches next to the security fence that have been held place over the past few weeks are depicted in Israel as attempts to wreak violence on the country’s communities, on its citizens and on the state itself. The marches are portrayed in Israel as a cynical and cowardly attempt by Hamas to send children, youths and women to the frontline of the confrontation so that they will become casualties and thereby spark international public opinion to support the Palestinians. The campaign is described as being superfluous in any case, because Israel withdrew from the Strip and left the Palestinians the opportunity to build it for themselves. Generally speaking, Hamas is depicted in Israel as a terrorist organization whose declared goal is to annihilate the Jewish state.
In contrast to the Israeli narrative, the Palestinians living in Gaza present a completely different picture of the same events: They talk about a nonviolent, legitimate and worthy struggle. Their focus is the siege of Gaza, which in their eyes constitutes the continuation of the Israeli occupation. They cite the harsh conditions under which the population lives because of the closure imposed by Israel. They talk about the nonviolent, mass resistance of unarmed Palestinians who are engaged willingly in a struggle to end the occupation and are being cut down by live ammunition fired by Israeli troops.
No prisoners are taken in the battle of the narratives; each side tries to fashion its kernel of truth in the most persuasive manner, so that it will explain the entire conflict. All means are legitimate and justify the ends, and each side makes use of symbols, exhibits, stories, pictures and video clips to construct a credible narrative that will also refute that of the rival.
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With the aid of this analysis, it is possible to understand the horrific use the Palestinians have made of the swastika in several instances, such as on flags and kites, during the latest demonstrations. They are trying to attach to the Israeli side a clear label of delegitimization, both in the eyes of their people and those of the international community. The swastika is a salient means to this end, because the Nazis are considered the ultimate malefactors.
But it’s not clear that the majority of the Palestinians actually draw a connection between swastikas and the Holocaust. A large portion of Palestinian society is not familiar with the history of the Holocaust and is not interested in familiarizing itself with it. There is little if any reference to the Holocaust of the Jews in Palestinian schools. The general Palestinian narrative depicts the Holocaust in a biased, simplistic manner, as actually being the root cause of their own calamity. According to this narrative, the Germans annihilated millions of Jews; the nations of the world – the European nations in particular – felt guilty about it; and therefore, not only did they grant the Jews part of a country that did not belong to them, they also partitioned it in a way that was unjust and humiliating. Indeed, in the 1947 partition plan, the Palestinians, who constituted two-thirds of the population of Mandatory Palestine, received less than half its area.
The focal point of the Palestinian narrative is the Nakba, the “catastrophe” during Israel’s War of Independence, when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes by Jews. But the Palestinians are aware that their trauma is not perceived as legitimate in the Zionist narrative. To talk about it is not allowed, and the Knesset even passed a law denying government funds to institutions that commemorate it as such.
In the view of the Palestinians it is clear that the Jews don’t want to know about their Nakba – and just as clear that the Jews explain it in a way that totally contradicts their own version of events. These and other reasons explain why the Palestinians take no interest in the genocide of the Jewish people in the Holocaust. Furthermore, there is also a phenomenon of Holocaust denial among Palestinians, as was evident in the recent speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in which he said that the Holocaust was not caused by anti-Semitism, but by the “social behavior” of the Jews. On the other hand, the statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu, who accused Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, a principal Palestinian leader in Mandatory Palestine, of being responsible for the Holocaust by having persuaded Hitler to carry the genocide of the Jews, is an example of delegitimizing Palestinians. This invented story presents them in a very negative light, and is in line with the general narrative propagated by the present Israeli leadership.
The Holocaust, then, remains part and parcel of the narratives presented respectively by the two sides with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in completely different ways.
Five years ago, I had the honor to take part in a study that examined systematically and rigorously the textbooks used in Israeli and Palestinian schools. The initiative for the project came from the U.S. State Department, which also financed it and demanded the establishment of a committee of international researchers to supervise the process. The study found that both the Palestinians, in the Palestinian Authority, and Israelis present their own hegemonic narrative to their pupils.
The principal finding of the study did not surprise us, because the conflict between the peoples was already on a course of escalation after the events of 2000. True, there were a few books in the Israeli state education system that contained specific references to immoral actions by Jews (such as the expulsion of Arabs in the War of Independence, the massacre at Deir Yassin, and the massacre in Kafr Qasim, in 1956); and there were one or two books that even referred to the massacre at Qibiya (in the West Bank, in 1953) and to the killing in the early 1950s of about 3,000 Palestinians who crossed the border into Israel in an attempt to return to their homes. (During the same period, there was also a relatively very small minority of fedayeen who crossed the border with the intention of murdering Jews, and who have become the focal point of the Jewish-Israel narrative.)
In contrast, the books used in the Palestinian school system did not mention immoral acts committed by them. In general, the texts focused on the wrongs perpetrated by the other side (the Jews). Nevertheless, we did not detect in either education system terms of delegitimization of the other side – which is no small achievement.
In any case, such phenomena, it should be noted, are not unique to our region: The one-sidedness, the biases and the distortions that are intended to present the adversary in a negative light, and the “mother” group in a positive one, are found in textbooks of all societies mired in lengthy conflicts, among them Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Rwanda. Any other description, if it contradicts the hegemonic narrative, is not taken well by the authorities. Thus, the research we conducted five years ago was rejected by the Education Ministry under then-minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), who did not want to cooperate with us and even delegitimized the researchers.
The rule in political psychology is that the state of a conflict can be gauged not only according to the violence that it engenders, but also according to the narratives the sides put forward – through the leaders, the textbooks and the media. Based on this criterion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is primed only to escalate, because, instead of attempting to forge relations of trust and to pave the way to peace, both sides are specializing in incitement and self-righteousness.
Daniel Bar-Tal is professor emeritus of political psychology at Tel Aviv University, and is the author or editor of more than 25 books and some 250 scholarly articles. He has served as president of the International Society of Political Psychology, and is the winner of many scientific awards.