Palestinians Don’t Feel They Have Anything to Lose

Why have so many young Palestinians decided that near certain death is preferable than their current existence under occupation? It’s a question of relative deprivation.

Israeli border police check Palestinians' identification cards at a checkpoint as they exit the Arab neighborhood of Issawiyeh in Jerusalem, October 22, 2015.

A widely reported assessment from Israel's head of military intelligence, Herzl Halevi, that recent Palestinian terror attacks are caused by despair and frustration in the Arab population under occupation or locked in Gaza, has been met by furious objections from others — not least in the current Israeli government — arguing that many of these young attackers are lone wolf teens who simply hate Israel.  

In either case, it is clear that for these young people, at the start of their lives — the time we generally think of as filled with potential — have decided that near certain death, or at the very least, long prison time after an attack, is preferable than their current existence.

To this explanation, some respond that lots of people in lots of places are frustrated and have grievances, but do not take the action that Palestinians have; the situation of the Palestinians hardly justifies the glorification of unrestrained terror against innocent people that has, they argue, become a part of the Palestinian culture.

All this behavior might not be justified, but for a sociologist like me, it is pretty simple to explain.

Let’s start with a basic concept in my field. It’s called “relative deprivation.” Relative deprivation is the feeling of being deprived of something to which one believes to be entitled. It refers specifically to the discontent or deprivation people feel when they compare their positions to others around and like them and realize that in comparison to them they have less of what they believe themselves to be entitled than those around them.

Doesn't this perfectly describe Palestinians under occupation? We know that Palestinian national aspirations were stimulated by their witnessing the fulfilment of the Zionist dream of Jewish national self-determination. They were with the Jews every step of the way. They helped us at the earliest stages of our return to Zion, coming to Jewish settlements at first for work. In the process, the Palestinians watched and learned from their Jewish cousins about what a people determined to resurrect itself on its homeland could do. They looked at the Jews, for whom they worked, whose roads and homes they helped build and thought — reasonably — why not us? The Palestinians are of course often called the Jews of the Arab world.

Again and again they watched how their Arab brethren held them in refugee camps and gave little more than lip-service to their national aspirations. They learned from their Israeli models that you needed to make friends in the world community and that violence was necessary to move history toward national liberation.

They were, alas, not served well by their corrupt leaders, who encouraged their martyrdom — and do still — but did not show them how to take a dream and turn it into a reality. What options or precedents were really available when their only model was turned into their enemy, in what became a zero-sum contest: Either your land or mine? They were not fortunate to have a Ben-Gurion who could compromise on dreams, and thus teach them to live with realities, and the many other Israeli leaders who knew when to start building and stop fighting.

The rich and successful Palestinians are not the ones out stabbing Jews. They do not feel relatively deprived. They want this to stop. No one will feel the pain of relative deprivation more than the young, those who cannot understand why their counterpart on the other side of an arbitrary line should have what they cannot.

These young Palestinians do not understand why opportunities are limited when it comes to them. They do not understand why their neighbor’s claim over a place they hold dear should trump their own claims. They do know they are as capable and smart as their counterparts who are Jews — something, alas, whose truth their Jewish cousins are not ready to always admit. How long can Palestinians be our carpenters, gas station attendants, taxi drivers, and help us live our lives without having the hope they can one day be our equals and have and do all that we have too? Why not?

And when they can get no answer from themselves, their leaders, and their Israeli counterparts — when no one can tell them why these dreams of equal opportunity and potential cannot be fulfilled, they explode and strike at anything that walks down the Jewish street, anyone who does not share their feelings. Only if we find a way for young Palestinians to realize that they have much to gain and make it possible for them to achieve it, will they be careful then not to lose it.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.