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The making of a peace activist: What psychology tells us about solving the Israel-Palestine conflict
Activists with Combatants for Peace, a joint Israeli-Palestinian initiative made up of former soldiers, at a demonstration in September at the Bethlehem checkpoint, Palestine. - photo by Elizabeth Stuart, Deseret News

On a recent fall afternoon, a crowd of Arabs and Jews gathered in front of the concrete wall that divides Israel from the Palestinian territories, holding signs reading, “Revenge is not a political plan” and “Stop the violence! Yes to coexistence!”

Five stoic-faced Israeli soldiers in combat boots and military greens stood by, watching, with M16 assault rifles slung across their chests.
Yaniv Belhassen raised a megaphone.

“This land grab is not democratic!” he shouted in Hebrew. “This land grab is not moral!”

Overhead, the fabric wings of a gigantic papier-mâché dove blew in the wind.

It was a defining moment for Belhassen. For most of his life, the former Israeli soldier would have described himself as a pro-security hardliner who based his politics on the passionate belief that the Jews have a “divine right” to occupy the West Bank. Now, following Israel’s decision to annex 900 acres of Palestinian land for a new settlement, he had organized a demonstration to protest that exact ideology — in the name of peace.

What inspires a former combatant, like Belhassen, to become a peace activist, and advocate for those with different religious beliefs? The answer to that question could have important implications for achieving a resolution to the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine.

A majority of both Israelis and Palestinians say they are willing to accept the compromises required to reconcile, according to a recent survey from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private college in Israel.

"So why don’t we have peace?” said Roni Porat, a researcher at IDC’s Psychology of Intergroup Conflicts and Resolution Lab. “I would argue that 90 percent of the problem is psychological.”

Hundreds of grassroots peace initiatives have tried for decades to break down deep-seated community prejudices by encouraging contact between Israelis and Palestinians.

But there may be a better way.

New research suggests that challenging individuals to examine their beliefs, rather than their enemies, increases their inclination toward peacemaking. Pilot programs based on the theory have been so effective, IDC Herzliya is now working with local nonprofits, like Combatants for Peace and The Fund for Reconciliation Tolerance and Peace, to implement a nationwide campaign using billboards, TV spots and education workshops.

From fighter to peacemaker

Bassam Aramin was 13 years old when he and a group of friends formed a militant group to fight Israel. They called themselves “freedom fighters” and they armed themselves, first, with stones and later with grenades.

The West Bank, Aramin’s childhood home, has been largely under Israeli military control since 1967 when troops wrested the territory from Jordan. Sovereignty over the land has been in dispute since the United Nations General Assembly authorized the creation of a Jewish state in 1947 following the Holocaust. Both Muslims and Jews trace their claims to the area, considered holy in both faiths, to a Biblical promise.

Aramin didn't know anything about the conflict’s political or religious roots. He hated Israel, he said, because he hated that his city was divided up by security checkpoints, hampering his daily movement. He had been spit on by the Jews who had come to build homes in the West Bank. Soldiers had beaten him in the street.

As their first act of resistance, Aramin and his gang made a Palestinian flag out of old shirts and strung it up in the trees outside their middle school. By the time he was 17, Aramin was in jail, sentenced to seven years for planning an attack on Israeli troops.

Behind bars, Aramin studied Hebrew, watched movies about the Holocaust and spent hours talking with his Israeli guard. If he knew his enemy, Aramin thought, he could win him over or kill him.

The guard called Aramin a “settler” and a “terrorist.” Aramin called him a “killer” and an “occupier.” But, eventually, the two started sharing family stories and tea. The guard started doling out softer punishments to the inmates under his care. At one point, he threw his body over Aramin to protect him from a harsh beating at the hands of another soldier.

“I considered it a big victory that I changed an Israeli's mind,” Aramin said.

Years later, Aramin would realize that the relationship had also impacted him. He went on to found Combatants for Peace, a peace initiative comprised of former Palestinian and Israeli soldiers.

The trouble with talking

In an attempt to replicate such experiences, many pro-peace programs, including Aramin’s own, have focused their efforts on bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to share their narratives of the conflict.

Both groups see themselves as victims and blame the other for continued violence. The Palestinians say they lob rockets and dispatch suicide bombers to protest Israeli occupation. The Israelis say they send in troops to protect themselves from attack.

Exposure to opposition may inspire some change in outlook, said Amit Goldenberg, a researcher at Stanford University who studies the psychology of conflict resolution. However, the effects of narrative-sharing workshops alone rarely last long.

“People may empathize with the other side when they are sitting there with them,” Goldenberg said. “But once they go home, it’s hard to sustain that because there are a lot of competing motivations, like, wanting to feel a part of your own country, winning the conflict, or self-justification.”

People also have a tendency to ignore information that contradicts their belief systems, Porat said.

For emotional health, it’s important for people’s actions and values to be consistent, Porat said. If not, people subconsciously compensate by changing the way they interpret the situation.

“It’s very hard for us to perceive our own actions or group as immoral,” she said.

“Am I really like that?”

Yitzhak Frankenthal, founder of one of the region’s most well-known proponents of dialogue meetings, is the first to admit the interventions shortcomings.

“I have a terrible feeling that all the peace organizations, including us, have failed,” said Frankenthal, who, in 1995, started The Parents Circle-Families Forum, a joint Palestinian Israeli organization made up of families who have lost loved ones. “We have been holding meetings for 10 years and we don’t have peace. The situation is worse.”

Frankenthal, now the executive director of the U.S. NGO The Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Peace, teamed up with Porat and her colleagues at IDC Herzliya in 2011 to devise a new approach.

Rather than presenting people with information that contradicts their beliefs about the conflict, they tried feeding them information that was consistent, but extreme. By showing people a caricature of themselves, the team hoped to inspire them to ask, “Am I really like that?”

Researchers showed a group of about 100 Israeli Jews several short video clips over the course of a month that exaggerated common Israeli attitudes.

One video zeros in on the belief that the Israeli Defense Force is an exceptionally moral army. Following a montage of photographs of Israeli soldiers petting cats and helping elderly Arab women cross the street, the video sarcastically concludes that Israel needs to occupy the Palestinian Territories so its soldiers have opportunities to express their morality. Another video features footage of the Israeli army training set to the beat of a patriotic victory march. Without the conflict, the video asserts, “we wouldn’t have the strongest army in the world.”

After watching the videos, people were more likely to embrace compromise than those in a control group. When researchers followed up a year later, they found participants were also more likely to vote for “pro-peace” political parties.

Capacity to change

Aramin launched Combatants for Peace after reading a newspaper article about a group of Israeli soldiers who, after serving 10 to 15 years in the army, had reached the conclusion that military action wasn’t the solution.

He found their turnaround encouraging, he said. “I wanted to meet them.”

In a joint study with Stanford University, researchers at IDC Herzliya found that people who believe political and social groups can change are more likely to participate in activism, such as signing petitions, or organizing protests. By giving people educational material that emphasized the idea that groups are malleable, researchers were able to increase people’s proclivity for peacemaking.

One of the intervention's strengths is that it doesn't address the conflict directly, said Goldenberg, who worked on the project.

“When people hear about the conflict, they don’t listen to the information,” he said. “But if we can change their general beliefs about the malleability of groups, suddenly, they’re willing to go back to the ’67 borders. It’s kind of crazy.”

Belhassen, who served as a combat soldier in the West Bank, would later join Combatants for Peace, intrigued by the radical transformation of his Palestinian counterparts. For him, letting go of the belief that the battle is a “zero sum game” was one key.

“We wanted the same piece of ground,” he said. “I thought it was either us or them.”

When he tells the story of his ideological transformation, Belhassen also emphasizes the three years he spent as a Ph.D student at the University of Illinois, researching Christian Zionism. While interviewing evangelicals about their pilgrimages to Israel, he found himself fielding a lot of questions about his own Jewishness. The exchange inspired self-examination, he said, that eventually led to re-evaluation.

Although he considered himself a humanist, Belhassen said, “When it came to Palestinians, I realized I had a blind spot.

"We can’t use religion as an excuse to overlook people’s human rights,” he said. “There has to be a compromise."

Elizabeth Stuart is a journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. She has a master's degree from Columbia University. Find her on Twitter @elizmstuart.