Social Identity Theory and Intergroup Conflict in Israel/Palestine

Stephen Felty

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Intergroup dynamics have been a central vector in lasting identity conflicts around the globe. In Israel/Palestine, the conflict has not been reduced to the same level of sustained peace as it has in other countries. The conflicting groups often participate in increasingly destructive forms of reciprocating violence, which fuels narratives that lead to further cycles of violence. This particular conflict poses a challenge to homeland security in the United States in balancing the interests of its ally with potential backlash from Arabs and Muslims from across the Middle East. This thesis examines whether social identity theory (SIT) is a useful framework for understanding this conflict. SIT examines the hermeneutics of group members and local populations involved in a conflict and considers the differing perspectives of groups and individuals. Understanding these perspectives may help analysts, policymakers, and security practitioners understand the basis of inter-group conflicts and allow them to tailor approaches for mitigating them.
In critically analyzing the history of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict leading up to the 1982 invasion, it is important to remember that the analytical markers overlap and intertwine like an interconnected web. For example, honor challenges involve limited goods and affect both patrons and clients as part of the challenge–response cycle. Moreover, going back into history as far as they want, both sides point to the other as the one that started the conflict. Because the timelines could be boundless, this thesis bounds them to just before the creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
This study primarily uses qualitative research to examine various Israeli and Palestinian accounts through the framework of social identity theory to highlight
honor–shame paradigms, challenge–response cycles, limited goods, and patron–client relationships that define the conflict. It analyzes the political and historical climate in Israel/Palestine and the identity politics that have contributed to the ongoing conflict. This thesis finds that both sides view each other through a lens of in- and out-group dynamics, which rationalize moves by the in-group and demonize actions by the out-group. Israelis see things through the lens of a Westphalian nation-state—their formally recognized country is plagued by violence from terrorists and political movements that want to eradicate their state. Meanwhile, Palestinian groups see themselves as liberation movements fighting a colonialist occupier state. Both sides of this conflict have extensive patronage lines to other nations, react to provocations to restore a sense of lost honor, respond to challenges with escalating levels of violence, and contest the same set of limited goods (i.e., land, honor, resources, and international recognition).
From the Israeli perspective, Operation Peace for Galilee was the culmination of a challenge–response cycle related to the limited-good issue of land control that was decades in the making. The group honor of both sides was bound up in that cycle. From its creation in 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) existed as a challenge to the Israeli state. The PLO formed in part due to the failure of the Palestinians to respond to Haganah and Irgun, Zionist paramilitary and terrorist organizations that targeted the British and Arabs with the aim of creating an Israeli state. The PLO even modeled its tactics after Irgun, which used bombs full of nails to target Arab markets and large bombs to force Zionist policy on the British Mandate for Palestine.
The PLO had been facilitating kinetic attacks against the Israeli state and its populace since 1965. Initially, it operated out of Jordan, striking Israeli targets and gaining increasing notoriety with Arab patrons over time. By 1966, it had provoked Israel enough to initiate a major strike into Jordan, which pushed the PLO into Lebanon. From Lebanon, the PLO began to wedge itself into the escalating fault lines that brought the country into civil war, fueling an escalating challenge–response cycle between Israeli and Palestinian clients. The death of every Israeli or Christian client militia-member was a challenge to the Israeli state. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon was designed as an overwhelming response to stop the threat of the PLO. Prime Minister Begin and Defense Minister Sharon wanted to destroy the PLO’s military infrastructure in Lebanon and undermine its political capacity, establish a new political order with the Christian Maronites and Bashir Gemayel at the center, attain favorable patronage-based peace with Lebanon, and expel the Syrian military forces. They hoped that successfully meeting these goals would take the wind out of the Palestinian nationalists’ sails and facilitate the formal annexation of occupied Palestinian territories into the Israeli state. Begin and Sharon anticipated that the ensuing flood of Palestinians from Lebanon and the West Bank would topple the Jordanian Hashemite monarchy, allowing the territory to form into a new Palestinian state—outside the borders of Zionist Israel.
There are many sub-hermeneutics within Palestinian society, but this research focuses on general and readily identifiable issues centered on the PLO during Operation Peace for Galilee. Palestinian members or sympathizers of the PLO do not see themselves as part of a terrorist organization but rather a liberation movement. Palestinians see the use of Israeli firebombs and the shelling of schools in Beirut as terrorism. They define themselves as victims and freedom fighters, trying to throw off the yoke of colonialists. When Israel and the United States discuss Palestinian hostage-taking and hijackings, Palestinians argue that Israel hijacked the first plane in the Middle East when it forced a Syrian Airways flight to land and detained its passengers in 1954. They point to multiple massacres of Palestinians perpetrated by Israel and its Christian clients in Lebanon using weapons from the U.S. patron. They conclude that Western discourse on terrorism is framed in a racist perspective that focuses only on Arabs and Muslims while ignoring the acts of Jews. Palestinians and their Arab-Muslim sympathizers believe that the Western hermeneutic is a construct of colonialism: the oppressed are delegalized, dehumanized as terrorists, and deemed backward, evil, cowardly, and inferior.
The PLO rose to prominence as the Arab Nationalist Movement fell apart after the 1967 Six-Day War. Arafat and the PLO appealed to many Palestinian nationalists to continue the fight against the Israelis after the neighboring Arab states stood down. In 1968, Arafat attempted to establish bases of operations in the West Bank, resulting in Israeli forces decimating his group and forcing Fatah to flee across the river into Jordan. The PLO continued to make attacks, and when the Israelis chose to respond by attacking its base of operations in Karameh, the PLO was compelled to respond in kind. Even though the Palestinians lost the battle and were forced into Lebanon, they saw the battle as a victory.
The PLO continued to carry out attacks and hijackings against Israel for quite some time. As the PLO gained recruits, capability, and respect, it elicited increasing ire from Israel. Israeli leaders like Sharon and Begin sought ways to remove the PLO from Lebanon and away from their power base in the refugee camps. The resulting invasion forced the PLO to retreat from Lebanon under a U.S. guarantee of protection for civilians, a move that failed when Christian militias entered the Palestinian villages of Sabra and Shatila and massacred civilians. The invasion of Lebanon had lasting consequences for Arafat’s patronage line that ultimately led to his joining the peace process and cooperating with the United States, a move that effectively divided the Palestinian cause at the Oslo Accords.
Because the United States has a history of providing economic resources, weapons, and information to Israel, America has experienced negative consequences in its relationships with Arab and Muslim communities. Terrorist groups use this assistance as part of their narrative of a colonialist, Zionist, crusader out-group attempting to dominate their respective in-groups. Recent moves by the United States to support the Israeli state further have made things more challenging. To overcome these challenges and mitigate the violence caused by this conflict, the United States may have to re-balance its aid cooperation with both Israeli and Palestinian interests. A two-state solution may need to be considered as part of an overall peace process both to reduce violence in Israel/Palestine and to protect the security of the United States.

No Comments

Post a Comment