The Palestinian Quest for Significance and Hamas Violence

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Eyal Waldman, an Israeli high-tech tycoon, first opened R&D centres in the West Bank five years ago, then added more two years ago in Gaza, hiring hundreds of Palestinian developers.

He said, “I think it’s very important for the two nations to come together. A positive thing is created when people begin to work together and see how tensions decrease and cooperation works. This is good for all sides.”

On October 7, 2023, Hamas killed Waldman’s daughter Danielle less than a mile from where her father had opened an innovative, high-tech factory in Gaza.

Why would Hamas savagely attack Israel on October 7, knowing full well that a massive Israeli response would likely leave thousands of Gazans dead, and destroy the fragile fabric of the Gazan economy that Waldman and others went to great pains to build?

Violence can be seen as rational if the perpetrators believe it serves their ends. Violence is the primordial means to achieve mattering and significance. Indeed, our decades-long research shows that the quest for significance and dignity is the driving force behind most violent extremism around the world. Significance is a sense of social worth, and mattering, of being valued. This research suggests that the need to affirm the Palestinians’ significance by inflicting utmost pain on Israel, its nemesis, was the underlying reason for Hamas’ attack.

Divergent Paths to Significance

Significance can be lost through falling short of a social value and can be gained through measuring up to it. Different social values can deliver significance. For example, in most cultures, wealth garners respect while poverty is humiliating. Serving collectivistic values such as nationalism or religion begets significance and betraying them begets disdain.

Sometimes different significance-affording values can clash. One might be doing well economically while one’s national or religious identity is stigmatised. Or one might be doing poorly economically while feeling proud of one’s nation or religion. In such cases, identity concerns tend to trump material considerations.

Research published in 2007 by the anthropologist Scott Atran and colleagues found that Palestinians tended to be loathe to compromise on values that were “sacred” to their group. What’s more, they responded with even greater hostility to compromises over those sacred values when the compromises included economic incentives.

It’s Not the Economy

Misunderstanding this dynamic has had tragic consequences throughout the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s legendary defence minister, initiated the policy of “open bridges,” allowing Palestinians from the West Bank to travel freely to both Israel and Jordan for business or work. The policy significantly improved the Palestinians’ economic lot.

At the same time, however, Israel’s settler activities, arrests of Palestinians, and jingoistic pronouncements by Israeli nationalists humiliated Palestinians. This led to the First Intifada (1987-1993), a series of protests and riots by the Palestinians, which ended the “open bridges” policy and the economic benefits it bestowed.

Later, when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, former President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, acting as a special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement, planned to bring to Gaza and the West Bank US$1.5 billion dollars in funding for economic development. By then, however, Palestinian feelings of humiliation were of such magnitude that the economic plan had little chance. In 2006, Hamas, an Islamist organisation bent on the destruction of Israel, won the Palestinian legislative elections, and in 2007 it took over the Gaza strip.

Attempts to pacify Palestinians through economic means have continued over the years and were continually rejected. The Trump/Jared Kushner plan of 2019 offered huge investments by Arab, European and U.S. investors, but Palestinians rejected it. As late as December 2022, Asaf Ashar, marine and transportation expert, presented to the Palestinians a detailed plan for the development of the Gaza port. It, too, was rejected.

Despite the repeated failures of economic initiatives to reduce Palestinian militancy, the “wishful thinking” that it could work persisted. In fact, the related misguided belief that Hamas is currently focused on governance and economy is held by many to be largely responsible for the tragic failures of Israeli preparedness on October 7: The conception that economic considerations would keep Hamas militancy at bay may have lulled the Israeli government into a false sense of security and reduced their vigilance.

A Path Toward Breaking the Vicious Cycle

With unemployment in Gaza at near 50 per cent (72 per cent among women), Palestinian youths arguably have little hope for a dignified existence other than through militancy. Thus, the repeated rejections of economic incentives push Palestinians toward militancy and resistance. A vicious cycle develops where significance through violence trumps economic considerations, leaving violence as the only path to honour and meaning.

Rather than trying to bring peace through economic means, psychological research suggests that the best hope for peace is through recognising and addressing the Palestinians’ endeavour for significance. Otherwise, the spiral of violence will continue with each side to the conflict inflicting pain on the other, and in turns avenging their shame and humiliation. Economic development can help—but not at the price of dishonour.

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