Conflict will Harden your Heart: Exposure to Violence, Psychological Distress, and Peace Barriers in Israel and Palestine


Does exposure to political violence prompt civilians to support peace? We investigate the determinants of civilian attitudes toward peace during ongoing conflict using two original panel datasets representing Israelis (n = 996) and Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza (n = 631) (149 communities in total). A multi-group estimation analysis shows that individual-level exposure to terrorism and political violence makes the subject populations less likely to support peace efforts. The findings also confirm psychological distress and threat perceptions as the mechanism that bridges exposure to violence and greater militancy over time. The study breaks ground in showing that individual-level exposure – necessarily accompanied by psychological distress and threat perceptions – is key to understanding civilians’ refusal to compromise in prolonged conflict.

Sivan Hirsch-Hoeflerb | Daphna Canetti | Carmit Rapaport | Steavan E. Hobfoll

Ending long-standing conflicts is a first-order global goal; dozens of countries have been affected by ongoing armed civil conflict over the past decade.1 Given the growing proportion of civilian victims in political conflicts, there has been a concomitant increase in the number of people exposed to stressful events associated with such conflict. However, debate over the psychological effects of war and terrorism, and their political ramifications, remains in its nascence. One question in particular demands attention: how (and to what extent) does individual-level exposure to political violence (EPV) impact civilians’ willingness to compromise for peace – that is, to negotiate the core issues underlying a given prolonged conflict? We argue that (1) not all civilians amid conflict are exposed to violence the same degree and (2) variations in exposure may be associated with differences in attitudes toward peace. Civilians who are highly distressed and threatened as a result of exposure to war and terrorism are less likely to support diplomatic negotiation and peace.

We disaggregate data from Israel and Palestine to analyze the micro-foundations of prolonged conflict by examining EPV and its political effects. First we discuss the association between EPV and attitudes toward peace, and the psychological stress-threat mechanisms that characterize this process. Next, we present two-wave panels conducted in Israel and Palestine (the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem) in tandem. Our findings demonstrate that prolonged EPV has consequences beyond the harmful effects on individuals. Specifically, the concomitant psychological distress and sense of threat play an important role in modifying the attitudes of Israelis and Palestinians toward peace.



In recent years, a growing body of work in political science has examined the effects of ongoing terrorism and political violence in the Middle East, Africa and Europe on political attitudes. Some studies, drawing on insights from economics, show that higher levels of terrorism translate to higher levels of right-wing voting and risk-seeking behaviors.2 Social psychologists have sought to uncover the mechanisms underlying such effects by drawing on the study of emotions,3 societal norms,4 racial prejudice,5 terror management theory6 and contact interventions.7 However, most studies that have examined these effects at the individual level have questioned respondents about their sentiments and perceptions of threat, but not about their direct exposure to violence.8 For instance, surveys of Americans following 9/11 point to heightened feelings of threat and anxiety, but do not differentiate between respondents who were exposed to the attacks through news reports and those who witnessed them in person, or who lost a family member or friend. To the best of our knowledge, no study has accounted for the effect of prolonged individual-level EPV on attitudes toward peace.

The post-traumatic stress literature has provided numerous insights into the mental health impact of EPV.9 In political scholarship, EPV was recently used to explain an array of political attitudes – support for combatants in Afghanistan,10 support for exclusionism11 or intragroup retaliation in Israel,12 conservatism in the United States13 and voting behavior14 – but not attitudes toward peace. This study is based on the premise that EPV is key to understanding the relationship between terrorism and political violence, on the one hand, and attitudes toward peace and compromise on the other.

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