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COVID-19 amidst conflict

Oded Adomi Leshem

Some commentators suggest that in a crisis such as the present global pandemic and recession, a sense of common problems and common goals may help parties long in conflict to develop more peaceful relations. Others insist that a primary effect of the crisis will be to intensify long-held enmities; as fear and insecurity increase, each side is tempted to use the other as a diversion and scapegoat. The author of this chapter uses the insights of social psychology to throw a positive new light on the impact of the pandemic on conflicts in the Holy Land.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, prominent international figures have called for a global ceasefire. "It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Emmanuel Macron, President of France, announced he is pushing for a “world truce,” while other world leaders have offered similar declarations.

Did leaders and citizens involved in violent conflicts heed this call? Did rivals unite to fight the virus instead of each other? Prolonged ethnonational disputes, such as the one in Israel-Palestine, are good places to start examining whether COVID-19 altered the course of violent conflicts. The Jewish and Palestinian national movements have been locked in a hostile dispute for roughly a century Has the pandemic changed anything in the relationships between these lifelong adversaries?

About fourteen million people, approximately half Jews and half Palestinian, reside between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in an area of only 28,000km2. The high population density makes it an ideal location for quick virus contagion. Indeed, coupled together, Israel and Palestine have the highest rate of confirmed cases per population size in the Middle East (as of June 2020). As elsewhere, fighting COVID-19 has been at the center of attention of Palestinians and Israelis during the spring of 2020. Yet, unlike other places, the two peoples are also engrossed in a violent dispute. What happens when external threats and intergroup conflict combine?

COVID-19 and the mitigation of intergroup conflict

The main point raised by those hoping that the pandemic would have a decisive role in advancing Palestinian-Israeli relations is that a shared goal like fighting the coronavirus would elicit intergroup cooperation and trust. The ability of an external superordinate goal to facilitate conflict resolution was exemplified in the famous Robber's Cave experiment (Sherif 1958).1 In this study, two groups of boys who, by the design of the researchers, were involved in a hostile competition, reconciled when an external superordinate goal demanded their cooperation. Simply put, when parties to a conflict understand that partnership is vital for overcoming a shared external challenge, they are likely to join forces despite grave animosity. Working together on a shared goal can, in turn, help transform hostile relationships into more cooperative ones. Cooperation creates initial bonds and a feeling of shared destiny that can be later translated to conciliation and peace.

As an external threat of great magnitude, the battle against COVID-19 perfectly fits the definition of a superordinate goal. After all, intergroup cooperation is likely to reduce the risk of contagion of all the residents of the region. Many observers expected that Palestinians and Israelis would team up and, maybe for the first time, work together as real partners. Yet, those waiting for intergroup cooperation overlooked an essential factor. The conflict is asymmetrical, with Israel having much more political, military, and economic power (Bar-Tai 2013; Leshem and Halperin 2020)? Extreme disparities in power are unlikely to produce a reciprocal partnership. Indeed, Israel does not need Palestinian technology and knowhow to fight the virus and thus did not pursue cooperation. In fact, the Palestinians’ inferior medical infrastructure made them dependent on Israel's kindheartedness -a quality that, to date, has not been extended.

Intergroup cooperation was also not essential for enforcing physical distancing thanks to the 500km-long separation wall that effectively segregates Jews and Palestinians in the West-Bank. The wall, formally erected for security reasons by Israel, made intercommunal contagion improbable. In the besieged Gaza Strip, the 1.9 million Palestinian residents are entirely isolated. Ironically, the Gaza blockade implemented by Israel and Egypt in 2007 has been protecting Gazans from the spread of the deadly virus.

The conflict’s asymmetrical nature made intergroup cooperation unlikely. Yet, COVID-19 could have contributed to a more implicit but important positive change in the attitudes of Palestinians and Israelis toward each other. At least potentially, the universalistic nature of the global pandemic

COVID-19 amidst conflict 117 can blur existing boundaries between ethnocentric identities by creating a sense of a shared, universalistic identity (Bavel et al., 2020).3

We all harbor multiple social identities, some more salient than others. During ethnonational conflicts, ethnocentric identities overshadow universalistic identities that, by their very nature, allude to a connection between groups (Kelman 2018; Rothbart and Korostelina 2006).4 National and ethnic identities are challenged by global phenomena such as the COVID epidemic. The fact the virus does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, or religious affiliation may strengthen the sense of universalistic identity at the expense of ethnocentric ones. With the help of the constant flow of reports from around the world, boundaries between groups become obscure, to some degree pointless, and the notion that we are all human beings becomes more apparent. Enhancement of a universalistic identity makes intergroup aggression less likely and may contribute to transforming antagonistic relations into harmonious ones.

Did COVID-19 heighten universalistic identities among Palestinians and Israelis? If this was the case, we should have observed some evidence of intergroup empathy and solidarity in Palestine-Israel (e.g., people trying to reach out to people from the other side, provide consolation and support, and send prayers for the safety of all people). If these processes happened in Israel-Palestine, however, they occurred in the margins. Data collected among 600 Jewish-Israelis at the peak of the CO VID crisis shows that more than 60% of did not think COVID brought people of the world together (Adler, HabeL Leshem, and Halperin, in preparation). In addition, most Jewish-Israelis showed little empathetic concerns toward coronavirus-infected Palestinians.

Another point that can be made about the potential of crises like CO VID-19 to alleviate conflicts has to do with leadership, or more correctly, with the shift in the source of the power that leaders in conflict-ridden places bank on. For decades, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have attained and maintained power based, almost exclusively, on their image as resolute conflict managers. Yet, during the coronavirus crisis, Palestinian and Israeli leaders could not rely on the conflict as their primary source of power. Citizens’ eyes were focused on how their leaders would defeat COVID-19, not their rival from the other side of the border. Did this shift in public attention change the situation on the ground?

In the last decade, the average conflict-related death toll in Israel-Palestine has been around fifty deaths a month, 95% of whom are Palestinian. Yet, between March and May 2020, only twelve people lost their lives due to conflict-related violence (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).5 Of course, this drop can also be explained by the change in national priorities. Both parties simply had to reallocate material and human resources from conflict-related endeavors to the battle against the coronavirus.

In short, the shift in national priorities, from managing the conflict to managing the pandemic, has not only changed the allocation of resources but has altered, at least temporarily, the main force propelling Palestinian and Israeli politics. During the spring of 2020, the perpetuation of the conflict ceased to serve leaders' political needs on the domestic front, which might have contributed to the reduction of violence. At least during these months, COVID-19 saved Israelis and Palestinians from killing each other.

Unfortunately, this trend did not last long. When the number of verified cases decreased in late April, intergroup violence raised its head. The most horrific incident happened on May 29, 2020, when Israeli police shot and killed unarmed Iyad al-Halak, a mentally disabled Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem. The killing ignited the all-too-familiar escalation cycle enabling leaders to continue to gain political profits from intergroup violence.

In sum, though COVID-19 could have contributed, at least potentially, to the de-escalation of conflict in Israeli-Palestine, it seems that this potential was left mostly unfulfilled. Intergroup cooperation did not commence, identity boundaries were not blurred, and the temporary hiatus of violence was too short to impact longstanding trends in the politics of the conflict. One would hope that, if things did not get better, at least they would not get worse. Unfortunately, as outlined in the next section, conflict-aggravating processes that emerged during the months of the pandemic were swifter and more profound, thereby aggravating the conflict.

COVID-19 and the aggravation of intergroup conflict

Israel’s general elections were held on March 2, several days after the first Israeli virus carriers were confirmed. Partial lockdown was already implemented when the final election results came in. The close match created an impasse, with neither of the two candidates, the incumbent rightwing Benjamin Netanyahu and the novice contender Benny Gantz, able to garner enough parliamentary support to establish a government. Netanyahu announced that fighting the virus demanded unity. Gantz yielded under the pressure and joined Netanyahu’s government. Thus, at the peak of the outbreak, an emergency government was hastily formed, enabling Netanyahu to extend his uninterrupted eleven-year reign.

History teaches us that large-scale crises provide the perfect pretense for the suppression of democratic regulations and institutions (Klein 2007).6 During crises, the public can be is easily led to grant carte blanche to the government to do as it sees fit. This is what happened with one of the first decisions of Israel’s new emergency government. Without public outcry,

Israel's government authorized the Shin Bet (Israeli’s Security Agency) and the Mossad (the National Intelligence Agency) to head some of the efforts of the fight against COVED-19. Expanding the jurisdiction of these two security agencies to non-security issues is one factor that may have drastic consequences on the post-corona era in Israel-Palestine.

Netanyahu's track record in the field of Israeli-Palestinian relations suggests that his continued rule is likely to result in yet another set of blows to Palestinian-Israeli peace. Since 2009, his governments have not only been antagonistic to the notion of peace but also have actively fought to remove peace from the country’s agenda. During his incumbency, the rate of illegal construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank peaked, violence against Palestinians spurred, and racist sentiments against the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel reached new heights. By providing a guise for an emergency government, the health crisis has enabled the continuation of an extremely hardline administration.

Another point worth mentioning is that besides the severe ramifications to global health, the coronavirus outbreak ravaged the livelihoods of many. From the standstill in the flow of goods to the skyrocketing levels of unemployment, peoples’ ontological security has been threatened. The longevity of the crisis and the scope of its destruction leave people anxious and stressed. With no immunization in sight, uncertainty has become the only thing certain.

During conflict, uncertainty and anxiety from an external threat could be conveniently redirected at the hated rival. Relative to the amorphic and faceless virus, the outgroup is a familiar and recognizable enemy. Venting tensions and scapegoating are more likely when governments fail to deal with ontological threats. When the government’s inability to protect the public is exposed, citizens and elites will look for a scapegoat. For Israelis and Palestinians, the lifelong enemy across the border is a convenient scapegoat. It is, therefore, quite possible that a second wave of COVID-19 could be followed by violence. Intergroup confrontations could deflect citizens’ criticism against their leaders' ill-management of the crisis and might, quite ironically, restore Israelis' and Palestinians' sense of certainty and predictability (Leshem and Halperin In Press).7

Cautious speculations

As I write these lines, only three months into the COVID crisis, it is hard to tell where the wind is blowing. COVID-19 is still taking its toll in the region and its total economic ramifications are unclear. Yet, very cautiously, I can try to identify two possible scenarios that may unfold in Palestine-Israel in the post-COVID-19 era.

The first is the "more of the same” scenario, namely, the gradual but systematic destruction of hope for a just and sustainable solution to the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Palestinians will continue to live under oppression and Jewish-Israelis will remain unsecure east and west of the Green Line even after the virus will be long gone. This prediction draws on the "intractable conflict” paradigm, which holds that, though fluctuating in intensity, intractable conflicts are remarkably stable (Coleman et al. 2007; Bar-Tai 2013).® The second option is that COVID-19 will serve as a catalyst expediting a large-scale breakdown in the region, which will include the collapse of democracy in Israel, full-fledged confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians on several fronts, the annulment of Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and regional instability.

Some place for optimism?

Did COVED-19 have any positive influence on the relationship between Jews and Palestinians, influences that are substantial and not only superficial or transient? Amid mostly negative processes, I wish to highlight one positive consequence in my concluding remarks.

Palestinian citizens of Israel (who also identify as "Israeli Arabs” or "Arabs of 48”), make up about 20% of Israeli citizenry. In the last decades, two simultaneous processes concerning their social and political status should be noted. On the one hand, state-sanctioned discrimination and popular racism against Palestinian citizens of Israel have been on the rise (Ghanem 2007)? Israeli legislators have passed discriminatory laws aimed at limiting their power and sense of collective identity while anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments have become more open and frequent in the public discourse. On the other hand, the presence of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the public landscape has increased. In the universities, in the general workforce, in the media, the existence of Palestinian citizens of Israel could no longer be ignored by the Jewish majority. Gradually, their calls for equality and fair opportunity have become more evident. Their demand, as Palestinian Arabs, to take an active part in shaping the future of the state has become more decisive.

The necessity to see Palestinian citizens of Israel as an integral, indispensable part of the Israeli collective was made clear during the coronavirus outbreak, when thousands of Arab medical personnel, doctors, nurses, and technicians, took an active part in battling COVID-19. Up until then, it was convenient for the Jewish majority to ignore the Palestinian community’s contribution to the state. This all changed in the three months of the outbreak as medical teams led by Arab and Jewish physicians worked day and night to save lives.

Images and stories of Jews and Arabs working side by side were broadcast on national media outlets. Social media campaigns saluting the heroic efforts of Arab doctors have also gained attention. The once extremely unpopular notion of Arab-Jewish partnership became acceptable, even desirable, among the Jewish majority. It is not that racism disappeared from public discourse. Yet, maybe for the first time, it had a powerful rival.

Being Palestinian by ethnicity and Israeli by citizenship, Palestinian citizens of Israel are likely to have a leading role in any advancement toward an agreement on the status of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Levy et al. 2017).10 The rise in their involvement, voice, and legitimacy during the coronavirus crisis could evolve to be the first step in the direction of peace for all those living between the River and the Sea.


  • 1 Muzafer Slierif, “Superordinate Goals in the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict,” American Journal of Sociology- (1958): 349-56.
  • 2 Daniel Bar-Tai, Intractable Conflicts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
  • 3 Jay J. Van Bavel, Katherine Baicker. Paulo S. Boggio, Valerio Capraro, Aleksandra Cichocka, Mina Cikara, Molly J. Crockett et al., “Using Social and Behavioural Science to Support COVID-19 Pandemic Response,” Nature Human Behaviour 4, no. 5 (2020): 460-71,
  • 4 Daniel Rothbart and K. V Korostelina. Identity-, Morality, and Threat: Studies in Violent Conflict (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2006), http://public.ebookcentral,; Herbert C. Kelman. Transforming the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: From Mutual Negation to Reconciliation, ed. Philip Matter and Neil Caplan (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2018).
  • 5 “Data on Casualties - United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - Occupied Palestinian Territory, n.d., accessed May 19, 2019, www.
  • 6 Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books Holt, 2007).
  • 7 Oded Adomi Leshem and Eran Halperin, “Hope During Conflict,” in Historical and Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Hope, ed. Steven Van den Heuvel (Springer, In Press); Oded Adomi Leshem and Eran Halperin. “Hoping for Peace During Protracted Conflict: Citizens’ Hope Is Based on Inaccurate Appraisals of Their Adversary’s Hope for Peace,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 28 (2020).
  • 8 Peter T. Coleman, Robin R. Vallacher, Andrzej Nowak, and Lan Bui-Wrzosinska, “Intractable Conflict as an Attractor a Dynamical Systems Approach to Conflict Escalation and Intractability,” American Behavioral Scientist 50, no. 11 (2007): 1454-75, doi: 10.1177/0002764207302463.
  • 9 As’ad Ghanem, “Israel and the ‘Danger of Demography’,” in Where Now for Palestine? The Demise of the Two-State Solution, ed. Jamil Hilal, 48-74 (London: Zed, 2007).
  • 10 Aharon Levy, Tamar Saguy. Martijn van Zomeren, and Eran Halperin, “Ingroups, Outgroups, and the Gateway Groups Between: The Potential of Dual Identities to Improve Intergroup Relations,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 70 (May 2017): 260-71, https://doi.Org/10.1016/j.jesp.2016.09.011.

14 When elephants roar

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