Guest author: Oliver Fink, University of Basel

‘Despite progress, a major issue that confronts workers in the field of conflict transformation is that we know too little about the massively difficult problems that we face in studying and fostering the transformation of large-scale protracted conflicts.’ Prof. Louis Kriesberg

Intergroup hostility and violence continue to be a relevant problem in many regions of the world. They involve mass violence and fundamentally harm the well-being of the involved citizens as well as hinder the development of the involved societies.

This is particularly obvious in long-term and violent intergroup conflicts such as the enduring ethnonational Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to recent data from the aid organization ‘Save the Children’, the intensity and relevance of conflicts have increased significantly in recent years.

One in six children worldwide is now living in areas affected by conflict and since 1991, this number has increased by 75%. Half of these areas are considered regions of intractable conflict. These trends are especially relevant to the Middle East. Two in five children in the Middle East live in a conflict zone, which is the highest rate globally.

Traditional approaches from political science and international relations have provided valuable insights into the dynamics of protracted conflict and violent ethnonational disputes. However, these lines of research might have overlooked crucial factors that help to explain the intractability of protracted disputes, and, in particular, the high levels of citizen involvement in conflict-related violence.

In recent decades, novel theoretical and empirical approaches that focus on microlevel processes and sociopsychological antecedences of protracted ethnonational conflicts, have shed new light on how and why protracted conflicts endure. The approaches are part of a larger research trend of looking at macrolevel processes in the international and domestic arenas through the examination of microlevel factors. Understanding these foundations can provide crucial insights in our efforts of contributing to lasting security and stability in the local, regional and international spheres. In recent years, emotions have increasingly become a focus of attention in conflict research. Emotions, especially group emotions, were shown to play an important role in understanding cause and effect in protracted conflict as well as substantially influencing security-sensitive activities.

The exact mechanisms on how micro-foundations namely emotions influence non-state activist’s decision to engage in or refrain from security-sensitive activities (violent versus non-violent action) remain an open question. We, therefore, engaged in a comprehensive research approach to explore the productive and precarious role of negative emotional antecedents to security-sensitive activities focusing especially on the mechanisms by which negative emotions elicit violent actions among low-powered group members as well as how changes to violent activities happen.

The project findings support WeContribute’s aim of ‘fostering creative and sustainable approaches in responsibility to our grandchildren’, concretely developing realistic concepts of conflict transformation based on the experienced reality on the ground rather than from normative ideals.  The research contributed not only to current efforts of integrating political science with social psychology approaches but also promoted a deeper understanding of short-term and long-term processes causing security-sensitive activities in a volatile region.

Beyond the purely scientific realm, the project approach included the desire not only to do research activities to understand the conflict but also to be exposed to both Palestinian and Israeli realities and accordingly led to specific lifestyle choices. While physically living in Israel directly at the border to the Westbank, life involved daily commuting into the Westbank, where the schooling for the three children took place and the partner of the project manager worked. This arrangement led to insights and social contacts in both societies including but also going beyond the intractable conflict reality, consisting of birthday parties in the Westbank or school outings to Hebron, football practice in a neighbouring Israeli Moshav or Bar-Mitzwa celebrations with friends as well as numerous other formal and informal contacts with Palestinians and Israelis.

All this would not have been possible without the generous and unbureaucratic funding and partnership of the WeContribute Foundation. Todah rabah & shukran ktir to everyone involved!