In 1994, Brian Barber was invited to join a research team launching a study of Palestinian youth and families. During his initial work in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, he was instantly “grabbed by the incredible confluence of forces – culture, geography, politics, and religion – that impacted the daily lives of first intifada youth.”
His first trip to Gaza in 1995 had a similar impact and challenged his own perceptions. In attempting to better understand the disconnect, Barber conducted a content analysis of scores of article titles in major US news outlets since 1980 that invoked the word “Gaza.” He found that up to 80 percent of the titles referred to some form of violence. He also learned that, at the time, “there was precious little available on Palestine, and Gaza specifically, especially from the fields of psychology and sociology.”
Palestine has since become Barber’s primary field of study. He has lead several projects investigating Palestinian youth engagement in the intifada and how it has impacted their lives. While publishing regularly from those empirical studies, he is currently writing a nonfiction book that narrates the lives of three Gaza protagonists whom Brian has followed since their youth into their current adulthood.
This interview was conducted ahead of Barber’s field work in Gaza in March 2018. The Institute for Palestine Studies, in partnership with the Palestine Center, will be hosting a talk by Barber on April 6, 2018 upon his return. You can RSVP to attend the event here.
What was the atmosphere when you first visited Gaza – the Oslo Accords had been signed – do you a recall how people felt about the prospects of peace at the time?
During those three days and many subsequent long stays living with families in and near refugee camps, I came to appreciate how often Palestinians in general, but Gazans in particular, especially in the last decade, are possessed of two minds relative to a certain event or change in condition. It is not ambivalence as to whether one reaction is more valid than the other, but rather the existence of two equally valid views. Thus, as the first intifada came to an end in 1993, the youth that I was coming to know had two concrete reactions. One was relief that the fighting had subsided and the other dissatisfaction with the Oslo Declaration of Principles.
One of the protagonists of the book I’m now writing is a good illustration. He, a front-line activist leader in his camp, greeted Oslo with two minds. He was relieved at the cessation of the fighting, foremost because it enabled him to resume what was most important to him: education. At the same time, he was very unsatisfied with the agreement, seeing it as nowhere close to what his people’s sacrifice deserved. Gazans face this tension often, having to accept less than what they deserve, in order to move life forward.
This duality of response was vibrant in 2007 when I visited Gaza after the fearsome confrontation between Fatah and Hamas had paused. People would tell me repeatedly how happy they were to have some stability and order again to try to resume a more normal life; to be able go into the streets and feel safe. At the same time, many of the same people articulated that they knew this was a trade-off, that they were worried about Hamas’ rigidity.
Your longitudinal study revealed that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians have faced some form of political violence. What makes these findings particularly crucial to our understanding of the situation and the efforts necessary to solve it?
You are hinting at some large debates in social science about how violence is defined and enacted. Scholars wrestle as to whether there are appreciable differences in terms of impact on people among different types of violence; for example, directly-experienced violence, witnessed violence, or structural violence. In our most recent quantitative study, in which we traced the life histories of nearly 2,000 members of the first intifada cohort in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip through their current adulthood, we took this complexity head on. In analyzing the patterns of exposure to explicit types of violence (being beaten, shot at, imprisoned, verbally abused, and watching someone close to you be humiliated), we were able to demonstrate that the most injurious form of violence to their adult well-being was persistent humiliation. In other words, compared to others who had higher levels of exposure to direct, physical violence, those who reported consistent humiliation (verbally abused and witnessing a close person being humiliated) are suffering more as adults. This was a significant finding that has helped other researchers appreciate the destructiveness of forms of violence that target the worth, dignity, and identity of a person.
You have done extensive research in Palestine for over two decades. What is unique about this work, both in its methods and findings?
To back up a bit on the work in general, I and my teams have done several different studies throughout all of Palestine. I won’t outline all of them here. But, the first writings I did on Gaza were in the late 1990s. Then, the literatures that were developing on Palestinians rendered them essentially as victims and measured only western-developed indices of stress, trauma, and psychological disorder. We were the first group to consider and measure a more holistic characterization of Palestinians, which, importantly, included assessing their strengths. Another uniqueness particularly evident in our more recent quantitative study discussed above, was the rigor with which the study was done: including large samples, multimethod approaches, partnering with local individuals and organizations, developing indigenous measures, and the durability of studying this cohort for more than two decades. This latter feature, which is also central to the book I am writing, has allowed us to move the science beyond stale testing of stress and mental functioning at one point in time to an analysis of how young people move forward and make life work amidst ever-worsening conditions.
Is political violence in the Palestinian setting different from other settings? Does the prolonged exposure to violence make play a role?
I think it is different. I know Palestine better than I know other historical instances of political conflict. But, I’m fairly fluent with issues in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Bosnia, and so forth. First of all, we err if we focus only on political violence. What distinguished the youth of the first intifada was not how much violence they experienced but the degree of their active engagement in the cause. There is no recorded movement in history in which youth participated at anywhere near the large proportion of first intifada youth. Simply put, one cannot understand the impact of violence exposure without considering how engaged a young person is in the struggle at hand, both cognitively and behaviorally. So, the question of longevity applies both to exposure and engagement, suggesting that wellbeing at a later stage is informed by changes in the degree of commitment to the episodes of struggle. My work comparing Bosnian youth with Gazan youth revealed that conflicts vary substantially in their structure and injury. Sarajevan youth didn’t understand or have any ability to engage against the Serbian offensive of the 1990s, whereas as Gazan youth of the first intifada articulated clear purpose, legitimacy, and morality to the struggle, and had frontline roles in conducting it. As a result, Bosnian youth reported far more psychological and social suffering than did the Gazans, who, in a sense, were protected from the raw effects of the violence they experienced by their cognitive and behavioral commitment to the struggle.
Has this commitment dwindled?
By now, many people have decided that the national project is over and has been for a long time. There are all sorts of reasons for that, but the simple answer is that they have seen no fruits of their continued efforts. So, many people are starting to think it’s a lost cause. It is important to clarify that for many the struggle is, and always has been, less about realizing a certain political structure (e.g., a state) than about achieving basic rights, freedoms of expression, movement, and of identity. Commitment to those goals cannot be quelled. You don’t kill that out of a person or a people. You may dampen its fervency at times because life gets so horribly difficult, but it revives.
You were in Gaza last year when the Palestinian Authority (PA) decided to cut the salaries of its public employees by up to 70 percent, and shortly after you left, the electricity crisis reached its peak. Too often, Palestinians in Gaza are portrayed as resilient and resourceful in the face of a crippling reality. Is it time to sound the alarm? Are people’s determination and hope cracking?
This is the hardest question to answer: when, if ever, will Gazans crack? I wouldn’t dare offer an evaluation on that. We’re great at analyzing the past, but not the future. Rather, I’ll make some observations that may pertain to the question. First, it needs to be said that while Palestinians unquestionably want their tragedies to be known and addressed, they have also always been offended by being viewed only as victims of varied assaults. This pride, coupled with the legitimacy and morality of their desires for freedom and self-determination, has, and continues, to provide tremendous strength to trudge forward.
That said, not every assault on that craved dignity is the same, some are harder to take than others. The recent salary cuts illustrate this well.
Two of the three protagonists in my book, Hussam and Hammam, are employees of the PA, both educators who decided to resume work once permission was given to do so after the 2008-9 war. I have known these men well over the decades. I’ve listened extensively to how they frame and interpret the challenges they have continually faced, and how and why they have moved through and onward from them.
I must say that when I met with them individually in May 2017, just a month after the unannounced salary cut, I was rather taken aback by the language and sentiments they expressed. It was sobering and worrying.
Like the many thousands of PA employees in Gaza, Hussam had viewed the monthly text message from his bank confirming the deposit of his salary. But, this time it was 55 percent lower. No warning, no explanation. Beyond the surprise, and the obvious worries it produced relative to how he would continue to support his large family, the news sliced his core. He had been through countless assaults in his life, including multiple imprisonments and the attendant abuse and torture, but this was the only time he has used the word “humiliating.” To him, this has been the ultimate betrayal: discarded and punished by his own president. For the first time ever, he spoke seriously about leaving his beloved Gaza forever.
Hammam discovered that his salary had been cut by 45 percent. While it was difficult for him to reveal, he described feelings – symptoms – that were completely foreign to him, and frightening: anxiety. Of all his myriad challenges and abuses, this was the one that unsettled his mind. He, also, began laying out a plan to leave Gaza.
Given these and other numerous challenges that often set the Gaza Strip and the West Bank apart, has the gap of experiencing the conflict and its varied assaults widened between these Palestinian areas? How do people feel?
Yes, progressively so. There is a real distance in terms of actual contact. Already by the early 90s, visits between Gazans and Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank had become controlled, and by now are virtually impossible. Young people in those regions have never been to Gaza; if their parents have it is mostly long ago. Ideologically, while the master Palestinian narrative of achieving rights and dignity is shared by all, Gazans have become increasingly taxed with dealing with its internal factional conflicts and the siege.
Can you tell our readers about your forthcoming book?
The book is a narrative nonfiction. Through many research projects we have made real contributions to the scientific community’s awareness of Palestine and the dynamics of activism, violence, suffering, and resolve. This book rather intends to reach a much larger audience across the world – indeed, it is designed for all. Essentially, it narrates the lives of three first-intifada youth from Gaza as they have grown from and through that grounding moment. It narrates their surprisingly diverse pathways through higher education, marriage, employment, and political and religious orientations that they have revised to find meaning to their lives after the failure of the first intifada and all other political moments to provide freedom and dignity – all amidst the ever-more fraught and strangulating conditions of Gaza. More simply put, the book narrates exemplars of how creatively and resourcefully people make life work despite plaguing circumstances; lives grounded in demanding dignity and basic values of family, education, and service to community and country.